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   Chapter 4 THE CULEX

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 8936

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It was apparently in the year 48-Vergil was then twenty-one-that the poet attempted his first extended composition, the Culex, a poem that hardly deserved the honor of a versified translation at the hands of Spenser. This is indeed one of the strangest poems of Latin literature, an overwhelming burden of mythological and literary references saddled on the feeblest of fables.

A shepherd goes out one morning with his flocks to the woodland glades whose charms the poet describes at length in a rather imitative rhapsody. The shepherd then falls asleep; a serpent approaches and is about to strike him when a gnat, seeing the danger, stings him in time to save him. But-such is the fatalism of cynical fable-lore-the shepherd, still in a stupor, crushes the gnat that has saved his life. At night the gnat's ghost returns to rebuke the shepherd for his innocent ingratitude, and rather inappropriately remains to rehearse at great length the tale of what shades of old heroes he has seen in the lower regions. The poem contains 414 lines.

The Culex has been one of the standing puzzles of literary criticism, and would be interesting, if only to illustrate the inadequacy of stylistic criteria. Though it was accepted as Vergilian by Renaissance readers simply because the manuscripts of the poem and ancient writers, from Lucan and Statius to Martial and Suetonius, all attribute the work to him, recent critics have usually been skeptical or downright recusant. Some insist that it is a forgery or supposititious work; others that it is a liberally padded re-working of Vergil's original. Only a few have accepted it as a very youthful failure of Vergil's, or as an attempt of the poet to parody the then popular romances. Recent objections have not centered about metrical technique, diction, or details of style: these are now admitted to be Vergilian enough, or rather what might well have been Vergilian at the outset of his career. The chief criticism is directed against a want of proportion and an apparent lack of artistic sense betrayed in choosing so strange a character for the ponderous title-role. These are faults that Vergil later does not betray.

Nevertheless, Vergil seems to have written the poem. Its ascription to Vergil by so many authors of the early empire, as well as the concensus of the manuscripts, must be taken very seriously. But the internal evidence is even stronger. Octavius, to whom the poem is dedicated, is addressed Octavi venerande and sancte puer, a clear reference to the remarkable honor that Caesar secured for him by election to the office of pontiff[1] when he was approaching his fifteenth birthday and before he assumed the toga virilis. Vergil was then twenty-one years of age-nearing his twenty-second birthday-and we may perhaps assume in Donatus' attribution of the Culex to Vergil's sixteenth year a mistake in some early manuscript which changed the original XXI to XVI, a correction which the citations of Statius and Lucan favor.[2] Finally, when, as we shall see presently, Horace in his second Epode, accords Vergil the honor of imitating a passage of the Culex, Vergil returns the compliment in his Georgics. We have therefore not only Vergil's recognition of Horace's courtesy, but, in his acceptance of it, his acknowledgment of the Culex as his own.[3]

[Footnote 1: Vellius, II. 59, 3, pontificatus sacerdotio puerum honoravit, that is, before he assumed the toga virilis on October 18th. Nicolaus Damascenus (4) confirms this. Octavius received the office made vacant by the death of Domitius at Pharsalia (Aug. 9). His birthday was Sept. 23, 63. This high office is the first indication that Caesar had chosen his grandnephew to be his possible successor. The boy was hardly known at Rome before this time. See Classical Philology, 1920, p. 26.]

[Footnote 2: Anderson, in Classical Quarterly, 1916, p. 225; and Class. Phil. 1920, p. 26. The dedicatory lines of the Culex imply that the body of the poem was already complete. Whether the interval was one of weeks or months or years the poet does not say.]

[Footnote 3: Classical Philology, 1920, pp. 23, 33.]

