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VarietyThe Life of a Roman Concept$

William Fitzgerald

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226299495

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226299525.001.0001

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Words and Meanings

Words and Meanings

Chapter:
(p.12) 1 Words and Meanings
Source:
Variety
Author(s):

William Fitzgerald

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226299525.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

Starting from the strong use of ‘various’ in certain passages of English poetry, from Pope to Louis MacNeice, this chapter shows that the Latin varius was more semantically full than our ‘various’ as it is currently used, and that its influence on English ‘various’ persisted into the twentieth century. The chapter considers the semantic field of varius and its Greek equivalent poikilos, and the different senses in which it was used. It ends by considering some passage in Latin poetry (and one in English) in which one sense of varius (changeable) is played off against another (variegated).

Keywords:   varius, poikilos, distinguo, variety

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.

(p.13) 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.

(p.14) 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.1

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:2

  • 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 (p.15) 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. ”3 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.

(p.16) 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).4

  • 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.5 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 (p.17) 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.6 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.

(p.18) 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.7 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.8 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).9 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.

Here varietas clearly does not mean “shifting, varying,” but denotes a diversity of discrete elements. So the word can indicate either of two different kinds of varied wholes: the internally inconsistent or the combination of different discrete entities.10

The connection of varius with color is apparent in Persius’s use of discolor as a virtual synonym of varius (“rerum discolor usus,” Persius 5.52) and in the conjunction of varius and discolor in Lucan (“discolor et vario furialis cultus amictu,” De Bello Civili 6.654) and Valerius Flaccus (“variis floret via discolor armis,” Argonautica 5.563).11 The Oxford Latin Dictionary distinguishes two senses of discolor: 1. “Of different colours,” 2. “Variegated, parti-coloured.” Like varius, then, this word could apply to variety either within a single surface or between a number of objects. Versicolor, which can refer either to a change in color or to variegation of color, is another word that appears as a synonym of varius.12

(p.19) As Cicero points out, the word varius is commonly used in a transferred sense. Weber (1986, 4) suggests that the original use of varius to denote a color that can’t be exactly specified, or shifts as we look at it, allows for two opposed evaluative uses, one positive (German bunt)13 and the other negative (shifting, changeable).14 In the pejorative sense of “changeable, uncertain,” varius is used for the seasons or the weather.15 It is also applied to fortune, to war, which is notoriously unpredictable and fluctuating,16 and to the wavering or uncertainty of opinion, or the unreliability of a tradition.17 These uses are parallel to the ethical sense of varius, which is almost always negative.

In Roman ethical discourse a varius person is usually changeable, fickle, or deceptive. Most famously, it is applied in this sense, coupled with “changeable” (mutabile), to womankind in general when Mercury persuades Aeneas to leave Dido (“varium et mutabile semper / femina,” Aen. 4.569–70).18 Varius seems to have been thought particularly appropriate for Catiline. Cicero uses it in conjunction with multiplex, a word that belongs to the semantic field of varius, to characterize Catiline’s Protean nature (“hac ille tam varia multiplicique natura,” Pro Caelio 6), while Sallust attributes to Catiline (5.4) an “animus audax subdolus varius. ”19 Another of Cicero’s bête noires, Clodius, merits the same adjective.20 It is, then, surprising that both varius and multiplex can be used to celebrate versatility, as witnessed by Pliny’s effusions on Pompeius Saturninus.

Amabam Pompeium Saturninum (hunc dico nostrum) laudabamque eius ingenium, etiam antequam scirem, quam varium quam flexibile quam multiplex esset; nunc verum me totum tenet habet possidet.

(Epist. 1.16.1)

I loved Pompeius Saturninus (I mean our friend) and praised his brilliance, before I knew how various, how adaptable, and how many-sided he was; but now he has me, holds me, and possesses me completely.

Whether this positive valuation speaks more to the different values of Pliny than to the range of meanings encompassed by these words is a moot point, and I will consider Pliny’s special investment in varietas in chapter 3, where this passage will be discussed more fully. In more neutral usages, varius can describe the contradictions in a character. The Historia Augusta sums up Hadrian with these words:

Idem severus laetus, comis gravis, lascivus cunctator, tenax liberalis, simulator [dissimulator], saevus clemens et semper in omnibus varius. (14.11)21

He could be grim or jolly, companionable or severe, playful or sluggish, tightfisted or generous, deceptive, cruel or merciful, and always in everything varius.

