Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 35.
READING AND RECEIVING: ASPECTS OF CLASSICAL RECEPTION
Charles Martindale and Richard F. Thomas (edd.), Classics and the Uses of Reception. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp xiii + 352, incl. 20 illustrations, bibliography, and index. ISBN 1-4051-3145-4. US$36.95, UK£19.99.
Robert DeMaria and Robert D. Brown (edd.), Classical Literature and its Reception: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp xxii + 523. ISBN 1-4051-1294-8. US$39.95, UK£24.99.
The Queen’s College, Oxford
Reviewing -- receiving? -- works devoted to the theory and practice of classical reception and its associated scholarship is more than averagely likely to induce self- consciousness; you read me reading scholars reading Milton reading Virgil, and in doing so I am trying to synthesise a range of ‘kinds’ of reading of these works -- as scholar, teacher, or imagined student -- just as Milton reading Virgil does so as a Christian, and as a reader of Spenser (to name just two of many such possible sub- headings). Any introduction to the topic, whether theoretical or text-based, must aim both to open up these dizzily receding connections to the interested student, and to delimit them enough to provide meaningful access. These two volumes are trying to do different things for different groups of readers, but both may I think be said to succeed in this dual movement of provoking questions, and of offering a frame, or frames, in which those questions may be addressed.
Appropriately enough, both volumes, despite their differences, are organised as a series of ‘readings’ suitable for teaching and discussion, and both make valuable use of cross-reference; Classical Literature and its Reception, unusually for an anthology, is explicitly structured and sign-posted for cross-referral, and Classics and the Uses of Reception gives a compelling and attractive sense of integration (though not, as Martindale notes in the introduction [p. 3], necessarily of agreement) between its wide range of short essays. The implied readership, however, is distinct; Classical Literature and its Reception is aimed at English students, and presents all its classical material in translation and with elementary introductions, whereas Classics and the Uses of Reception is addressed to Classicists whose basic acquaintance with the texts and issues of the field can be assumed. ‘Reception’ in all its forms is an expanding field at undergraduate as well as graduate level, and one in which most students will begin, at least, with a marked imbalance of knowledge: skilled and experienced readers of English literature, who have no classical languages, and little experience of classical texts and genres; or classicists, who must gain expertise in the second field (whether literature of another language, philosophy, music or art) with which their particular instance of ‘reception’ is concerned. As such, introductory textbooks of various kinds are particularly important, and both these volumes fill a much-needed gap.
DeMaria and Brown’s anthology, Classical Literature and its Reception, is arranged in two parts: first, extracts, all in verse, from English writers from Chaucer to Heaney, but with a weighting towards poets of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries; second, passages drawn from the classics, both Greek and Latin (but primarily Latin) from Homer to Juvenal. All these are also verse with the exception of Book 7.44 of Thucydides (for comparison with Arnold’s Dover Beach). The classical texts are presented in English translations from a wide variety of periods, and the depth and variety of their versions is an additional complicating factor -- but also a strength and challenge -- of the volume as a teaching resource. (I was particularly pleased to see Marlowe’s excellent Ovid translations, and one at least of Ezra Pound’s Horatian odes.) The concise introductions to each author introduce the poet and his genre as well as directing the reader to relevant passages in the other half of the book.
Virgil, Horace, and Ovid loom unsurprisingly large, both in the number of classical extracts provided, including nearly fifty pages of Virgil and over forty of Ovid, and in the number of times we are keyed to these authors in reading English passages. Perhaps inevitably, the shorter lyric passages that are closest to translations or imitations emerge best from this kind of prescribed comparison, and epic and lyric are in general better represented than non-epic hexameter verse of satire, epistle, or didactic. Horace Epistles 1.5, for instance, is introduced as an example of the ‘minor genre’ of invitation poem (p. 403), rather than as an element of the more significant genre of verse epistle. In general, the selection runs the risk of refracting our reading of Latin satire and epistle too narrowly through the constraints of the eighteenth century couplet, but this is a minor complaint and one easily remedied with supplementary texts.
