Ancient History & Civilisation



From its beginnings the seriousness of epic, at the summit of the hierarchy of genres, is open to comic undercutting. The Iliad itself already contains moments of humour that provide relief from the heroic matter of the war at Troy.1 In Book 2 the misshapen Thersites aims at provoking laughter with his ridicule and criticism of King Agamemnon, and is himself the object of laughter when he is unceremoniously put in his place by Odysseus. Thersites is the mouthpiece for a poetry of blame rather than praise, attempting to set himself up as a satirical critic.2 In another example, at Iliad 23.784 the Achaeans laugh when, during the foot-race, the lesser Ajax slips in the dung excreted by cattle sacrificed at the funeral of Patroclus. The humour here may be felt to be in place, in that the games provide the heroes with an opportunity for competitive display without the life-and-death consequences of contest on the battlefield. The Homeric gods, notoriously, often behave in a less than dignified manner, in what has been called a ‘sublime frivolity’ (‘ein erhabener Unernst’), most (in)famously in the story of the ‘unquenchable laughter’ (Odyssey 8.326) aroused in the gods who come to stare at the adulterous Ares and Aphrodite trapped in flagrante by the fine-spun chains of Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus.

A long line of parodies of epic begins with the Margites (seventh/sixth century BC), whose eponymous hero was a moron who did not know whether his mother or his father had given birth to him, and who did not know what to do on his wedding night. Food as well as sex is a natural subject of parody, as in the Attic Dinner by Matron (fourth century BC), a poem which began with a variation of the first line of the Odyssey, ‘Tell me, Muse, of the many nourishing dinners’ (polutropha instead of polutropon ‘of many wiles’, the epithet of Odysseus). The only fully preserved Homeric parody is the Batrachomyomachia, ‘The Battle of the Frogs and Mice’ (of disputed date), whose humour – and pathos – derive from applying the grand topics of epic warfare to these small creatures, ‘imitating the deeds of the earthborn Giants’, as the proem puts it.

The contrast between small and large is a recurrent tactic in Virgil’s anthropomorphizing treatment in the fourth Georgic of the bees, whose society is in parts an image of an idealized community of Romans. There is a touch of humour in the simile that likens the Stakhanovite bees, busy at their honey-making, to the gigantic Cyclopes labouring in their forge at the production of Jupiter’s thunderbolts, ‘if one may compare small things to great’ (Geo. 4.176 si parua licet componere magnis). The battle of the bees (Georgics4.67–87) is a set-piece of mock epic, great motions which can easily be quelled by the beekeeper by throwing a handful of dust. In that conclusion it is not difficult to read a lesson about the vanity of human epic ambitions and achievements (‘as flies to wanton boys’).

In the Aeneid itself Virgil mostly adheres to a Hellenistic sense of decorum in avoiding the moments of humour in the Homeric poems. Virgil’s gods do not forget their dignity to the extent that Homer’s gods do. The one time when Virgil repeats a Homeric earthiness is in the imitation in Aeneid 5 of the Iliadic foot-race, when Nisus slips and falls in blood and dung left from the sacrifice of cattle, prompting Aeneas to laugh when he appears after the race, ‘his face and limbs disfigured with moist dung’ (Aen. 5.357–8). But given the history of Homeric parody, it was to be expected that the Aeneid would quickly generate a parodic tradition of its own, in keeping with earlier Roman exercises in epic parody. The second-century BC satirist Lucilius parodies a council of gods in Ennius’ Roman historical epic, the Annals. In Satires 2.5 Horace continues Odysseus’ conversation, in the land of the dead in Odyssey 11, with the shade of the seer Teiresias with the latter’s advice on how to get rich in Ithaca by legacy-hunting (a notorious practice in the Rome of Horace’s day). Lucilius established the hexameter, the metre of epic, as the standard metre of Roman satire, and this shared metre allows satire to slip easily into parody of its grander relative, epic, notably in the satires of Juvenal.

The tenacity of the tradition of Virgilian parody over the centuries is in itself a mark of the success of the poem. As recent studies have shown, parody, and related forms such as burlesque and travesty, are not a simple matter of disrespect, of ‘making fun of’, putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa, but a ‘combination of respectful homage and ironically thumbed nose’.3 Parody relies for its effects on the reader’s knowledge of the text being parodied, and the more well read, and retentive of our reading, that we are, the more we will enjoy the experience of reading parodic texts, as we pat ourselves on the back for our skill as readers in recognizing the parodist’s skill. Parody is a marked form of intertextuality.