(p.20) The wily deceptiveness of Odysseus polytropos (of many turns) earns him the adjective varius in the Achilleid of Statius (“Heu simplex nimiumque rudis, qui callida dona / Graiorumque dolos variumque ignoret Ulixem,” Ach. 1.847). This may be a memory of the passage in Euripides’s Hecuba (131) where Odysseus is called poikilophrōn (shifty-minded).22 Just as the modern English word various is haunted by the Latin varius and its uses, so varius is shadowed by the Greek word poikilos, and the bilingual Statius may have been making the connection. Statius’s usage alerts us to one area in which Greek and Latin do not coincide, for the positive intellectual sense of poikilos (clever, subtle) has no equivalent among the possible meanings of varius.23 Varius can stand for poikilophrōn because here Odysseus is “shifty. ”

The Greek words poikilos and poikilia belong to the semantic field of the particular kind of intelligence which Vernant and Detienne (1991) have identified with Mētis. This is a way of knowing that combines “flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic” (3–4).24 While poikilos covers many of the same meanings as varius (multicolored, variegated, dappled), it can also have a positive intellectual sense, and accommodates meanings such as “intricate” or “complex” (Herodotus 2.148, of a labyrinth; 7.111, of an oracle).25 Poikilia has been recognized as a central concept for Archaic Greek culture, a characteristic memorably recommended by Theognis when he urges himself to turn a poikilon ēthos to his friends, adapting to the temperament of each (Theognis, 212–13).26

The semantic field of poikilos includes daidalos, which, like poikilos, covers meanings from “dappled” to “cunning,” via “curiously wrought,” and also aiolos (quick-moving, glittering, spangled). All three words are commonly used of weaving or tapestry, and of other artifacts in which the individual elements (threads or different metals, for instance) are perceived as distinct within the unity they compose. The elements of these artifacts catch the light in different and ever-changing ways to produce an overall shimmering effect.27 Latin daedalus is borrowed from the Greek word daidalos by Roman authors, and the second-century etymologist Pompeius Festus explicitly makes the connection between daedalus and varius (48, p. 59 Lindsay).28

Like varius, poikilos can denote accidental qualifications or diversification in a surface.29 When describing visual qualities, then, poikilos and related words may describe a surface which is inconsistent and differentiated, or a composite whole in which the parts insist on their separateness, coming into eminence in an ever-changing and random sequence, so that the eye cannot (p.21) settle.30 In a literary context, the meaning may be more abstract. The first-century miscellanist Pamphile explains that she did not classify her material into separate categories because what is mixed (to anamemigmenon) is more enjoyable, and poikilia more appealing, than homogeneity (tou monoeidous, Photius 1755, 119b). One of the antonyms of poikilia, then, is monoeides. There is no Latin equivalent of this latter word, as Cicero attests when he turns to Greek to express his doubts about his plans for a geographical work to Atticus (Att. 2.6): the subject matter, he says, is homoeides and cannot be made flowery (anthērographeisthai, a metaphor which is closely associated with varietas).

As we shall see, poikilia plays a role in Greek rhetoric and literary criticism that is similar to the role played by varietas in Latin. It is, for instance, constantly remarked in the scholia on Homer, and often refers to the way that Homer varies elements of his epic that are frequently repeated (type scenes, for instance). But Homer’s scholiasts use it for variation of all kinds, from change of grammatical case to the avoidance of homoioteleuton.31 Since poetry and oratory are linear, and unfold in a temporal dimension, poikilia in the literary field is closely linked with change (metabolē). Plutarch (Mor. 25cd) claims that poetry is particularly attached to to poikilon kai polytropon, since it is change (metabolai) that creates the effects of pathos and surprise on which poetry’s emotional impact (ekplēxis) and charm depend.32

Varius, then, has its Greek tributaries, absorbing some of the meaning and significance of poikilos, metabolē, and, as antonym, homoeides.33 But it also has a Latin semantic field. This comprises words of similar or overlapping meaning (diversus, multiplex, disparilis, discolor, versicolor) as well as words connected with the reactions which varietas seeks to obviate (satietas, fastidium). The members of this semantic field will be taken up and discussed later in the book, but our next subject is not an adjective but a verb. We have considered the adjectival aspect of varietas, the question of what it is for something to be varius, but we might also ask what varietas does. Of course, there is a verb variare, but a more helpful verb to consider is distinguere, which frequently appears together with varius and its cognates.

What Varietas Does (Distinctio)

In his commentary on Aeneid 4, Austin (1955) has this to say of varius, apropos line 202: “varius (cf. poikilos) is used of anything ‘variegated, ’ especially where the changing colours fuse into a gay whole: Catullus (61.87) has it of a flower-garden, Horace (c. 2.5.12) of autumn tints, Ovid (Met. 4.619) of a mottled snake, Petronius (45.1) of a striped pig.” I would question here Austin’s use of the verb “fuse,” since it is precisely the refusal of the elements to fuse into a (p.22) whole that produces the gay effect of what is varius, and this brings us to the verb distinguere. This verb, commonly associated with varietas, describes the opposite of fusion, as Cicero attests in the following passage from De Oratore:

Ut porro conspersa sit [sc. oratio] quasi verborum sententiarumque floribus, id non debet esse fusum aequabiliter per omnem orationem, sed ita distinctum, ut sint quasi in ornatu disposita quaedam insignia et lumina. (3.96)

That it should, as the next point, be sprinkled, as it were, with flowers of language and thought, this is a quality that must not be spread evenly throughout a speech, but must be distributed here and there in the way decorations and lights are arranged when a public place is adorned.

