Beauty is Terror: Lucan, Shelley, and the Exquisite Corpse

Adolphe Yvon, Caesar (1875)
Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos
Iusque datum sceleri canimus, populumque potentem
In sua victrici conversum viscera dextra,
Cognatasque acies, et rupto foedere regni,
Certatum totis concussi viribus orbis
In commune nefas, infestisque obvia signis
Signa, pares aquilas, et pila minantia pilis.

Quis furor, o cives, quae tanta licentia ferri,
Gentibus invisis Latium praebere cruorem?
Cumque superba foret Babylon spolianda tropaeis
Ausoniis, umbraque erraret Crassus inulta,
Bella geri placuit nullos habitura triumphos?
O wars worse than civil 
I sing, and worlds turned upside down,
and a nation who tore ourselves apart,
selfsame guts speared upon our swords.
O joined battle I sing, and province broken by shattered treaty,
and ruin of ruins unspeakable, together see: standard against standard, 
eagle to eagle, spear on spear.

O God what rage, you happy few, you band of brothers— what horror 
could bear you to succor our enemies on blood?
When (o God, o God) proud Babylon lay wanting before you,
all glories unwed, and the unquiet dead hungered yet?
Here's the thing, O citizens: that's no war you're fighting.

Lucan was not, by far, my first literary Latin love. I didn’t encounter him at all in high school— the closest I came was memorizing his name, the name of his epic masterwork (& only surviving work), and a brief plot summary of the aforementioned for JCL competitions.¹ My specialization in the yearly local, state, and national tournaments was Roman history (though I also competed in the dread-inducing academic behemoth that was the classical decathlon), but even with my preexisting interest in the subject matter my eyes skimmed over Lucan’s name on my study guides as just one more fact to commit to memory before shipping off to Amarillo or Austin, to contend with and hopefully conquer hundreds of other students from all around the state.

At Wellesley, upper-level Latinists don’t have a great deal of choice in what texts we study. Being as it is a small liberal arts school with a classics department composed of five professors, each semester Wellesley offers one 300-level Latin course and one 300-level Greek course, rather than the buffet of options available (I presume) to students at larger schools. The upshot of this is that each one of those seminars is taught by a single professor, to between five and fifteen students gathered around one of the well-worn conference tables in a third-floor classroom of the venerable old humanities building we call Founders (short, I believe, for Founders’ Hall, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard anyone refer to it as that). Consequently, when I think of Lucan, I think of the spring of my freshman year: eating a hurried and improbable sandwich in the basement co-op before grabbing coffee and dashing up four flights of stairs to make it to class, and then translating afterwards (on the rare occasion freshman me was sensible enough to do her homework immediately after class) at the glossy wood table in the cozy little book-lined nook us Wellesley classicists all refer to as “the hidden library.”

You’ll pardon my waxing poetic— and a bit nostalgic, though I still have two more years remaining at Wellesley after I return from my COVID-induced gap year this fall. The point of all this is that my understanding of Lucan is deeply intertwined with my academic history at Wellesley, and sometimes I wonder if that has some subconscious effect on my enduring fascination with the Pharsalia: the fact that it was the first work I spent an entire collegiate semester with, plumbing its intricacies and contradictions with my fellow students as I realized for the first time exactly how much a Latin text could contain.

And Lucan contains multitudes. W.R. Johnson described the Pharsalia as “an epic without a head”; the metaphor always puts me in mind of Frankenstein’s monster, though specifically the creature of the original Mary Shelley novel, rather than the lumbering and stupid hulk of the modern imagination. It is a fact often elided in modern reinterpretations that originally, the monster— or “the creature,” as he’s only ever referred to in the book— is beautiful, if only conditionally so.

“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips.”

In death (or in whatever it is that comes before birth), the creature is lovely: a fine and well-crafted thing, adorned with the luxuries of humanity— as if hair and teeth were draperies and furniture, with which one might beautify their home. But the moment he shudders to dreadful life, that beauty disappears, or perhaps augments itself to such a degree that it becomes hideous. Like Elizabeth, like Bram Stoker’s Lucy, like so many women of the Gothic, death becomes Frankenstein’s monster.

