Provocative Enjambment in Vergil's Aeneid

John H. Henkel

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Scholarly work on enjambment in Greek and Roman poetry has been largely statistical: some commentators have seized upon the phenomenon as a means to quantify certain metrical tendencies of a poet, while others, following Parry, have used enjambment statistics to draw conclusions about orality or structure (cf. Barnes's BMCR review of Higbie's 1990 book on Homeric enjambment).  I wish, instead, to consider enjambment in the Aeneid as a deliberate trope, the use of which is in part responsible for the ambiguity that characterizes Vergil's style.  In his provocative use of enjambment, Vergil expands upon a tendency that was clearly present in Hellenistic poetry, and of which even archaic Greek poetry shows some consciousness.  Vergil's use of the trope, however, has received less attention than is due to a stylistic feature that well demonstrates Vergil's conscious and intentional ambiguity.

By terming Vergil's enjambment provocative, I mean to assert that his use of the trope is widespread and often exploitative (cf. Lyne 1989 on the latter term as applied to diction).  Vergil routinely uses enjambment to lend emphasis to the first position of the line, and he frequently exploits this emphasis to wrench from a line or paragraph some difficult or unexpected sense.  In the first case, it is often diction that is at stake, and Vergil's extension of a word's range to cover some new—and often strident—sense is driven home by the emphasis imparted by enjambment (cf., e.g., Aen. 4.569-70, varium et mutabile semper | femina, with Lyne 1989: 48-51).  Elsewhere it is not diction that makes a line or passage difficult, but rather its syntax, or more broadly its sense.  In these cases, enjambment is frequently a tool used to frustrate or pointedly to confound a reader's expectations.  Sometimes a line or passage has demonstrably conditioned (or at least allowed) the reader to expect one conclusion to a sentence, but another quite different conclusion is offered in enjambment.  Other times the line end offers a false sense of syntactical closure, which is then foiled almost immediately through enjambment of some additional syntactical element (on this effect cf. Fish 1980, Iser 1978, Batstone 1988; Fish deals explicitly with double syntax caused by line ends).  There is ample reason to believe that Vergil was interested in the uses of enjambment and aware of the possibility of exploiting it in this provocative way, because he several times alludes in enjambment to previous uses of the trope in Greek authors (cf. Geo. 1.145-46, labor omnia vicit | improbus, with Gale 2000 and Aen. 5.859-60, cumque gubernaclo liquidas proiecit in undas | praecipitem, with Hunter on Theoc. 13.50-51).

In this paper I will briefly survey the evidence for the provocative use of enjambment in Hellenistic poetry and in the Roman Alexandrians, as well as the posture of commentators towards Vergil's use of the technique.  I will then present examples of Vergilian enjambment in Aen. 4 as a case study for Vergil's use of the trope more generally.  In interpreting provocative enjambment as an aspect of Vergil's Alexandrianism, it will be well to remember the stricture that D. O. Ross urged in his study of the Georgics: "Whereas other learned poets often play by the rules [i.e. the conventions of Alexandrian poetry] simply for the sake of the game itself, Virgil always does so for a good reason, making particularly significant that which he draws attention to" (1987: 36-37).


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