Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.12.22

Sarah Spence (ed.), Poets and Critics Read Virgil.   New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2001.  Pp. xx, 216.  ISBN 0-300-08376-9.  $30.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Thomas, Harvard University (

In 1995 at the University of Georgia Sarah Spence (hence S.) assembled three poets (Joseph Brodsky, Rosanna Warren and Mark Strand) and three classicists (Helen Bacon, Christine Perkell and Michael Putnam) for a conference, After Grief and Reason, the title modified from that of Brodsky's book of essays, On Grief and Reason--pp. 234-36 and 260-66 of which are his published contribution in the volume under review.1 The aim of the conference was to "create a conversation between two groups who, to paraphrase W.H. Auden, transform the dead in the guts of the living: literary critics of Vergil's works and poets who have drawn on Vergil in their poetry" (xiv). As the papers came together, S. relates on the same page, they took on a "more globally cohesive form as the same themes surfaced again and again--themes of embrace, echo, and loss--as all the speakers addressed not only their reading of the texts but also their relationship to them." These readings, then, amounting to some 80 pages, constitute Part 2, "The Canvas: Readings of Vergil," where they are somewhat mysteriously joined by Gian Biagio Conte's "Aristaeus, Orpheus, and the Georgics: Once Again," an update and expansion of that author's article in The Rhetoric of Imitation (Ithaca and London 1986) 130-40, translated from Chapter 2 of Virgilio. Il genere e i suoi confini (Milan 1984) 43-53.

The conference papers are otherwise augmented, by Part 1, "The Frame," Ralph Johnson's "Imaginary Romans: Vergil and the Illusion of National Identity" (3-16), and Part 3 "The Debate, or Stepping Out of the Frame," consisting of two articles on reception, Craig Kallendorf's "The Aeneid Transformed: Illustration as Interpretation" and Stephen Merriam Foley's "not-blank-verse: Surrey's Aeneid: Translations and the Prehistory of a Form," along with "Robert Fagles, in conversation with Sarah Spence," and the concluding "Lacrimae rerum: The Influence of Vergil Virtual Roundtable, with participation by Karl Kirchwey, J.D. McClatchy, Kenneth Haynes, Paul Alpers, Paul A. Cantor, Glenn Most, Margaret Anne Doody" (121-93).

The book suffers from something of an identity crisis. It is not altogether clear what it is attempting to do. While a conference assembling poets and critics is a novel idea, and one that no doubt produced some illumination for the participants, and while the tradition of poets writing about poetry of which they are far from specialists has good pedigree and has produced memorable criticism (Eliot's problematic but influential "What is a Classic?" and Grave's response in "The Virgil Cult" are but two notable examples), the results of the central, conference-based part of this book are somewhat patchy from the perspective of scholarly publication on an author whose bibliography is becoming onerous for the scholar, let alone the student.

The work of the three critics, while generally unobjectionable, has a slightly weary look to it, no doubt less of an issue for the conference itself, where the point was the symbiosis with the poets, doubtless less familiar with the published work of these Virgilians. Christine Perkell's "Pastoral Value in the Eclogues" (Ch. 3), as she herself acknowledges (n. 13, n. 19, n. 24), largely reframes familiar and prominent work of her own on the Eclogues and Georgics. The same might be said of Michael Putnam's "Vergil's Aeneid: The Final Lines"(Ch. 7) which takes the reader through a close reading of the last 34 verses. Helen Bacon's "Mortal Father, Divine Mother: Aeneid VI and VIII" (Ch. 6) reprises her 1986 TAPhA article (referred to in the solitary footnote of the current treatment), again taking us, as she did 15 years ago, through encounters with Anchises and Venus. There is some manhandling of the Latin: ego poscor Olympo does not mean "I am summoned on Olympus" (76); nor does excudent alii spirantia mollius aera mean "others will hammer out the gently breathing bronze" (83). Conte's expanded treatment of the end of Georgics 4 (Ch. 4) is a richer version of its original, and adds to the earlier study by usefully exploring the affinities between Orpheus and Gallus, absent from that earlier treatment and to the implicit encounter between the elegiac and didactic genres represented by the figures of Orpheus/Gallus and Aristaeus (57-63). Also useful is the dismissal of the Servian notice about the laudes Galli (45-6).2

As for the three poets, I revert briefly to Eliot. While it was useful to have classicism defined by way of the Aeneid, and likewise to see the ways in which much Virgilian poetry resonates with Christian writings, including the great poetry of Dante and Milton, such writing, and the interest of the poet in general for such writers, has to do with reception, which can and should be a function of hermeneutics but which also tends to the prismatic in that its focus on the living, renovated poetic tradition may get one very far from the model. So Brodsky (Ch. 2), who recognized that "Virgil in Frost comes to you obscured by Wordsworth and Browning" (20); his interest is in Frost's "Home Burial", the text of which occupies four of the seven pages of his chapter, while of Virgil we get very little of insight, for instance, the claim that "the Virgil of the Eclogues and Georgics is commonly taken for a bard of love and country pleasures." (20)