(Translation of May and Wisse 2001, 253).34

In De Oratore 2.36.118 Cicero links variare with distinguere as virtual synonyms (variare et distinguere), and, in a very different context, they appear together in connection with the Epicurean principle that pleasure reaches a point where it can no longer be increased but only varied (De Finibus 1.38: “variari … distinguique”). The author of ad Herennium makes varietas the means of distinctio (“dignitas est quae redit ornatam orationem varietate distinguens,” ad Her. 4.13.18), and the same instrumental relation between varietas and distinctio is described by Cicero (De Or. 2.358 and 359),35 and by Livy (9.17.1), in an interesting passage on digressions.36 Seneca (De Prov. 5.7) makes a point characteristic of satire and philosophical texts when he declares that, while our lives seem to be “distinguished” by a variety of individual elements (“magna videatur varietate singulorum vita distingui”), it all boils down to the one fact that we are mortal, and that what we have will perish (“accipimus perituri peritura”). Here distinctio is again opposed to fusion (“summa in unum venit”) to highlight our illusion that life is picked out with varied incident.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary gives as sense 3 of distinguo, “to punctuate an activity or words.” In this sense the word is characteristically used, often in conjunction with varius or varietas, to describe the way that small individual items break up, or “dot,” a large expanse. Islands in the sea, stars in the night sky, or flowers scattered over the earth all serve to “distinguish” the expanse in question.37 Distinctio breaks up what could be continuous, turning it into a collection of points. Boccuto (1991, 31) comments on Pliny, Epist. 7.9.7, where writing poetry serves to “distinguish” our employments and cares (“occupationes curasque distinguit”), that “these poems are not recommended as diversions from completing work that is more demanding, but are supposed to separate them into a variety of moments. ”38 Distinctio may be produced by gems (Seneca, Epist. 76.14: “nec cuius vagina gemmis distinguitur”; also (p.23) Medea 570) as well as by colored marbles.39 Catullus describes the different colors of spring flowers as “picked out” (“distinctos,” c. 64.90) by the breeze.40 So, varietas as distinctio embellishes by picking things out, and it serves to isolate individual elements from, or against, their environment.

As we have seen earlier, varius is the usual term for the color of the grape when it begins to ripen and change in color, becoming variegated. Horace gives us the most vivid description of this moment, assuring the addressee of Odes 2.5 that his Lalage, still too young for love, will soon mature into a nubile girl:

  •                  tolle cupidinem
  • inmitis uvae: iam tibi lividos
  • distinguet Autumnus racemos
  • purpureo varius colore.

(c. 2.5.9–12)

  • Banish your desire
  • For the unripe grape. Soon variegated Autumn
  • Will pick out the blue grapes
  • For you with a purple tinge.

Lalage is inmitis, “cruel” in love, because she is inmitis, “unripe.” But this will change, just as surely as every year the grapes are mottled by autumn. Nisbet and Hubbard (1978, 86), after pointing out to English speakers that varius is “strong enough for its late and somewhat isolated position,” comment on the juxtaposition of purpureo and varius, that “if they say different things, that simply increases the variegated effect of this subtly elaborated passage.” They are right to suggest that “purpureo … colore” should be taken with “distinguet” as well as with “varius”: Autumn will “pick out” colors in the bunches of grapes and, indeed, in the individual grapes. It is for this reason that Autumn is varius.41

Horace’s collocation of varius and distinguere is close and, as we have seen, he is not alone in making this connection. Before we leave this poem we can note that the final stanza offers us a different version of the same image. Horace tells his addressee that soon Lalage will be as dear to him as Pholoe, Chloris, or Gyges, the boy who could pass for a girl:

  • quem si puellarum insereres choro
  • mire sagaces falleret hospites
  • discrimen obscurum solutis
  • crinibus ambiguoque vultu.

(Horace, c. 2.5.21–24)

  • (p.24) Put him in a dance with girls and the subtle difference
  • Would wonderfully deceive your most perceptive guests—­
  • That flowing hair
  • And that ambiguous face.

(Translation of West 1998)

Gyges is infiltrated into the chorus of girls as a flower is woven into a garland (“insereres”), and this association enhances the parallel between the two contexts, encouraging us to contrast “distinguet Autumnus … varius” with “discrimen obscurum” (the subtle difference).42 Gyges’s sexual attractiveness lies in the fact that he cannot easily be picked out from his environment, whereas Lalage’s nubility is associated with the moment when autumn picks out colors in the grapes. “Ambiguoque vultu” resonates with “varius colore”: what you can’t quite pick out is contrasted with what is “picked out” in a variegated surface. We are left with a strong impression of pleasurably baffling multiplicities. Horace’s aesthetic is powerfully marked by varietas, and we will be returning to him repeatedly in the pages that follow.

