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Praesentia Finxi: Love and Ruins in Castiglione's Alcon and Milton's Epitaphium Damonis

Jay Reed

Castiglione’s Alcon (1515) and Milton’s Epitaphium Damonis (1638/39) are pastoral laments that, in following Virgil’s second Eclogue in certain aspects of form and content, translate tropes of unrequited desire into those of mourning—though sometimes reluctantly and barely. Their narratives multiply the sense of loss and the absence of the beloved: each speaker—like the author himself—has been away from home when he hears of the death of his friend. Each lament contains a complex, self-tormenting passage in which the mourner rehearses in memory his hopes for conversation and exchange of thoughts with his absent friend, now permanently absent; and, interestingly, each poem invokes the ruins of Rome as part of the site of friendship and mourning. I explore here the relationship of these various, interrelated types of loss with the Classical past that each poem, in its engagement with Virgil and in its very Latinity, is in some measure implicitly making present, and (following literary historians who, since Harrison, note Milton’s echoes of Castiglione’s poem here) I read the Epitaphium Damonis as a response to Alcon.            

Through verbal echoes, Castiglione’s Alcon likens its object to the Virgilian Marcellus, Daphnis, and Gallus, but its outer narrative structure and echoes within the lament proper (lines 103-32) recall Eclogue 2, including an explicit identification of the site of affection at lines 125-6 (formosum hic pastor Corydon cantavit Alexin. / ergo ades, o dilecte puer...). The mourner envies Leucippus, another herdsman, for catching Alcon’s dying breath in a kiss and then soon following him into the Underworld. He frames his central reminiscence of expectations with confessions of futility (104 vana mihi incassum fingebam somnia demens ... 130 haec mihi fingebam miser ab spe ductus inani), and it is within this section that he sets the scene of his once-hoped-for reunion by the ruins of Rome, lofty and lovely (122-3 hic ... / perluit antiquas Tiberis decora alta ruinas). Milton’s mourner, by contrast, questions whether it “was so worth it to see buried Rome”—even had Rome been what it was when the Virgilian Tityrus saw it (115-17 ecquid erat tanti Romam vidisse sepultam / (quamvis illa foret, qualem dum viseret olim / Tityrus ipse suas et oves et rura reliquit))—since it meant being absent, now permanently absent, from his friend. Here the motif occurs before the memory-fantasy, and remains outside of its hopeful making-present (145-6 quae tum facili sperabam mente futura ... praesentia finxi).

Alcon ends bitterly (154 sunt candida nigra, et dulcia amara), with the impossibility of consolation. The Epitaphium Damonis takes a consolatory turn, with the mourner imagining the translation of the deceased to a blessed afterlife as Milton had similarly used it in his earlier, English-language Lycidas (the motif derives ultimately from the ascension of Daphnis in Virgil’s fifth Eclogue). Damon’s personal survival in the afterlife follows after confidence in survival of his memory in the shepherd’s songs (30-36) and then the speaker’s own hopes for fame: his memory of the would-be future reunion contains poetic plans, a reenvisioning of British foundation myths (162-78; Hardie offers a recent discussion of this element)—perhaps a sort of rebuilding on ruins, in contrast or comparison with those of Rome that it was not worth seeing. Feelings of loss and compensation alternate, culminating in the ultimate hope in Damon’s survival amid immortales hymenaeos (217). The treatment of ruins participates in this self-consolatio: instead of investing Rome with the now disillusioned hope of reunion, as does Alcon, the erotic economy of the Epitaphium Damonis opposes Rome to the reunion, and problematizes the relationship of the city, and its (Virgilian) past, to the speaker. The site of mourning and its representation of different kinds of yearning becomes even more layered and complicated than in Alcon.

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The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research

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