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Virgil’s imagined audience: Second-person fiction in the Georgics

Raymond Kania

Stanford University

This paper deals with the use of second persons in Virgil’s Georgics: we should distinguish between the

addressee (Maecenas) and imagined figures that are not addressed but rather apostrophized. Apostrophe

is poetic, creative figure of speech and thus a potential vehicle for artifice or representation (see Quint.

Inst. 9.1.11, 9.2.26-7 and Culler 1981: 134-46). Thus it opens space within didactic poetry’s generally

veridical discourse for fiction: the poet is free to fashion the apostrophized “audience” as he likes, since

it is not present and unreal. The use of both address and apostrophe also creates a potential for

ambiguity: I argue that Virgil takes advantage by apostrophizing Octavian/Caesar as he will or might be

rather than addressing him as he is.

The distinction between apostrophe and address amends a schematic account of didactic poetry

offered by K. Volk. I start from Volk’s notion of “poetic simultaneity” as a characteristic of the genre: a

didactic poem enacts instruction—it is the poet speaking to one or more “students,” and so it “tells the

story of its own coming into being” (2002: 37-40, 120-39). Since Maecenas is no farmer, however, more

appropriate students are needed. Thus Volk must posit a “double discourse” in which the poet speaks in

turn to two audiences, both of which “exist inside the poem,” though the farmers cannot hear the words

directed to Maecenas (2002: 137-9). I agree that there is no sign of communication between the two, but

this demands a further, ontological distinction. The addressee is real with respect to the poet and

complicit in his project, that is, aware of the poem itself as a poem. With apostrophe, by contrast, the

poet invokes figures who are not present but rather imagined: these include farmers whom, though they

cannot be the poem’s real readers or hearers, the poet imagines as learners to serve the didactic premise.

An illustration lies in the opening of Georgics Book Two. First the poet speaks directly to his

“students” the farmers (discite ... agricolae, 35-6). Whereas these agricolae are positioned explicitly as

learners, the subsequent turn to Maecenas is a very different appeal: tuque ades inceptumque una

decurre laborem (29). Maecenas is truly “simultaneous” with the poem itself: his role as addressee

demands appreciation of, not the utility or the veracity of the material, but the poet’s work in progress;

his favor is sought via a nautical metaphor (pelagoque volans da vela patenti, 41) that emphasizes the

difference between the farmers’ labor and that of the poet, in which Maecenas is complicit. The well-
worn, Homeric “100 mouth” trope (42-4) for poetic effort further marks Maecenas’ role as that of a

learned reader. All this emphasizes the distinction between the student-farmers and the addressee, whose

concern is for the poem itself as an expression of aesthetic, ideological concerns.

The poem’s first appeal to Caesar is oriented towards a dubious future: tuque adeo, quem mox quae

sint habitura deorum / concilia incertum est ... Caesar (1.24-5). One might initially think of this as

flattery meant for another “simultaneous” reader or hearer of the poem. As the passage continues,

however, its fanciful character becomes more apparent when the poet imagines the divine offices

Octavian might someday hold: ipse tibi iam bracchia contrahit ardens / Scorpios et caeli iusta plus

parte reliquit (1.34-5). Thus Virgil splits the difference between address and apostrophe: Octavian is

potentially part of the poem’s genuine audience, but the poet also takes advantage of apostrophe’s fictive

potential in order to call attention to the imagined, or willed, quality of Caesarian pretensions to divinity.

Session/Panel Title:

Creating Audiences in Didactic Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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