Tag Archives: intertextuality

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Seamus Heaney and the Classics

I am reading Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (1991), right now. I am not generally enamoured of 20th-century poetry, but Heaney I like. His use of language is rich in its apparent simplicity, and somehow ordinary life becomes beautiful in his poetic mode.

While reading this book, I cannot but think of T. S. Eliot’s little booklet, The Classics and the Man of Letters, itself originally an address. The main thrust of Eliot’s booklet is that someone involved in writing English literature should be invested in the predecessors of English literature, being part of the ongoing tradition of literature — and this includes the Classics, Latin literature in particular. A good point, if we consider the educational background of most English poets before the 20th century — for even Chesterton studied Latin in school.

Reading Heaney makes one appreciate this idea of Eliot’s, given his allusions. Indeed, the volume begins with a translation of the golden bough passage from Aeneid VI (all of which he would later translate; I recommend his translation). The book also has its references to Homer (I love the phrase, ‘I swim in Homer’; I’ve swum in Homer, myself).

Heaney’s intertextual world, though, is not only Classical, not only those things he would have been taught at school. He also has various biblical allusions, allusions to Norse myth, and references to Irish history, culture, literature, besides one poem where he encounters Larkin’s ghost (called his ‘shade’ — an allusion to Virgil) which quotes Dante to him. And the volume closes with a translation of Dante, in fact.

There is undoubtedly much on the Irish and modern English verse side of this book that I miss. But there is much I grasp, regardless. And here is the interesting thing about a poet like Heaney. I appreciate the classical, biblical, Norse allusions. But I can appreciate his manipulation of the English language and his skill as a versifier without them.

That’s what makes a good poet. You can have all the allusions and intertexts you want, but if the reader who doesn’t grasp them does not appreciate your verse, there is a good chance you have not necessarily produced something of quality.

Are we reading Virgil backwards? (The headless body of Priam)

Pompey’s head

I have been reading some very good essays on Virgil today, and one fact that my students keep bringing up is that the headless corpse of Priam on the beach is an allusion to Pompey’s headless corpse on the beach of Egypt. This surprised me, since I was fairly certain that Pompey’s headless corpse in Egypt is, in fact, a detail from Lucan, a good century after Virgil, that alludes, therefore, back to Virgil.

So I did a little digging.

The passage of Virgil in question is Aeneid 2.557-8:

iacet ingens litore truncus, / auulsumque umeris caput et sine nomine corpus.

A great trunk lies on the shore, a head torn from shoulders and a body without a name.

The alluding passage in Lucan (first encountered by me in what is now a distant memory, Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext; I even forget what Hinds says) is Civil War 1.685-6:

hunc ego, fluminea deformis truncus harena / qui iacet, agnosco.

I recognise him, who lies on the river’s sands, a misshapen trunk.

The parallels in the Latin make the allusion to Virgil in Lucan fairly clear. What I wondered was how we came to the inverse allusion — that Virgil’s image of Priam’s corpse is of Pompey’s. I did some digging, and it seems that because Pompey was beheaded at the mouth of the Nile and controlled Asia, and because Priam’s body is on the shore and he also controlled Asia, Virgil is making such an allusion.

According to The Virgil Encyclopedia (from Wiley), under the entry ‘Pompey’, Virgil is alluding to Asinius Pollio here. Unhelpfully, Asinius Pollio’s account of the civil war does not survive.

The first person I know of to say that Virgil is making Priam into Pompey in this passage is Servius, the great late antique commentator on Virgil. Due to his access to things now lost to us, we tend to believe Servius. Servius does not give us a source for his belief that Virgil is implicitly making Priam into Pompey. There is, in fact, nothing in the content of Servius that would make us take this line of reasoning beyond our trust in Servius.

Of course, we want to take this line of reasoning because we are in the age of the ‘pessimistic’ or ‘anti-Augustan’ reading of Virgil, the reading that deeply problematises the killing of Turnus, that puts into the forefront of our reading of Book 6 the facts that the golden bough does not come easily and that Aeneas and the Sybil return to the land of the living through the gate of ivory, the gate designed for false dreams. Or we remember Dido and, along with St Augustine, we weep. We are also the age that notes that the first simile of the epic, comparing Neptune with a statesman who calms mobs with a word, is not actually referring to Augustus, who calmed civil strife with war, and we remember that Neptune was the patron of Pompey and of Antony — the enemies of Caesar and Augustus, respectively.

But what if Servius is wrong, and what if he’s wrong because somehow we’ve read the allusion backwards?

What if, that is, the real allusion has been Lucan all along? What if Virgil is not comparing the headless corpse of Priam to the headless corpse of Pompey? What if Lucan’s allusion has so much power that it has become the Virgilian intertext? Thus, we cannot help but see Priam as Pompey after reading Lucan, even if that was not Virgil’s intention.

Or — what if there’s a detail I’ve missed? Perhaps I’ve missed another Pompey intertext to which Virgil is explicitly alluding. Correct me if I’m wrong.

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.