Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.19

Peter E. Knox (ed.), Oxford Readings in Ovid.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2006.  Pp. 541.  ISBN 978-0-19-928115-2.  $150.00 (hb).  ISBN 978-0-19-928116-9.  $55.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Glenn C. Lacki, St Hugh's College, University of Oxford (
Word count: 4128 words

Table of Contents

One of the latest instalments in the now long-established Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series of publications (henceforth O.R.C.S.), Oxford Readings in Ovid, edited by Peter E. Knox (henceforth K.), does not have a particularly enviable pedigree. To tell it plainly, a sizeable spectrum of critical apprehension, and at times even reprehension, has persistently dogged the various manifestations in the series.1 Much of this criticism has been firmly grounded in simple truth: after all, the remit of the series (drawn from a review by Christina Kraus; I myself was never made privy to the information) is perhaps an overly daunting one: "to provide students and scholars with a representative selection of the best and most influential articles on a particular author, work, or subject." This is a monumental task, and one which I see as not without its inherent flaws (for instance the cunning, though ill-concealed, effort at eating one's cake and having it too which I observe in that "students and scholars" bit); it stands to K.'s credit, then, that his attempt at meeting that remit here was an admirable one. As a result, it pains me all the more to have to say that many of the former criticisms of the series apply to an equal degree now as before: this book too, like many of its predecessors, refuses to settle on an unambiguous target audience and effectively casts its contributions -- most already readily accessible in their originally published forms -- as disconnected, largely unaltered, and therefore semi-dusty (even if individually valuable) artefacts of Ovidian scholarship, making the project's ultimate purpose somewhat questionable. As a result, its essential utility to the world of classical scholarship is cast into doubt. This is unfortunate, since otherwise the book contains the makings of what could well be a helpful companion.

To be perfectly clear, then, from the outset: with few exceptions, the articles which form the substance of this collection, regarded independently, are wholly worth reading, and the essential standards of editing have all been executed industriously throughout the volume. Accordingly, except where I note otherwise, I regard O.R.C.S. and its remit as the underlying problem with the book -- not the individual essays, their authors, or their editor.

There is much I wish to consider here, not least of which is the question of in what manner, and by what criteria, one can fairly and adequately evaluate the general usefulness of a collection of this nature. All the essays here have, after all, been critiqued, responded to, and even used as academic platforms in previous scholarship. In the interests of the rushed reader, then, I have split my discourse into what I hope will be a series of helpful subdivisions: (I) 'An Overall Look'; (II) 'Exploring the Collection'; (III) 'Why Publish O.R.C.S. in the First Place?'; (IV) 'Lesser Criticisms'; and (V) 'The Bottom Line'.

I. An Overall Look

The tome, with its essays beautifully reset to the O.U.P.'s usual high standard, is easy on the eye, if not on the pocketbook. Those twenty articles -- eighteen originally published in the pages of an assortment of well-known journals, two drawn from previous collections, and all ranging in date from 1976 to 1999 -- prove, in large part, a dependable crew. Only a very few do not belong, unable to live up to or sit well with their more robust counterparts. I will address this concern further, below. The contributions are taken from an agreeably international range of scholars -- both men and women, some on this side of the pond, some on that, and a sprinkling from the continent. One article in particular -- Sergio Casali's "Other Voices in Ovid's 'Aeneid'" -- has been revised and translated here from its original Italian; this can certainly be counted among the book's strengths. K. subdivides the book into four sections: (I) 'Contexts and Intertexts' (seven essays); (II) 'Ideologies of Love and Poetry' (four essays); (III) 'Narrators and Narratives' (five essays); and (IV) 'On the Margins of Empire' (four essays). These sections are intended to represent, it would seem, the major subjects of Ovidian scholarly attention during the Ovid boom of the last three decades or so; I do not, in any significant respect, disagree with these categories or with their pertinence to Ovidian studies, though at times the category to which a given paper is assigned does seem somewhat arbitrary.2 But let us move now to specifics. Additional, lesser criticisms of presentation and content I shall append near the end of the review.

