Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept

by William Fitzgerald


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226299495
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

William Fitzgerald is professor of Latin language and literature at King’s College London. He is the author of several books, including Martial: The World of the Epigram, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Life of a Roman Concept

By William Fitzgerald

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29952-5


Words and Meanings

I will start this chapter about words with some modern English usages, before going on to explore the original meanings of the Latin and Greek words from which they derive. My intention is to show that, not so long ago, the English words various and variety had a semantic richness that allowed them to sustain considerable emphasis, and the best way to show this is to look at how they feature in some passages of English poetry. My purpose is to build a prima facie case for the value of excavating the meaning of these words, and to motivate this excavation by a curiosity born, perhaps, of puzzlement.

Emphasizing Variety

At its most faint, the word various in English can simply mean that whatever is designated by the noun to which it is attached is not going to come into focus, because variety precludes specificity ("What did he say?" "Oh, various things"). But consider the following passages from some well-known English poems, in which the word various is emphatically not the two-syllable word that it threatens to become in modern (UK) English parlance. First, this from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867):

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another, for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

The hopeful expansion of the fourth line requires us to give "various" fuller value than we are accustomed to give it, so that it balances the trisyllabic "beautiful" (and, on the other pole, "certitude"). This reading of the line as a regular pentameter slows down and counterpoints a reading that would make it a three-stress line (so VARious so BEAUtiful so NEW), which carries a more exclamatory effect. If we give full value to the three syllables of "various" and "beautiful" we pause to survey the world as a "land of dreams," a prospect full of detail and wonder. Arnold's "various" has a significance that is precisely the opposite of the modern sense of "various" as a vague blur of what will not be enumerated. A contemporary reader finds it hard to invest enough content or feeling in the word, for Arnold depends here on a memory of the Latin sense, in which varius can be applied to a particular kind of visual field. His association of variety with "joy," in the next line of this passage, draws on a long tradition of nature's joy (gaudium) in variety. Arnold is also remembering Milton's Eve, recounting her experience after she ate the apple, a similar case of elation followed by disillusionment:

Forthwith up to the clouds
With him I flew, and underneath beheld
The earth outstretch'd immense, a prospect wide
And various: wond'ring at my flight and change
To this high exaltation; suddenly
My guide was gone and I, methought, sunk down.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, 5.86–89)

Again, the modern reader finds that "various," in the same position of the line as in Arnold, but followed here by a pause, must be given an unexpectedly full value: the prospect is not only "wide" in scope but its variety provides plenty to catch the eye and keep it on the move. Milton's enjambment shifts attention from the grand scale of the view ("wide") to the pleasure of picking out its elements ("various").

The abstract noun variety can also claim more attention than we are accustomed to give it, as in this couplet from Sir Richard Blackmore's Creation (1712, quoted in Lovejoy 1960, 297), in which "beauty" is only a run-up to "variety," which insists on its full four syllables:

    If all perfection were in all things shown,
    All beauty, all variety, were gone.

"Variety" is so emphatic here because it is not so much a quality as a principle, namely that God's creation prioritizes diversity and variety, even at the expense of a perceivable order and of the perfection of its individual elements.

Even where unity is valued over variety we find that the word variety can be given an emphasis and fullness that seem puzzling to modern ears, as in this passage from John Norris's poem "The Prospect" (1706):

    Here all thy turns and revolutions cease
    Here's all serenity and peace;
    Thou'rt to the Center come, the native seat of rest,
    There's now no further change, nor need there be,
    When One shall be Variety.

The wide-eyed delight with which the last word expands suggests that it is variety, not unity, which is the important quality. Indeed we might be encouraged by a line like this to read Shakespeare's famous words on Cleopatra so as to stress the word "variety" rather than "infinite": "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety" (Antony and Cleopatra, act 2, scene 2, 234–35). We can speculate that Byron read it thus when he used the phrase in Don Juan:

I perch upon an humbler promontory
Amid life's infinite variety.
(Don Juan, canto 15, stanza 19)

Consider these couplets from Pope's Essay on Man, a cornucopia of "various" words:

Here then we rest: "The Universal Cause
Acts to one end, but acts by various laws."
(Essay on Man, 3.1–2)

