ElAnt v1n5 - OPINIONS - Allusions of Grandeur? Thoughts on Allusion-Hunting in Latin Poetry

Volume 1, Number 5
October 1993


Neil O'Sullivan,
Department of Classics & Ancient History,
University of Western Australia,
W.A. 6009,
e-mail: nosulliv@uniwa.uwa.edu.au

Toohey's recent review in this 'hyperspace' (EA Volume 1 Issue 2, July 1993) of Farrell's Vergil's Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic. The Art of Allusion in Literary History raised some interesting and important issues about the role of literary allusion in the understanding of Latin poetry. Among these are: "What is it that constitutes a convincing allusion?", and the extent to which the poet's intention can legitimately be assumed to be a factor in apparent allusions to earlier literature: "We can speculate, with little fear of contradiction, that a poetic memory such as Virgil's must have been well stocked with ill-remembered and doubtless ill-attributed tags, half-lines, and even lines". Such scepticism is healthy, and indeed finds some justification in the way that other poets are known to have composed (cf. Lowes' study of Coleridge The Road to Xanadu). It is with the hope of fostering more debate on this area that I offer further scepticism in the form of a more radical reflection on the way in which we should react to echoes of earlier literature in Latin poetry. Farrell (11) recounts the argument of Pasquali that allusions (as distinct from reminiscences and imitations) "do not produce the desired effect except upon a reader who clearly recalls the texts to which they refer". In other words, the context of the original passage is part of the meaning of the later passage which alludes to it. Let us draw into this discussion a famous instance of Vergil echoing an earlier poet which should give us pause for thought about such assumptions.

Aeneid 6.456-66 are, as he himself tells us, the last words Aeneas ever speaks to Dido. Seeing her there in the Underworld, he tries to apologise for abandoning her; he had no idea that his leaving would drive her to suicide. He solemnly declares, by the most awesome powers he can swear by, that he was compelled to leave Carthage (458-60):

per sidera iuro,
per superos et si qua fides tellure sub ima est,
inuitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.

I swear by the stars,
by the gods and any good faith there is deep under the earth,
unwillingly, queen, I left your shore.

It has long been noticed that the last line is taken from Catullus' version of Callimachus' mock-heroic Coma Berenices, a piece of genial nonsense in which the severed lock of hair swears to the queen (66.39):

inuita, o regina, tuo de uertice cessi.

unwillingly, o queen, I left your head.

Perhaps only in Aen. 9.227 (consilium summis regni de rebus habebant: "they were holding a council on the chief matters of the state"), based on Lucilius fr. 4 Marx (= 6 Krenkel) (consilium summis hominum de rebus habebant: "they were holding a council on the chief matters of mankind"), does Vergil echo a predecessor as closely as here, so much of what is said about his allusions to earlier poetry must surely apply a fortiori to Aen. 6.460, unless we arbitrarily decide (what objective criteria could we use?) that this is a "reminiscence" or "imitation" rather than an "allusion". What is particularly interesting here is that we have the full context of the original, rather than just a fragment as in, for instance, the re-working of Lucilius mentioned above, or the numerous adaptations of Ennius (although care must be exercised in relying on Servius here - see 40 f. in the introduction to Skutsch's edition of the Annals). In those instances we cannot postively show that Vergil does not mean us to recall the original passage, but such a conclusion is hard to resist in the case of Aen. 6.460 and Catullus 66.39.

What immediately strikes us about these two lines is how utterly incompatible their contexts are. As Austin's commentary says "Virgil has applied the frivolity [of "a clever and sophisticated mock-heroic conceit"] to an anguished moment of high Epic: anyone ignorant of chronology might be excused for thinking that Catullus was parodying Virgil". Indeed one might: the Catullan passage with its emotive o is pitched at an even higher level than Vergil's, and the assumption of an allusion would in other circumstances be irresistible. Critics would assure us that we could only see the real meaning in the line of Catullus if we recognised the anti-epic parody of one of the most serious and emotional scenes in the Roman national epic.

Unfortunately, we are not so ignorant of chronology as to believe that Catullus wrote this after the Aeneid, and so we are obliged in this case at least to re-think the nature of allusion in Latin poetry. Now I cannot believe for a moment that Vergil meant us to bear in mind the original ludic context of the line of Catullus in his adaptation of it: this could only spoil the pathos and the seriousness of Aeneas' last words to Dido. (One searches for a parallel to this in another art form - imagine perhaps Wotan's farewell in Wagner's Die Walkuere containing a motif supposed to remind the audience of one of Offenbach's trivialities.) Some have suggested that the echo is unconscious; "mere wishful thinking" is Austin's judgement on that. But even if this were the case, it is hardly less embarrassing for the allusion-hunters, for we would then have one of the clearest echoes in Vergil of any passage of earlier literature being simply accidental, not part of the poet's deliberate design at all. How plausible then will be the other connections claimed? So, unconscious or intended, the point about this particular passage is that Vergil cannot want us to think about the original context of the line he has adapted. And, being old-fashioned enough to think that the poet's intention is more than casually related to the meaning of a poem (a position the allusionists would not argue with), I conclude that the original context of Catullus' poem has nothing to do with the meaning of this line in Vergil.

Where does this leave us on the broader issue of allusion in Latin poetry? Have we got here the rule-proving exception to the general principle that the contexts of literature alluded to form part of the meaning of the alluding literature? Or do we have rather the thirteenth stroke of the clock, a phenomenon which shows that the device of allusion-hunting is not only out of order in this particular instance, but also casts doubt on all other data with which the device has supplied us? That of course is an issue far too big to go into thoroughly here. But I will close with a couple of thoughts which I hope will provoke further discussion and elicit information from those who know more about these things than I do. Firstly, how many instances like this one would you need to establish that Latin poets did not intend us to think of the sources they were using? Of course parody and (to a lesser degree) extensive imitatio would always necessitate a knowledge of the original, but what about when these were not the case? One view would be that you only needed one clear instance to show that the poet did not expect his audience to pick up allusions outside these categories. It would certainly be difficult to find a counter- example where a knowledge of the original text was absolutely necessary for a passage to be understood, rather than simply opening up for modern readers further meanings which they may wish to see in the passage in question. Secondly, what evidence is there in ancient literary criticism and scholia that ancient poetry was read this way? I do not, of course, mean the mere picking up of quotations and adaptations; rather, the question relates to the assumption that the context of the original forms part of the meaning of the new text. We should not feel ourselves bound by the rather unimaginative criteria of ancient literary theory, but they can at least be a safer place to start than modern assumptions about the way poetry works.

Neil O'Sullivan
e-mail: nosulliv@uniwa.uwa.edu.au

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 5 - October 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar