Delusions of grandeur : humor, genre, and aesthetics in the poetry of Statius




Bolt, Thomas James

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In this dissertation, I examine humor in Roman literature with a focus on Statius’ Thebaid, Achilleid, and Silvae. I demonstrate that humor is a prevalent feature of Statius’ poetry and takes forms ranging from humorous irony to hyperbolic parody of epic conventions. By instilling humor in his poetic program, Statius challenges several central facets of epic, such as its aesthetic grandeur and lofty idiom; at the same time, he revitalizes and complicates notions about epic’s generic totalizing impulse. What emerges from Statius’ poetry is an aesthetic that embraces polyvalent and diverse registers as well as complex interactions between the humorous and serious tones that both vie for attention. In the Introduction and Chapter 1, I outline the problems, theoretical and practical, that humor presents an epic poet. I then sketch out definitions and methodology before analyzing salient examples of humorous irony and wordplay in the Thebaid and Achilleid so as to show humor’s variety and breadth in the Statian epics. In Chapter 2, I turn to satire, the quintessential humorous hexameter genre. I argue that the tight interrelationship of the epic and satiric traditions allows Statius to take humorous literary strategies from satire and employ them in epic with ease. In Chapter 3, I investigate one of these strategies, parodic quotation, and argue that Statius employs it to render his epic contemporaries and the canon absurd through humorous de- and re-contextualization. In Chapter 4, I consider Statius’ use of the sublime, an influential ancient aesthetic concept. I demonstrate that Statius consistently renders sublimity humorous, thus destabilizing the sublime’s straightforward loftiness and complicating ideas of epic grandeur. By way of conclusion, I consider the political realities of literary humor in the late first century CE through analysis of the Silvae, a collection whose associations with contemporary politics are overt, before briefly reflecting on the legacy of humor in the broader epic tradition.