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The Auditory Sublime from Vergil to Lucan

Laura Zientek

Brigham Young University

The Massilian grove in book three of Lucan’s Bellum Civile contains many preternatural elements that present a haunting place, a true locus horridus (Schiesaro 2006). Among these elements are serpents twining around the trunks of trees and hollow, echoing subterranean caverns. The grove is a sublime object: dark, terrifying, and obscure (Day 2013, Leigh 2010). Its gloom and mysterious nature are reminiscent of the ambiguous perception of caves (Ustinova 2009), themselves dark and obscure places. I argue that Lucan’s grove – and in particular its poetic geology – is in dialogue with two elements of Vergil’s Aeneid that maximize the auditory component of its ominous, sublime nature and move the aesthetic experience of the sublime beyond the visual.

My work engages with the ongoing discussion about the sublime in Latin epic poetry (Conte 2007, Day 2013, Hardie 2009, Lowe 2015) and with the connection between landscape ecphrasis and aesthetic experience. When Vergil writes about caverns, he describes the auditory sublime, a sound quality that is itself mysterious, deep, and potentially terrifying (Burke 1757), yet based on a word with an unremarkable primary definition. Throughout the Aeneid, Vergil uses variations on the verb mugire (to moo, low, or bellow) for much more than the utterances of cattle. In particular, the earth ‘bellows’ during earthquakes (Aen. 4.490, 6.256) or in the context of volcanic activity (Aen. 3.674). It seems that hollow places in the earth – subterranean caverns, the caverns of Mt. Aetna, or the area associated with the underworld – consistently make this sound; likewise, the hollow adyta of Apollonian shrines follow the same pattern (Aen. 3.92, 6.99). Vergil transfers the combined sense of awe and terror that defines the sublime to an auditory event rather than primarily visual object. Later epic poets of the first century CE adopt and follow the same pattern. Lucan is an interesting case study. He does not use mugire frequently; it occurs only once in the Bellum Civile. Through analysis of Lucan’s sole use of mugire, however, I argue that the sublimity associated with this sound is an example of Vergilian reception that goes beyond the scope of intertextuality. The echoing caverns of the Massilian grove recall Vergil’s description of the Trojan horse and Laocoön’s warning and death.

In this paper, I explore how Lucan’s grove is part of a complex dialogue with the Vergilian auditory sublime as it is represented in hollow spaces, both natural and constructed, and how this dialogue in turn grants deeper complexity to the Vergilian auditory sublime. Parallels emerge in the cavae cavernae of the Trojan horse (Aen. 2.53) and the cavas cavernas of the Massilian grove (BC 3.418), between the bellow of Laocoön (mugitus, Aen. 2.223) and the grove’s caverns (mugire, BC 3.418), and the serpents (dracones) that attack Laocoön and his sons (Aen. 2.225) and those that guard the trees of the grove (BC 3.421). Vergil’s other uses of mugire to describe subterranean sounds inform the Lucanian scene as well, assigning what was originally a biological noise (the lowing of cattle, the groan of a human being) to the landscape. By drawing connections between both Vergil’s overall use of mugire for vast sounds capable of creating “a great and aweful [sic] sensation in the mind” (Burke 1757) and Vergil’s depiction of Laocoön and the Trojan horse to the resounding caverns in Lucan’s grove, I demonstrate how the sublime nature of the grove exists beyond the visual plain and contributes subtly to Lucan’s larger narrative of the dangers of civil war.

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Latin Epic (organized by the American Classical League)

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