Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.17

Charles Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp xviii, 370. $59. ISBN 0-521-49539-3 (hb); $19.95. ISBN 0-521-49885-6 (pb).

Contributors: Alessandro Barchiesi, William Batstone, Colin Burrow, Fiona Cox, Joseph Farrell, Don Fowler, Philip Hardie, Duncan Kennedy, Andrew Laird, Michael Liversidge, Charles Martindale, Susanna Morton Braund, James O'Hara, Ellen Oliensis, Richard Tarrant, Elena Theodorakopoulos, James Zetzel.

Reviewed by Dan Hooley, Classics, University of Missouri,

The rapidly proliferating "Cambridge Companion" series has now reached Vergil1 -- maybe a little belatedly, though as Charles Martindale puts it in his introduction, he is the "first classical poet to obtain an entire volume" in the series. He goes on to justify this "first" by endorsing the description of T. S. Eliot -- who had his own Cambridge Companion several years ago -- of Vergil as "the classic of all Europe." Which is not to say that Martindale, or many of the sixteen other contributors to this volume adopt anything like an Eliotic or traditionalist's stance in their readings of Vergil. Quite the contrary. One of the conspicuous, and largely, if not always, positive qualities of this book is its general commitment to newer critical modalities and sometimes bracingly fresh critical sensitivities. Toward which end, one or two oddities emerge immediately. This cast of contributors is rather less dominated by "Vergilians" than one might have expected, and is correspondingly weighted toward theoretically more adventurous work emerging from what might be loosely called the Bristol-Cambridge axis. Obvious gains and costs could be noted: among them, the reader will find here a fair picture of a New Latinist's Vergil, without getting an entirely adequate sense of much of the substantial work of (chiefly) American and European Vergilians whose work has been central to Vergil studies for the past twenty-five years. The omissions from the list of contributors are indeed striking. A second oddity: Martindale is unapologetic about his valorizing Vergilian "reception" in this collection, and therefore arranges this Companion rather differently from the traditional scheme. (Seven) essays on "translation and reception" open the book rather than close it in Nachleben-as-afterthought manner. The opening gambit largely dictates play for the remainder of the volume as well, resulting in a kind of centrifugal coverage of matters Vergilian. Several of these essays, however intrinsically interesting, might be fairly described as marginal to the concerns of either the Latin student seriously approaching Vergil for the first time or the veteran reader looking for a compendium of pertinent, centrally useful information. Both audiences might be better served by Nicholas Horsfall's recent Companion to the Study of Vergil,2 which covers essential ground for all three major poems in some detail, whatever one's reservations about perspective and other matters in that volume. And is it just discernible here that Martindale's own contributors may not have been entirely on the same page with respect to audience? Some clearly write as "companions," goodly, guiding Vergils to the reader's Dante making her/his way through the great triple poem; they orient, provide contextual information, are there with leading or provocative questions. Others write from without, as it were, as if having been asked to contribute something, any old thing from their current work, that might be cobbled into this or that corner of the volume. The loose and in some cases misleading section titles betray the problem. But is it really is a problem? While Horsfall's Companion has the strength of more straightforward coverage of "essential" subjects in correspondingly fewer essays, Martindale's has the advantages of breadth and the fun of the unforeseen.

Martindale's ideal reader is neither of those mentioned above, but rather the (perhaps Latinless) student of Vergil who knows where to look for the kinds of information and perspective available in the commentaries, the good earlier books and collections, and who is keen to see just how Vergil might be said to engage the larger dialogue of letters (and entailed politics) in the poet's and later days. Such a reader will find most of the writing and issues represented here compelling, and several of these essays in fact deserve to be read and reread: Batstone on "Didaxis" in the Georgics; Zetzel on Vergil's ambivalence to the Roman past; Farrell on Vergilian intertextuality; Barchiesi on ecphrasis. Others offer very useful introductions to diverse areas of inquiry: Martindale himself on "green politics" in the Eclogues; Tarrant on Vergil's reception in antiquity; Burrow on English translations; Liversidge on Vergil in art; Braund on religion and philosophy; Hardie on the tragic; Fowler on narratological perspectives; Oliensis on gender and sexuality. In spite of a lurking double-voicedness evident in this itemization, not quite analogous to the double-voiced ambivalence of the poet himself but reflecting some tension between established scholarship and newer approaches, the whole represents a valuable contribution to contemporary discussion of Vergil and functions as a fair encapsulation of tendencies in Vergil studies likely to predominate for the next several years. The book includes datelines, constructed by Genevieve Liveley, which will be helpful to the student.

The volume's twenty-one essays are too numerous to summarize adequately even in the gracious space allowed to a BMCR review; what follows, then, are summary comments.

