Monday, July 25, 2011

Vergil and Allusion

One aspect of Vergil's Georgics that can be hard for first-time readers to appreciate is the degree to which it borrows and reworks passages from earlier Greek and Latin poetry.  For example, in the first book of the poem, while talking about irrigation and its importance to farming, Vergil gives us the following verbal picture:

“Why should I mention the man who hurls his seeds and then attacks the fields hand-to-hand?  After knocking down the heaps of undernourishing sand, he leads the stream and the rivulets that follow among the plants; then, as the burning land swelters in the heat and the greenery dies, behold, there he is, summoning water from the top of a sloping footpath.  The falling water creates a noisy burble among the smooth stones, and its freshets cool the baking fields.” (lines 104-110)

Note the implicit comparison of the farmer to a soldier charging into the line of battle.  One reason this comparison is apt is that Vergil is in fact reworking some lines from Homer's great poem of war and warriors, the Iliad.  In book 21 of that epic, the hero Achilles is being chased down by the river god Scamander.  Homer describes the chase with the following comparison:

“As when the man in charge of a channel leads a stream of water from a blackwater spring among his plants and his gardens, holding a hoe in his hands and knocking the blockages from the channel; as the water streams forward, all the pebbles underneath are flipped over, and in a steep spot part of it flows down swiftly, making noise, eventually outstripping the man who leads it.”  (257-62)

Homer's irrigator, who stands for Achilles, becomes a farmer in Vergil's poem, a farmer who, appropriately enough, is represented as a warrior.  The simple act of watering plants on a hot day is thus ennobled by its association with the heroic world of Homer.
            The other day I was translating a lyric by the Roman poet Catullus and was reminded of another Vergilian reworking.  Catullus lived about a generation prior to Vergil and made himself famous by publishing a collection of poems written about his friends, enemies, and lovers.  First and foremost among his lovers was a woman whom he nicknamed Lesbia.  The majority of his poems to Lesbia deal with the breakdown of their relationship, but a few are intensely romantic and positive, like this one, Catullus 7.  Note, before reading it, that Cyrene was a prosperous city in north Africa, on the coast of modern day Libya; Battus was the name of its legendary founder, and silphium was an aphrodisiac spice which the Cyreneans harvested and got rich exporting.

Concerning kisses, Lesbia, you inquire:
how many would be quite enough for me?
A number as large as all the grains of sand
that lie in Libya round silphium-rich
Cyrene between the sweltering oracle
of Jupiter and the hallowed tomb
of ancient Battus, or as numerous
as the stars that watch mankind engage
in secret liaisons when the night is still:
kissing me that many kisses would be
quite enough for your crazy Catullus,
kisses no busybody could ever count,
kisses no malicious tongue could jinx.

You wouldn't think Vergil would find much to borrow from this, but he does, in book two of the Georgics, after talking about different varieties of grapes and the wines made from them.  The discussion takes the form of a catalog, which mentions, not shirazes and chardonneys, but famous ancient wines - "Rhodian," "Chian," and so on.  But before his list gets to long, Vergil stops short and says:

“But there is no counting how many varieties and vintages there are, nor does putting a number to them matter; to want to know is like wanting to say how many grains of sand are stirred up by the west wind on the Libyan desert, or to know how many waves approach the shores in Ionia when the east wind lays into the fleet with unusual force.”

There were any of a number of comparisons Vergil could have used to suggest an uncountable quantity, but it is the Catullan one (African sands) that he picks up on.  And the allusion to Catullus makes sense, since the subject of wine and the subject of love have a natural affinity to each other which I need not explain.

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