Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.11

Kenneth Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. xiv, 210.  ISBN 0-19-926190-3.  $72.00.  

Reviewed by Travis Feldman, University of Washington (
Word count: 2415 words

The French language, as Kenneth Haynes (H) points out in his new book (p. 33), has provided a number of English authors with unique titular vantage points. H cites Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci," Whitman's "Salut au monde!," and Wallace Stevens' Esthétique du mal. The French language in the title of Stevens' poem, for instance, invokes a register that allows the poem as a whole to mean things that it otherwise could not, since "an Aesthetics of Evil would not have had the equivalent impact, nor would an Aesthetica Mali; it would be too ponderous in English, and worse in Latin" (33). My own recent favorite example of French titles is not from literature but from the Hollywood movie Zoolander (2001). To introduce his new fashion line, the couturier Mugatu (Will Ferrell) makes up a word constructed and pronounced to sound French. Mugatu's pseudo-French neutralizes, mystifies, prettifies, and co-opts for its own ends the conditions of abject poverty. Mugatu labels his new fashions "Derelicte" in perverse homage to the homeless "which make this wonderful city so unique." "Derelicte" parodies several familiar marketing strategies, and that Mugatu should have chosen French for his (tongue in chic?) title seems as inevitable as it is conventional. The movie is whimsical and silly, to be sure, but the perceptions of inevitability and conventionality with respect to language choices, the associations of language choices with prestige (economic, political and cultural power), the perceptions of "foreign" or "native" qualities in language use, and the history of English authors' perceptions of French and Latin influences are important components of the satirical meaning of the "Derelicte" line of fashions. Keats' femme fatale, Whitman's democratized (i.e., not snobby) French, and Stevens' playful revision of Christian doctrine, all similarly utilize language perceptions and associations. Such perceptions of and attitudes towards languages, especially Greek and Latin as they appear in English literature, are the center of H's relatively short but copiously inclusive and, at times, perspicuously incisive study.

H analyzes instances of language contact (viz. code-switching or multilingualism in literature, language purism, and interference) between on the one hand Greek and Latin languages and on the other hand English literature since the Renaissance. H's fundamental premise is that the use of Greek or Latin, or grecisms or latinisms, in English literature is an author's choice that inflects meaning much as does a speaker's choice to change in register within a single language. H argues that "language choices are sometimes statements of allegiance to values" (21), and the book frequently assesses those values. H makes the important but uncontroversial claim that "the presence of Greek and Latin in modern literature is not only an allusion to the ancients but also comments on contemporary readers of the ancients" (17), and thus the largest part of the book is devoted to interpreting how and why "readers of the ancients" included the presence -- not necessarily the actual language itself -- of Greek or Latin in their texts.

This is not a theoretically groundbreaking book, but its readings of English literature are invigorated by its engagement with recent work on the social history of classical literature in Europe and, more generally, work on the social aspects of literary language (e.g., pp. 5-10 lean quite heavily upon Waquet's Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, tr. John Howe [London and New York: Verso, 2001], and Chapter Two frequently cites Sylvia Adamson's excellent essay, "Literary Language," in Roger Lass [ed.], The Cambridge History of the English Language [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999]). Though its subject matter probably could not be considered essential reading for any classicist, this book does make keen observations concerning English poetry that will interest many classicists (prose is also considered, but the discussions of poetry are more productive and more persuasive), such as the historically changing register of latinized as opposed to Saxon English, the theorization and use of compound epithets, and the use of sunt qui phrases. Also, this book is loaded with a genuinely impressive variety of historical and literary information. H succeeds in bringing together references to much of his previously published work, which is surprising only because that work has crossed through several disciplines that do not immediately suggest themselves to the argument here.1 Also, given the multiplicity of fonts, typefaces, and languages utilized in the book, the number of embarrassing typos seems small.2 It must be said, however, that this book's bibliographic listing and index are unfortunately not up to the task of granting quick access to its plethora of information. I will say a little more concerning this below.

