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Certissima Signa: Marking Land and Text at the Edges of Georgic One

Frances Bernstein

Princeton University

In the first Georgic, Vergil aligns space with literary signification—that is, he equates textual marking with the marking of the land. This paper examines how Vergil uses the metaphor of spatial limits to shed light on his readers’ own interpretive practices as they engage with wordplay at the edges of the poem’s lines. I argue that the author prompts his readers to find and interpret messages “encoded” in his text by treating the text’s spatiality, particularly its borders, as a kind of signum. I draw together both recent scholarship on space in Latin literature (cf. Willis 2011) and the growing body of work on the interaction between the formal features like pagination and line edges (cf. Schafer 2017) and letter- and wordplay (cf. Feeney and Nelis 20015, Adkin 2014, and Robinson 2019) in order to explore how textual space and represented space inform each other in the first Georgic.

I focus first on Vergil’s description of the boundary-free Saturnian Age in G. 1.125-27, where both the creation of boundaries and sign-making more broadly—signare—are nefas, in order to establish how Vergil ties signification to physical boundaries: as Willis (2011) has demonstrated, spatial demarcation in this passage enables the communication of meaning through signs. The rupture between the Saturnian and Jovian Ages ultimately creates the conditions for the composition of Vergil’s didactic, as signa and their interpretation are central to Vergil’s program in Georgic One.

I then argue that Vergil directly connects the interpretation of natural signa with the interpretation of textual signa through wordplay in Georgic On. The poet’s choice to encode the signature MA-VE-PV at 1.429-33 (first identified by Brown, 1963) within a passage that deals with certissima signa (1.439) underlines a close affinity between signs in the world and signs in the text using the most basic elements of the text to convey those messages—that is, letters. Vergil’s word games appear at the edges of the column, and he prompts his readers to look to those edges. Vergil’s use of word games in Georgic One draws readers’ attention to the poem’s status both as a textual object that occupies space on the scroll and as a collection of signa that often appear at the poem’s edges. This strategy encourages readers to recognize their own role as interpreters of signa, as well as the practices they use to decode the author’s hints. Just as the inauguration of the Jovian Age sets the conditions for signification by means of spatial division and marking, so too does the spatiality of the text—the fact that its lines occur in sequence and have edges at each end, at the top and bottom of each column, and within the scroll itself—provide the necessary medium for messages encoded in letters. At the same time as Vergil’s didactic teaches its readers about natural signs, it also teaches and exposes methods of interpreting the poem itself, and the edges of the poem serve as spaces to explore practices of interpretation. 

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Augustan Poetry

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