Parody works at various levels of audience and reading skills. There is a simple humour in the take-off of Virgil found in a Pompeiian graffito in a fuller’s establishment, evidence of the widespread recognizability of at least the opening words of theAeneid:fullones ululamque cano, non arma uirumque ‘I sing of fullers and a screech-owl, not “arms and the man”’ (the owl is the bird of Minerva, patron goddess of the college of dyers of Pompeii).4 The graffitist was perhaps puncturing the self-importance of the commercial middle class of the town.

In the case of Ovid we are dealing with a far more sophisticated dialogue between a parodist and his readers. Arma, the first word of the Aeneid, is also the first word of Ovid’s Amores, as the love-poet gives a fictional account of how he set out to write martial epic, until Cupid intervened and stole a ‘foot’, so that Ovid is forced to limp in erotic elegiac couplets (alternating lines of six and five feet), rather than march in continuous hexameters. This jokey beginning at once establishes a relationship with, and sets a distance from, the Aeneid. Virgil’s epic continues as a presence in the background throughout the Amores, for example in the second poem which stages a triumph of Cupid, who is asked at the end to follow the example of his relative Augustus and protect those whom he has defeated. Augustus is the ‘relative’ of Cupid because his ancestor Aeneas, son of Venus, was Cupid’s brother, a love-elegist’s perspective on the divine ancestry of the Julian family celebrated in Virgil’s recent epic.

Ovid’s most extensive intertextual engagement with the Aeneid is in his own long hexameter poem, the Metamorphoses. Homage and irony are both present in Ovid’s very intricate and witty dealings with the instant classic that the Aeneid had become on Virgil’s death, and parody is a term appropriate in some instances: for example the substitution for the doomed gay lovers Nisus and Euryalus, in Aeneid 9, of the doomed heterosexual couple of beautiful centaurs, equally devoted in their love, who are killed in the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs in Metamorphoses 12; or the reduction of the difficulty of returning from the Underworld to a long uphill slog, eased by conversation with the Sibyl who tells Aeneas about her erotic history (Met. 14.120–55). When Ovid tells us that the Trojans arrive at a place on the coast of Italy ‘that did not yet have the name of Aeneas’ nurse [Caieta]’ (Met. 14.157), this is a humorous and mock-pedantic correction of Virgil who gives the place the name ‘Caieta’ at exactly the same point in the narrative (Aen.6.900), before the death of the nurse and Aeneas’ naming of the place in her memory.5

Typical of Ovid’s dealings with the Aeneid is a tendency to emphasize and expand the erotic aspects of Virgil’s epic. After all, as Ovid says in defence to Augustus of his own erotic poetry, ‘no part from the whole body of the Aeneid is read more than the story of the love [of Dido and Aeneas] joined in an illegitimate union’ (Tristia 2.535–6). A parodic sequel to the Dido and Aeneas story is told in the elegiac Fasti (3.545–656): after Dido’s death her sister Anna flees from Carthage to escape the invading Iarbas, Dido’s jilted suitor, and undergoes exilic wanderings and misfortunes curiously similar to those of the Virgilian Aeneas. Eventually she arrives in Latium where she is welcomed, out of gratitude to her sister Dido, by Aeneas, who presents her to his Italian wife Lavinia. The blushing Virgilian maiden has turned into a monster of erotic suspicion. Lavinia conceals her murderous jealousy of Anna, until the bloodstained ghost of Dido appears to Anna and tells her to flee – as the ghost of Hector told Aeneas to flee on the night of the sack of Troy in Aeneid 2. Anna jumps out of the window and runs to the river Numicius, in which she hides and becomes the river-nymph Anna Perenna. Anna shares an ending with Aeneas, who will also disappear in the Numicius and become a god. This is a tissue of Virgilian déja-vus that casts a bad light on Lavinia, and takes Virgilian plot-line and teleology down a siding.

In the Anna Perenna story Ovid plays on a generic instability within Virgil’s own narrative of Dido and Aeneas, where the world of epic heroes collides with the private passions of love elegy. Parodic effects are also created in the prose narratives of the Latin novels of Petronius and Apuleius, in which epic grandeur is brought down to earth in episodes of low realism. The fairy tale of Cupid and Psyche in Apuleius’ Golden Ass alternates between the register of lofty epic and scandalous tales of sexual misdemeanour of a kind at home in comedy and elegy. The role of the Virgilian Juno persecuting her human enemy Aeneas is played by a very bourgeois Venus, who takes out her indignation at the shame brought on her household by her son Cupid’s infatuation with Psyche, by persecuting the hapless mortal girl.6 In Petronius’ racy story of the Widow of Ephesus (Satyricon 110–12) the soldier and the widow’s maid quote lines from Anna’s speech persuading Dido to yield to her love for Aeneas, in order to persuade the widow to abandon her grief-stricken devotion to the corpse of her husband and to have sex with the soldier.7 Like Odysseus and Aeneas, the anti-hero of the Satyricon, Encolpius, is persecuted by the anger of a god, in this instance the ithyphallic Priapus who has cursed Encolpius with impotence. At one point Encolpius berates his wilting penis, whose lack of response is conveyed by a Virgilian pastiche in which erotic parody tips over into obscene double-entendre, with the citation of the lines in which, at a moment of high pathos, the shade of Dido refuses to respond to Aeneas in the Underworld (Satyricon 132.11): ‘she/it stayed there turned away from me with eyes fixed on the ground, and her/its face was no more moved by the speech I had begun than are bending willows or poppies on drooping necks.’

