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A recusatio is a poem (or part thereof) in which the poet says he is supposedly unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style.

The recusatio is something of a topos in ancient and Renaissance literature.[1] Its use has often been interpreted as a persona deliberately adopted by the poet, allowing him to assert himself in the guise of ironic self-deprecation or feigned humility.[2]

Ancient Greek origins[edit]

The topos of recusatio was introduced by Callimachus in his Aetia fr. 1.21-4,[3] and employed in his refusal to write a major epic, preferring slighter poetic forms.[4] Anacreon’s work contains many similar examples.[5]

Examples from Latin Literature[edit]

In Augustan Rome, pressure to write an epic celebration of the emperor’s achievement was felt by almost all poets. Virgil in his Eclogue VI.3ff offered an exemplary recusatio,[6] which at the same time held out the prospect of his ‘advancing’ to epic in the fullness of time.[7] By contrast Propertius (I. 7ff; II.34 lines 59-66; III.3 lines 39ff) and Horace (Ode I.6; Ode II.12) made more permanent objections;[8] while Ovid (Amores I.1; II.18 ) also presented himself as an elegist unable to reach to the heights of traditional epic.[9]

In the Silver Age, recusatio was used by poets to write epics but to avoid the subject of emperors themselves by disclaiming their ability to write of imperial deeds.[10] The third century AD saw recusatio employed again by Nemesianus in his Cynegetica (lines 15 - 47)[11]

Early modern/Postmodern[edit]

  • Bob Dylan placed himself in the elegist tradition of recusation in his song Blind Willie McTell, with its refrain’s self-contradictory claim that “nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ P Cheney, Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession (London 1997) p. 278
  2. ^ G D Williams, Banished Voices (Cambridge 1994) p. 33
  3. ^ L Smolenaas, Flavian Poetry (2006) p. 21
  4. ^ J Boardman ed, The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford 1991) p. 361-2
  5. ^ See Rosenmeyer, P. (1992) Poetics of Imitation p. 96ff.
  6. ^ Thomas, R (1985) From Recusatio to Commitment PLLS 5 (1985), p. 61
  7. ^ P Cheney, Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession' (London 1997) p. 74
  8. ^ J Boardman ed, The Oxford History of the Classical World (Oxford 1991) p. 600-4
  9. ^ G D Williams, Banished Voices (Cambridge 1994) p. 33 and p. 196
  10. ^ L Smolenaas, Flavian Poetry (2006) p. 28
  11. ^ See Jakobi, R. (2014) Nemesianus >Cynegetica< Edition und Kommentar, p.66; Conte, G.B. (trans Solodow) (1994), Latin Literature:A History, p. 613
  12. ^ P Cheney, Marlowe’s Counterfeit Profession (London 1997) p. 33 and 74
  13. ^ Quoted in N. Corcoran ed., Do You, Mr Jones? (London 2002) p. 215