I’m reading Hayden N. Pelliccia’s review of two newish translations of Virgil (by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo) in the Apr. 12 New York Review of Books. I haven’t gotten to the part where he talks about the translations yet (in true NYRB fashion, that comes as an afterthought on the last page), but I thought I’d share an interesting excursus on a particular allusion. He’s discussing the famous scene in Book VI of the Aeneid in which Aeneas, having descended to the underworld (in imitation of Homer’s Odysseus), is confronted with the shade of Dido, the woman he left behind in Carthage. Aeneas apologizes for having driven her to suicide; she refuses to talk to him and stalks back to her husband Sychaeus, with whom she has been reunited in death (as Dryden puts it, “Then sought Sichaeus thro’ the shady grove,/ Who answer’d all her cares, and equal’d all her love”). In the course of his anguished self-justification, he says “invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi”—’against my will, queen, I left your shores.’ But as Pelliccia says, “The words… are taken almost word for word from a poem of Catullus’…”
The problem is that this other Catullan poem is, not to put too fine an edge on it, a joke—an exercise in Hellenistic facetiousness. The poem is spoken by a lock of hair, cut from the head of a queen and dedicated by her in a temple, in thanks for the safe return from war of her husband the king. The talking hair says, “I left your head, my Queen, against my will” (in Latin, invita, o regina, tuo de vertice cessi).
For many readers the implications of this allusion are extremely upsetting, even painful. The Marx Brothers seem suddenly to have clambered onto the set of a tragic opera. What could Virgil have been thinking? Perhaps he was not thinking at all, these readers suggest, and the line is “a wholly unconscious reminiscence.” But the idea that Virgil was capable of being “unconscious” of anything in Catullus is insupportable; he knew Catullus’ poetry better than the back of his own hand. So that explanation fails. Others see in the allusion a deliberately subversive irony. But the joke seems too undignified and crude to be taken seriously as such.
The matter is more complex than the bare linking of the two passages might lead one to believe. Catullus’ poem about the lock of hair is a translation from Callimachus (third century BCE), the unofficial head of the Alexandrian school of poetry of which both Catullus and Virgil were latter-day members. Callimachus’ original survives only in the briefest fragments: our knowledge of it derives primarily from Catullus’ translation. But the situation so humorously depicted was a real one: the Egyptian king Ptolemy had just married his cousin Berenice, and immediately went off to war in the East. The poem tells of the bride’s tearful lamentations, and of her vow to offer a lock of her hair (i.e., of the poem’s speaker) at a temple in the event of her husband’s victorious return. He did return victorious, and she dedicated the lock. Soon thereafter, however, the lock was found to have disappeared from the temple. But all’s well that ends well: the royal astronomer Conon promptly noticed a new constellation—the now-deified lock of Queen Berenice’s hair, which speaks to us in the poem from its new perch in the sky.
He then has a footnote tracing the possible allusions back even farther:
It is plausible to conjecture that upon his return from a campaign to his bride, Ptolemy was reported to have said, or to have quoted from a lost epic source, something like “I left your shores, my Queen, against my will,” and that the line borrowed by Virgil from Catullus’ translation was written by Callimachus as a playful parody of this nonironical utterance. The theme of the groom torn from his bridal chamber to answer the call of war was a popular one with Homer. The memorable phrase “I left (you) against my will” occurs in its Greek form (ouk ethelon kallipon) in a comparable context (Theseus and Ariadne) in the fourth-century-CE epic of Quintus of Smyrna (4.389, cf. 10.286, a passage possibly modeled on Virgil), and is the subject of parody already in Archilochus (mid-seventh century BCE and about as early as we can get back with datable Greek poets), in a poem (no. 5 in the edition of M.L. West) in which he says antiheroically, of his escape from death in battle: “I left my shield against my will. But I saved myself. So why should that shield bother me? The hell with it—I’ll soon get a better one.”
Archilochus 5 is one of my favorite Greek poems; you can see it here, and my favorite translation (which I found in a college textbook and memorized) runs:
Some lucky Thracian has my shield,
For, being somewhat flurried,
I dropped it in a wayside bush
As from the field I hurried.
Thank God, I made it clean away—
To blazes with the shield!
I’ll get another just as good
When next I take the field.
Pelliccia goes on to discuss the implications of the passage for recent Roman history (“Is Aeneas a good guy or a bad guy? Is he Caesar? Antony? or Augustus, who stayed on course with his Roman duty and brought about Cleopatra-Dido’s suicide? Or is he a little of all of them?”); I discovered by googling that there’s been a whole lot of scholarly discussion of all this, and interested readers can start with these JSTOR links.