These three lines stitch together two lines from Aeneid 6 (469–70) with half-lines from other Virgilian passages (Ecl. 5.16 and Aen. 9.436). It is in fact an early example of the cento, that exercise in making a patchwork of Virgilian fragments mean something completely different from their meaning in their original context, which enjoyed great popularity from late antiquity down to the Renaissance (see Chapter 1, pp. 10–11). The best known of the ancient pagan centos is the Cento nuptialis ‘Nuptial Cento’ by Ausonius (c. 310–94), which describes the various stages of the wedding ceremony, concluding with the wedding night. In a prose preface Ausonius self-deprecatingly introduces the Cento as a trifling little work, and he apologizes for ‘disgracing the dignity of Virgil’s poetry with such a facetious subject-matter’, but what was he to do when the emperor himself had commanded it? The final section, the ‘Deflowering’, begins thus (101–9: the Virgilian sources are given on the right, A. = Aeneid, G.= Georgics, E. =Eclogues):

Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram


A. 11.631, 4.55

et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, noua proelia temptant.


G. 3.267, A. 3.240

tollit se arrectum, conantem plurima frustra


A. 10.892, 9.398

occupat os faciemque, pedem pede feruidus urget.


A. 10.699, 12.748

perfidus alta petens ramum, qui ueste latebat,


A. 7.362, 6.406

sanguineis ebuli bacis minioque rubentem


E. 10.27

nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,


A. 12.312, 7.66

monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum,


A. 3.658 (Polyphemus)

eripit a femore et trepidanti feruidus instat.


A. 10.788

After they had come together in night’s solitary darkness, and Venus herself gave them energy, they start on new battles. He raises himself erect, and though she struggles much in vain, he takes possession of her mouth and face, and in his ardour presses foot on foot. Treacherously seeking the depths, he snatches from his thigh the rod hiding beneath his clothes, crimsoned with blood-red elder-berries and with vermilion, baring its head, and with feet mutually entwined – a terrible monster, hideous, huge, and eyeless – and eagerly presses on her, anxious.

The remaining 32 lines of ‘Deflowering’ include fragments from Virgil’s description of the Underworld, and from a variety of scenes of battle, exploiting the frequent association of sexual penetration and defloration with military assault and wounding.

In the sixteenth century Lelio Capilupi perpetrated a number of erotic and obscene Virgilian centos, including ‘On the life of monks’ (De vita monachorum, 1543), on the solitary habits of monks (‘often with their hand they fill their cells with liquid nectar’ =Aen.10.620 and Geo. 4.164) and the miraculous pregnancies of nuns, and the Gallus (also 1543), which tells of the happy sequel, in the form of a graphic scene of sexual intercourse, to the story in Virgil’s tenth Eclogue of the elegiac poet Gallus abandoned by his girlfriend.8

The mysterious solemnity of the Virgilian Underworld made it a prime target for the parodist or satirist. The otherworld is already the setting for one of the most extensive and sophisticated parodic texts in Greek literature, Aristophanes’ Frogs, in which Herakles goes down to the Underworld to stage a poetic contest between the shades of Aeschylus and Euripides. A late example of the tradition of comic Underworlds is Offenbach’s opera bouffe Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), a satire on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and hence indirectly a spoof on the Virgilian story of Orpheus in the Underworld in Georgics 4. A lengthy recapitulation of the Virgilian Orpheus and Eurydice is included in the description of a journey through the Underworld by the ghost of a gnat in the Culex, a mock-heroic epyllion which in antiquity and down to the eighteenth century was held to be an early work of Virgil himself, but which is now recognized as a post-Virgilian concoction drawing on elements of all three of Virgil’s major works, theEclogues, Georgicsand Aeneid.9 The Culex is another example of mock epic which gives a heroic role to very small creatures: the gnat has saved a sleeping shepherd from being killed by a monstrous snake by biting the shepherd, who unthinkingly swats the gnat on awakening, before killing the snake. While the shepherd lives to go on enjoying his bucolic idyll, the dead gnat is condemned to travel through a very epic Underworld, as its ghost relates in a dream to the shepherd, who then erects a cenotaph for the gnat in gratitude.