In this discussion of the meanings and semantic field of varietas I have barely broached the most familiar use of varius/varietas, in the context of rhetoric. Chapter 2 will take up this particular context in more detail. I have focused, instead, on the phenomenological aspects of these words and their Greek equivalents in order to draw out the implicit aesthetics of the words as they are applied to the physical or material world. According to Cicero, varius is used of anything but color in a transferred sense, and the Oxford Latin Dictionary agrees that color is the primary application. Our familiarity with the rhetorical principle of variation is apt to bury the vivid visual sense of varietas under something more abstract. If we turn back to the passages from English poetry which I quoted under “Emphasizing Variety” we can see that the exclamatory wonder featured, for instance, in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” makes more sense if we bear in mind the Latin meanings I have been discussing. But this is only part of the story, for the emphatic uses of various and variety in Arnold and the other English poets cited above also allude to the role that concepts of variety have played in thinking about nature, creativity, and God. In the next chapter I will consider some of the discursive contexts in which the concept of varietas plays a role, the most familiar of these being the subject of rhetoric. But, before leaving words and meanings, we will take a look at varius in action. More specifically, I will discuss some passages from Latin and English poetry where the concrete, visual sense of varius is made to overlap with more abstract senses of the word. After identifying some examples of this interaction from Plautus, Catullus, and Vergil, (p.25) I will show the survival of the ancient use of varius in this double sense in an early sonnet by Coleridge.

Varius, Concrete and Abstract

One of the most shocking conventions of the literature of slavery in the ancient world is the assimilation of the slave’s skin to the hide of an animal. This provides an easy laugh for a Plautine slave. Asked how he is faring, he has only to reply “varie” (Epidicus, 17) for the audience to make the connection. Yes, the life of the clever slave is up and down, variable, but Plautus’s Epidicus has another meaning up his sleeve, and the audience, primed to be on the lookout for whipping jokes, gets it immediately. In case we don’t, his interlocutor explains: “I don’t like that goaty, panthery type of man who fares variously” (17–18). The comparison to goats and panthers refers to the skin of the slave, mottled by flogging. Plautus’s pun is paradoxical, because it is the very predictability of the slave’s experience that is conveyed by the word varie: the mottled back is the permanent badge of his status. And yet, within the confines of the play, the slave may have his ups and downs. Outside the play it’s different, as the eponymous slave reminds his master at the end of Pseudolus (“Why threaten me? I have a back.” Pseudolus 1325). The pun in Epidicus’s varie turns the temporal dimension of the slave’s ups and downs into a visual field, a move that will be repeated in my examples from Vergil and Coleridge.43

The passage from Pseudolus is not the only application of varius to the slave’s back in Plautus, nor is this usage in comedy confined to Plautus.44 It is, then, a conventional figure, in which the comic slave’s cunning, his improvisational versatility and shiftiness, are inflicted on the slave himself, as he comes to display varietas on his own back. The qualities of the clever slave that are summed up in the metaphor vorsipellem (literally, skin-shifting, Bacch. 657) are literalized in the variatio that is inflicted on his back. In a cruel irony the varietas of the slave’s back may be compared to luxury textiles, such as Campanian tablecloths or Alexandrian rugs.45 Or the words of the character threatening the flogging may themselves display rhetorical variatio, as when the prologue of the Poenulus commands the slaves in the audience to make way for the free, “lest they be mottled here by straps and at home by rods” (“ne et hic varientur loris et virgis domi,” Poen. 26).46 Plautus’s language takes the lordly position of exercising variatio, lexical (loris, virgis) and rhetorical (chiasmus of hiclorisvirgis domi), while it assigns a very different kind of varietas to the slave’s back.

Catullus renews this Plautine motif in his “Peleus and Thetis” (c. 64) where (p.26) it assumes a structural role. This poem, on the wedding of a mortal (Peleus) to a goddess (Thetis), is a “little epic” (epyllion) of some four hundred lines, of which about half is taken up by a description of the coverlet on the wedding bed of the couple in question, which represents the story of Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus in Naxos. The ekphrasis is introduced with the words

  • haec vestis priscis hominum variata figuris
  • heroum mira virtutes indicat arte.

(c. 64.50–51)47

  • This coverlet, variegated by the figures of ancient men
  • Shows the heroes’ valor with marvelous art.

When Catullus’s poem finally returns to the wedding celebration itself, he introduces another artistic object, the song sung by the Fates at the wedding. The Fates prophesy the doings of Achilles, the son that is to come from this union. In a clear echo of the lines which introduce the coverlet, Catullus has the Fates sing the following:

  • illius egregias virtutes claraque facta
  • saepe fatebuntur gnatorum in funere matres,
  • cum incultum cano solvent a vertice crinem
  • putriaque infirmis variabunt pectora palmis.

(c. 64.348–51)

  • His outstanding virtues and famous deeds
  • Will often be confessed by mothers at their sons’ funerals,
  • When they loose their unkempt hair from their heads,
  • And variegate their withered breasts with infirm hands.

