Virgil’s ambiguity


When students find ambiguity in Virgil (which is all the time) their task is not to choose an interpretation, but mentally to include all the meanings that the words contain, and all that the narration implies. Such, as William Empson1 demonstrated, is poetry.

Virgil revealed this style immediately, in line 2 of the First Eclogue. That line has an echo of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura IV. 589, where it is thought that Pan keeps on and on playing on his pipe:

fistula silvestrem ne cesset fundere musam.

so that his pipe may not cease to pour out the music of the countryside.

No ulterior meaning here: musam is a metonymy to mean music.

Virgil turns it into something ambiguous, or mysterious. ‘Tityrus,’ he says, ‘you are reclining under the shade of a spreading beech and

silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena.’

Modern editors capitalise Musam, which is either a metonymy to mean music (as in Lucretius), or it means the Muse.

As Robert Coleman2 pointed out:
meditaris is intentionally ambiguous: either ‘you are meditating on the woodland Muse’ or, with the common metonymy of Musa and meditari in the sense that it often bears, perhaps under the influence of Greek μελετᾶν, ‘you are practising your woodland music.’

Of course it means both. This is what students may accept and enjoy, noting how impossible it sometimes is to translate Virgil.

Then a question arises: who is the woodland Muse? Silvestris is not a regular epithet. The possibilities are Euterpe, Erato or Polyhymnia. As the Eclogues unfold, it seems that any of these three may be entitled.

This kind of lexical ambiguity can be a delight to the thoughtful student. But when it is accompanied by an ambiguity of content it can be disturbing and haunting, as in the episode of the helmsman Palinurus falling from the ship on a calm sea at night to be drowned by the guile of the primordial god Somnus, the son of Nox and Erebus. (Book V, lines 835-71) Here as elsewhere, Virgil raises questions that remain unanswered.

Philip Hardie3 deals with it in an enlightening passage. The account is almost productive of cognitive dissonance in the reader, especially on hearing Palinurus’s own account of it later in the underworld; and the psychology of it haunted Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave.4

At the crucial moment of his giving way to sleep, Virgil puts in the ambiguous word cunctanti: does it mean ‘as he resists’ or ‘as he hesitates’? Questions are not answered. How does Palinurus, sleeping, tear away the rudder and part of the taffrail of the ship? Why does Somnus disguise himself as Phorbas, a man whom Palinurus knows to be dead, killed by Menelaus? Why anyway has Neptune said that one man must give his life for many? And why has the master helmsman been chosen?

Next post: Syntaxis mistaken for parataxis.

1.  William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Chatto & Windus,1930
also Some Versions of Pastoral, W.W.Norton & Co.,1938
2.  Robert Coleman ed. Vergil Eclogues, CUP 1977
3.  Philip Hardie, Virgil, OUP 1998
4.  Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (Penguin 1967).