Edmund Spenser’s Complaints (1591) includes ‘Virgil’s Gnat’, an amplified translation of the Culex, which reinforces the mock-heroic ethos of the original and gives the gnat a typically Spenserian concern for vanity and mutability. Spenser’s Complaints also includes an original essay in the genre of insect mock-epic, the Muiopotmos, or The Fate of the Butterflie, which tells of the snaring of the beautiful butterfly Clarion by a malignant spider. The epyllion starts off in the highest epic vein: ‘I sing of deadly dolorous debate, | Stirred up through wrathful Nemesis’ despite, | Betwixt two mighty ones of great estate, | Drawn into arms, and proof of mortal fight.’ The description of the gay Clarion is indebted both to the Culex and to Virgil’s bees in Georgics 4, but for the themes of art and metamorphosis Spenser goes rather to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.10

A later example of a clash between insects, this time in a mock-epic prose satire, is the encounter of the spider, representative of the moderns, and the bee, representative of the ancients, in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books (1704: in full A Full and True Account of the Battle fought Last Friday between the Ancient and the Modern Books in St James’s Library). The Battle of the Books also includes an encounter between Virgil himself, who appears on horseback ‘in shining armour, completely fitted to his body’, and an opponent in armour too big for him, who turns out to be Dryden. In an allusion to the Homeric Glaukos’ misjudgement in exchanging his golden armour for the bronze armour of Diomedes (Iliad 6.232–6), Swift’s Virgil, in a moment of diffidence, exchanges his golden armour for the rusty iron armour of Dryden, followed by an exchange of horses. But Dryden ‘was afraid, and utterly unable to mount’. This is Swift’s satirical comment on the pretensions of Dryden’s translation of Virgil to the grandeur of the original.

Plato reports the notion that in the Underworld sinners were plunged in mud; in Aristophanes’ parodic katabasis this becomes mud and shit (Frogs 145–6). Mud and shit pervade the last poem of Ben Jonson’s Epigrams, ‘The Voyage Itself’, in which Jonson narrates a journey through an ‘underworld’ in the mode of sustained scatology, ‘the brave adventure of two wights’ who undertake a journey in a water-taxi along Fleet Ditch in London, the cloacal underside of the city, starting from Bridewell, here labelled ‘Avernus’, the entry to the Underworld near Cumae. Jonson tells ‘how | Sans help of sibyl or a golden bough | Or magic sacrifice, they passed along’ (47–9): the denial of the supernatural aids to Aeneas’ descent emphasizes that this is a real-life journey, not a fiction. Allusion to Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld is particularly clear ‘In the first jaws’ (61: cf. Aen. 273 primisque in faucibus Orci), where the two intrepid adventurers pass ‘Between two walls, where on one side, to scar men | Were seen your ugly centaurs ye call car-men, | Gorgonian scolds and harpies; on the other | Hung stench, diseases, and old filth, their mother, | With famine, wants and sorrows many a dozen’ (67–71), alluding to the mythological monsters and personifications of evils that Aeneas encounters at the entrance to the Underworld.11

The middle of the seventeenth century saw a Europe-wide fashion for travesties of the Aeneid, beginning with the Italian L’Eneide travestita (‘The Aeneid in disguise’, 1634), in ottava rima (the metre of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata), by Giambattista Lalli, the author of a number of burlesque poems and a great admirer of Torquato Tasso. In his ‘Letter to the Reader’ Lalli presents his work as homage to Virgil: since ‘Virgil’s admirable poem has already been translated into the Tuscan tongue, partly in ottava rima and partly in blank verse, I thought it would be an injustice to so distinguished a poem not to translate it also into a pleasingly humorous style (‘dilettevole stile giocoso’), so that it should enjoy a more universal appreciation.’ Lalli self-deprecatingly apologizes for ‘dressing up (‘travestir’) in poor and coarse rags that incomparable author already clad in gold’.12

