Richard F. Thomas, Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Pp. 351, incl. Index Locorum and Index Verborum et Rerum. ISBN 0-472-10897-2. US$52.50.
University of Cape Town
In this volume Thomas gathers together twenty-two articles and shorter notes which he has published between 1979 and 1998. The book's emphasis falls primarily on Virgil's Georgics, though its first chapter, 'Preparing the Way', focusses on Catullus, while the last discusses, among other things, Virgil's Eclogue 6. Thomas's work on late Republican poetry is well known, particularly his edition of and publications on the Georgics. This review, then, is aimed at those who may be unfamiliar with his publications.
Thomas's way of analysing Roman poetic texts becomes clear as the volume proceeds. What he is most interested in are those points at which his poet alludes, refers to, or is somehow intertextually engaged with, particular passages in the writings of earlier authors. Thomas's working assumption is that, when an ancient poet did this, he meant his readers to be aware of the procedure, and to recognize that he was engaging, often polemically, with the larger context of the work from which his reference was drawn. For example, Virgil's reference to the obscure mythological figure, Molorchus, at Georgics 3.19, must mean that he is engaging intertextually with the opening of the third book of Callimachus' Aetia, the only other text before Virgil known to have dealt with Molorchus (p. 72). (This example is not randomly chosen: for Thomas, Alexandrian poetry, above all that of Callimachus, is the major intertext in the work of Catullus, Virgil and the Augustans.) Thomas's instincts, and strengths, as a critic are essentially those of the commentator. In most of these papers he moves very quickly from opening statement of intent to the nitty-gritty of linguistic, metrical and close rhetorical analysis.
Because Thomas's work concentrates so much on particulars, it is difficult to discuss his book in broad, general terms. Instead, I shall review a selection of papers from the volume and then offer some general observations. Thomas's first chapter, 'Preparing the Way: Catullan Intertextuality' (pp. 12-67), contains a discussion of the opening lines of Catullus 64 which is, in many ways, programmatic for the book that follows. Thomas shows well how these lines are shot through with references to Euripides, Apollonius, Ennius and others. Catullus' references, Thomas argues, are not merely inert allusions; through them the New Poet does things: he 'rejects, corrects, or pays homage to his antecedents, and . . . presents his own as the superior version' (p. 32). Throughout the book Thomas views these as the main purposes of intertextual reference in Catullus and his Augustan successors.
A major piece, 'Callimachus, the Victoria Berenices, and Roman Poetry' (Chapter 2 = CQ 33  92-113), argues that, not Pindar, but Callimachus -- specifically the opening of his Aetia Book 3 with its epinician for Berenice - - should be seen as the primary model for the extraordinary proem of Virgil, Georgics Book 3. Many of Thomas's detailed points are suggestive and thought-provoking, but in my view he produces no evidence firm enough to make his case persuasive. Part of the problem is that the Callimachean material is simply too fragmentary to bear the burden of proof he places on it.
For me the chapter that shows Thomas at his best is Chapter 5, 'Prose into Poetry: Tradition and Meaning in Virgil's Georgics' (= HSCP 91 [1987) 229-60), where the author shows how Virgil has transformed into poetry material from technical prose treatises on agriculture. Through a series of detailed, sensitive analyses, Thomas illuminates the way in which Virgil edits, refines, suppresses, even sometimes falsifies material from Theophrastus, Cato and Varro.
Like many contemporary critics Thomas is sympathetic (too sympathetic for my taste) to the notion that, whatever a poem may be 'about', it is very often also -- or mainly -- 'about' poetry itself. This idea informs his Chapter 6, 'The Old Man Revisited: Memory, Reference, and Genre in Virgil Georgics 4.116-48' (= Materiali e Discussioni 29  35-70), which interprets Virgil's old Corycian (the old man of Tarentum) as 'a conflation of the old man of Philitas, of Theocritus' Lycidas, and of his own Tityrus . . .' (p. 190). In other words the poet's Corycian is a figure constructed out of the literary tradition, not a man Virgil encountered in reality; memini . . . vidisse (G. 4.127) refers to experience of poetry, not of a person. Citing haec . . . aliis post me memoranda relinquo (4.147f.), from the end of this passage, Thomas asks rhetorically: 'And how could it be, if the old man of Tarentum had been purely a phenomenon of Virgil's real, personal experience, that he could have thus expected other, later poets to participate in this description?' (p. 183). But it is surely the subject of horticulture -- as is made clear by 4.114-24 and the words spatiis exclusus iniquis, elided by Thomas from his citation of 4.147f. -- that Virgil leaves to his successors, not the subject of the old man of Tarentum.