Prefacing the book is Charles Martindale's "The Classic of All Europe," which begins by addressing Eliot's famous seminal essay ("What is a Classic?") as well as Frank Kermode's still-valuable response, much quoted in this volume,3 and makes a persuasive case for a broadly conceived reception theory as interpretive model over against the traditional scholar's attempts to recover original meaning and response. In spite of that persuasiveness, it might be objected that the "traditional scholar" finds her- or himself a little cartoonified in this essay and that the piece is more a theoretical apologia than an undertaking of specifically Vergilian questions. Yet, the chapter is after all introductory, and substantial ground is covered with the wide-reading and incisiveness characteristic of Martindale's work.

The book's first section, "Translation and Reception," opens with Colin Burrow's discussion of Vergilian translation from Chaucer on. Burrow's widely-regarding chapter touches upon many of the significant English translators (Douglas, Surrey, Phaer, Stanyhurst, Sandys, Denham, Ogilby, Dryden, Wordsworth, along with a selection from the twentieth century), overlooking others (Marlowe, Addison, Thomson, Landor, Palmer, and on). Burrow offers at best snapshots of the styles and manners of Vergil's various translators, but his real objective and contribution here is to emphasize the political dimension of translation, the distance his more successful translators felt between themselves and centers of authority and power, and their attempts to invoke or variously utilize the cultural authority embodied especially in the Aeneid. One misses a sensitive look at the language of these translators (even Stanyhurst's hilarious galumphing is treated with scarcely a smile), and not all of what Burrow deduces from his necessarily sketchy survey is persuasive, though he offers the outlines here of a powerful approach to these translations whose gains, especially upon fuller treatment, will be real and important. Other contributions in this section include Duncan Kennedy ("Modern receptions and their interpretive implications") reading Eliot in a self-consciously theoretical mode (I admit yielding to the temptation to count versions of "occlude" in this and Martindale's two essays; Kennedy compounds matters in the department of verbal tics in his second essay with "emplotment," filling in with labored writing that disguises rather than reveals his real critical intelligence); Richard Tarrant ("Aspects of Virgil's reception in antiquity") setting out the elements of early reception with helpful clarity; Don Fowler offering an interesting but limited look at Servius (who seems to assume some elements of perspective detailed in modern narratology); Burrow, again, writing on major poets' ("from Dante to Milton") reactions to Vergil along lines adumbrated in his first piece, but here picking out diverse images of the poet variously fitted to evolving local circumstances; and, finally, Michael Liversidge describing a fascinating array of Vergilian themes and figures in artistic representation from early mosaics through Samuel Palmer (illustrated with a number of fine plates).

Part Two, misleadingly entitled "Genre and poetic career" is really a catch-all grouping for separate essays on each of the major poems, with a closing essay on closure itself. Martindale, in "Green politics: the Eclogues," draws attention to the potential conflicts between "aestheticizing" readings of the poem and the long tradition of reading it politically, both in the more traditional sense of noticing latent political messages in the pastoral discourse and in the more critically aggressive sense of noticing the affiliations of pastoral with implicit structures of authority. Martindale, though clearly sympathetic with many of these latter readings, does not declare himself openly except to note, following Iser, the openness of the text to multiple (political and other) possibilities; he is convincing on the need for a healthy "amoebaean" discourse: "if we can ... recover the Renaissance's sense of the Eclogues as both a refined artistic enclosure and an oblique mode of addressing and redressing a variety of worldly concerns, then these ten short poems that for so long were one of the cornerstones of the Western canon may again speak forcefully to our condition." William Batstone's treatment of the Georgics ("Virgilian didaxis: value and meaning in the Georgics") resists summary, but is one of the gems of the collection. Unlike the discussions of (a few) others who on occasion slip with disappointing ease into predictable critical ploys (and there is a further disturbing tendency among some contributors here to recur to the same passages making largely similar points), Batstone's chapter is an exemplar of "hard reading," an ambitious engagement with his poem, one that seeks to describe the irresolvable play between its tense oppositions. The poem, thus, "provides a place where conflicting realities coexist and inhabit each other. Here, readers may move, be moved and linger -- they may experience in complex figures the violence of success, the beautiful pathos of failure, and the contingency of 'knowing.'" The essay is a model of thoughtful writing. Duncan Kennedy's shorter piece "Virgilian Epic" is by contrast meant to suggest metacritical possibilities in the interpretation of the Aeneid. It is consequently less focused on questions raised "by the poem" (as traditionally seen by critics) and more on the problematics of Vergilian narrative; David Quint's remarkable work on repetition in the Aeneid4 plays a substantial and welcome role here. Finally in this section, Elena Theodorakopoulos in a modest but interesting chapter examines the "Book of Vergil," the single "poetic space" of the three works together, their closural gestures and thematic echoes.