Lalli was followed in France by the hugely successful Le Virgile travesty en vers burlesques by Paul Scarron, published in instalments, reaching as far as Aeneid 8, from 1648 to 1653.13 The author of a standard nineteenth-century study of Scarron observes that Lalli lowered the Aeneid by only a couple of notes, while Scarron composed it several octaves lower,14 in a work in which, according to the seventeenth-century critic Nicolas Boileau, ‘Parnassus spoke the language of Les Halles’, and ‘Dido and Aeneas spoke like fishwives and porters’.15 The metre is the octosyllable, rather than the more epic alexandrine. In contrast to Lalli, Scarron frequently intrudes his own first person. Typical of his authorial intervention is his variation on the legend that the Dido’s Tyrian refugees dug up the head of a horse when they arrived at the site of Carthage (Aen. 1.442–5): ‘When they arrived in Libya, at the back of this wood they found, in some nasty hole, the head and neck of an ass. If great Virgil’s work is to be taken as gospel truth, you will find that I have erred in putting an ass in place of a horse. But, on the word of a burlesque poet, I have read in an Arab book, whose name I can’t remember, that it was the head of an ass’s foal.’ Anachronisms abound, contaminating the heroic past with the mundanities of the present day. Scarron keeps close to the Virgilian text, but frequently expands, sometimes with long lists of realistic detail: thus, for example, the 705 lines of Aeneid 4 balloon to 2,972 lines in Virgile travesty.

The publication and popular success of Scarron’s anarchic Virgile travesty coincided with the insurrectionary movement known as the Fronde, which arose from opposition by the Parisian Parliament and the territorial nobles to the policies of Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister during the regency of Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV, a child of five at the time of the death of Louis XIII in 1643. It is tempting to see a connection between the spirit of the English Restoration and the success of the English imitation of Scarron, the Scarronides (‘son of Scarron’), by Charles Cotton, a travesty of Aeneid 1 and 4 (1664, 1665). Cotton was among other things a friend of Izaak Walton and author of a supplement to The Compleat Angler, and a translator of Montaigne’s Essays. Samuel Pepys collected a copy of Book 1 on the day that it was licensed, and found it ‘extraordinary good’. Scarronides went through numerous editions, and spawned copy-cat travesties of other books of the Aeneid. Together with Samuel Butler’s contemporary Hudibras(1663–78) it set a fashion in England for burlesque poetry. Compared with Scarron, Cotton makes a further descent into the scatological and sexual. The tone of Cotton’s travesty is set from the beginning:

I sing the man, (read it who list,

A Trojan true as ever pissed)

Who from Troy Town, by wind and weather

To Italy, (and God knows whither)

Was packed, and wracked, and lost, and tossed,

And bounced from pillar to post.

Long wandered he through thick and thin;

Half roasted now; now wet to th’ skin;

By sea and land; by day and night;

Forced (as ’tis said) by the god’s spite:

Although the wiser sort suppose

’Twas by an old grudge of Juno’s,

A murrain curry all cursed wives!

Aeolus lets out the winds of the storm by farting. ‘Whom Jove observing to be so stern, | In the wise conduct of his postern, | He made him king of all the puffers’ (1.93–5). When Aeneas meets his mother in disguise, ‘So smug she was, and so arrayed, | He took his mother for a maid: | A great mistake in her, whose bum | So oft had been god Mars his drum’ (1.617–20). Venus tells Aeneas the story of Dido’s coming to Carthage, ‘Where now she lives a housewife wary, | Has her ground stocked, and keeps a dairy’ (1.707–8). Aeneas’ gifts to Dido include ‘a fair great ruff | Made of a pure and costly stuff | To wear about her highness’ neck; | Like Mistress Cokaine’s in the Peak’ (1.1199–1202; Cotton’s cousin Sir Aston Cokaine was a neighbour in the Peak District). The infatuated Dido is on heat for Aeneas: in her prayers ‘Juno had most veneration, | As she was the queen of copulation’ (4.145–6; Juno is the Roman god of marriage). Dido’s consultation of priests and prophets is all in vain: ‘Or what do prophecies avail | When women have a whisk i’ th’ tail? | Dido for love in woeful wise, | Bubbles, and boils, and broils, and fries.’ The royal hunt becomes a squirrel hunt, and (4.435–44):

The cave so darksome was, that I do

Think Joan had been as good as Dido:

But so it was, in that hole they

Grew intimate as one may say:

The queen was blithe, as bird in tree,

And billed as wantonly, whilst he

By hindlock seizing fast occasion,

Slipped into Dido’s conversation:

And in that very place and season.

’Tis thought Aeneas did her reason.

The scatological resurfaces when Mercury comes down to Carthage, flying faster than ‘arrows loosed from Grub-Street bow | In Finsbury’ (4.617–18), and finds Aeneas ‘building for the queen a jakes’ (4.660). Dido’s priestess-enchantress becomes a hideous shriveled hag, a close relative of the witches in Macbeth, and perhaps a model for the Beldame sorceress in Nahum Tate’s libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which certainly has its moments of travesty-like humour, and a moment of sexual double-entendrewhen Aeneas enters during the hunt, brandishing his weapon: ‘Behold upon my bending spear | A monster’s head stands bleeding.’16 Cotton’s abject witch is also a self-parody of the poet of burlesque travesty: ‘This witch a ribble row rehearses, | Of scurvy names in scurvy verses, | Which by the manner of her mouthing, | Was certainly burlesque, or nothing’ (4.1355–8). The tragic climax of the story, Dido’s suicide, is reduced to farce. Dido takes 30 lines weighing up methods of killing herself, before resolving to use a rope, rather than the more heroic Virgilian sword (4.1665–74):

In mind she weighed, as she sat crying,

What kind of death was best to die in.

