Catherine Connors, Petronius the Poet: Verse and Literary Tradition in the Satyricon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. ix + 166. ISBN 0-521- 59231-3. UKú35.00/US$54.95.
Gottskalk T. Jensson
Department of Classics, University of Toronto
It is immediately evident from the thinness of her volume that Catherine Connors has produced no mega biblion. Rather, and to discover this one needs only read a few paragraphs, it is as if she had taken the poetics of Callimachus to heart, and so her slender book is dense with critical and philological sophistication, and consequently, one might add, not an easy read. After becoming better acquainted with the argument, one realizes further that the almost Alexandrian form of her monograph fits the contents perfectly, because with Petronius the Poet Connors attempts to place the author of the novelistic Satyricon squarely in the tradition of Roman poetry.[]
Until now few critics of Petronius have been willing to take him seriously as a poet, despite the widespread dubitation as to the nature and type of his work. Instead, Petronian scholars have usually reduced the verses, here and there interspersed in the prose of the Satyricon, to amusing parodies, often of little artistic merit on their own, though worthy of attention because of the targets chosen, and the light they could possibly shed on the relationship of the author to his famous literary contemporaries, primarily Lucan and Seneca.[] At best the verse passages of the Satyricon have been regarded as having an integral purpose in contributing to the novel's characterization, since most of them occur indeed as character utterances that may be seen as typical of their speakers, rather than of the notoriously elusive author Petronius.[]
Given this lackluster critical appraisal of the poetry in the Satyricon, it may seem strange to devote an entire book, even a short one, to a study of Petronius qua poet. How does Connors approach her inherently problematic subject? After an introduction on verse and genre in Petronian criticism (pp. 1-19), she begins by analyzing in detail the short poems and some relevant prose passages in the first two chapters, called 'Refashioning the epic past' (pp. 20-49) and 'In the frame: context and continuity in the short poems' (pp. 50-83). She then devotes a separate chapter to each of the two long poems, 'Troy retaken: repetition and re-enactment in the Troiae Halosis' (pp. 84-99) and 'The Bellum Civile' (pp. 100-146). Large sections of each chapter form a running commentary on the verse passages, which includes minute textual explication as well as literary interpretation. Her readings of individual poems are thorough, balanced and highly informative, because of the wealth of contextual material from various sources that is brought to bear on the subject.
To Connors' obvious credit she does not attempt to save Petronius's reputation as a poet. On the contrary, she freely acknowledges the flaws of his compositions: 'As everyone will agree, the short poems on moralizing or erotic themes performed by Trimalchio, and Eumolpus, and Encolpius (both as character and as narrator) represent utterly conventional habits of thought' (p. 50). Likewise, 'the obsessive display within the Troiae Halosis of repetition, likeness, and imperfect re-enactment signifies . . . Eumolpus' lack of literary control' (p. 93). The same is true of the longest verse section of the Satyricon, the so called Bellum Civile (119- 24). It compares poorly with other examples of the genre: 'Virgil, Lucan or Statius can brilliantly rework inherited motifs: so far as I can tell Eumolpus' poem offers dim, overly studied transformations of tradition' (p. 102). I believe most scholars will agree that Connors speaks here with critical authority.
But what does it tell us about Petronius the (bad) poet that we didn't already know? Connors demonstrates that the restraint and elegance of Callimachean esthetics, traditionally expressed in the metaphors of the untrodden path and the narrow stream, as opposed to the well-trodden one and a flood of water, are explicitly rejected by Eumolpus in the theoretical preface to his poem on the civil war (p. 143). This, along with other evidence advanced by Connors, indicates that the pretentious Mr. Sing-Well is meant to expose himself as a bad poet, according to the best contemporary standard, neo- Callimachean poetics. Now, Connors also recognizes Eumolpus as 'a figure of metaliterary dimensions, reflecting Petronius' own enterprise in crafting the novel' (p. 144), and so she logically concludes the fourth and last chapter of her work by saying: 'Over and over again, in becoming a poet Petronius acknowledges the limits of the poetry he leaves behind' (p. 146).