The Culex, therefore, is the work of a beginner addressed to a young lad just highly honored, but after all to a schoolboy whom Vergil had, presumably two years before, met in the lecture rooms of Epidius. Does this provide a key with which to unlock the hidden intentions of our strange treasure-trove of miscellaneous al

lusions? Let the reader remember the nature of the literary lectures of that day when dictionaries, reference books, and encyclopedias were not yet to be found in every library, and school texts were not yet provided with concise Allen and Greenough notes. The teacher alone could afford the voluminous "cribs" of Didymus. Roman schoolboys had not, like the Greeks, drunk in all myths by the easy process of nursery babble. By them the legends of Homer and Euripides must be acquired through painful schoolroom exegesis. Even the names of natural objects, like trees, birds, and beasts came into literature with their Greek names, which had to be explained to the Roman boys. Hence the teacher of literature at Rome must waste much time upon elucidating the text, telling the myths in full, and giving convenient compendia of metamorphoses, of Homeric heroes, of "trees and flowers of the poets," and the like. Epidius himself, a pedagogue of the progressive style, had doubtless proved an adept at this sort of thing. Claiming to be a descendant of an ancient hero who had one day transformed himself into a river-god, he must have had a knack for these tales. At any rate we are told that he wrote a book on metamorphosed trees.[4] When Octavius read the Culex, did he recognize in the quaint passage describing the shepherd's grove of metamorphosed trees (124-145) phrases from the lecture notes of their voluble teacher? Are there reminiscences lurking also in the long list of flowers so incongruously massed about the gnat's grave and in the two hundred lines that detail the ghostly census of Hades? If this is a parody at all, it is to remind Octavius of Epidian erudition. In any case it is a kind of prompter of the poetic allusions that occupied the boys' hours at school. The simple plot of the shepherd and the gnat was selected from the type of fable lore thought suitable for school-room reading. It served by its very incongruity as a suitable thread for a catalogue of facts and fiction. Vergil himself furnishes the clue for this interpretation of the Culex, but it has been overlooked because of the wretched condition of the text that we have. The first lines[5] of the poem seem to mean:

"My verses on the Culex shall be filled with erudition so that all the lore of the past may be strung together playfully in the form of a story." That Martial considered it a boy's book appropriate for vacation hours between school tasks is apparent from the inscription:[6]

Accipe facundi Culicem, studiose, Maronis,

Ne nucibus positis, Arma virumque legas.

[Footnote 4: Pliny, Nat. Hist. XVII. 243; Suetonius, De Rhetoribus, 4.]

[Footnote 5: Lines 3-5:

lusimus (haec propter culicis sint carmina docta,

omnis ut historiae per ludum consonet ordo

notitiae) doctumque voces, licet invidus adsit.]

[Footnote 6: Martial, XIV. 185.]

The Culex is then, after all, a poem of unique interest; it takes us into the Roman schoolroom to find at their lectures the two lads whose names come first in the honor roll of the golden age.

The poem is of course not a masterpiece, nor was it intended to be anything but a tour de force; but a comprehension of its purpose will at least save it from being judged by standards not applicable to it. It is not na?vely and unintentionally incongruous. To the modern reader it is dull because he has at hand far better compendia; it is uninspired no doubt: the theme did not lend itself to enthusiastic treatment; the obscurity and awkwardness of expression and the imitative phraseology betray a young unformed style. To analyze the art, however, would be to take the poem more seriously than Vergil intended it to be when he wrote currente calamo. Yet we may say that on the whole the modulation of the verse, the treatment of the caesural pauses[7] and the phrasing compare rather favorably with the Catullan hexameters which obviously served as its models, that in the best lines the poet shows himself sensitive to delicate effects, and that the pastoral scene-which Horace compliments a few years later-is, despite its imitative notes, written with enthusiasm, and reminds us pleasantly of the Eclogues.

[Footnote 7: For stylistic and metrical studies of the Culex, see The

Caesura in Vergil, Butcher, Classical Quarterly, 1914, p. 123; Hardie,

Journal of Philology, XXXI, p. 266, and Class Quart. 1916, 32 ff.;

Miss Jackson, Ibid. 1911, 163; Warde Fowler, Class. Rev. 1919, 96.]

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