Virgil as editor: a she-bear licking her cubs


Virgil, the great poet of the Aeneid, has already appeared on The Hannibal Blog for his amazing capacity to inspire authors ancient, medieval and modern. And he will appear a lot more anon.

But today let me simply relate to you a little anecdote about Virgil’s method of writing. It comes from Lecture I, Minute 45, of this excellent iTunes U course on the Aeneid.

Virgil worked, as all ancient poets (eg Homer) would have done, by speaking verse out loud while a slave or two transcribed his words.

His style was to come up with perhaps 20 or so lines a day, but then to edit, cut, change those lines relentlessly until only about 3 lines were left at the end of the day.

Some ancient literary critic commenting on this self-editing said that Virgil was like

a she-bear licking her cubs.

To those of you who are writers: Isn’t that a great metaphor?

Now excuse me. I have some cub-licking to do.

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18 thoughts on “Virgil as editor: a she-bear licking her cubs

  1. Great metaphor. And a timely post! I am using Dido (and Antigone herself) in the last paper due for my graduate program on Wednesday night. Studying Virgil, line by line, (and thinking now, of a she-bear licking her cubs), makes me appreciate each word he settled upon.

    And also, as I correct my own student’s papers, I wish more of them had practiced Virgil’s grooming technique. Their papers conjure up an image of a mother bear raiding a camp ground’s bins…

  2. Let me add one more droplet here.

    Virgil’s epic poem is considered an art epic, in the same tradition as Milton’ s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

    That terms, art epic, can be compared to Homer’s Odyssey which is often called a folk epic, obviously because it was spoken.

    I am sure you already know this, but perhaps your many readers do not.

    • Again you save me from the monster, Cheri. I nearly lost the thread. Cantor (yet another German) is holding the other end, but he is so far away and I can only see his shadow on the wall, counting the angels on a pinhead. But at least Prometheus had already rolled the boulder out of the way. I could never get my head round that. Andreas, you were right to tear me off a strip. I’m licked again. Lead me out of here!

    • I love both epics, Cheri, but can you explain the difference between art and folk epic. Do you mean that “Homer” was actually just a lot of storytellers retelling the story over time, whereas the Aeneid was the work (art) of one man?

    • Certainly.

      A folk epic is from the oral tradition, story told and retold, finally codified over time.

      An art epic begins as a normal poem, a piece of writing, usually by one person. As we know, a few other people finished The Aeneid after Virgil died.

      Do you think that is why The Aeneid ends so abruptly?

    • I will tell you once I read it again, which is soon. But I had assumed that it ended abruptly because the good man … kicked off during it. Ie, before he made his revisions (his licking) and found the proper ending. Wrong?

      By calling the Iliad and Odyssey folk epics, you’re saying that “Homer” was a succession of people writing down spoken renditions, correct?

  3. This is another example of a metaphor that shouldn’t be allowed to die but probably will through lack of use (and ignorance). No one knows for sure who said it but either Haydn, Schiller or Cherubini once referred to Beethoven as “an unlicked bear.”

  4. What is this thing language which may or may not have to be licked into shape? Mozart worked everything out in his mind and his manuscripts were perfect first time. Beethoven was notorious for his untidiness and battled with his publishers; he was obsessively protective of every note and nuance.Keats’s manuscripts are full of erasures and interlineations. Riemann, responsible for the most important unanswered mathematical question, produced manuscripts so haphazard that his housekeeper used many of them to light fires after his death.

  5. Yet Beethoven stunned his audiences with his extemporisations. Does the difficulty arise when we try to express an ideal in a language in which we are not adept?

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