But why would Petronius want to write deliberately flawed poetry? To my mind this question is essential to the interpretation of the Satyricon. A similar question provides the frame for Connors' project. She asks in the introduction: 'Why did Petronius spend so much time being a poet while writing this novel?' (p. 1); and she resumes that same question in the epilogue: 'I began by asking why Petronius spends time being a poet while writing his novel' (p. 147). The difference is that while I emphasize the problem of the poor quality of Petronius' poetry, she seems more interested in explaining the presence of so much poetry in a work of prose fiction: 'To choose a genre, even one as loosely defined as prose fiction, is to reject all the others . . . by producing verse within his fictional prose, Petronius sets his novel in a self-consciously agonistic relationship with the literary genres which he has repudiated' (p. 147).
There is no doubt in my mind that Connors' explanation is basically right, that the prosimetric Satyricon sets prose 'in a self-consciously agonistic relationship' with the poetry, and that the choice of the novel form implies a preference for prose, as opposed to poetry. This conclusion explains perfectly (a) why the prose is continuous and there is far more of it than the fragmentary poetic passages in the Satyricon; (b) why the prose sections are traditionally described as elegant, while the verse has been seen as exceedingly problematic; (c) why, in Encolpius' parlance, speaking in prose is to speak humane, 'like a human being', while speaking poetice, 'like a poet', is a sure sign of madness (Sat. 90.2-5); and (d) why the poet Eumolpus, a metaliterary figure in a certain sense reflecting the author, is more successful as storyteller in prose, fabulator, than as poeta.[]
As we have seen, Connors concludes that Petronius preferred prose to poetry. However, her own study, by definition, focuses mainly on the poetry in the Satyricon, and specifically on the epic passages, if we look to the origin of the project in a University of Michigan doctoral dissertation on the Bellum Civile and the consistent emphasis on epic in three of the four chapters.[] Unfortunately, this strong emphasis on epic spills over into the larger thesis advanced by her to further elaborate on the relationship between poetry and prose in the work. A more cautious approach would have resisted the temptation to generalize about the whole of the Satyricon based on a limited study of the poetic fragments. Connors believes that Petronius' plan was to somehow rewrite epic as prose fiction. She imputes this intention to the author himself, but the repetitively emphatic voice is her own: 'Petronius is constantly telling the tale of refashioning epic into fiction . . . refashioning epic as fiction and . . . re-telling belated epics in invented prose' (p. 49). It is true that Petronius is engaged in 'refashioning the epic past', which is properly what an epic poet does, but he does this only in his own epic verses, especially the Bellum Civile, and not in the prose part of the Satyricon. Besides, the rare passages of banalized and deliberately ridiculous epic verses seem designed to send up that genre, hardly to make Petronius -- even when in the guise of the epic poet -- the heir of Homer and Virgil.
Notwithstanding Connors' interesting attempt to implode Bakhtin's basic distinction between epic and novel, namely that one is rooted in the national and the public while the other is concerned with private individual experience, the distinction still holds in general for the Satyricon (pp. 102f.).[] The narrator's utter lack of enthusiasm or respect for the mad poet's epic composition, for instance, measured against his genuine and obsessive interest in his personal love-affair with the boy Giton, are indicative of the incommensurability of the novelistic and the epic universe. Encolpius may in his versification, especially in Sat. 139.2, fancy that he is an epic hero, but no sooner has he uttered the word than the reader's laughter shatters this obvious fantasy. Constructing an allegorical correlation between Petronius' novelistic narrative and his epic verses does not justify treating the prose as mere frame for the verse passages. It is not fair to the integrity of the novel Satyricon to reduce the voyage, the shipwreck and the Croton episode (Sat. 100-41) to 'the framing plot' for the Bellum Civile (p. 102).
Indecipherability is a quality Connors attributes to the ancient Latin text that she endeavors to explicate: 'Like a hall of mirrors, the Satyricon reveals an inexhaustible supply of amusing, and uncannily boundless, perspectives' (p. 51). At times, however, her own language is so heavily constructed with abstractions and theoretical elaborations that indecipherability becomes a problem there too, and one is occasionally forced to read the same sentence several times to derive from it all its possible meanings. Example: 'Petronius' "parroting" of epic imitations of epic add up to a pre-history of his novelistic discourse, incorporating his recollections of earlier ways of fracturing epic's inherited structures to accommodate fictionalizing inventions' (p. 49). Even in context, it is not entirely clear to me what this sentence means.