See Matter next, with various life endu'd,
Press to one centre still, the gen'ral good.
(Essay on Man, 3.13–14)

Teach me, like thee, in various nature wise
To fall with dignity, with temper rise.
(Essay on Man, 4.377)

If we glide over "various" in these three passages we miss the force of Pope's lines. In the second of these couplets "Universal" and "various" are the only words of more than one syllable, and they are both Latinate. These Latinate polysyllables represent, respectively, the one and the many in Pope's contrast, so that "various" is given a prominence and weight that balances "Universal." In the second passage, "various" expands, appropriately, to demand its full three syllables, as we take in the scene that we are invited to see, while "gen'ral" is shortened in the "press" to the "good." The third passage alludes to ancient canons of rhetorical style, which call for a judicious alternation of the high and the low manner.

Pope's couplets expand on the word "various" only to snap shut on the rhyme words. It is appropriate that Milton makes an emphatic use of the Latinate "various" when characterizing Latin poetry by contrast to modern poetry, which relies too heavily on rhyme ("the Invention of a barbarous Age"). In the preface to the second edition of Paradise Lost (1674) Milton has a note on "The Verse":

Not without cause therefore some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works, as have long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. (My emphasis)

Milton's "drawn out" must be an allusion to the Latin deducere, a verb commonly used by the Roman poets to refer to the slender style, but reinterpreted here to describe a general feature of Latin poetry. But what does Milton mean by "the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another"? Is he saying that the meaning of a word changes as we move from one line to another, or is he talking about enjambment (this is the communis opinio)? Depending on whether we associate "variously" with "sense" or with "drawn out" we will understand Milton to be describing the shifting nuances of the sense as the reader moves from one line to another or the different ways in which units of sense are constructed by the flow of the verse (as opposed to the regular "cashing in" of the sense with each rhyme). Milton gives a political force to the ancient practice of "sense variously drawn out" when he goes on to claim that his choice is "an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover'd to the Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming." Does Milton also allude to the rhetorical principle (to be discussed in the next chapter) that copia is achieved, as well as mitigated, by varietas? In that case, "drawn out" means something like "expanded." Or is "variously" used in a more visual sense, as a description of the way that the words come into focus as the sense is drawn out (distributed, not given all at once) from line to line? Milton draws attention to the fact that all Latin poetry, by the very nature of an inflected language with freely manipulable word order, is "various." Certainly, he makes this word do a lot of work; the puzzling richness of the phrase's meaning depends, as we shall see, on some ancient senses, without coinciding exactly with any of them.

The most recent Latinate use of the word various that I know of is a famous line in Louis MacNeice's much-anthologized poem "Snow" (1935).

    The room was suddenly rich, and the great bay-window was
    Spawning snow and pink roses against it.
    Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
    World is suddener than we fancy it.
    World is crazier and more of it than we think,
    Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
    A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
    The drunkenness of things being various.

    And the fire flames with a bubbling sound, for world
    Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes —
    On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palm of your hands —
    There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Nature rejoicing in variety will become, as we shall see, a model for human creativity, and here it prompts a responsiveness in the poet, rejoicing in the variety of his language. MacNeice sums up in "the drunkenness of things being various" a number of characteristics of his epiphany: suddenness, juxtaposition ("soundlessly collateral"), heterogeneity ("incompatible"), multiplicity ("incorrigibly plural"), and gaiety. "Crazier" neatly refers both to a variegated pattern, as in "crazy paving" or "crazy quilt," and to derangement of the mind, "the drunkenness of things being various." With "gay" MacNeice may be alluding to the ancient topos that nature rejoices (gaudet) in variety. Its collocation with the incompatible "spiteful" produces a nicely variegated effect, rendered more plausible by a sound association with "spit" in the previous stanza: spite spits, but so does bubbling gaiety. The play of Latinate polysyllables against monosyllables and Anglo-Saxon diction caps the poem's variegation. "Various" is obviously a key word here, and it retains much of its Latin semantic fullness (MacNeice taught classics at Birmingham University early in his career). But because his "various" modifies the vague use of "things" in a line about drunkenness it can also be read as the carelessly inarticulate various of modern usage ("various things"), and this double reading is quite appropriate to MacNeice's subject. So "Snow" features a transitional use of the word various, and does so to some effect.