Poison she thought would not be quick,

And which was worse, would make her sick.

That being therefore waived, she thought,

That neatly cutting her own throat,

Might serve to do the business for her,

But that she thought upon with horror,

Because ’twould hurt her; neither could

She well endure to see her blood.

Cotton ends, as he began, with piss: her household are alerted to her death-throes when she pisses herself as she hangs (4.1805–10):

A yellow aromatic matter

Dropped from her heels, commixed with water,

Which sinking through the chamber-floor,

Set all the house in sad uproar.

All at the first that they amiss thought,

Was that her Grace had missed the piss-pot.

The realist detail frequent in the travesty pushes epic in the direction of the novel, and Scarron’s other works include the Roman comique. Epic was the main genre for fictional narrative in antiquity; epic parody, as we have seen, features prominently in those ancient prose fictions to which modern scholars give the label ‘the ancient novel’, and epic parody is also an important element in the development of the early modern novel, in the English tradition notably in the novels of Henry Fielding, who also wrote a verse parody of the Aeneid, the political satire the Vernon-iad (1741). In the Preface to Joseph Andrews Fielding asserts ‘Now a comic Romance is a comic Epic-Poem in Prose.’ The description of Joseph’s cudgel (Bk 3 ch. 6) is modelled on the descriptions of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18 and of the arms of Aeneas in Aeneid 8. A wider set of structural parallels with the Aeneid is found in Amelia, which explores Virgilian themes of honour and love. Amelia’s husband Booth abandons her to follow his regiment to Gibraltar, in accordance with the dictates of honour, so repeating Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido. After Booth recognizes the values of Christianity, Amelia is able to avert a duel between him and Colonel James, so replacing the heroic ending of the Aeneid, the duel of Aeneas and Turnus, with a Christian ending. Booth finally abandons the military life in order to live happily ever after with his family.17

Where the travesties of Lalli, Scarron and Cotton use low language to describe the actions of great persons, the heroic cast of the Aeneid, Fielding applies epic images and themes to his less than heroic characters. To distinguish these two kinds of disjunction between high and low, the term ‘mock heroic’ is conveniently used for the inverse of travesty, namely the use of lofty language for low objects, as in the case of the Batrachomyomachia or the Culex.18 The classic French mock-heroic poem is Nicolas Boileau’sLe Lutrin ‘The Lectern’ (1674–83), which tells of a quarrel between the treasurer and the precentor of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris over the installation by the treasurer of a lectern that blocked the precentor’s view of the choir.19 A number of translations gave it wide currency in England. It starts in a free adaptation of the Virgilian ‘Arms and the man’, together with a glance at the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles that begins the Iliad. Below I give the translation of John Ozell (1708); the original French is even closer to the Virgilian original, reproducing the structure of seven lines of plot summary followed by four lines of address to the Muse, asking why Juno was angry with Aeneas.

Arms and the priest I sing, whose martial soul

No toil could terrify, no fear control;

Active it urged his outward man to dare

The numerous hazards of a pious war:

Nor did th’ immortal prelate’s labours cease,

Till victory had crowned ’em with success;

Till his gay eyes sparkling with fluid fire,

Beheld the desk reflourish in the choir.

In vain the chanter and the chapter strove;

Twice they essayed the fatal desk to move:

As oft the prelate with unwearied pain,

Fixed it to his proud rival’s seat again.

   Muse, let the holy warrior’s rage be sung;

Why sacred minds infernal furies stung:

What spark inflamed the zealous rival’s heat,

How heavenly breasts with human passions beat.

‘How heavenly breasts with human passions beat’ (in French ‘Tant de fiel entre-t-il dans l’âme des dévots!’) transforms Aeneid 1.11 tantaene animis caelestibus irae? ‘Are heavenly spirits [the gods] possessed of such anger?’ (which appears as the Latin motto on the title-page of Ozell’s translation) into a question about the ill temper of men of the cloth. The action is set in motion by the intervention of the Fury Discord, enraged by the tranquillity of life in the Sainte-Chapelle, a reworking of the intervention of the angry Juno and her agent, the Fury Allecto, in the Aeneid.