Two pieces are reprinted from the proceedings of the Groningen conferences on Callimachus and Hellenistic poetry. Chapter 7, 'Callimachus Back in Rome' (= Hellenistica Groningana 1  197-215), provides a useful corrective to the recent tendency to see Callimachus and the 'Callimachean' lurking behind any and every type of sophistication in Roman poetry. Thomas suggests some specific criteria for identifying the Hellenistic poet's influence and illustrates them through discussion of passages from Virgil's Georgics and Aeneid. An interesting paper, 'Genre through Intertextuality: Theocritus to Virgil and Propertius' (Chapter 9 = Hellenistica Groningana 2  22-46) shows well how certain fruitful lines of enquiry may be cut off if, by treating some of Theocritus' hexameter poems as belonging to a distinct pastoral 'genre', we thereby preclude comparison with his other hexameter poems, labelled mimes, hymns or encomia.
In general, Thomas eschews literary theory. As he states in his introduction: 'Most of these pieces were written in a state of disengagement with specific theoretical approaches . . .' (p. 1). But in several obiter dicta Thomas does communicate to the reader what he thinks is interesting and worthy of study in ancient poetry. For Thomas, it is not the social context of this poetry, or the political, ethical or ideological values it may embody, but rather its place within a tradition that is of the greatest significance. Texts exist, he argues, 'not just on their own as isolated New Critical artifacts but often in antiquity as parts of larger textual collectives, whose meaning may be elucidated by examination of the mechanics of the referential, or allusive, systems to which they belong' (p. 67). Thomas's Chapter 4, 'Virgil's Georgics and the Art of Reference' (pp. 114-41 = HSCP 90  171- 98) is the closest he comes to a sustained discussion of his methods (at least in respect of Virgil). Here he distinguishes between the 'casual reference', which bears a relatively light load of meaning, and a variety of other types of reference. Thomas sums up the purpose of Virgil's many 'references' as 'that of subsuming or appropriating an entire literary tradition, extending across eight hundred years and two languages' (p. 140). But it is at points like this that I feel a certain frustration with Thomas's approach. After reading many of Thomas's pages of painstaking philological labour, seeking to prove that passage X 'refers to' passage Y ('proof' that I sometimes find unconvincing), I find myself asking: So? If X does indeed refer to Y, what does that tell us? Thomas's answers to questions of this nature turn out to be disappointingly jejune, as in the instance just cited. In the latter case one longs to ask: What does it mean to 'subsume' or 'appropriate' an 'entire literary tradition'? Surely more than has been described here?[]
In what follows I list some places where I disagree with Thomas on details. (1) Section IV of Chapter one (pp. 52-67) discusses the meaning of passer in Catullus' 'Sparrow' poems. While I would agree with Thomas that there is an obscene double entendre in these poems (passer being taken as mentula, 'penis') I do not think Meleager 65 Page (A.P. 7.207), describing a mistresses pet hare, corroborates such a reading. Thomas misses the point that, whereas every detail of Catullus' description of the passer -- its leaping about in the girl's lap and so on -- can also be applied to mentula, it hard to see what Meleager's ouatoenta ('eared') could mean when metaphorically applied to a penis. (2) In his discussion (p. 153) of the monstra (mice, toads, weevils) that may damage the threshing floor (G. 1.176ff.) Thomas's tone seems to me altogether too solemn. He says nothing of the gentle humour that informs the passage, as indicated, for example, by the abrupt, jingling hexameter-ending saepe exiguus mus (G. 1.181). (In his commentary ad loc. Thomas pointedly refuses to find humour in this line-ending.) (3) In the opening lines of Eclogue 6 commentators usually take 'Tityrus' to be simply a pastoral mask for Virgil himself. Thomas (pp. 288-96) argues that this is misguided, and that we should take this figure to be, simply, a shepherd. One can agree with Thomas that Virgil's shepherds elsewhere know Roman politicians, as does Tityrus here. But what of 'Tityrus'' words leget and praescripsit pagina (Ecl. 6.10, 12)? Virgilian shepherds elsewhere sing their poems; can Virgil here really mean us to imagine this shepherd-Tityrus writing a book?
In conclusion, whether or not one is sympathetic to Thomas's approach to literature, this is an important collection of papers and one that should be read by all scholars of Roman poetry. Thomas may plough a narrow furrow, but he does so skilfully and deeply, and so prepares the ground for a rich harvest.[]
[] Those interested in less tightly-controlled intertextual speculation may find it in Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge 1993), and Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: Dynamics of appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge 1998).
[] The introduction to this volume mentions (p. 10) that the text was scanned in from the original publications before being formatted and edited. This process seems to have been responsible for the few dozen misprints (none of them very serious) in the book, almost all in the Greek and Latin quotations. Some have clearly been created by an English spellcheck, e.g., triumphal for triumphat (p. 84), rages for reges (p. 102), or turn for tum (p. 165).