The editors have inevitably had to be selective about the number of classical passages given for comparison with any given English poem, and some authors, both English and classical, come out of the selection better than others; Milton, surely the heart of the volume, emerges particularly well (Paradise Lost is described without reservation as ‘the greatest poem ever written in English’, p. 66). For Lycidas Theocritus’ first Idyll, Bion’s Lament for Adonis, Moschus’ Lament for Bion and Virgil Eclogues 5 and 10 are all given in translation. For most extracts, however, only one or two referenced texts are included, and this does mean that the reader is inclined to trace (and therefore to see) complexities of allusive conversation more strongly in certain texts than in others. The indexes are helpful and well-designed; a reader can look up an English poem and find a list of relevant classical passages included in the volume, and vice versa. The short introductions to each text however could in some instances be clearer; the reader must read it through to pick out the passages to which he or she is being referred, and the prose in these sections does not indicate whether classical passages noted are or are not among those included in the volume -- a bold type-face, and page references, might have helped here, with perhaps a distinct couple of lines on suggested ‘further reading’ (that is, to passages not included in the volume). Similarly, there is no bibliography of suggested editions or related texts; this is just the kind of book, so likely to pique interest, that might benefit from some comment for the uninitiated on navigating among various editions and translations. On the whole, however, the principle of cross-reference works well, and the single-volume format with readily accessible introductions to each author at the most basic level will be a great boon to many students and teachers.
The clear and attractive presentation of the volume conceals considerable complexity. Even if we set aside any concerns about the certain identification of allusive or imitative models, for any given passage of English literature indebted to classical texts there may be more than one classical passage in play; the poet may be responding to the passage in the original language, in an English translation of his own period, or (in the case of Greek) a Latin translation of that passage. In addition, the editors of a volume of this sort must choose a particular translation of the classical passage in question, a further complication, and especially so if the translation chosen itself postdates the English poem; it seems a shame that the evident influence of Milton’s Lycidas upon Thomas Warton’s translation of the Lament for Bion (pp. 318-23) -- here given as a source text for Milton’s poem -- attracts no comment. Similarly there is (understandably) little attempt to denote in any depth intertextual relationships between classical authors. These issues matter, however, to the student of reception as well as to the traditional classicist because it makes a difference whether or not Milton, Shakespeare or Seamus Heaney conceives of ‘his’ Virgil as himself a master of imitation. Once again, some ‘further reading’ might have helped to point the way.
This is in many ways a profoundly traditional volume, disseminating a traditional understanding of what we might mean by classical ‘reception’; one great poet (most probably from the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth century) reads the work of another and responds to it. Even the possibility of intertextual challenge or ironic allusion is broached only rarely and tentatively -- in response to the difficulties of placing the tone of Jonson’s To Penshurst the editors suggest that the elements of Martial in that poem might be adding a ‘certain urbanity’ or even a ‘knowing wink’ to the ‘dominant Horatian tone’ (p. 57). It would be good to see more awareness of this kind of intertextual conversation -- not least because acknowledging possible complexity or even conflict in the choice of models would help to focus upon a major tacit conversation (or conflict) in most such work, that is, between Classical and Christian (not only Biblical) material. No Christian authors are included under the ‘Classics’ here, which helps to preserve this rigid if silent distinction, although the introductory remarks to Chaucer, for instance, note the importance of Boethius to his work. But right through to the final English poem, Heaney’s Bann Valley Eclogue, the Classical world in these selections is held in productive tension with a Christian consciousness.
Martindale and Thomas’ volume is very far from being ‘traditional’ in this way; the essays include discussions of reception in the visual arts and in philosophy (including literary theory) as well as between items of literature. The central issues raised by DeMaria and Brown’s anthology -- the relationship of Renaissance literature to that of the ancient world, the significance and influence of translation, the relationship between Christian culture and the appropriation of the classical world -- are aspects relatively neglected by Classics and the Uses of Reception. In fact, the relationship between Milton and Virgil is the only such pair considered in both volumes (by Craig Kallendorf: ‘Allusion as Reception: Virgil, Milton, and the Modern Reader’ in Classics and the Uses of Reception, pp. 67-79). The book is in essence a ‘reader’ of classical reception, understood rather broadly: that is, we find here both elegantly straightforward narrative accounts of the ‘reception history’ of a given work or period (such as Lorna Hardwick’s Chapter 17, ‘Remodeling Receptions: Greek Drama as Diaspora in Performance’ [pp. 204-15] and Siobhán McElduff’s fascinating piece (Chapter 15) on the circulation of classical texts among the non-elite in 18th and 19th century Ireland [pp. 180-91), as well as pieces of an almost entirely theoretical nature (including William M. Batstone’s essay ‘Provocation: The Point of Reception Theory’ [pp. 14-20] with which the volume opens). The aim, however, seems to have been to marry theory with case-study, and most of the essays in both halves of the volume blend theoretical considerations with some form of exemplary discussion of an individual text.