The prophecy of the Fates is mirrored by another “artistic” testimony (“fate-buntur,” 349) to the virtutes of Achilles, the breasts of the grieving mothers, who imprint his exploits on their own flesh, as though they were painting a picture or embroidering a coverlet. Our attention is drawn to “variabunt” (351) by its position in the middle of a Golden Line, so that the luxury of the wedding bed and the glory of the exploits pictured on it are brought into contact with the misery of the mothers in a very Plautine wordplay. Both the varietas of the wedding coverlet and the mottled breasts of the grieving mothers are variegated surfaces that attest to heroic “virtutes” (51, 348). Catullus displays a black Plautine humor when the mothers’ breasts become an eloquently varied eulogy (“fatebuntur,” 349) of Achilles. The effect of this disjunction is to remind us that there are two sides to a war, two opposite perspectives on the same event. That is one sense in which war is “various”; more commonly, war is characterized as varius by virtue of its unpredictability and fluctuations. In (p.27) Catullus’s variabunt, abstract and concrete, artistry and experience, clash in a pun that Plautus had made into a recognizable topos.

Catullus’s image of the mothers’ bruised breats is hardly erotic. Ovid, not surprisingly, eroticizes the variegated skin when his frustrated Narcissus beats his breast. The description lingers lasciviously:

  • pectora traxerunt roseum percussa ruborem,
  • non aliter quam poma solent quae candida parte,
  • parte rubent, aut ut variis solet uva racemis
  • ducere purpureum nondum matura colorem.

(Met. 3.482–85)

  • The beaten breast took on a rosy flush,
  • Not so different from how apples are partly white
  • And partly red, or how the variegated bunch of grapes
  • Takes on a purple tinge when not yet ripe.

If Ovid here alludes not only to Catullus but also to Horace’s Lalage (c. 2.5, discussed above), his Narcissus is making a perverse attempt to perform the maturing role of Horace’s Autumn, but on himself! Narcissus’s self-wounding emphasizes the futility of his attempt to make a fit love object of himself, as the passage of time will make Horace’s Lalage an appropriate love object for the addressee of c. 2.5.

As we have seen, Catullus c. 64 uses the echo of variata (50) in variabunt (351) as a structural feature of this mini-epic. In Aeneid 4, Vergil deploys the polysemous varius to shape the final stages of the tragedy of Dido. In his speech urging Aeneas not to delay his flight from Carthage, Mercury twice applies the word varius to Dido. At Aeneid 4.564 he describes Dido as “arousing fluctuating storms of anger” (“variosque irarum concitat aestus”): winter may not be the right time to sail (309–10) on the changeable (varius) sea, but Aeneas should be equally worried about the varios aestus of Dido’s anger. Mercury then concludes his speech with the famous words

  • heia age rumpe moras. varium et mutabile semper
  • femina.

(Aen. 4.569–70)

  • Come now, break off your delays. Woman was always a shifting (varium),
  • Changeable thing.

Is Shakespeare remembering this line when he makes Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” into the reason why Antony will never leave her?48 Mercury’s semper (p.28) (always) might have become Shakespeare’s “infinite,” but for Mercury this feminine “variety” is a reason to go, not to stay. Woman is changeable, fickle, like the sea itself.

The word varius is echoed, but with a more visual sense, at the end of Dido’s tragedy in Aeneid 4 when Iris, another messenger of the gods, descends in the final lines of the book to release the dying Dido from the pain of her self-wounding. Now, to the meaning “shifting” is added the sense of “variegated.” Iris comes “trailing a thousand variegated colors shifting against the sun” (“mille trahens varios adverso sole colores,” 701).49 The turbulence of Dido’s emotions has resolved into the glittering spectacle of the rainbow. With the words adverso sole (against the sun) adversity and the light that Dido groaned to see (692) conspire to mutate her dangerously unpredictable emotions into a glittering spectacle. It is now another femina, Iris, who draws (trahens, cf. concitat, 564) variety after her, but this variety belongs to the natural world, which is beneficent, unburdened with human emotion. The mutabile of Dido’s femininity is attracted into the realm of the aesthetic as Dido’s death modulates emotional inconstancy into a pleasing visual field by means of two different senses of the word varius.50 On the epiphany of the variegated Iris, personification of the rainbow, the comments of W. R. Johnson, in a chapter of Darkness Visible (1976) titled “Varia Confusus Imagine Rerum,” are worth quoting at length:

The use of colour in the entire passage is at once notable and characteristic. The tawny gold of Dido’s hair is foiled by gruesome darkness (StygioOrco), then radiant yellows and fresh translucency (croceis pennis, roscida), and, finally, the splendid, swirling indistinction of mille trahens varios adverso sole colores. Varius is … a favorite word with Vergil when he wishes to stress complexity and confusion. Here the word paradoxically at once presents a vision and annihilates that vision with excessive brightness. Hence, a delusive splendor throws a beautiful yet sinister screen between us and what we assumed we were to see.

