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Another Look at Proserpina's Cosmic Text in Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae

Stephen Wheeler

Pennsylvania State University

In De raptu Proserpinae, the late antique poet Claudian remakes the myth of Proserpina's abduction and marriage to Pluto by introducing elements of natural philosophy into the traditional story. An illustrative example of Claudian's natural philosophical perspective can be found in his ekphrasis of the textile that Proserpina weaves and embroiders for her mother at the end of the first book (DRP 1.248-70). This passage of 23 lines describes Proserpina's colorful and synaesthetic creation of an image of the universe, which is informed by the popular philosophical idea that a rational or providential deity separated the four quarreling elements and and ordered themselves spatially by weight. Within the framework of the proposed panel, this paper finds that Claudian represents the poetic and philosophical view that the world is crafted by a universal demiurge and not formed through purely abstract and random forces. This idea is borne out by the analogies he draws between the poet, Proserpina, and the demiurge, on the one hand, and those he draws between De raptu, Proserpina's weaving, and the cosmos, on the other. This internal approach to Claudian's ekphrasis of Proserpina's artwork differs from previous scholarship which identifies the external sources and parallels for the philosophical ideas and language Claudian uses (Charlet 1991, 123-25; Gruzelier 1993, 142-48; Onorato 2008, 30-34, 222-26); or explicates the rhetorical function of the ekphrasis, whether symbolism, foreshadowing, allegory or thematic unity (e.g. von Albrecht 1989; Kellner 1997; Ware 2012, 186).

The paper's argument begins with identifying points in the ekphrasis where Claudian’s poetry, weaving, and cosmology can function as metaphors for each other. The first section treats Proserpina's depiction of the four elemental regions in an abstract fashion: hic elementorum seriem sedesque paternas / insignibat acu (Rapt. 1.248-49). The phrase elementorum seriem is taken by commentators to mean the "order of the elements" while sedesque paternas probably refers to heaven, if that is where Proserpina's father, Jupiter, lives (cf. Lucr. 3.18 sedesque quietae). The chiasmus (hic elementorum seriem sedesque paternas) creates balance in the line, but also gives Jupiter pride of place at the top or end of the line. The phrases in the poet's text are spatially ordered in the way the elements are in nature and presumably in Proserpina's imago mundi.

The word elementa may also have philosophical and metapoetic resonance. It is a term that Lucretius also uses for "atoms" and "letters," the ambiguity between which furnishes him with the analogy between the atoms in the universe and the letters in his verse (DRN 1.824-29; cf.  e.g. Scheid and Svenbro 1996, 166; Snyder 1982, ch. 2). Claudian interprets elementa as the four elements. At the level of narration, the poet composes his textual world out of words (or letters) which represent the four elements, but are also elemental; at the level of narrative, the storyworld, Proserpina composes her textual fabric out of threads, which represent the four elements, but also have elemental properties; at the deepest level, the demiurge constructs the world out of the four elements themselves.  Each level is analogous with each other, meaning that Proserpina is demiurgic when she creates her woven and embroidered world in imitation of the demiurge; and the poet is similarly demiurgic when he describes Proserpina's demiurgic weaving.

Following insignibat acu, there is a caesura and an ambiguous clause that is usually interpreted as an indirect question: veterem qua lege tumultum / discrevit (249-50). But does Proserpina depict the intervention of Natura parens? It is also possible to read qua lege as legem qua, in which case, it is the poet who is observing that Proserpina orders the elements by the law that Natura originally used to end the ancient fight of elements. This would imply that Proserpina operates by the law of nature in her representation of the four elements and does not depict Natura's original cosmogony; rather she builds her own world out of dyed threads.

Session/Panel Title

The Cosmic-Text: Metapoetics and Philosophy in Latin Literature

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