The book has five chapters: Chapter One (pp. 1-39) "Multilingualism in Literature," Chapter Two (pp. 40-74) "Varieties of Language Purism," Chapter Three (pp. 74-103) "The Interference of Latin with English Literature," Chapter Four (pp. 104-137) "Some Greek Influences on English Poetry," and Chapter Five (pp. 138-173) "Apollo, Dionysus, and Nineteenth-Century English and German Poetry." The first three chapters are the most pertinent to the book's attested interrogation of Greek and Latin as languages in contact with English literature (the emphasis is H's, p. ix). The last two chapters, however, are less concerned with language contact but rather analyze instances of literary influence arising from and responding to (British and German) perceptions of Greek culture, art, and literature. The book's strength throughout is its adroitness at centering potentially expansive arguments around a single word or phrase (e.g., irriguous and irremeable, sunt qui; also, scattered throughout the book like a leitmotiv are comments upon or corrections to several entries in the OED, which underscores the detailed attention H pays to English as a language and as literature).

The book begins with a five-page introduction (pp. ix-xiv) that concisely summarizes the book's argument and key passages and adds that the purpose of the book is "to explore a particular way in which literary works might have been otherwise: in their language choices" (xiii). Chapter One, "Multilingualism in Literature" has three main parts: first, definitions and examples of multilingualism in literature are discussed, with emphasis on the social history of language; second, H outlines the history of multilingualism and then discusses the social history of Latin in Europe, followed by the social history of Greek in Europe; third, H concludes with an examination of works of multilingualism, ordering the discussion according to the degree of multilingualism in a work, from multilingual ouvres at one extreme to individual foreign words or phrases at the other. The second section's discussion of the social history of Greek and Latin in Central and Western Europe is foundational, to the extent that the histories involved are important as background for some of the analyses which follow (e.g., the discussion of language purism in Chapter Two), so I will describe some of its contents before moving on to brief descriptions of the other chapters.

The second section of Chapter One begins with the assertion that the history of bilingualism in the West had an "influential precedent" in the contact between Latin and Greek because "though the Latin language bears within it witness to its contacts with other languages (Etruscan and Celtic in particular), it was bilingualism in Greek that mattered most in Roman history and culture" (3). H attempts to take some measure of the shifting attitudes and perceptions that Romans had of Greek, and underscores the complexity of bilingualism in antiquity, varying in degree from one end of the Roman Empire to the other. The argument moves through a quick overview of the Middle Ages, touching on Chaucer, Gower and Langland. As H presses past the Renaissance and takes up Pope's imitation of Horace Epistles 2.1, I found the relationships between Pope's text and Horace's text (Pope's text is to French literature and culture as Horace's text is to Greek literature and culture) provocative and complex enough that the argument deserves more details (e.g., dates, commentary on the gendering of languages, more detailed analysis of each text) and more quotation.

The chapter then outlines a social history of Latin and Greek in Western and Central Europe. With respect to Latin, H notes that "it is not yet possible to offer a comprehensive" version of that history (6). The main conclusion H reaches is that, in any of the European contexts he analyzes, "to choose to write Latin during the Renaissance was very different from that choice in the nineteenth century because the role of the language in society changed drastically during this time" (10). As far as a social history of Greek goes, H is understandably more cautious and complains that "Greek verse by English poets has not received the critical and editorial attention that are essential to evaluate them adequately by relevant and historically informed criteria; the same is true for almost all the Greek verses produced in the West since the Renaissance" (10). H stresses the complexities of the Italian humanist reception of Greek, since Greek culture was both treated with hostility and "has been seen as key to the Renaissance" (12). H then roams through an interesting but fast-paced discussion of Greek and Latin as oral media, French hostility to Greek (H demonstrates that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Greek was perceived by many French authors as heretical and pedantic), and the importance of Greek in Britain and Germany from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries.

Chapter Two addresses the purist impulses or cultural movements that mobilize and configure concepts of "foreign" and "native" in linguistic terms. The chapter examines the differences between perceived etymologies and actual etymological connections in different language and literary contexts and emphasizes the connections between register and vocabulary in English. The chapter concludes with an interesting discussion of the importance of the monosyllable as it has been variously perceived and valorized in discussions of English literature. At every step, H carefully avoids reductive descriptions of broad cultural judgements by continually citing evidence of opposing perspectives on the issues at stake, say, the monosyllable in prosody. Also, H points out that Saxon monosyllables, long before the Romantics got ahold of them, have a long history of being perceived as a "sincere utterance by an authentic self" (65). The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of two works written entirely in monosyllables.