(Johnson 1976, 68–69)51

As a counter-example (or -exemplum) to Dido, we can consider the idealized but real-life Murdia, who is celebrated in an epitaph written by her son. No elaborate words are needed to praise her, runs the epitaph,“because her natural goodness, preserved by its own guardianship, does not need varietas of language … and because it is difficult to find new ways to praise a woman, since her life is disturbed by little fluctuation (varietatibus)” (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 6.10230, cited in Milnor 2005, 31).52 This epitaph, which moves from the rhetorical sense of varietas to the meaning “fluctuating or (p.29) dangerous circumstances,” performs the reverse of what Vergil does when he subsumes Dido’s fluctuating passions into an aesthetic varietas, but it makes the same connection between two different aspects of the word’s meaning.

Can we call this play on two senses of the word (roughly “variegated” and “changing”) a topos of the varietas complex? Looking ahead nearly two millennia, we find that Coleridge, in an early, somewhat neo-classical sonnet, makes a similar play with the word “various” so as to structure his sonnet around the same two Latin senses of the word. Coleridge’s sonnet “To the River Otter” (1793) describes how deep-set memories of his childhood games on the banks of the river rise to his adult mind when he closes his eyes. Addressing the stream, he exclaims “How many various-fated years have past” since his childhood. The scene that rises to his inner vision in adulthood features the “bedded sand that veined with various dyes / Gleamed through thy bright transparence.” So the aesthetic variety experienced by the child prevails over, or perhaps provides an aestheticized image of, the changeable (varia) fortune of the years that have intervened between childhood and the moment of writing. The leaping stone skimmed across the smooth surface of the water by the child is offered as a similarly lighthearted version of the alternation described by the words “what happy and what mournful hours,” themselves a gloss on “the various-fated years.” As Coleridge plays off a visual against a narrative form of variety, we witness the survival of a classical trope in a poem on the edge of Romanticism. Like Vergil, Coleridge overlays the temporal sense of “various” as “changeable” on the visual sense that expresses a pleasing aesthetic experience. As we shall see in the next chapter, the temporal and visual senses of varius represent two distinct foci of thinking about variety, but in these passages they are brought together in deliberate interaction. Vergil’s glittering rainbow suggests that, now that the book is finished and Dido’s story has run its course, we can experience her tragedy, with its fluctuating emotion and fortunes, as a pleasing visual field. In the shorter compass of his sonnet, Coleridge uses the same word to accomplish something similar.

With this glimpse at some of the ramifications of Plautus’s pun on varius we have embarked on the topological tradition of variety. The next chapter will pursue the tradition of thought about variety through some of the main topoi and contexts in which it becomes an issue; these provide the background to the strong usages of “various” and “variety” in English poetry which I quoted at the beginning of this chapter. The first two of these contexts, nature and rhetoric, will be the most significant for the life of the varietas complex. I will take nature first, since it is not uncommon to derive the rhetorical demand (p.30) for variety from the example of nature. I will suggest that these two contexts of ancient classical thought about variety are both tributaries to the Christian notion that God displays his creativity in the variety of nature. The idea that variety is the natural extension of divine creativity then feeds back into ideas about the creativity of human artists.

Notes:

(1.) John Norris, “The Prospect,” in A Collection (1706), 97 (quoted in Lovejoy 1960, 95).

(2.) In fact, “various” and “variety” are among Pope’s favorite words. His Eloisa, reading Abelard’s account of his tribulations, is “led through a sad variety of woe” (“Eloisa to Abelard,” 36), a particularly striking usage in view of the usual associations between variety and joy. A usage striking for different reasons is the following from Pope’s translation of Odyssey, book 6:

(3.) See Lewalski 2000, 459 on the association with the restoration of English liberty from the bondage of Stuart tyranny.

(4.) A little earlier, but even more striking, is Robert Graves’s “Pygmalion to Galatea” (1926):

(5.) Gaudet varietate (see pp. 33–36). Compare William Cowper’s “the gay diversities of leaf and flower” in The Task, book 3, line 590.

(6.) There are entries in Isidore at Etymologiae 10.277 (“varius, quasi non unius viae sed incertae mixtaeque sententiae”), and 12.6.6.

(7.) “Ubi uva varia fieri coepit,” Cato, De Agricultura, 33.4. Compare Columella, De Arboribus 12.1; also Horace, c. 2.5.11 (discussed below, p. 00), Juvenal, Sat. 2.81, Propertius 4.2.13 (“Prima mihi variat liventibus uva racemis”), and the proverb “uva uvam videndo varia fit” (Otto 1890, s.v. uva).

(8.) Varro, De Re Rustica 2.2.4, 2.4.3, and De Lingua Latina 5.100; Culex 164.

(9.) Trinquier (2006, 242) points out that varius can qualify any surface whose unity is broken by an element of differentiation: the hide of an animal, the sea dotted with islands or the sky inset with stars. He compares it to the word distinctus, on which more below.

(10.) Coleman 2006, 247, apropos Martial, Spec. 33.2 (“varia arte”) notes that varius with a singular substantive sometimes means “many different kinds,” comparing Propertius 3.24.5 (“mixtam te varia laudavi saepe figura”) and Ovid, Met. 10.375 (“sic animus vario labefactus vulnere nutat”).

