Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 6.
Jaqueline Clarke, Imagery of Colour & Shining in Catullus, Propertius, & Horace. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Pp. x + 337. ISBN 0-8204-5672-1. SFR123.00.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Colour is an immense problem for the translator of ancient texts, as any student of Classics knows. You are translating happily until someone appears with a green face or purple hair, and it is quite clear that something has gone horribly wrong, or that the ancients simply saw or described things in a very different way to us. Yet, as Jacqueline Clarke points out at the start of her study, colour is an issue ignored by many mainstream commentaries and has for many years been considered the 'hunting ground of dilettantes' (p. 2) -- a side issue not quite worthy of serious scholarly attention. But as anyone who has viewed the frescoes of Pompeii must be aware, the ancient Romans loved colour and it was clearly something that assumed great centrality in their lives. It therefore follows that it would be of significance in their literature.
Colour is, of course, a matter of perception and cultural labelling, and different cultures see colours differently. In multicultural and multilingual South Africa, one is often reminded of this: the Afrikaans term pers, which includes the tones of burgundy and maroon (closer to 'Tyrian purple'), covers a much wider range than the English 'purple', while some indigenous African languages designate what we would call 'green' and 'blue' by the same term. But while colour perception is ultimately a mindset, there are practical issues that may have some impact on one's identification of colour. Clarke has a brief but interesting discussion of these (pp. 3f.), which I would have enjoyed seeing expanded somewhat. With regard to the world of the ancient Romans, for example, it is worth remembering that many of the hues and shades accessible to us today through the modern technology of sophisticated bleaching and dyeing techniques were simply unavailable then. This, Clarke suggests (p. 4), may account for the frustrating vagueness and confusion surrounding particular colour terms in Latin literature.
Perception of colour is also often a question of lighting. As Clarke observes (pp. 3f.), when compared with us, the Romans 'seem to have been more aware of the interaction of colour, light and darkness. Without modern day plate glass windows, interiors of houses would have been dimmer than our own and the light produced by candles and oil lamps would have been intense and flickering, making the Romans (and the Greeks) more conscious of the play of light and shade upon various colours.' The phenomenon whereby colours appear to change under different lighting conditions was observed by Lucretius (2.799f.), who pointed out, with amazing scientific foresight, that there could be no colours without light and that particular colours came about by the light falling on them in a particular fashion. Clarke, moreover, is interested not only in colour, but in what she terms 'shining' (p. 8) -- the way in which colours reflect light. The ancients were particularly concerned with the sheen or reflection of colours, as they regularly speak of colours 'shining forth' in some fashion (with the help of verbs such as nitere and fulgere). Terms for 'shining' are often used in place of colour terms or in close association with them (p. 8). In addition, the metallic sheen of silver and gold (as nouns as well as adjectives) are included in this category of 'shining'. Clarke clearly finds the issue of 'shining' very important for she incorporates this term in the title of her book. But 'shining' as a noun is, to my ears anyway, rather unusual, and as a result, the title of the book comes across as awkwardly informal in an academic context. It certainly made some of my postgraduate students wince. Despite her training in Classics, Clarke could not think of a more appropriate term for this 'shining' phenomenon. Surely the book's title would have sounded better as 'Colour and Luminescence in Catullus, Propertius, and Horace'? It may be a question of taste.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal that is worthwhile and thought-provoking in this book. Clarke's study takes its main impetus and inspiration from Edgeworth's 1992 work on colour in Virgil's Aeneid.[] She proposes (pp. 6f.) to extend many of Edgeworth's ideas developed in relation to Virgil's Latin epic to the stylistic use of colour in the lyric and elegiac poets Catullus, Propertius, and Horace (in his Carmina). This is in itself a worthwhile endeavour: Edgeworth apparently thought that Virgil alone was to be credited with creative and meaningful uses of colour terms, and Clarke's study demonstrates that intelligent analysis of colour terminology can be applied to a far wider range of poets and genres. The structure of Clarke's study, however, in which she follows Edgeworth, is, I find, somewhat problematic, although again, this may largely be a question of taste: after a brief, fluent, and interesting introduction (pp.1-13), the pace of the work is slowed down considerably when Chapter One coincides with a substantial 'Concordance of Colour Terms' (pp. 15-173). The dictionary-like concordance is succeeded by five narrative chapters in which the use of colour terms in the lyric and elegiac poetry of Catullus, Propertius, and Horace is analysed in detail (pp. 175-288); there are two chapters devoted to Catullus and Propertius each, and one on Horace's Odes. Thereafter there is a conclusion, 'Closing Thoughts' (pp. 289-305) and an appendix, 'Marginal Colour Instances' (pp. 307-17). The insertion of the lengthy concordance somehow seems to break up the flow of Clarke's discourse, and it would have been better to have had the concordance at the end of the work, or at least after the five analytical chapters.
