Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Version at BMCR home site Timothy Saunders, Bucolic Ecology. Virgil's Eclogues and the Environmental Literary Tradition. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. viii, 184. ISBN 9780715636176. £18.00 (pb). Reviewed by John Van Sickle, Brooklyn College

With that definite article in his title, Saunders evokes a school of criticism from which he sets out to rescue the Bucolics by making them seem "bold, innovative, ambitious and playful"-- terms that this reader was tempted to apply to Saunders's own work. He defines the apparently bland if not deadening "environmental" line as comprising "nature-based readings," which he blames for their emphasis on themes of past and loss as opposed to his own emphasis on "investment in the future." Most emphatically (in the categorical and contentious wise we get from our bucolic subjects) he faults Paul Alpers for turning away from "nature and landscape" to focus on "the figure of the herdsman."

Staking his claim to improve on Alpers and all "readings in the Schillerian, and anti-Schillerian, tradition" (as he styles this school), Saunders asserts that "'nature' is a far more capacious thing (and concept)" than they "tend to allow"; and he shapes each chapter "around a different way of configuring and interpreting the natural world"--Catasterisms, Cosmology, Geography, Topography, Landscape, Physics. But he does not let this categorical approach inhibit the philological gusto that leads him to laud the poems for their "innovative lexicon, by means of which they introduce all kinds of objects, epithets, concepts, practices and place names to Latin poetry for the very first time." His taste for lexical priority and its congeners smacks of Bertil Axelson and his epigones, varying the charge against Virgil's style for kakozelia: traced to Vipranius/Vipsanius (sc. Agrippa: cf. Harry Jocelyn of learned memory as weighed by Nicholas Horsfall, Companion 2000, pp. 224-227). Saunders's zest for language moved this reader to mark most every margin with varieties of "NB! Neat! Nice!" and to build an idiosyncratic index.

This "brief summary of...content and purpose" (first topic in BMCR's guidelines for reviewers) makes clear that Saunders lays claim to a distinctive "place in current scholarship" (third guideline topic). But besides his "obvious break" with the "Schillerian" school, he aims in another direction when he denies that Virgil might "map out a clear linear progression" through the book ("clear" does sound contentious given the notorious indirection of the eclogues). He also calls structure in the whole book a "somewhat static and rigid entity," suggesting an analogy with architecture rather than the dynamic and developmental structures of music, despite what looked like scholarly consensus that the eclogues were “palpably designed to be read as a sequence" (G. O. Hutchinson, Talking Books. Readings in Hellenistic and Roman Books of Poetry, Oxford, 2008: 29, cf. my The Design of Virgil’s Bucolics, 1978/2004; also Bucoliche: la struttura, Enc. Virg, 1984, I.549-552). My review is thus multivalent: welcoming thrusts at Alpers et al., profiting from philological lore, challenged to grasp some venturesome analogies, often chagrined at mistaken readings, inaccuracies, and interpretive breakthroughs missed, where accuracy and further reach could have opened and sustained more cohesive metapoetic vision. I found it ironic that Saunders denies development to Virgil while claiming for his own book that his " cumulative," describable by analogy as a "journey from the cosmos to the microcosm." In sum, practiced readers of the eclogues will read this book and find themselves by turns instructed, challenged, and provoked. Given the sheer density and variety of arguments, the rest of this review comprises items I felt worth adding to my personal index at the back, which was shaped too by recent thinking about cognitive process (Hofstadter, "Analogy as the Core of Cognition," 2006; Fauconnier and Turner, "The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities," 2003).

CATASTERISM. The second BMCR guideline dictates "assessment of the argument and the use of evidence": Saunders justifies catasterism as his premier theme premising that the eclogues "even on occasion aspire to participate in this most elevated literary category" (p9). He opens with the set of contrasting cups (e3.36-48) that "come to act as tokens of cosmological literature"; and he uses evidence in a way that becomes a signature of sorts: "Menalcas now waxes increasingly lyrical" employed to frame commentary on "the celestial epithet diuini (which...does draw the caelum out of caelatum) and the noun opus...only here in the Eclogues and which is usually reserved for a 'work', both literary and literal, of a more august nature." (p13) Even arch reminders of paronomastic etymological play are welcome, but second thoughts arise: from what viewpoint can a herdsman be said to wax? what viewpoint authorizes the presumptive adverb "usually" based on whose reading of what--all of Virgil? of Latin literature?