It is clear that in the above passages "various" and "variety" need to be given a strong enough sense to sustain considerable weight. They can sustain this weight because of the tradition that lies behind them, not only the Latin meanings of these words, but also their embedding in a number of discourses and topoi which these words trail, as we shall see. The erosion of the former specificity of the words in modern English has in turn infected our understanding of the Latin varius. Nisbet and Hubbard (1978, 86), for instance, feel obliged to correct our potential misconception in their note on some famous lines of Horace:

iam tibi lividos
distinguet Autumnus racemos
purpureo varius colore.
(Horace, c. 2.5.10–12)

Soon variegated Autumn will pick out the blue grapes for you with a purple tinge.

On varius here they comment: "the word (like poikilos) describes lively variegation of colour ...; it is therefore strong enough for its late and somewhat isolated position." Their note attests to the fact that what various used to mean can now only be approached by the clumsier, and rarer, variegation.

Of course, this evidence of the erosion of sense in our contemporary use of the word various is only interesting because the word various used to carry a range of more specific senses, as well as a tradition of thought about nature, pleasure, creativity, politics, and other subjects that I will pursue in the pages that follow. But first we must consider the Latin word from which it is derived.

Varietas: The Word

The etymology of varius is uncertain. Ernout-Meillet (1985, s.v.) declare that it is "sans etymologie." The Oxford Latin Dictionary is slightly more sanguine, suggesting that it derives "perhaps" from varus, a pimple or inflamed spot. While the English word various now has a broad and abstract sense, the meaning of the Latin varius was originally quite concrete. Cicero gives us a definition of varietas in the course of discussing Epicurus's dictum that, when pain has been removed, pleasure can be varied but not increased (De Finibus 2.3.10):

Varietas enim Latinum verbum est, idque proprie quidem in disparibus coloribus dicitur, sed transfertur in multa disparia: varium poema, varia oratio, varii mores, varia fortuna, voluptas etiam varia dici solet, cum percipitur e multis dissimilibus rebus dissimilis efficientibus voluptates.

For varietas is a Latin word, and it is properly used of uneven (disparibus) colors, but it is transferred to many uneven things: a various poem, a various speech, various character, various fortune; pleasure is even called various when it is perceived as a result of many different things producing different pleasures.

Cicero's claim that varietas was originally applied to color is supported by the appearance of varius in agricultural texts, beginning with Cato, who refers to the ripening of grapes as the point when a bunch of grapes becomes varia (mottled). The use of varius of ripening grapes becomes conventional. Varius is also the vox propria of the colors of autumn, so when Vergil has autumn produce "varios ... fetus" (Georgics 2.521), he does not mean "various fruits" but "variegated fruits."

If varius is used of the ripening grape's discoloration, then Cicero's disparibus (coloribus) is likely to mean "uneven, indeterminate," as I have translated it, rather than "different" (colors). When he goes on to cite the application of varius to a poem, a speech, and also to fortune, he confirms that varius can be used of something that is internally inconsistent (a discolored grape) as well as of a conglomeration of objects that are different from each other. Similar to this usage is the application of varius to the dappled hide of an animal. To this usage we could add those that refer to the sea dotted with islands or the sky set with stars (Ovid, Fasti 3.449: "iamque ubi caeruleum variabunt sidera caelum"; cf. Met. 2.93). On the other hand, a passage in the Orator suggests that disparibus coloribus could also mean "different colors":

verba altius transferunt eaque ita disponunt ut pictores varietatem colorum, paria paribus referunt, adversa contrariis, saepissimeque similiter extrema definiunt. (Cicero, Orator 19.65)

They use more extreme metaphors and arrange words as painters do their combinations of colors; they fit like to like, contrary to opposite, and very often they make endings correspond to each other.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Rescuing Variety,
1 Words and Meanings,
2 Variety's Contexts,
3 Putting Variety at Issue: Varietas in Pliny the Younger, Lucretius, and Horace,
4 Confronting Variety: Listing, Subjectivity, and Genre in Latin Poetry,
5 Miscellany: Variety and the Book,

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