In Chapter Two, 'Colour and Sexuality: Catullus Poem 61' (pp. 175-97), Clarke examines the use of the striking colour ranges of red/purple, white and flame-yellow/gold to represent sexuality and to communicate an atmosphere of festivity and excitement in the context of a wedding song. Clarke (p. 192) notes that the colour imagery of the poem clusters around the figure of the bride, and that even colour imagery not used directly in relation to the bride can be traced back to her in some way. She observes that 'Catullus applies colour words to objects such as torches and the marriage bed in a way that personifies and feminises them (the torches' golden hair, the white foot of the bed), recalling the bride and her beauty' (p. 192). Colour is also used to represent the deflowering of the bride: 'The bride is associated with a series of flowers that are either white or purple: the white flowers represent her innocence and purity and the purple flowers the loss of blood associated with the relinquishing of her virginity' (p. 192). Presumably, here 'purple' is referred to in its 'reddish' (rather than indigo) spectrum, or else the ancients simply did not make such a definite distinction.
In Chapter Three, 'Colours in Conflict: Catullus Poem 63' (pp. 199-218), Clarke highlights the clash of colours in the Attis poem, supporting the numerous other contrasts of theme, emotion, and sensation in that poem. There are striking contrasts 'between speed and calm, wilderness and civilisation, madness and sanity, masculine and feminine. In a similar fashion, white is contrasted with black, dark with light, white with red and green with white . . . ' (p. 199). Clarke suggests that the conflicting colours of Catullus 63 allow the reader to 'empathise more fully with Attis' emotional journey' (p. 199), or even compel the reader 'to see everything through Attis' eyes and share in the intensity of his visual experience' (p. 202). Ultimately, the striking colour clashes in Catullus 63 between light and dark, red and white, and green and white, represent, in Clarke's analysis, 'the confusion in Attis' mind and the distortion of his thought processes' (p. 214). Through the use of colour in the Attis poem, Clarke suggests, Catullus is able immerse the Roman reader in the alien experience of the self-mutilating galli.
The next two chapters are devoted to colour in Propertius' Elegies. Clarke points out that the pictorial nature of many of Propertius' scenes means that they can be traced to depictions on wall-paintings or mosaics (p. 221). In Chapter Four, 'The Colours of Inspiration: Propertius Elegy 3.3' (pp. 219-39), Clarke examines the vivid colours that appear in Propertius' 'dream' programmatic poem. This colour imagery only really starts with the appearance of Apollo, the god of poetic inspiration, at line 13, and there is a cluster of colour in the final twenty-eight lines of the poem (from line 25 onwards). In presenting a recusatio as to why he cannot write epic, Propertius is confronted by an epiphany of Phoebus Apollo clutching a golden lyre, and then he sees a green cave in which doves with red beaks are drinking from a pool. Shortly after this, snowy-white swans are summoned to draw the poet's chariot. There is a contrast between the white of the swans and the red brutalities of war, which Propertius as elegist rejects (pp. 233f.). Yet red is also associated with roses garlanding lovers (line 47), so clearly the colour associations are more complex than would first appear. In Clarke's view, the complexity of the colour imagery in 3.3 reflects the complexity of the poem's ideas (p. 233). However, the brilliant burst of colour towards the end of this poem is closely associated with ideas of renewal and inspiration (p. 233). According to this scheme, therefore, peace and inspiration are linked to elegy, whereas warfare and destruction are associated with epic.
