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Bodily Metaphors and Self-fashioning in Persius’ First Satire

Scott Weiss

Stanford University

Persius famously identifies his difficult metaphors as a hallmark of his style (5.14: iunctura callidus acri), and modern scholars have framed their studies through the lens of his obscure language (Dessen 1968; Hooley 1997).  My paper focuses on a constellation of such metaphors in Persius’ programmatic first satire.  I argue that these collocations construct a matrix of images surrounding eyes and ears, which signify competing modes of poetics.  This system of imagery buttresses an elaborate staging of self-fashioning for the satirist who presents his style as a departure from the popular performative genres of his day.

Early in the poem, the satirist suggests his interlocutor may participate in a poetic recitatio while “broken with an ejaculating eye” (1.18: patranti fractus ocello).  Towards the poem’s end, the satirist desires that his ideal reader possess a “steamed ear” (1.126: vaporata lector mihi ferveat aure).  Elsewhere in the poem, eyes and ears signify poetic production and consumption.  Bramble (1974, 26-27) has noted the presence of ears as a literary-critical motif in this satire, but does not contextualize the image with the repetition of eyes, nor does Gowers (2009), who reads the steamed ear and Persius’ call for a “boiled down” style as a response to Nero’s behavior.  Freudenburg (2009) understands the ejaculating eye to be a comment on the decline of literary criticism and detects associations with the mention of ears, but like Gowers contextualizes these images within Neronian Rome.  My argument goes beyond this previous scholarship by pointing out additional associations between eyes and ears in Persius’ first satire and furthermore grounding the imagery within a system of iuncturae acres that functions as a strategy for the satirist’s authorial self-fashioning.

I begin by establishing the centrality of the iunctura acris to Persius’ poetic project and to the satirist’s authorial identity in relation to his literary predecessors, especially Horace.  I then analyze the “ejaculating eye,” with attention to its context within the recitatio.  The syntax of the passage is ambiguous, and it is unclear whether the eye belongs to the reciter or his audience.  The ambiguity stresses an unstable relationship between author and audience, which the text elaborates through the gender role of the reciter, who paradoxically is emasculated (fractus) while penetrating the audience with his verse.

By contrast, the “steamed ear” represents a different approach to poetic composition and reception.  The phrase refers to a method to clean the ear, and with it the satirist metaphorically expresses his desire for an attentive reader suited for his dense, concentrated (decoctius) poetics.  With such a wish, the satirist simultaneously makes a statement about himself: this ideal reader is passionate (ferveat), but receives the satirist’s verse with the attention implied by his steamed ear.  The type of poet that requires such a reader is likewise in control of himself and his poetics rather than submissive (fractus) to the whims of his audience.

Eyes and ears elsewhere in the poem elaborate the satirist’s authorial position.  Right before the ejaculating eye, the satirist begins to reveal a secret that only becomes clear after the steamed ear: everyone in Rome has donkey ears, a mythical allusion signifying poor literary taste.  Shortly after the steamed ear, the satirist contrasts such an ideal reader with a vulgar man who calls a one-eyed man “one-eye” (lusce).  The juxtaposition recalls a collocation of images from the poem’s mid-section (58-66).  The satirist warns his interlocutor that, unlike Janus, he cannot see somebody mocking him from behind with imaginary donkey ears, and shortly afterwards he declares that the practitioner of popular poetics can set his verse like a craftsman applying a straightedge with one eye.  The pattern of eyes and ears throughout the text thus establish the two organs as symbolic of competing styles of poetic production and consumption.  Persius structures these images through the iuncturae acres that define his own poetic style and thus establishes himself as deviating from popular literary aesthetics.

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Obscenity and the Body

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