(11.) Compare also Apuleius, “Pro circumversione oris discoloris multiiuga pollens speciem sui variat” (De deo Socratis 1.7).

(12.) See Trinquier 2006, 241, citing Columella De Re Rustica 3.21.3 and 10.1.1; cf. also Ovid, Fasti 5.356–58.

(13.) It is significant that the German term for literary miscellanies is Buntschriftstellerei, reflecting the importance of variety for this literary type.

(14.) One of the most important of the positive uses will be studied in more detail in the section on rhetoric in chapter 2. But here it can be said that varietas, referring to change of style is a crucial principle of Roman rhetoric, often coupled with that other desideratum of effective oratory, copia, and warding off its potential concomitant, satietas.

(15.) Cicero, De Or. 2.34.145 and 147; Ovid, Met. 12.465; Celsus, De Med. 2.1; Columella, De Re Rustica 11.2.1.

(16.) “Fortunae solent mutare, varia vita est,” Plautus, Truc. 219; “vario certamine pugnatum est,” Caesar, Bellum Civile 1.46.4; war waged “variante fortuna,” Livy 23.5.8.

(17.) Ovid, Met. 15.648 (“sententia dissidet et variat”); Livy 2.57.2 (“ubi cum timore atque ira in (p.205) vicem sententias variassent”); Livy 27.2 (“fama variat”), 28.57 (“haec de tanto viro, quamquam et opinionibus et monumentis litterarum variant, proponenda erant”).

(18.) In the Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomica 908b36 the panther is the woman’s emblem beause it is poikilos like her.

(19.) For the combination varius et multiplex, see Cicero, Flac. 6; Or. 12 and 106. For multiplex, cf. Cicero, De Amicitia 65 (“neque enim fidum potest esse multiplex ingenium et tortuosum”).

(20.) “Hanc vos, pontifices, tantam, tam variam, tam novam in omni genere voluntatem, impudentiam, audaciam, cupiditatem comprobabitis?” (De Domo Sua 116).

(21.) Cf. “Varius in omni genere vitae fuit: nam ut virtutibus eluxit, sic vitiis est obrutus” (Nepos, Paus. 1.1).

(22.) See Buxton 1981, 172, on the association of poikilia with dolos in this passage.

(23.) I owe this observation to Professor Richard Hunter.

(24.) Vernant and Detienne (1991, 18–20) discuss the relation between mētis and poikilos: “Shimmering sheen and shifting movement are so much part of the nature of mētis that when the epithet poikilos is applied to an individual it is enough to indicate that he is a wily one (poikiloboulos)” (19). LeVen’s “Colours of Sound” (2013) is a very stimulating discussion of the relation between musical and visual senses of poikilia, which she sees as a word that is not “at home” in either spheres, but rather conveys a rapt pleasure in the experience of the beauty of the object through all the senses. After the classical period, though, in connection with the New Music, it conveys a more ideological than sensual meaning.

(25.) Bader (1987) traces poikilos back to Indo-European roots meaning “to use a pointed instrument to make an incision” (60).

(26.) See Neer 2002, 15–17, with his bibliography.

(28.) “Daedalam a varietate rerum artificiorumque dictam esse apud Lucretium terram, apud Ennium Minervam, apud Vergilium [A.7.282] Circen, facile est intellegere, cum Graeci daidallein significant variare. ”

(29.) See Guest 2007, 38–39, on the entries in Stephanus.

(30.) Poikilia is also an important word in ancient musical discourse, particularly in connection with the New Musicians (Timotheus and Philoxenus). See LeVen 2014, 101–4.

(32.) For other conjunctions of metabolē with poikilos, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Pomp. 3, and Longinus, De Sub. 23.1.

(33.) For poikilos = varius, cf. Goetz 1901, 394, s.v. vario. Fantham (1973, 170) points out that Cicero’s persistent association of colores with variare reflects the attempt to translate Greek poikilia.

(34.) May and Wisse suggest that the metaphor is drawn from street decoration; cf. Mankin 2011, 185–86. Compare ad Her. 4.11.16: “Quae [exornationes] si rarae disponentur, distinctam sicuti coloribus, si crebrae conlocabuntur, obliquam reddunt orationem. ”

(35.) “Nihil minus quaesitum a principio huius operis videri potest quam ut plus iusto ab rerum ordine declinarem varietatibusque distinguendo opere et legentibus velut deverticula amoena et requiem animo meo quaererem, tamen … ”

(36.) “Pictoris cuiusdam summi ratione et modo formarum varietate locos distinguentis” (358), and “sed verborum memoria, quae minus est nobis necessaria, maiore imaginum varietate distinguitur” (359). Compare also Donatus, Ars Maior 3.5.398: “Polyptoton est multitudo casuum varietate distincta ut litora litoribus contraria. ”

(p.206) (37.) “Sparsae tot per vastum insulae, quae interventu suo maria distinguunt,” Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam 6.18.5; “quae [stellae] noctem decore vario distinguunt,” Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones 7.24.3; “quorum omnium [herbis arboribus frugibus] incredibilis multitudo insatiabili varietate [terra] distinguitur,” Cicero, De Natura Deorum, 2.98. Also relevant is Columella, De Re Rustica 10.96: “varios, terrestria sidera, flores. ” Trinquier (2006, 225) notes the connection between literary descriptions of spring fields or autumn landscapes and Roman garden paintings, insofar as they dot the green of the vegetation with color to produce varietas.