The book is divided into two main parts: ‘Part I: Reception in Theory’ (pp. 21-137), comprised of ten chapters of very varied focus, and ‘Part II: Studies in Reception’ (pp. 138-287), again of ten essays. This format is preceded by Martindale’s Introduction ‘Thinking Through Reception’ (pp. 1-13) and William W. Batstone’s short ‘Provocation: The Point of Reception Theory’ (pp. 14-20), the circulation of which initiated the discussions from which the volume ultimately grew. The book concludes with an ‘Afterword: The Uses of “Reception”’ by Duncan F. Kennedy (pp. 288-93), as well as full and useful bibliography (including various items of suggested and related reading as well as the works cited) and an index.
The length of contributions has apparently been carefully policed. The longest is sixteen pages (excluding illustrations), and the vast majority are eleven or twelve pages long. This has certain advantages; of equity, obviously, and also of the volume’s reach and range -- this is not an especially long book but it manages to cover a good deal of ground. The manageable and comparable lengths of the contributions also makes the volume particularly suitable for setting essays for assigned reading. This feature has, however, been bought at some cost; in the first part (‘Reception in Theory’) most of the essays take the form of a substantial theoretical discussion, followed by a brief explication of a possible application to a particular work. Given the theoretical brief in this portion of the volume, such examples are appropriately subsidiary to the theoretical argument advanced, but in several of these essays I felt the discussion of classical texts or passages were reduced to such glancing brevity as to be of limited use. Kenneth Haynes’ essay ‘Text, Theory, and Reception’ (pp. 44-54), for instance, deals concisely and well with one complex debate (on Gadamer and Habermas), and in so doing lays useful ground work for several later essays, but the second portion, on Peter Winch’s work and the interpretation of Achilles in the Iliad (pp. 52-54) seems underwritten. A couple of essays in the first half of the volume in particular are effective ‘overviews’ of a topic, but not much more.
A similar combined problem and challenge recurs in the second part of the book (‘Studies in Reception’), although in an almost reverse direction. These essays are focused upon individual instances of reception, and many of them are quite fascinating, but in several the closing remarks upon the significance of the instance under discussion seems rushed or over-compressed. It is noticeable that Chapters 19 and 20 (Elizabeth Prettlejohn on ‘Reception and Ancient Art: The Case of the Venus de Milo’ [pp. 227- 49] and Simon Goldhill on ‘The Touch of Sappho’ [pp. 250- 273]), two of the most effective essays in terms of combining close tracing of a particular theme or instance with thought-provoking implications, are also the longest, at sixteen and fifteen pages each even when the illustrations are discounted. Twelve pages is perhaps quite a taxing limit, and both of the editors have allowed themselves to creep over it -- although Tim Whitmarsh (Chapter 9: ‘True Histories: Lucian, Bakhtin, and the Pragmatics of Reception’ [pp. 104-15]) rises to the challenge with an admirably succinct piece of great clarity and interest; it can be done, and to exhilarating effect.
Despite these reservations, the enforced brevity makes for a quick pace for the reader, and is overall a source of stimulation. Moreover, the problems it creates are to some extent mitigated by the real sense of internal dialogue and interaction which is a particular pleasure of the volume -- one contributor’s rather glancing treatment of a point can be held up, and placed against, a refraction of the same idea in another essay. In addition, rather general remarks in the first half naturally invite comparison with, and consideration against, the specificities of the second; it would not be hard I think to find several very productive pairs of this kind for seminar reading. The physical quality of the volume is good, and I found few errors. The illustrations in Chapters 18, 19, and 20 (all concerned with the visual arts) are mostly effective and well-reproduced, though John Henderson’s piece on Anselm Feuerbach’s Das Gastmahl des Platon (pp. 274-87) is marred by the small and rather dark reproduction, especially of the second version of the painting.
Ralph Hexter concludes his essay, ‘Literary History as a Provocation to Reception Studies’ (pp. 32-31), with a call for a 'thick' description of the literary context for classical reception at a given point and place (pp. 30f.); Classics and the Uses of Reception is itself a kind of 'thick' snapshot of the state of thinking about classical reception in 2007 and despite minor caveats, and some unevenness, it is an enormously valuable one. If Classical Literature and its Reception is ‘thinner’ in scope, the possible range of association it provokes, and in particular its value as a teaching resource for those coming to the subject for the first time commends it very highly.