John Dryden was a great admirer of Boileau. His description of Boileau’s method can be applied to Dryden’s own practice in his satirical works:

He writes [Le Lutrin] in the French heroic verse, and calls it an heroic poem; his subject is trivial, but his verse is noble. I doubt not but he had Virgil in his eye, for we find many admirable imitations of him, and some parodies […] And, as Virgil in his fourth Georgic, of the Bees, perpetually raises the lowness of his subject, by the loftiness of his words, and ennobles it by comparisons drawn from empires, and from monarchs […] we see Boileau pursuing him in the same flights, and scarcely yielding to his master. This, I think […] to be the most beautiful and noble kind of satire. Here is the majesty of the heroic, finely mixed with the venom of the other; and raising the delight which otherwise would be flat and vulgar, by the sublimity of expression.20

With Mac Flecknoe (i.e. ‘son of Flecknoe’, c. 1676) Dryden achieved ‘the first great English mock-heroic poem’.21 It takes the central Virgilian themes of succession and empire, and applies them to the Irish writer Flecknoe’s anointing of Thomas Shadwell as his successor in the empire of poetic nonsense and dullness. At the coronation Shadwell is the Ascanius to Flecknoe’s Aeneas (108–11):

At his right hand our young Ascanius sate,

Rome’s other hope, and pillar of the state.

His brows thick fogs, instead of glories, grace,

And lambent dullness played around his face.

The first couplet alludes to the appearance of Ascanius by his father’s side at Aeneid 12.168, magnae spes altera Romae ‘great Rome’s second hope’; the second couplet parodies the harmless flame that licks (lambere) round Ascanius’ head at Aeneid 2.682–4, an omen of predestination and future greatness amidst the flames that are destroying Troy. Shadwell’s succession to Flecknoe is an inert replacement of like with like (15 ‘Shadwell alone my perfect image bears’); at the end ‘The mantle fell to the young prophet’s part, | With double portion of his father’s art’: more of the same, and very little art, if we remember Flecknoe’s own question (176) ‘What share have we in nature, or in art?’ By contrast, Dryden’s witty and artful diversion of the matter of the Aeneid to very different ends marks him as a creative poetic successor of Virgil.

Alexander Pope took on the mantle of Mac Flecknoe in The Dunciad, a complex work with a complex history of composition which, in its final four-book version of 1743, satirizes the anointing by the goddess Dulness of Colley Cibber as poet laureate.22According to the mock-pedantic annotation by ‘Scriblerus’ in the 1729 Variorum edition, ‘the Action of the Dunciad is the Removal of the Imperial Seat of Dulness from the City to the polite world; as that of the Aeneid is the Removal of the empire of Troy to Latium.’ Ultimately Virgilian in its combination of the cosmic and the historical is the setting of ‘the human drama, absurd and miserable as it is, against the “huge scenic background of the stars”’.23 But this is an epic which ends with the equation not of cosmos and empire, but of chaos and empire, in the Miltonic strains of the ending of the 1743 Dunciad (4.653–6):

Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;

Light dies before thy uncreating word;

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,

And universal darkness buries all.

Chaos, not Troy, resurgent. The Dunciad is a summa of previous epic and mock-epic tradition, with a number of set-piece Virgilian imitations. At the beginning Cibber, in a writer’s despair, lights a sacrificial bonfire of his works: the model of the sack of Troy inAeneid 2 is made explicit when (1.255–6) ‘Tears gushed again, as from pale Priam’s eyes | When the last blaze sent Ilion to the skies.’ The goddess Dulness extinguishes the pyre; out of destruction will come a bright future for Cibber, succeeding Laurence Eusden as poet laureate, 291–2: ‘All hail! and hail again, | My son: the promised land expects thy reign’, combining the Virgilian plot of the promise of a future kingdom with the witches’ salutation of Macbeth. In Book 2 his coronation is celebrated with games for booksellers, poets and critics, parodying the games in Iliad 23 and Aeneid 5. Pursuing the phantom of a poet created by Dulness, the bookseller Edmund Curl slips in a pool of urine (representing the ‘piss’ brought to his shop in the form of purloined material). Curl’s prayer mounts to the lavatory throne of Jove, who uses such petitions as toilet paper, and Cloacina, the goddess of sewers, favours Curl by lending him fresh vigour from the ‘ordure’s sympathetic force’. Instead of an archery contest, a contest as to who can piss higher decides the prize of a woman. The Fleet-ditch is the setting for more mud and shit in an event for ‘party-writers’, who delight in flinging dirt, a contest in diving into the Fleet stream, won by Smedley, rising from the depths ‘in majesty of mud’ (2.326).

