Feb. 17, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 12

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    'Promised Verse': Poetry, influence and power

    In the era of Roman emperor Augustus (27 B.C. to A.D. 14), it served a poet well to have the emperor as a friend. And the fact that Augustus was a friend to poets was all the better for the greater glory of Roman letters.

    This arrangement -- complicated by questions of influence, accommodation and power -- is investigated in "Promised Verse: Poets in the Society of Augustan Rome," a new book by Peter White, Professor in Classical Languages & Literatures.

    Combining social history and literary interpretation, White explores the circumstances of poetic production in the golden age of Vergil, Ovid and Horace by taking a close look at the relationship between these Augustan poets and the men of wealth and status who befriended them and rewarded their literary efforts with money, gifts and connections.

    White argues that this system of patronage was part of an elaborate system of social conventions, a system mutually advantageous to poet and patron that has not been clearly understood.

    "I'm arguing something that is not the prevailing view now in this field," White said. "Most patronage studies make poets like Vergil and Horace and Ovid seem much less autonomous and independent than I think they were in their society. The modern idea of patronage tends to emphasize the social gulf between the two parties, and it doesn't look to me that the gulf was that large."

    The first part of White's book argues that poets and the wealthy people to whom they were attached had a freer, more informal relationship than patronage is usually thought to involve. White's primary goal is to make scholars more aware of how this activity occurred throughout Roman society.

    "The current model of 'patronage' is too much a one-way model, with the wealthy person directing the artist. But the Augustan era was a very fluid literary society, and artists influenced patrons as much as patrons influenced artists. What patrons wanted was poetry that represented all facets of contemporary life, not just poems in praise of themselves. This was an accepted literary and social fact. If all that existed then had been poems in praise of patrons, it would be very hard to explain those works, which in fact exist, that include talk about other things -- social relationships, or the love lives of the well-to-do."

    The second part of White's book provides groundbreaking work about the patronage of the emperor Augustus, including a new interpretation of Augustus' influence on Roman poetic society.

    "The idea of the book is to reexamine the view of the emperor Augustus as having more or less consciously manipulated poets into writing poetry to support his programs," White said. "Even when I was a graduate student, this view just didn't feel right to me. I was sure that some features of the modern attitude toward Roman poetry -- that it functioned as a kind of propaganda and that there was a political direction to it -- did not correspond to the way ancient writers had looked at poetry. It seemed an artificial construction, and I really wanted to figure out exactly when people began to think about Roman poetry this way."

    In "Promised Verse," White shows that the interpretation of Augustan poetry as "manipulated" by the emperor actually dates from 1675, when a French abbot named Rene Le Bossu published a six-book treatise that sought to apply Aristotelian principles to every aspect of the criticism of epic poetry.

    According to White, "Le Bossu saw everything from a political perspective, but at least he grounded his thought in the philosophy of Aristotle, and understood the phrase 'political writer' to mean someone who was a philosopher or student of government. Once Le Bossu's work crossed the channel to England, it was popularized by critics and journalists of the time, for whom the word 'political' meant 'party-political,' 'partisan' or 'propagandist' -- something very different from what it had meant to Le Bossu. English writers like Dryden incorrectly credited to Le Bossu the view that Vergil wrote simply to foster allegiance to Augustus -- a view that has remained with us to this very day."

    For White, solving the "mystery" of the modern view of Augustan patronage was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing "Promised Verse."

    "It was like working on a detective story -- and it's good when you can solve the crime."

    White actually hadn't intended to write a book about Augustan patronage at all.

    "At first, all I intended to discuss was the poets' relationship with private people, not the emperor," he said. "But the more I did, the more clear it was that I couldn't avoid dealing with their relationship with Augustus -- the most important of their rich contemporaries. So the book essentially became two books -- one on the relationship between poets and private people, and one on the relationship between poets and the emperor."

    White expects some criticism of his book, since "it will not satisfy certain critics and historians" of the period, he said.

    "People who take up questions of literary patronage tend to be in one of two groups. The first is mostly interested in poetry. They may think about the social or historical background, but the poetry is always of primary importance. The second group is mostly interested in the political process -- people who have certainly read the poems, but regard them as an inferior historical source.

    "I figured if I stood right between these two groups, the critics and the historians, I could write a useful book. And I feel I've achieved that goal."

    As White waits for several expected reviews of "Promised Verse," he has heard of at least one positive reaction to the book.

    "My mom loves it," White said, laughing. "She hasn't finished reading it yet, but she loves it."

    -- Jeff Makos