A glance back at e3 makes it clear that from first to last property rights and limits matter, implying metapoetic import, figuring as causes for contention and themes of burgeoning song: thus not "lyrical" or merely "elevated" but specifically bordering tragic (Pollio & goat song [aperçu from Brian Breed]) testing the respective limits of the bucolic, georgic, and heroic ranges of epos. Nor does "usually" do justice to the uses of opus in Georgics and notably Aeneid, above all maius opus [a7.45] with special structural and developmental import to inaugurate the whole work's second half (cf. signs of elevated ranging in maiora [e4.1] and maior [e5.4]).

"Menalcas waxes" exemplifies the book's habitual use of evidence: taking cues from Virgil's dramatic and rhetorical language to imagine some fictive character's mind, e.g., an "obvious interpretation" of a herder's claim not to have put lip to cup: "Menalcas, like Damoetas, has not yet attempted to compose cosmological poetry, but is instead keeping this option back for the future." (p17) Whether "obvious" or not, imputing literary consciousness to a herder tests the reader's cognitive dexterity if not credulity. Saunders also relates the two cups (one chiseled with the Alexandrian astronomer Conon, the other with the mythic Orpheus) to the whole frame of the Georgics: analogical reach not conceivably a herder's but certifiably Virgil's. Such a powerful analogy would foster constructive reading if only integrated with the web of orphic themes (and their contraries) that Virgil weaves progressively in the course of his first two books: a new critical voice risks sounding callow when it erases a classic orphic like Marie Desport.

Tempted to linger over the menu of bold analogies, acrostics, and puns, I cringe at "it is worth noting that omnis is a word that appears in every one of Virgil's ten eclogues": cringe because "worth noting" falls so far short of the memory (confirmed by a cursory glance at a concordance) of telling differences and developments in a concept's use, from the poor if secured "all" of Tityrus with its one broad beech (e1.1, 47) up through mythic fullness (e3.60) and total cosmic future/past (e4/e6), down to the lost Italian demesnes of Menalcas with broken beeches (e9) and the final defeat by love in an old Arcadia where Virgil and Menalcas toil (e10). Similar regrets for insights slighted come to haunt the margins ever more densely beside the celebratory marks.

Further using the evidence of the cups, Saunders adds: "when Menalcas describes them first as caelatum opus..., he demonstrates that he is conversant with the etymology of caelatum expounded by Varro.... It would appear that Menalcas is playing upon the dichotomy between caelare and celare here too when he describes his own caelatum opus as condita" (p21). At such boldly emergent blends of philology with psychoplastic fiction, readers will have to figure out for themselves a cognitive strategy to be able to process choice Varronian reminders retailed in the fictional "Menalcas waxes" mode.

Catasterism catapults the argument from e3 to e5 with a bold analogy that the cups not only recur, along with other figures, but develop into "a kind of synthesis between bucolic and cosmological poetry": from the cognitive standpoint an emergent blend. Saunders describes the lament for dead Daphnis as a sequel to Theocritus (id1) and a step toward "an epic paradigm" (od9.19-20), further remarking Lucretian resonance in the blend. He also recognizes that "wonder" already trademarked Theocritean poetics and how e5 both suggests and subverts "the notion of a clear temporal and generic progression." Despite his diffidence towards structure, he brings welcome attention to the structural center of Virgil's book and aptly values the Lucretian echo in cicuta as metonymy for pipe.

[p28] "interchange between Lucretius and Theocritus...inscribe[s] a principle of growth and development into Virgilian bucolic": a literary hybrid (emergent blend) that counters generic (Schillerian) concepts of timeless pastoral.