Book 3 takes the sleeping Cibber, ‘on fancy’s easy wings’ and led by ‘a slip-shod sibyl’, to the Elysian shade, another underworld of literary making and literary memory where ‘poetic souls’ are dipped in the Lethe of dullness and then rush to take on new bodies, the calf-skin of new books. Playing the part of the shade of Anchises, the ghost of the writer Elkanah Settle unfolds to Cibber a vast panorama of past and future, combining the Virgilian Parade of Heroes in Aeneid 6 with Michael’s revelation to Adam of the future history of the world in Paradise Lost 11. Settle reaches the climax of his parade of heroes announcing Cibber as the new Augustus, combining (predictably) Aeneid 6.791 ff. (hic uir, hic est) with echoes of the fourth Eclogue, 3.319–20 ‘This, this is he, foretold by ancient rhymes: | Th’ Augustus born to bring Saturnian times.’ But the reader knows from Pope’s opening address to Swift that this will be (1.28) ‘a new Saturnian age of lead’ (in alchemy Saturn is lead).

In the German-speaking world great success was enjoyed by Virgils Aeneis, travestirt, by the Austrian enlightenment writer Aloys Blumauer (1755–98), of which Books 1 to 4 were published in 1784, with further instalments in 1785 and 1788.24 Blumauer’s is a travesty with a message: its obsessive satire on Roman Catholicism is in keeping with the anticlerical reformism of the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II. Aeneas is the founder not just of Rome, but of its degenerate heir the Vatican. The pious credulity of Virgil’s Trojans is redirected against Christian superstition: a hermit from Argos tells the Trojans that the wooden horse was built in payment of a vow to St George, and that anyone who refuses to believe its sanctity will be excommunicated. There is much anachronism: Aeneas goes to a coffee-house in Carthage and reads a newspaper report of his escape from Troy, reworking the Virgilian episode in which Aeneas sees scenes from the Trojan War in a temple of Juno. Dido reads Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. There is much eating and drinking – Elysium is a Land of Cockaigne where Aeneas finds champagne, sekt and mead foaming in the waterfalls, and cakes, marzipan and doughnuts growing on the trees – and much scatological humour. Dido’s infatuation for Aeneas is reduced to a list of physical symptoms: (4.16) ‘The poor woman had a constant itching through all her members, now in the stomach, now in the throat. She ran about incessantly like a foal tormented by the stinging of nasty gadflies.’ Blumauer had perhaps read Cotton’sScarronides, in which Dido’s lust is compared to a heifer who ‘doth itch, | With gad-breeze [gadfly] sticking in her breech’ (Scarronides 4.181–2: behind both passages lies Virgil’s own mock-epic description of a gadfly at Georgics 3.146–53). There are also travesties of Virgil in Russian, Hungarian and French-Belgian, and Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s travesty the Eneida (1798, 1842) was the first work written wholly in Ukrainian, and marks Kotlyarevsky as the father of Ukrainian literature.25 The Trojans become Ukrainian Cossacks, who wander the world after the destruction by the Russians of their historic stronghold, the Zaporizhian Sich.

The most famous mock-heroic of the Romantic period in England, Byron’s Don Juan, sends up its own pretensions to stand in the central line of the classical epic tradition near the end of the first Canto (1.200):

My poem’s epic, and is meant to be

Divided in twelve books: each book containing,

With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,

A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,

New characters; the episodes are three:

A panoramic view of hell’s in training,

After the style of Virgil and of Homer,

So that my name of Epic’s no misnomer.

‘Twelve books’, ‘love and war’, a heavy gale at sea’, ‘a panoramic view of hell’ are all features of the Aeneid, but also of other epics. Paradise Lost has 12 books; the combination of love and war is even more prominent in the Renaissance epics and romances of Pulci, Ariosto, Tasso and Spenser than in the Aeneid; the epic storm and a description of the Underworld is borrowed by Virgil from Homer, whose poems are a more frequent presence in Don Juan than is the Aeneid.26 But Virgilian parody could be put to pointed topical use in the late Georgian and Regency period, as in two cartoons by James Gillray, ‘Dido forsaken’ (21 May 1787), which shows the Prince of Wales abandoning Maria Fitzherbert; and ‘Dido in despair’ (6 February 1801), which shows Lady Hamilton distraught as Nelson sets sail to fight the Frenchman (Plate 5)).

Byron’s allusivity and mockery in Don Juan play over a wide range of European and English literature, with an attenuated acknowledgement of the centrality of the Aeneid in those traditions, and the same may be said of the last major outcrop in English poetry of the mock-heroic tradition, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922),27 for all that Eliot also made the last significant attempt in English letters to re-instate Virgil at the heart of the western tradition. In The Waste Land Shakespeare has become the gravitational centre for allusive evocations of the high style.

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