The most substantial contribution of the three poets is from Rosanna Warren, whose Ch. 8 ("The End of the Aeneid") follows Putnam's in position and outlook: "I think most readers agree that the conclusion of the Aeneid is shocking" (105; cf. 106 "shock" bis, "shockingly;" 107 "shock" bis). Warren starts with the sacrificial element conveyed by Aeneas' immolat coming the moment before Turnus' death and proceeds to suggest a complication with the simile of Turnus as stag earlier in Aen. 12, with the resultant "perversion" of the sacrifice: Aeneas insists on the fact of sacrifice while the simile insists on a pristine profile of Turnus, returned, via the simile and its allusion to Silvia's stag in the days before Allecto struck, to a pastoral essence that resists the public, sacrificial act of Aeneas. She ends with useful reflections on Auden's relationship to such themes in Virgil. The editor might have saved W. from the giving us (twice, 106, 107) "the verb, cuncti."

The third poet, Mark Strand, begins his unannotated contribution (Ch. 5, "Some Observations on Aeneid Book VI") thus: "There are four embraces in epic literature that are remarkably similar" (64). The next eight pages set out the passages (Od. 11.204-8; Aen. 2.792-4, 6.938-42, Dante, Purg. 2.76-81), all of which, including that of Dante, have long been recognized in the Virgil commentaries and secondary literature. Strand then enquires why Fitzgerald, whose translation he uses, might have varied the more or less formulaic language of Virgil, an interesting question to put to poetic translation, perhaps most notoriously to that of Dryden, who claims he will replicate Virgil's repeated lines but in practice does great violence to the text where repetitions (most notably the one occurring at the deaths of Camilla and Turnus) do not suit his view of Virgil's ideology.3

So much for the core of the book. Of the remaining material, Ralph Johnson's opening essay is an appealing examination of the realities and illusions of Italian nationalism in the Aeneid, an exploration of the gap between prophesied imperium sine fine and the realities of the social and civil wars that are the condition of the poet's formation. He ends nicely by noting that it is the insistence on the complexity of national identity that make the poem what it is: "that is one of the reasons the Aeneid abides whereas most political poems yellow and crumble even before the generations that spawned them have vanished." In spite of the insistence of S. (xiv), I saw no particular relation or relevance to the conference papers. And the same may be said of Kallendorf on reception via illustration, and Foley on reception via Surrey's translation of Aen. 2 and 4 from the 1530's. Both of these works are useful and valuable contributions to the study of Virgilian reception, and one hopes they will receive the attention they deserve.

Of the remaining material, S. in conversation with Robert Fagles and the virtual round-table, while I got a strong sense that the motivation had to do with the slimness of the original conference material, there are nuggets here and there, specifically Fagles on the combative relationship of the poet-translator to his translated poet (172) and on reformulating anxiety of influence as exultant emulation (173). Also useful, if sobering, is Alpers on the possibility that critical access to the Eclogues and particularly the Georgics is endangered (187). And best of all in the whole book, perhaps, when a poet (J.D. McClatchy) decided to write not as a critic but as a poet, and so gave us a glimpse of the living Virgil after all, with Robert Lowell fallen asleep over the Aeneid at his side: (186)

And the style of it all? On the swags of syntactical and narrative brocade, the emotional pattern is stiched with a simple and subtle clarity. The half-light against which the poet's images flicker the more briefly and brilliantly dims until Dante and seems, after Leopardi and Montale, to be characteristically Italian....The poem's symphonic organization, its harmonies and modulations, its swelling set-pieces and tender gestures, together define the lyrical epic. Pallas on his pyre, his head wrapped in Dido's gold-woven cloth, the trophies of war piled over the naked youth, and Aeneas' tight-lipped is at such passages that the lines blur. Rarely has a public moment been rendered so intimately, nor the private so eloquently modeled into monumental sculpture.

That was a way of putting it, and for such dainties we can be grateful for the smorgasbord with which S. has presented us, even if we pass over some of its offerings.


1.   J. Brodsky, On Grief and Reason (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1995).
2.   In both of these examples, we might have had more reference to secondary literature published both before and subsequent to the original article, specifically D. O. Ross, Backgrounds to Augustan poetry: Gallus, elegy, and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975); M.C.J. Putnam, Virgil's poem of the earth: Studies in the Georgics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979); R. F. Thomas, ed. Virgil, Georgics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
3.   See Thomas (2001).

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010