(38.) Compare “qua ratione ductus graviora opera lusibus iocisque distinguo,” Pliny, Epist. 8.21.2.

(39.) Statius, Silvae 1.5.24–25: “vix locus Eurotae, viridis cum regula longo / Synnada distinctu variat”; Silvae 2.2.88–89: “ubi marmore picto / candida purpureo distinguitur area gyro”; also Pliny, NH 37.194.

(40.) “Aurave distinctos educit verna colores” (Catullus, c. 64.90). Thomson (1998 ad loc.) notes: “distinctos, an adjective usually applied to the earth as being ‘picked out’ by flowers,” citing Ovid, Met. 5.266 and Culex 70–71. It is curious that later in the same poem Catullus has Chiron bring unsophisticated wreaths, described as indistinctis (64.283, though Manuscript G has in distinctis).

(41.) Trinquier (2006, 246–47) claims that here varius denotes not polychromy but the change of color in the grapes.

(42.) Oliensis (2002, 98) adds dilecta (dis-lecta) to the list of words compounded with dis-. Her excellent discussion of this ode (2002, 95–100) draws out the wider implications for Horace’s lyric of this poem’s focus on variegation.

(43.) Another example of this play on varius is Petronius, Satyrica 45.1. “‘modo sic, modo sic’ inquit rusticus; varium porcum perdiderat,” where varius applies to the striped pig that the farmer has lost, but is also appropriate to the farmer’s “checkered” fortune (modo sic, modo sic). This is noted by Sedgwick (1950, ad loc.).

(44.) Cf. Plautus, Mil. 216; Poen. 26; Ps. 145. In the Atellan fragments of L. Pomponious Bononiensis we find the phrase tergum varium (fr. 135 Frassinetti 1967 = Ribbeck 135).

(45.) Ps. 145–47: “ita ego vostra latera faciam ut valide varia sint, ut nec perstromata quidem aeque picta sint Campanica / neque Alexandrina beluata tonsilia tappetia. ”

(46.) Variatio in this sense (variation in the grammatical form or word order with which two or more parallel thoughts are expressed) is not an ancient usage.

(47.) Laird (1993, 26) sees metaliterary comment in variata figuris (50) and decorata figuris (265): Catullus is playing on the language common to rhetoric and the visual arts. In rhetorical texts, as Laird notes, variare is often joined with figurae. Faber (1998) shows that variare here relies on a memory of the Greek poikillein (and cognates), often used to mark an ekphrasis in texts to which Catullus is here alluding.

(48.) When Shakespeare’s Maecenas declares that Antony must leave Cleopatra utterly, Enobarbus replies “Never, he will not; / Age cannot wither her nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (Antony and Cleopatra, act 2, scene 2, 233–35). Cleopatra “makes hungry where most she satisfies” (236–37), a paradoxical play on the ancient rhetorical principle that varietas prevents satietas. As we shall see, the collocation of “infinite” with “variety” will become common.

(49.) Seneca too attributes varietas to the rainbow (QNat 1.3 and also 1.4.2: “ingens enim variumque corpus intra momentum subtexitur caelo et aeque celeriter aboletur”). Bradley (2009, 39) comments “Variegation—discolor or varietas—is a recurring label for the rainbow in Seneca’s account, and it is the phenomenon of this shift, this flux in colour which attracts Seneca’s (p.207) attention. ” Bradley overstates the distinction between varius and diversus, when he says of this passage, “Here too varius refers not to ‘varied’ (this is normally rendered in Latin by diversus), but ‘varying’—the rainbow is a fluctuating and difficult medium for perception” (47).

It is perhaps no coincidence that at another notable appearance of Iris in the Aeneid the word varius appears in the previous line, though not applied to Iris (Aen. 5.605–6: “dum variis tumulo referunt sollemnia ludis, / Irim de caelo misit Saturnia Iuno”).

(50.) Vergil’s Iris will become a figure for poetry itself in Girolamo Vida’s De Arte Poetica of 1527, where the “vis daedala fandi” appears “mille trahens varia secum ratione colores” (3.23–25).

(51.) With respect to Vergil’s use of varius to express confusion, Johnson cites Aen. 4.564; 8.21; 12.486, 665, 914–15.

(52.) “Naturalia bona propria custodia servata varietates verborum non desiderent … et quia adquirere novas laudes mulieri sit arduom quom minoribus varietatibus vita iactatur. ” Here iactatur reminds us that varietas can mean “changeableness. ”