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Dr Francesca Middleton (Cambridge) After cento: analysing works of difficult authorship

A Department of Classics and Ancient History seminar
Date28 March 2018
PlaceHarrison Building 215

Recent years have encouraged classicists to no longer use ‘cento’ as a pejorative term, limiting its use to the description of poetry which follows the strict, formal method of re-ordering extant verses into a new narrative. This better reflects the use of ‘cento’ as a term in antiquity, but it nonetheless encourages us to ignore the lessons we may learn from those who, even if in bad faith, have used the term ‘cento’ to describe a broader range of literary practice. One example of a work dismissed as cento in the twentieth century is Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica. Writing in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Bernard Knox describes this poem as follows: ‘14 books of hexameter verse as full of Homeric formulas and reminiscences as they are empty of inspiration – a leaden echo of the great voice of his original … a kind of Homeric cento on a vast scale.’ In this paper, I salvage insight from such remarks by discussing why it might be useful to appreciate cento as a phenomenon which reaches beyond the strict centonic method. I argue that the principles of cento allow us to better analyse all works which in their response to earlier compositions avoid the traditional line-of-succession model constructed, paradigmatically, by the canonical epic tradition. All three of the major cento poets – Proba, Ausonius and Eudocia – construct identities for themselves which may be measured against their epic predecessors. Homer and Virgil are praised, and Ausonius for one marks the tension between Virgil and himself, writing in his prefatory letter that his cento is de alieno nostrum: ‘from another, [but] mine’. This difficult and double image of authorship imagines what we might recognise as the double horizon of expectations present in cento poetry: one developed by the poetry’s verses and another developed by the framing narrative, whether that follows the tropes of epithalamion (Ausonius) or the Christian gospels (Eudocia). This is a striking poetic method, which disrupts our understanding of readerly reception, which since Jauss we have understood as the reader’s engagement with a single horizon of expectations, constructed through the mechanism of genre. Acknowledging these principles of cento’s poetic method, we may change the questions we ask in relation to notionally centonic, notionally derivative works such as the Posthomerica. Rather than analysing these works on the basis of traditional reception theory – asking how Quintus manipulates or else deviates from the horizon of expectations set by the Homeric epics – we may ask what new horizon is constructed to compete with that of Homeric epic. In this paper, I suggest that the Posthomerica’s opening and the preponderance of similes throughout the poem encourage us to understand the poem’s heroic narrative against a story about the power of the physical world, and following the steps of this analysis will articulate a method which is beneficial for the discussion of all works of indiscrete authorship.

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