In a sense, the same is true of the Pharsalia. Lucan’s language, though it frequently adheres to the poem’s reputation as crude and gory, also reaches heights of intense beauty in the isolation of a line or two. Sometimes, these lines are scenes that are themselves beautiful; sometimes, they are simply particularly lovely renderings of something that is itself terrible. Perhaps the most well-known line in the above-translated proem to Book 1 is in sua victrici conversum viscera dextra, roughly renderable as “[the Roman people] had turned their victorious right hand on their own guts.” (A brief contextual note: in Latin poetry, dextra, strictly translatable as “right hand,” is often a metonym for one’s sword. Knowing Lucan, though, one cannot help but imagine that perhaps here it isn’t.)

It’s an awful image, often cited as microcosmic of the Pharsalia as a whole: Rome’s brutal self-evisceration, writ large across the stage of the discordant cosmos. Lucan’s masterwork is a slow suicide of a poem, an agonizingly detailed and viciously sharp tale about the self-made end of an autographical history. It is a poem about cannibalism, and the apocalypse, and the terrible & pathetic grandeur of the autocrat. It is also a poem about love.

And yet, for all the horror it contains, the phrase still flows off the tongue: liquid s’s and Latin v’s (pronounced as the English w), the long languid vowels of vitrici conversum, the sharp shocks of the palatal viscera dextra. On the grammatical level, the sentence is chiasmatic, a poetic hallmark of Latin epic. Sua viscera agree with one another, as do dextra victrici, but the line is crafted so that the agreeing word-pairs interlock neatly around the action of the sentence expressed by conversum: [in] sua victrici [conversum] viscera dextra. I translated conversum above as “had turned,” but in truth it’s the perfect passive participial form of the verb converto, which Lewis & Short’s discipline-standard A Latin Dictionary defines as follows:

“Act., to turn or whirl round, to wheel about, to cause to turn, to turn back, reverse; and with the designation of the terminus in quem, to turn or direct somewhere, to direct to or towards, to move or turn to, etc.”

It makes more sense in English to translate conversum as a sort of conditional deponent: that is, passive in form but active in meaning. It’s clear from context that the Romans are the ones turning their own victorious right hands upon themselves. And yet the participle remains stubbornly passive, implying in its morphology that though the phrase is unmistakably reflexive— it is sua viscera, their own guts, upon which the populum[que] potentem are turning— there is some outside action here, some force that has made the Romans do what it is they are doing. Somehow, conversum tells us, something has rendered the Romans passive participants in their own suicide. Whatever it is, it lurks still in the agrammatical dark, beyond this phrase and the proem as a whole— just out of sight, just out of reach. For now.

Lurking participles aside: the poem roars to dread and hideous life, its beauty transformed utterly by its poet’s subject, language and phenomenon already beginning the process of decohesion that will mark the entire text— or are they? Are terror and beauty really so incompatible as they might seem? Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel, The Secret History (a text of fierce contention among the classicists I know), doesn’t seem to think so:

It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.”

 A very Greek idea, and a very Romantic one— there’s a reason that the defining literary movement of the 19th-century Anglosphere had the name it did. And now we’re back to Shelley and her exquisite corpses, and Lucan’s poem of beautiful body parts, stitched together in the gore of a dead and dismembered history.

I don’t think I’ve yet plumbed the full depths of what I’ve come to call the Frankenstein model of Lucan, not by far. Jamie Masters, in his seminal Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum civile, posits the fascinating notion that the figure of Caesar is Lucan’s way of exerting authorial control within the text of his poem. The plot bends around Caesar like space-time around a black hole. Like Aeneas in the Aeneid, the retrospective weight of a future he can never fully understand lends outsize weight to his character. Even as Lucan tries to course-correct the poem, Caesar keeps dragging control back from his author, the dread specter of a dead history beyond the poet’s control— not unlike the ghost in Act IV of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and not unlike Shelley’s own ill-wrought creature, who hounds Victor Frankenstein to the ends of the earth for the sin of authorial autocracy.

¹JCL = Junior Classical League, the national-level organization for competitive study of the ancient world in American secondary schools.


2 thoughts on “Beauty is Terror: Lucan, Shelley, and the Exquisite Corpse

    1. Ahh thank you Jamie, that’s so kind of you to say! I value your opinion a lot and I really appreciate your engagement with me re: Lucan and his wonderful weirdness <33


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