The broadly-designated "Contexts of Production" section (3) comprises four valuable essays that might usefully have been placed earlier in the volume. Tarrant ("Poetry and power: Virgil's poetry in contemporary context") ably discusses Vergil's "handling of political issues" and begins to treat the politics of reading Vergil in historical perspective. He reframes questions of Augustan optimism versus pessimism or ambivalence and finds in Vergil a "cast of mind" that "gravitates toward antithesis and contradiction as a preferred mode of expression." James Zetzel's "Rome and its traditions" is an intriguing take on Rome, Italy, and the "inconsistencies in Vergil's history" in the Aeneid. Zetzel sees in Vergil, rather than an Augustan or dark view, "no claim to omniscience or truth"; instead, a presentation to the reader's regard of history's discomforting ambivalences. Susanna Braund then discusses religious and philosophical elements in Vergil (with due nods toward Denis Feeney's crucial work, both past and new, in Roman religion in literature). The essay ranges widely through ethics, cosmology, "theology," eschatology and is not easily summarized, but is a reliably informative, exceedingly useful first stop for readers interested in these subjects. The section concludes with Joseph Farrell's illuminating introduction to Vergilian intertextuality. This is a huge subject, but Farrell deftly selects and presents characteristically Vergilian habits of intertextual commerce, adumbrates some of the fundamental questions of interpretation they raise, and maps the poem within a larger epic intertext.

The fourth and final section of the book is unhelpfully called "Contents and Forms"; it brings together six further essays of disparate focus. James O'Hara ("Vergil's style") begins with a delightful primer in Vergilian stylistics; his intended audience is the student beginning to look at the poet's style, but more experienced readers will find interesting matter and useful references here. Don Fowler ("Virgilian narrative: story-telling") is also good on more recherche/ aspects of Vergilian narrative. Much narratological talk here (focalizers, order, duration, segmentation etc.), occasionally touching on issues of textual reflexivity (e.g., the mis en abyme, Gide's term for the imbedded, sometimes infinitely regressive, image or re/cit reflecting some aspect of its enframing text), all of it unostentatiously assembled and presented to the reader as a demonstration of the interpretive possibilities Vergilian narrative, examined in its elements, presents. Alessandro Barchiesi follows ("Virgilian narrative: ecphrasis") with a meditation on ecphrasis and its interactions with a number of interpretive issues. This is a gorgeous short essay fairly teeming with insight, one of the few must-reads of the volume. Narratological equipment appears once again in Andrew Laird's look at Vergilian characterization, a chapter that is somewhat thin but whose methodology promises well on a larger canvas. Ellen Oliensis ("Sons and lovers: sexuality and gender in Virgil's poetry") takes us from narrative to, as her title indicates, gender and sex roles in the poems. I have a number of queries marked in the margins of this chapter but it is clear that Oliensis has approached this large subject with characteristic and conscientious intelligence; it is a helpful introduction to crucial issues. Philip Hardie ("Virgil and tragedy"), who by virtue of his influential Vergilian scholarship and postmodern critical interests is a natural for this collection, undertakes to explore elements of the tragic in the Aeneid, bypassing the larger generic sense of the word (as in the "sense of tragedy" in the poem) and focusing instead on specific structures and modalities of the genre as revealed in the work of Vernant and many others since. Hardie thus sees tragedy as a crucially problematizing and transgressive genre that brings to the fore issues attending political and social relationships. His location of same in Vergil's explicit and implicit imitations of Graeco-Roman tragedy is at times strained and less conclusive than it might be, but the essay has in it much useful and considered observation. Hardie's is an emblematic chapter for the general tenor of this volume, confirming once again that sceptre'd Fetish has duly (and long since) progressed from the aesthetic to the political; it is a shift one cannot really object to -- however one wishes for a little less grim-eyed earnestness about it all -- for the change can bring with it, as it has done often in this book, enlivening perspective to the study of Vergil. Fiona Cox's closing essay "Envoi: the death of Virgil" addresses Hermann Broch's great novel, drawing connections between it and Barthes' "Death of the Author," with its diagnosis of the author's loss of control over the interpretation of his work, the uses to which it will be put -- the Aeneid's "guilty past." It is a rather chilling envoi to a long and engaging collection of essays, but then guilt has always been Aeneas' closest companion.  


1. Martindale opts for the "traditional" spelling ("Virgil") of the poet's anglicized name in the interest of underscoring his traditional reception in European culture; in this review I use the now conventional "Vergil" except when quoting.  

2. Mnemosyne Suppl. 151. Leiden and New York, 1995.  

3. The Classic: Literary Images of Permanence and Change (London, 1975)  

4. Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton. Princeton, 1993.