[p29] "Menalcas...through his suggestion that they sit down together" (e5.1-3): not a suggestion in fact but a query, why the two singers have not sat down, which marks a pointed difference and sign of development with respect to e3, though Saunders sees merely repetition.

[p30] "Daphnis ascends to the stars, bucolic poetry rises to new heights and Menalcas grows up as a poet": allowing "clear linear progression" in the book, yet without remarking that Virgil in e4 evoked a still higher poetic reach with the idea of heroic growth and poetic breath to "tell your deeds," i.e., produce heroic epos, higher than the bucolic-georgic range of e3, e5, and e6.

COSMOLOGY. [p34] on e9.30-36, Saunders aptly notes how Virgil alters Theocritus by marking a contrast between poet and bard (poeta/vates), but fails to remark the further and crucial contrast drawn between Virgil's two herders: bumptious young Lycidas rejecting the title of vates that marked the old and crestfallen Moeris and the exiled Menalcas.

[p41] on e9, "like the stars, singers such as Menalcas ascend, decline, and ascend again": the analogy captures the developmental duality of this figure representing "the past and the promise of the future." The emergent blend of bucolic with cosmology may be too bold for some, yet timid since failing to project to the ensuing representation of Menalcas as an Arcadian (e10).

[pp46-7] concatenation of Catullan precursors for e3 and e4 posits bold analogy: epithalamion (c61) is to wedding (c64) as e3 to e4. Yet the analogy glosses over palpable differences, e.g., c64 focused on horrific climax to life of child (Achilles) as yet unborn, e4 reverses horror in address to child being born, then imagined as present and urged to grow.

[p49] "aspiration to produce songs...even better than those of the archetypal cosmological poet Orpheus": serves supposed hierarchy of literary types at cost of ignoring hierarchy imposed by Virgil, above and beyond Orpheus, Calliope, Linus, Apollo Virgil's boast to outdo Pan even in the god's Arcadian home (cf. e7, e8 and e10 for further developments).

[p52] "two songs... two different versions of cosmological verse...antithetical stories about the efficacy of bucolic poetry": again the "cosmological" thesis overshadows other metapoetic designs in which Virgil represents Maenalian (sc. Arcadian) verses (sc. furrows, turns) telling of fatal love as opposed to vatic songs (sc. spells) that draw a distant lover down from town, but both bringing tragic traces (Medea) into the bucolic range (further emergent blend, cf. 'Sophoclean buskin' e8.10 and shades of Euripidean tragic passion, e10).

[p56] aporetic complaint, that "workings of the stars" (rationem siderum, Quintil. 1.4.4) in eclogues are "overlooked in recent times": Saunders ignores grist for his cosmic mill, how Virgil imagined song of cosmic creation by Tityrus redux {Silenus} worked up by Apollo imitating music of the spheres (Virgil echoing Varro of Atax. Chorographia: cf. my Design, pp. 234-36, citing Quintil. I.x.12 mundum ipsum ratione esse compositum, quam postea sit lyra imitata).

GEOGRAPHY. [pp59-61] Saunders rightly notes the importance in the eclogue book of "concept of the earth taken as a whole." He suggests that the poems make an analogy between literary tradition and the "world they not only inherit and inhabit, but also redefine and reorder"; and he goes on to document singularities in Virgil's geographical terms and assign them programmatic import. He devotes careful attention to Virgil's paradoxical (emergent) blend of an originary Arcadian (hence pre-Sicilian) Arethusa with a Roman contemporary Gallus configured as an old Sicilian herdsman.

[p71] Saunders refers to "equations between literary codes and character roles, and between those codes and roles on the one hand and certain specific places" and infers that "viewed in either its Theocritean or Virgilian form, it is impossible to extract a purist notion of bucolic poetry that is either untainted by, or in any way unrelated to, its epic or elegiac counterparts": pace Schillerites and hailing a complex of emergent blends.

TOPOGRAPHY. [p73] Saunders refers to "acts of land confiscation...paradigmatic of, rather than antithetical to, the conventions of bucolic competition": perhaps the most radical and post-Schilleristical démarche.