Does the contradiction, which I find in her main thesis, undermine the legitimacy of Connors' search for Petronius the poet? The answer is no. Though it may sound slightly absurd, the misshapen and ugly creatures of artistic processes are sometimes more revealing of the nature of those processes, and the underlying assumptions involved, than the most successful and complete works of art. This is evidently the reason behind the ancient fascination with messy and destructive parody, which is never gratuitous or purely formalistic, as often in modern literature, but always invested with a meaningful satirical attitude. By creating deliberately bad art, in the manner and style of a recognizable individual or school, the truth hiding behind the facade of beauty with which polished art is varnished is better exposed. The target is often merely hypothetical, but this does not preclude the sense of recognition which makes its reception such an interesting and enjoyable experience.
That is why it is well worth our while to take the guided tour with Connors into the fabulously confusing, and often tasteless world of Petronius' poetic memory, to borrow a term from Conte, another recent student of Petronius.[] Connors is not only a competent guide for the tour, who knows her way around the area, but also a very pleasant and courteous one. She keeps her cool where many a distinguished scholar has shown signs of painful frustration at the difficulties involved in interpreting this text, especially in the face of the numerous incompatible readings that have accumulated during more than a century of sustained interpretive effort. If Connors makes much of the poet in Petronius, this may betoken nothing more than the great momentum in the field in North- America: half of latinists in this part of the world are now engaged in the study of Roman poetry.[]
[] In a prefatory note at the very beginning of her text Connors explains her preference for the title Satyricon a Greek genitive plural with libri implied, and signals her critical position with a general observation about those who opt for the now more common nominative: 'The form Satyrica is preferred by scholars who view it as analogous to the titles of Greek novels such as Aethiopica, Ephesiaca, Babyloniaca and so forth' (p. ix). To avoid confusion, I have simply chosen to use the same title as Connors, although, given my novelistic approach to Petronius, I ought perhaps to be using the other.
[] Eumolpus' ecphrastic Troiae Halosis (Sat. 89) has often been expressly compared to the tragedies of Seneca, and is sometimes analyzed in the context of Neronian aesthetics. The same character's Bellum Civile (Sat. 119-24) is, as a rule, compared to Lucan's Pharsalia. Agamemnon's verses in the Lucilian style, at Sat. 5, have also been related to the satires of Persius. For specific references to scholarship on this topic, consult Connors vast bibliography (pp. 149-61).
[] Out of thirty short and two long verse passages in all the Satyricon, only thirteen are apparently attributable to Encolpius qua narrator (Sat. 79.8, 80.9, 127.9, 128.6, 129.18, 131.8, 132.8, 132.15, 133.3, 135.8, 136.6, 137.9, 139.2), although it is by no means always clear what belongs to young Encolpius, the character, and what to the narrator. None of the verse passages are spoken in the name of the author.
[] As was shown by R. Beck in his article 'Eumolpus poeta, Eumolpus fabulator: A Study of Characterization in the Satyricon,' Phoenix 33 (1997) 239-53.
[] C. Connors, Petronius' Bellum Civile and the Poetics of Discord (Diss. Michigan 1989).
[] M. Holquist (ed., tr. C. Emerson and M. Holquist), The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. (Austin 1981) 32.
[] G. B. Conte (tr. E. Fantham), The Hidden Author: An Interpretation of Petronius's Satyricon. Sather Classical Lectures Volume 60 (Berkeley 1996). For the concept of 'poetic memory', see Conte (tr. & ed. C. Segal), The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets (Ithaca and London 1986).
[] Based on submission figures for the 1998 APA Meeting in Washington D.C. Out of 176 submissions 28 (15.9%) were in the field of Latin epic, 7 (4%) in the field of Latin Comedy, and 50 (28.4%) in the field of Latin-Other Poetry.