Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Quest for Identity: Reflections of the Self

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Quest for Identity: Reflections of the Self

Article excerpt

It is something of a paradox that while Bourne expressed contentment in die envisaged silence and anonymity of the grave, his Latin poetry is frequently characterized by the quest for and ultimate recognition of identity. Such themes lie at the heart of four short pieces which treat of mirror-imaging, reflection, mimicry, and assimilation. In so doing they interrogate from the interrelated perspectives of both animal and human the reaction of the self when confronted with an imago that is both self and other, and, as will be illustrated, can be manifested on a vocal, visual, aural, and psychosomatic level.

1.1 Echoing the Self: Canis et Echo

Bourne's Latin poem on a Dog and Echo (Canis et Echo)1 takes as its subject a mirror-image that cannot quite be understood or assimilated by the self. The piece transcends the apparent simplicity of its theme by presenting an imago that can be both vocal and visual. Thus the reflection of the moon on a river's surface is juxtaposed with, and indeed mirrored by, Echo's reiteration (from beneath the same river) of a dog's barking. Both images moreover coalesce in a series of intertextual links with aspects of the Echo and Narcissus myth as delineated by Ovid in Metamorphoses 3. 359-510. In this respect this piece, like many of the Latin poems discussed in this study, strikingly contradicts Storey's claim that Bourne's poetry is neither classical nor imitative.2 For, as argued below, both dog and Echo would seem to mirror, albeit ironically, their Ovidian counterparts of Narcissus and Echo, respectively; on other occasions, however, they exchange roles in a pseudochiasmic fashion whereby each seems to assume characteristics of its Ovidian opposite half. The result is a cross-comparison of sorts, which is reflected quite literally in the structure of the piece, and not least in the use of language whereby verbal and thematic reminiscences of Ovid are matched by the quasinarcissistic self-reflexivity of a poem built upon its own internal echoes.

Read on the simplest of levels Canis et Echo describes how the moon's reflection on the Thames is noticed by a rather mischievous dog, who responds by barking violently at both the moon in the sky and the moon on the water. The commotion is heard by the sportive nymph Echo, who is lying hidden beneath Thames' s waters. Her reaction to the uproar is to determine to avenge this savagery with savagery of her own. Thus she echoes the dog's barking, which in turn becomes more and more intense as her echo replicates it. Eventually, the dog's jaws grow weary, as do his breath and voice. His savagery abates and he falls silent, his anger thereby rendered futile.

Worthy of comparison perhaps is a much neglected Latin poem by Jonathan Swift. Entitled Fabula Canis et Umbra and first printed in 1765,3 this hexameter piece retells the Aesopian fable^sup 4^ of how a puppy, carrying food in his mouth, beholds, and is captivated by, a reflection of even better food (praedae mêlions imago [2]) in a pool.^sup 5^ This captivation is depicted in terms of narcissistic wonderment (dum . . . diu . . . admiratur [3]), but the object of such admiration constitutes in fact the puppy's loss, conveyed by Swift in the oxymoronic speciosa ... damna (3). As the puppy gapes in awe at the water, the food falls from his mouth to the bottom of the pool, and the reflected image snatches it up (4-5). Eager to recuperate his loss, the puppy greedily attacks the reflection, but in so doing is, like Ovid's Narcissus (deceptus imagine [Met. 3. 385]) the victim of deception (occupât Ule avidus deceptis faucibus umbram [6]) as the image deludes him and he bites at mere air (illudit species, ac dentibus aera mordet [I]). Swift's puppy, like its Aesopian model, clearly epitomizes the moral of the fabula in question: the dangers of excessive admiration and the deceptive powers of the imago itself.

From the outset the dog of Bourne's poem is presented in essentially narcissistic terms, and, more specifically, in ways that seem to interact with Ovid's version of the Echo and Narcissus myth. …

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