Golden Thread: Poems as Women

[Background: back when social media was primarily email and usenet, we used to have many excellent conversations on the Classics-l listserv (now run out of the University of Kentuck) and for a while I was compiling some of the exemplary conversations under the rubric ‘Golden Threads‘. This is a revival of that with some modifications: I’ve eliminated email addresses of participants and links to the original posts at the Internet Archive are included. Posts in a conversation which had nothing to do with the topic are not included and individual posts might similarly have the ‘fluff’ excised. Subject lines may change over the course of the conversation; just the initial subject will be indicated]

From the Classics-l group, July 1993:

Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1993 13:53:28 CDT
From: “Robert A. Kaster”
Subject: Poems as women

Suetonius *De grammaticis et rhetoribus* 18 quotes an epigram that casts a
poem–Cinna’s *Zmyrna*–as a nubile woman who disappoints the courtship of
the ignorant and declares herself willing to “marry” only her learned
commentator, Crassicius Pansa: “uni Crassicio se credere Zmyrna probavit: /
desinite, indocti, coiniugio hanc petere. / soli Crassicio se dixit nubere
velle, / intima cui soli nota sua extiterint.” I’d swear that I’ve read
other allegories like this, which figure poems (or other literary works) as
women, especially with an erotic point (the *Zmyrna* itself of course had
an erotic theme), but I can’t jar any recollections loose. (Peter Wiseman
had an excellent piece on Crassicius in *TAPA* 1985, but he didn’t take up
this question; nor has any of the other secondary lit.) I’ll be very
grateful (in print) for any help anyone out there can give.


From: Steve Lowenstam

The most obvious is the epistle of Horace comparing his book of poetry to a
streetwalker. I’m sure others with a text at hand or in the mind can
provide the exact reference.


From: Bill Kupersmith

sed dicam vobis, vos porro dicite multis
milibus et facite haec carta loquatur anus.
(Catullus 68. 44-45)


From: “James J. Clauss”

Although the references are far from certain, the women mentioned by Callimachus
in the Prologue against the Telchines — Demeter and the great woman —
represent the poetry in which they were celebrated (Aeita 1.10-13). I suspect
you’ll ultimately discover many other examples of this sort of thing.


From: Dougal Blyth

compare Aristophanes’ Clouds 530-40 (parabasis):

ka’gw, parQenos gar et’ hn k’ouk exhn pw moi tekein,
exeQhka, pais d’hetera tis labous’ aneileto,
humeis d’ exeQrepsate gennaiws ka’paideusate,
ek toutou moi pista par’ humwn gnwmhs esQ’ horkia.
nun oun Hlektran kat’ ekeinhn hd’ h kwmwidia
zhtous’ hlQ’, hn pou ‘pitukhi Qeatais houtw sofois.
gnwsetai gar, hnper idhi, ta’delphou ton bostrukhon.
hws de swfrwn esti fusei skepsasQ’, htis prwta men
ouden hlQe rapsamenh skutinon kaQeimenon
eruQron ex akrou, pakhu, tous paidiois hin hi gelws:
oud’ eskwpsen tous falakrous, oude kordakh’ heilkusen:


From: Lowell Edmunds

In response to Bob Kaster’s query, I think that Antimachus’ “Lyde,” the
poem, was somehow a replacement for, not just a lamentation for his
wife or whatever. West, vol. 2, p. 37, 1st ed.).


From: “P. Lowell Bowditch”

The reference for the epistle of Horace is 1.20. However, the poem
as book as streetwalker is not a woman but a freed slave [B eager for


From: “Richard F. Thomas”

it works in both directions, i think. what about martial 14.189:
Cynthia, facundi carmen iuvenale Properti,
accepit famam, nec minus ipsa dedit.
the woman or the monobiblos? catullus’ passer would pose a similar
question. i once had to teach a seminar on roman elegy, and seem to remember
that birt,antike buchwesen (?sp) dealt with this.


From: “P. Lowell Bowditch”

A classic, so to speak, Propertian example is the beginning of 2.1:

Quaeritis, unde mihi totiens scribantur amores,
unde meus veniat mollis in ora liber.
non haec Calliope, non haec mihi cantat Apollo.
ingenium nobis ipsa puella facit.
sive illam Cois fulgentem incedere *vidi*,
hac totum e Coa veste volumen erit;

the metonymic slide from woman to clothing as woman ( and thus poem)
is striking here (as it is in any glossy magazine…)


From: Barbara Weiden Boyd

This is an interesting thread.
An important player in all of this is, of course, Ovid. Amores 3.1 in
particular embodies (pardon the pun) the allegory, in the figures of Tragoedia
and Elegia (itself modelled, I believe, on Hercules in bivio). There is an article
on this by M. Wyke, “Reading Female Flesh: Amores 3.1,” in the bizarre (editor-
ial comment) book History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History, ed. Averil
Cameron (London 1989). If one can get past the trendy jargon (which,
curiously,bugs my students more than it does me), this is an OK article, if my
memory of reading it last fall serves me correctly.


From: Jeffrey Wills

My colleague Denis Feeney points out a passage in Juv. 7.82ff. where
Statius goes around town pimping his uirgin poems.
Perhaps also relevant is the theme of seduction in poetics (e.g. G.
Walsh’s *Varieties of Enchantment: Early Greek Views of the Nature and Function
of Poetry * (1984), 14-5, 22; W.G. Thalmann *Conventions of Form and Thought in
Early Greek Epic Poetry* (1984), 129-30; Barthes’ Le Plaisir du texte; R.
Chambers, * Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction
(1984), 10, 215-6, and Peter Brooks *Reading for the Plot* (1984). I have
cribbed these references from a footnote of Denis in
a forthcoming article on the Fiction of Belief in Poetry.


From: Mary Depew

As Jim Clauss notes, there’s the megalh gunh at Call. fr. 1.12 (Mimnermus’
Nanno? Smyrneis? Antimachus’ Lyde?); also the makrhn [graun?] at line 10
(Philetas’ Bittis? [no such title]). More play on woman’s/goddess’ name =
title of poem at AP ix.63.


From: “James A. Arieti”

In Prose One of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy, who is
about to deliver a poem herself, expresses scorn at the Muses of poetry who
have just been falsely comforting Boethius with a poem. She calls them “whores
of the theatre.” It is interesting that Boethius portrays both these whorish
muses and Philosphia herself as women.


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