[p76] "Where are your feet taking town?" (e9.1) spurs Saunders to metapoetic allegory against reductive genericism: he writes that this opening query "suggests that...the bucolic is an aberrant form of epic poetry composed in dactylic hexameters." Thus as elsewhere Saunders nears my view of bucolic as a range of epos.

[p84] "Topography Tityrus inhabits...connects him both with the natural origins of the form (...Lucretius) and with its origins in literary history (...Idyll 1)": yet Virgil draws on two contrasting Lucretian texts: bucolic myth (Pan and "woodland muse") concocted by rustics to explain echo (Lucr. 4.589) but "country muse" taught by nature to early man (Lucr. 5.1387); a contrast marked long ago by Philip Damon (of learned memory) although occluded here.

[p93] "the designation of patria that Meliboeus earlier assigned his notion of bucolic ground": an emergent blend fashioned by Saunders but not by Virgil for his opening speaker. Virgil in configuring Meliboeus blends civic, georgic, and bucolic motifs, making him a failed seer too and occasional goatherd-singer, in which latter guise Virgil represents him as speaking (not singing) on the bucolic ground occupied by a figure (Tityrus) recycled and amplified from Theocritus.

[p100] "the deductum carmen...does not so much distance itself from such things as kings and combats as reconfigure them": welcome cognitive pressure to defamiliarize a metapoetic shibboleth, yet even so falls short of interpreting "drawn out, away, down" to refer to Virgil's recursive progress in the second half book, which he composes by drawing down and reshaping elements from the first half, a process that Saunders, alert intratextual reader that he is, often describes but does not adequately theorize.

LANDSCAPE. [p102] A modern term that Saunders deconstructs to focus on ecphrasis, temporality, and viewpoint / viewer, e.g. ut cernis vs haud equidem invideo, miror magis (e1.9,11), cf. landscape's "grounding in the shaping perception of any given viewer" [p112], followed by a challenging analogy between the viewpoints contrasted in e1 and the Theocritean Polyphemus and Galatea. [pp112-16] The chapter proceeds with well-framed comparisons between the bucolic singer of e2 and an epigram of Meleager, concluding that "The traces of Alexis left behind in Meleager's text double up as footprints on the ground, so by reading them Corydon is projected into a landscape that is resonant with literary references." [p126]: the latter could serve as a specimen to exemplify cognitive blending and the not so hidden complexities of minds, both Virgil's and hopefully ours.

PHYSICS. [p128-29] Analogies are posited "between herding and singing" and between "constitution of bucolic poetry" and "constitution of physical universe"; hence Saunders notes that seeds at the beginning of world (e6.31-33) are said to be activated by the same verb used for herding flocks (coacta semina, cogere pecus, but Saunders translates as merely 'gather' rather than more energetically bucolic and etymological 'push or drive together').

[134] I close with one final specimen of Saunders's method, ambitions and risks, here discussing the narrator (Tityrus redux) of e6: "when this herdsman undertakes to contemplate the woodland muse on a slender reed (agrestem tenui meditabor harundine musam 8), not only does his ensuing performance engage the origins of the form as described by Lucretius, but it also echoes, and to this degree provides a future for, the songs which Apollo was once contemplating (quondam meditante 82) on the banks of the Eurotas." Overall the emergent blend calls for cognitive flights, which elusive details ground. Both the context and the inner philologist warn that meditari here must mean "to plan, work up, compose" (as at e1.2); this similarity with that programmatic patch sounds the alert for difference: there "woodland muse" evoked Lucretius' critique of rustic fictions; here "country muse" (Saunders nods with "woodland") engages not "THE (my emphasis) origins of the form" but an alternative, positive version of musical origins offered by Lucretius. The differences between Virgil's texts and between his and that of Saunders signal the need for more and more careful reading, if only Saunders were to blend his flair and fervor, critical mettle, with acribeia: finer respect for texts and the texture of Virgil's progressive weave.

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