BMCR 2020.01.39

La Thébaïde de Stace et le sublime. Collection Latomus, 358​

Anne Lagière​, La Thébaïde de Stace et le sublime. Collection Latomus, 358​. Bruxelles: Societété d'Études Latines de Bruxelles - Latomus​, 2017. 300. ISBN 9789042935587 €57,00 (pb).

[The reviewer apologizes for the long delay in completing this review.]

Anne Lagière’s La Thébaïde de Stace et le sublime is a revision of a doctoral thesis supervised by Sylvie Franchet d’Espèrey and examined by a committee including François Ripoll. In keeping with these influences, Lagière has produced a study firmly within the French tradition of scholarship on the Thebaid, which tends to be more “optimistic”, more rooted in Statius’ biography, and less interested in the subtleties of the epic’s intertextuality than Anglophone scholarship. While Lagière’s work will not bridge this long-standing scholarly divide, it does have things to offer to all readers of Statius, and opens up a promising new avenue for criticism of his epic poetry.

David Vessey’s 1973 Statius and the Thebaid re-introduced the epic to a generation of Anglophone readers, building on the work of Bardon and Burck to read the Thebaid as a “baroque” or “mannerist” poem. While this approach was meant to effect a rehabilitation, it ultimately perpetuated earlier views of the Thebaid as a degenerate successor to the classicism of the Aeneid – in Vessey’s own words, mannerism is a “disease of classicism” (p. 8, quoted by Lagière p. 17). Subsequent Anglophone scholarship turned its focus to the politics of the Thebaid in the ’80s and ’90s, led by Ahl and Dominik, and, in recent years, a new generation of scholars has worked especially on the intertextuality of the poem.

But the time has perhaps come to once again offer a broader stylistic assessment of the Thebaid, and the sublime is a promising framework. Some work has been done on this already, as Lagière notes, but the focus has largely been limited to the Capaneus episode in book 10, and definitions of the sublime have tended to be fuzzy, reflecting the many different approaches to the concept over the years.

Lagière’s major contribution, then, is twofold: to offer a precise definition of the sublime drawn directly from the text of pseudo-Longinus, which Lagière persuasively dates to the first century CE; and to apply the concept to the Thebaid as a whole. Overall, the insights that result are not quite as impressive as I had hoped, stemming in part from a tendency to apply the concepts of the sublime with too much rigidity, producing overly schematic readings, and in part from a less than full engagement with the recent English scholarship on the Thebaid that has (from my admittedly biased perspective) led the way over the past few decades. Lagière does, however, offer many good moments; for instance, I liked the close readings of Thebaid 7.809-23 and 10.304-13 (pp. 172, 220), the links drawn between the Thebaid, Senecan tragedy, and pseudo-Longinus’ sublime (184), and the reading of the Statian Jupiter’s disingenuous use of his Virgilian model (“Aussi le Jupiter tyran de Stace prend-il la persona du Jupiter stoïcien de Virgile pour imposer son pouvoir et légitimer ses décisions arbitraries”, 195).

Lagière begins with an “Introduction” surveying the history of “baroque”, “mannerist”, and “sublime” as interpretive tools for the Thebaid and explaining the shortcomings of these previous approaches. Then, a section of “Preliminaries” discusses the dating of pseudo-Longinus and the key concepts of the Περì Ὕψους. These are then applied to the Thebaid, with consideration of how they apply to the epic’s author, characters, and audience. There are valuable insights offered here on the various strong emotions central to the Thebaid ( dolor, furor, ira, odium). The second part of the book turns its focus to genre, beginning with the Senecan and, ultimately, sublime tragic elements in the Thebaid; the tyranny of Statius’ Jupiter is then discussed in a section that manages to add a little to a well-worn topic. Lagière ends by considering several of the epic’s prominent characters in a section that strays somewhat from the sublime and does not commit as fully to an intertextual analysis as it could have.

The book is meticulously organized, with a table of contents that serves as a detailed guide through the entire argument. It is well presented and, as far as I can tell, reasonably free from errors.