Chapter Three, "The Interference of Latin with English Literature," begins with a list of "four possible deployments of a foreign source within a literary work" (74) which are "literary analogues" (78) of language interference. The list describes: (1) instances in which the foreign language (Greek or Latin) is present as source but does not interfere with or interrupt the native language (English poems); (2) instances in which the foreign is used to deviate from the norms of ordinary language; (3) instances in which the foreign bears crucial likeness to the native language; (4) instances which utilize the foreign "to mark both style and subject as foreign" (77). Two of English literature's most monumental epics illustrate "interference in its most extreme literary forms" (78): Milton's Paradise Lost and Joyce's Finnegans Wake. H points out that the Greek and Latin "presence" plays a very different role in the meaning of each text. A short analysis of six other particular examples of interference concludes this section, and the chapter ends with a fourteen-page description of the various uses to which sunt qui phrases have been put in English literature.

Chapters Four and Five describe several types of influences Greek literature and perceptions of Greek culture have had on English and German literature. Certain major works of English poetry have explored "the alien value, desired or threatening, of Greece" (105) by adopting compound epithets, privative adjectives, or meters that were perceived as Greek. H develops Aristotle's bifurcated designation of types of compound epithets, in which the distinction is made between energetic epithets used for the rhetorical purpose of animating writing with emotion, as opposed to enargetic epithets used to heighten vivid description and add decorative embellishments (Rhetoric 3.5 and 7). H claims that the enargetic compound epithet, appealing to eye and ear with its decorative beauty, "was understood to be Greek" (109). This guides a reading of compound epithets in English poems from Milton through the canonical Romantics, to Tennyson, Browning, and Hopkins, ending with a few reflections on epithets in Yeats and Pound.

Chapter Five concludes the book with a similarly polarized distinction that begins with Winckelmann's polemical conceptualization of Greek art, "Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst" (1755). H focuses on the linguistic aspects of the German conceptions of Greece that developed after Winckelmann, taking Goethe's Iphigenie as an example of the calm, smooth literary style that was perceived as being Homeric and Sophoclean, and Hölderlin's hymns as an example of the abrupt, rough, paratactical literary style that was perceived as Aeschylean and Pindaric. The discussion then turns to British Hellenism, focussing on Shelley, Swinburne, and Hopkins.

The endnotes (pp. 174-202) are informative and very often helpfully ground the discussion in salient historical assessments of the many periods and contexts covered. I found it annoying, however, that citations sometimes would appear in the paragraph after a passage has been quoted. In place of a proper bibliography, the book substitutes a completely impracticable "Further Reading" section (pp. 203-206), a chapter-by-chapter list of texts, which is neither comprehensive nor complete nor selective enough to be a useful guide. I would have much preferred, and I believe the book would be improved and more useful with, a centralized bibliography. The index (pp. 207-210) is also basically unusable. There are few class or conceptual entries, and the author and title entries are not complete. Overall, I want to indicate that these concerns only address the formal part of the book's ability to suit the multiple demands of research. Not everyone who comes to this book will have expertise in all of the many disciplines upon which it touches, so I think it would serve the book better to have resources that are accommodative. Therefore, I recommend the book, but with some reservation. This book's application of linguistic and historical scholarship to its examination of English literature makes a real contribution to the study of the history of the classical tradition and to comparative studies of English and classical literature. H admits that his study is only "an initial survey of a very rich topic," which is true, but his wide purview enlightens and entertains as it scans the customs and literary curiosities of language contact.


1.   The citations of H's previous work includes: Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, tr. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atlanta in Calydon, ed. Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin, 2000); Horace in English, eds. D. S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin, 1996).
2.   There were a few editorial oversights or small typos: the comma left dangling at the end of the Further Notes section (206); the printing of "The Interface of Latin" instead of "The Interference of Latin" (204); on page 186 endnote 25 a close quote is needed; page 119 is also missing a close quote for "Religion of the Beautiful, the Religion of Joy"; the set-up for the block quote on page 101 ("I allude to William Empson") is accidentally included in the quote itself; "Latinate English" should be "latinate English" (56), δυσπότμος should be δύσποτμος (43).

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