You are here

‘This one was one who was working’: similes of poetic composition in the ancient reception of Virgil

Talitha Kearey

University of Cambridge

In ancient discussions of Virgil’s methods of literary production one idea recurs: that Virgil took painstaking care over the production of his poetry. Ancient biographies give details: he rapidly recorded his ideas in verse or prose, including incomplete or unsatisfactory lines with the expectation of removing them later, then ruthlessly cut his drafts down to a few lines per day (Vita Suetonii-Donati 22-4); he resisted revision or publication of his work by any other party (VSD 40). For Quintilian, Virgil’s poetic methods exemplified his cura et diligentia, acerrimum iudicium and unicus usus (Inst. 10.1.86, 8.3.24); for Gellius, it resulted in the Aeneid being left in a monstruosissimum state upon Virgil’s untimely death (NA 17.10.19). This paper explores why (and how) it matters that Virgil’s readers in antiquity said of him, as Gertrude Stein of Picasso, ‘This one was one who was working’.

Recent scholarship on the application of genetic or documentary criticism to classical literature (in particular Gurd 2007, 2010 and 2012; Martelli 2013) has emphasised that, although we largely lack original material traces of composition or revision, ancient authors’ discourse of authorial activity remains extant: they detail the text’s composition, express hopes or expectations regarding circulation and discuss their revision of the text. Though this discourse does not necessarily tell us anything about the historical reality of these authors’ literary production, it can nonetheless inform us about metaliterary manifestos, constructions of authorial agency and self-fashioning (Martelli 2013), and the changing functions of textuality and revision as media of social exchange, political engagement and community formation (Gurd 2012).

In the case of Virgil, who is silent on such matters, the focus must shift to ‘allographic’ discourses of authorship, those constructed by later readers of Virgil’s works. As today, so in antiquity: biographical information surrounding an author’s works displays a fascination with the processes of the text’s production. This information is often of dubious veracity (Horsfall 1995), yet remains a rich and still underused resource for reception studies. Just as ‘writing about literary genesis allowed [ancient authors] to think through problems of selfhood, textuality, and social context’ (Gurd 2012:4), so too, I argue, later readers’ discussions of a canonical author qua author prove to be sites for examining conceptions of authorship, negotiating hermeneutic practices and thinking through the role and nature of literature in different historical-cultural contexts.

This paper focuses on the three statements regarding poetic composition and revision commonly attributed to Virgil himself in antiquity. We are told that Virgil said that his first drafts were assembled with temporary props and struts, like a building (VSD 24); that he produced his drafts quickly, then laboriously refined them, like a mother bear licking her cubs into shape (VSD 22, Gell. NA 17.10.2-7, Jerome ad Gal. praef. 3, in Zech. praef. 3); and that he defended himself from charges of plagiarism by saying it would be easier to steal Hercules' club than a single Homeric line (VSD 46, Macrob. Sat. 5.3.16, Jerome Quaest. Heb. in Gen. praef., Isid. Etym. 10.44; cf. McGill 2012:204-7). Notably, all three take the form of similes in Virgil’s own voice. I consider these anecdotes as a group for the first time, paying particular attention to the dynamics of their attribution to Virgil. Exploring the relationships between the similes and their possible Virgilian sources – the draft-as-building (VSD 24) and Virgil’s epic-as-temple (G. 3.1-47), the theft of Hercules’ club and Cacus’ theft of Hercules’ cattle (Aen. 8.190-224), Virgil as a mother bear and the Lupercalian scene of Aen. 8.630-4 – I contend that they display a sophisticated reading of Virgil’s own metapoetic modes, and that their attribution to Virgil ‘verifies’ them in a complex dance of impersonated self-reflexivity. Ultimately I make a case for taking these anecdotes seriously – if not as historical fact, then as sites where Virgil’s readers creatively explored concepts of authorship, negotiated literary practices, and constructed an author worthy of reading. 

Session/Panel Title

The Genesis of the Ancient Text: New Approaches

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy