Augustan poetry is probably the best-theorized field of intertextuality studies. Poets of this period use allusion in complex ways, yet despite producing literary criticism on other topics (Hor. Ars on genre, decorum, etc.), they say nothing overt about their allusive practices. Although Vergil’s explicit literary criticism is limited to brief programmatic interludes (Ecl. 6.1–12, Geo. 3.1–48), a metapoetic reading of Georgics 2 reveals hidden literary criticism in his discussion of other topics. This paper argues that Vergil’s discussion of tree propagation and grafting in Geo. 2 can be read in this way as a semi-technical discussion of the problems of Roman poetic belatedness, and of their solution through intertextual composition.
I argue in this paper that Vergil’s discussion of tree propagation in Geo. 2 (9–82) literalizes several critical metaphors related to trees, developing trees as a metapoetic symbol for poetry and tree cultivation as a metaphor for composition. He relies partly on a well-known bilingual pun on silvae(=á½•λη: “forest,” “source material”), which he uses at Aen. 6.179 to trope his own source material, the literary tradition, as Italian forests (itur in antiquam silvam: Hinds). “Book” (liber) is also a metaphor from “bark” (liber; Serv. ad Aen. 11.554: unde et liber dicitur in quo scribimus), and the slippage between these fields is important both in Geo. 2 (of grafting: docent inolescere libro, 77) and elsewhere (Gallus writes AMORES on trees at Ecl. 10.53–4; cf. Breed). Vergil’s discussion of tree propagation is divided into natural and artificial methods (principio arboribus varia est natura creandis, 9; sunt alii quos ipse via sibi repperit usus, 22; cf. poetic natura/ingeniumvs. ars), and he instructs that farmers should learn the cultus(“rhetorical ornament”) of each tree according to genus (quare agite o proprios generatim discite cultus, 35)—the technical term both for tree species and for literary genre.
It has been rightly observed that the Roman poets’ use of intertextuality relates to the inherent belatedness of Roman literature. Vergil’s metapoetic discussion of composition focuses especially on the problem of literary influence, and on intertextuality as a solution. Geo. 2 reflects partly on the problem of writing didactic poetry not only after the Greeks, but also after Lucretius, whose DRN is the primary intertext of both Geo. 2 and Geo. 3 (Farrell). Tree cultivation supplies an analogy for such belatedness: the main problem with natural propagation is that young trees are overshadowed by their parents (nunc altae frondes et rami matris opacant | crescenti, 55–6), such that they grow slowly, and the “shadow” of these young trees makes the next generation “late” (iam quae seminibus iactis se sustulit arbos, | tarda venit seris factura nepotibus umbram, 57–8; I argue for a new reading of line 58). Two solutions to the problem of overshadowing reflect on Vergil’s own use of intertextuality. A farmer may transplant a shaded tree or shoot into rows in a new field (scilicet omnibus est labor impendendus, et omnes | cogendae in sulcum ac multa mercede domandae, 61–2; cf. 23–4, 53–4). Vergil has done just this in Geo. 2, by imitating and alluding to Lucretius’s DRN, while writing verses on agriculture rather philosophy (Lat. versus ,“line of poetry,” is also a synonym of sulcum, “furrow”). One may also solve the problem of barren trees through grafting (huc aliena ex arbore germen | includunt udoque docent inolescere libro, 76–7; cf. 33–5, 69–82)—a metaphor that Derrida uses for intertextuality, and which other scholars have seen as symbolizing intertextuality in Geo. 2 (cf. briefly Nappa). As agriculture, many of Vergil’s grafts are impossible because they cross trees of different genera; as literary technique, cross-genre textual grafts are not only widely known (e.g. Gallus in Ecl. 10), but are partly responsible for the genre-blending (Kreuzung der Gattungen, generic enrichment) that characterizes Augustan poetry. Read thus, Geo. 2 shows that many of our views of intertextuality have historical basis in the Augustan period, and it gives us new insight into this important compositional practice.