I have plans!

Stop the show, guys.  I have a thesis and an outline.  It’s actually working.  (OK I know that might be a pretty basic accomplishment, but I spent a whole lot of time this summer wracking my brains to figure out how to say something different from “she’s a woman so she writes about women and none of her contemporaries were women so they didn’t write about women.”)

Sulpicia has always been, and will probably continue to be, interesting as a specifically female poet.  That’s understandable since she is the only classical Latin poet whose work we have (other than a two-line fragment from another Sulpicia, and two lines isn’t very much to work with).  In the pretty sparse field of extant Latin literature — well over 90% of Latin literature didn’t make it to the modern era — it’s exciting to get even a single glimpse at women’s writing, even if we can’t draw too many conclusions from a sample size of one.  At the same time, though, Sulpicia probably didn’t write her poetry to be the manifesto of the Roman woman and it’s important to look at it through some other lenses as well.

Sulpicia certainly does critique Elegy’s depiction of gender roles, but she also critiques Elegy on a formal level, specifically pointing out that the same love interests whom the poet promises to immortalize actually end up being silenced by the fact that they can only speak to the degree and in the manner that the poet dictates.  Sulpicia writes love poetry to a man who is almost comically absent from her poems: she only mentions his name twice, talks about her passionate love but without really delving into what specifically she loves about him, and spends most of the time bemoaning his absence.  He never gets a single word in edgewise.  The poetry might sound like it’s about a love between two people, but it’s mostly just the poet talking about herself.  In fact, Sulpicia’s audience plays a far larger role than her beloved ever does and she repeatedly insinuates that the public has intimate knowledge of her love life and would be happy to intercede and take her beloved’s place.  Some of these tactics show up in all Elegy, but Sulpicia takes them to such an extreme that they become far more obvious than in the rest of the genre.  She also leverages the fact that she is a woman silencing a man as opposed to the other way around, which would make the whole situation seem far more unnatural and noticeable to her patriarchal society.  It’s a pretty sharp critique, actually, and several modern scholars have critiqued Elegy on the same grounds, but I have not seen anyone argue that Sulpicia herself was in on it and was criticizing it in her own poetry long before any academic journals were founded.


  1. jmsylvester says:

    This all sounds very interesting and makes me want to learn more, such as: Were you working with the original Latin texts, transcribing and translating them? What era is this specific depiction of gender roles describing? Is it known if her poetry was done audibly to gather audiences as a comic style of poetry or was it solely written for others to read, or was it private poetry? Were there critiques of her poetry during that certain era? Did she write under a pseudonym? I myself am analyzing gender roles and am fascinated by what you have found so far and what you will find in the future.

  2. sarahkinniburgh says:

    Hi Abigail! I absolutely love this entire post and am excited to follow your writing through the academic year. When you mention that “the same love interests whom the poet promises to immortalize actually end up being silenced,” it reminds me that one of the primary functions of much-later love sonnets was to immortalize the poet’s skill. There is something wonderful and subversive about Sulpicia possibly claiming that for herself in a patriarchal society. But do you think that her work itself, where she mostly talks about herself, and formal critique of the Elegy mean to highlight her own skill, or to merely call attention to the form? We may never know for sure, obviously, but I am interested to read more about if she actively participates and reworks the convention or if she intervenes to make her opinion on that convention known.