In the following chapter, entitled 'Subversive colours?: Propertius Elegy 3.13' (pp. 241-64), Clarke focuses on the colour imagery associated with the theme of luxuria and its alleged corrupting influence on the morals of Roman women. Rome is being destroyed by her own material success, according to Propertius. Here, Clarke observes, Propertius returns to the themes of some of his earliest poetry (for example, 1.2) in 'setting the colours of the natural world in opposition to the artificial colours of wealthy society' (p. 241). The poem is shaped and drawn together by the two main clusters of colour terminology that highlight the opposition between 'nature' and 'culture'. From the start of the poem, gold is both associated and contrasted with purple, and they are both seen as exotic colours of Eastern origin, representative of wealth and luxury, which lead women off the path of virtue. In the section on the golden age (lines 25-46), there is an explosion of bright colours such as red and purple, green and gold, but 'here bright colours are not associated with the East but with Rome's rural past as Propertius elaborates on . . . the natural wealth that exists in harvest and orchard . . . ' (p. 251). This is a gold that is associated with peace, not with warfare, as was the gold of luxurious living. Clarke, like many readers before her, is fascinated by how in this poem Propertius has transferred the themes and images of personal love elegy onto issues of national importance (p. 255), but while many scholars accept that the focus in Propertius' third book has shifted, Clarke suspects that there may be something subversive in this juxtaposition of the personal and political. But she falls short of making a definite statement about this: 'To what extent this is done with a positive intention to mock and as a parody of Augustan ideals is hard to say' (p. 258).
In Chapter Six (pp. 265-288), rather than looking at colour in one relatively long poem, Clarke instead examines the application of colour terminology to the theme of the aging courtesan (moecha senescens) in three of Horace's lyric poems, namely Odes 1.25, 3.15 and 4.13. Clarke notes that Horace uses increasing amounts of colour terminology with each restatement of the theme, adding that his use of colour in these poems is 'derived from the tradition of erotic poetry in which words for bright colour or shining are used to indicate a woman's desirability' (p. 265). Clarke observes that Horace inverts this convention so that while the courtesans 'desire bright colours and eagerly seek after them', nevertheless they are themselves 'associated with dull colours or colours that are fading' (p. 265). Clarke's analysis of the colours of the fading, withering, mutton-dressed-as-lamb courtesans in Horace's three poems is generally insightful and perceptive, and I have only a few complaints about some of the assumptions she makes.
First, in spite of Clarke's reservations (pp. 266, 283), there is indeed striking colour imagery in Greek lyric poems about aging which are a significant antecedent of Horace's Odes: the contrast between the brilliant gold and other bright colours associated with youth, such as purple, on the one hand, and the grey and white hair of old age, on the other, is a major topos of poetry on the aging lover. The lack of colour may be true of some later epigrams, but Horace was arguably building on the earlier lyric tradition. Second, while acknowledging that we are dealing with a very conventional genre, Clarke appears to think that Lydia of the first poem under discussion and Lyce of the third were real women with whom Horace was involved, since she notes of the second poem that 'there is less evidence that Horace was romantically involved with Chloris of 3.15 and the poem is less passionate and more moralising in tone' (p. 268). In my view, all three addressees are imaginary stock figures, with Chloris simply the most transparently so. Third, although Clarke points out that aging women were not a popular subject for wall-paintings (p. 268), old crones and dipsomaniac bawds do indeed appear in the realist and often comic-satiric sculpture of the Hellenistic age, almost certainly painted in full colour to fit the part. Such plastic and chromatic representations may well have helped to inspire Horace's use of colour in these poems, according to which the 'bright colours and light with which young women are associated are placed in contrast to the dull and dark colours of the aging courtesans' (p. 283).
Despite these and other quibbles, in general Clarke's is an interesting and stimulating study that is well-presented and well-organised. Her extension of Edgeworth's work on Virgil to Catullus, Propertius and Horace will be of use to any future student of colour in Latin poetry.
[] R. J. Edgeworth, The Colours of the Aeneid (New York 1992).