II. Exploring the Collection

Allow me to offer some thoughts on the character and coherence of the collection, as it stands. For reasons of space, I can only remark on a selection of the volume's contributions. In so doing, I hope to take in hand as well those issues of purpose and (to a lesser degree) audience which beleaguer this series, and this book in it. I hope, thereby, to convey my impressions both of what a collection such as this should offer and also of what this specific collection actually does offer, which are not, in all cases, one and the same. Although almost everything here constitutes worthwhile reading, there are a few articles in the collection I would instinctively and unreservedly regard as essential reading for every 'interested reader' (to whom the book caters, according to its cover). For instance, Hinds's vital "Generalizing About Ovid" is rightfully situated at the front of K.'s volume. There is no higher praise that I can offer of this intrepid contribution to Ovidian studies other than to say that I think it unlikely that I (or a great many others) would be so heartily studying Ovid today, without its influence. It raised all the right questions, at precisely the right time, and it did so fearlessly, exhuming Ovid from the tomb of sassy superficiality in which decades of priggish appraisal had interred him. Hinds demonstrated a fresh way to try to understand not only Ovid and his literary conventions, but also how Ovid understood the poetry of his predecessors, and even how later ancient writers, in their turn, understood Ovid. Kennedy's "Epistolary Mode" similarly ripped through a mass of negative criticism -- this time of the Heroides -- exhibiting just how far from the mark had been, in particular, that mode of critique which pegged these poems as nothing more than monotonous rhetorical set pieces. His example of how to read Penelope's epistle as an intertextual tour de force of narrative and temporal manipulation sparked the dawn of a new and increasingly active era in the history of the appreciation and analysis of the . Heroides Wyke's innovative "Reading Female Flesh" exploded a few time-honoured but blinkered assumptions as to how we are to interpret certain key elements of the mistresses of Augustan elegy, showing that an overriding preoccupation with politics and poetics was by no means a feature solely attributable to Ovid -- he did not, after all, create the conventions; he is simply the convention-conscious guy who most enjoys italicizing them for us. Sharrock's incisive "Ovid and the Politics of Reading" is perhaps one of the most cunning and carefully balanced examples of an Ovidian ideas-thesis available. Her discussion of the Ars Amatoria and of 'reading as a political act' tends towards the dogmatic, but her prudent consideration of conflicting perspectives reveals the dogma for what it truly is: the undeniable truth, in almost every case. Kenney's "Ovidius Prooemians" is a truly important philological blending of textual-critical considerations and literary criticism; despite its apparent minimalism, without this bit of scholarship the opening of the Metamorphoses might well not be what it is today. Nor might general estimation of Ovid's exile poetry be escalating so steadily and purposefully without Hinds's "Booking the Return Trip", a contribution of more focused significance than his other article in the volume, but of similar impact. His reading of Tristia 1 decisively belies Ovid's exilic posturing of his depreciating poetic output, supplying new eyes through which to comprehend the ways in which the relegated poet construed (and constructed) his own exile. Feeney's "Si licet et fas est", finally, is an astute and penetrating reflection that teases out the concerns of censorship, which may well represent the central theme of Ovid's Fasti: as with Sharrock's, this essay paints a vivid new picture of the problematic relationship between Ovid and Augustus, a picture that demonstrates just how well Ovid came to understand, in exile, that the times had most certainly changed, and not for the better.

Contributions such as these are of such high calibre, and of such a high degree of accessibility, that they surely represent a benchmark for inclusion in a volume of this type. For this reason, I cannot cheer on the uneven juxtaposition, with such as these, of articles like Holzberg's "Playing with his Life" or Miller's "Ovidian Allusion and the Vocabulary of Memory" -- these being the ill-suited few referred to earlier. Date of publication notwithstanding, Holzberg's article slipped beneath the "critical horizon whence we set out" (K.'s language in his introduction, 2) before it was written: one of the very first things one learns of Ovid is that fairly everything we know about the poet comes direct from his poetry. Published in, say, 1912 -- Robinson Ellis delivering his Corpus Christi lecture on the Amores, he and his colleagues blithely discoursing on the merits and failings of 'the poet from Sulmo' -- this paper might have made waves, it might have been news. But this did not need saying in a seventeen-page article at the turn of the twenty-first century, and certainly did not need re-saying here. As for Miller's contribution, it must be said that, before its publication, the subject of poetic remembrance and its language had already been treated more deftly, and in some cases at greater length -- though admittedly, not always with explicit reference to Ovid -- by such scholars as Thomas, Conte, and the contributors to Papponetti's 1991 collection, with the effect of heavily diminishing the need for and impact of this article.3 Neither of these essays would be missed if absent from this volume. I similarly would not number Boyd's "Death of Corinna's Parrot Reconsidered" among " the best and most influential articles" on Ovid. To be clear, however, this third should not be grouped with the previous two in any qualitative or hermeneutic sense. It is a great essay, and great fun, but it does not fit here; it is simply an entirely different brand of discussion, and one which impacted critical debate to a far less substantial degree than the abovementioned 'benchmark' articles.

There are two other points I would like to make along these same lines. First, K.'s own contribution, "Pyramus and Thisbe in Cyprus", is a solid enough piece by itself, but with its heavy focus on material culture it sits rather incongruously with all the others. Why choose this over any one of a number of his other, more compelling essays, and one which perhaps would have been more apposite to the present context -- for example, his excellent "In Pursuit of Daphne" (TAPA 120 [1990]: 183-202)? Then again, his justification of the article (7) as a level-headed example of contemporary source criticism is by no means unfounded. Secondly, if one wants to republish an article that has been truly influential with specific regards to interpretation of the Heroides, then R. A. Smith's "Fantasy, Myth, and Love Letters" is simply not the best choice: that honour surely belongs to Joseph Farrell's "Reading and Writing the Heroides" (HSCP 98 [1998]: 307-38). It is harder, yes, but also much more far-reaching and considerably more impressive.

On the flipside (following the dustcover's language: "an entrée into the current critical discourse on Ovid") the collection contains a few secondi piatti, as well -- challenging and rewarding and great to have if your scholarly eyes do not out-size your scholarly stomach. Deserving of particular mention in this regard are O'Hara's intelligent (though extremely technical) "Vergil's Best Reader?", Fantham's wonderful (though sweeping, lengthy, and intricate) "Ovid, Germanicus, and the Composition of the Fasti", and Barchiesi's characteristically canny (though undeniably huge) "Voices and Narrative 'Instances' in the Metamorphoses". Such items are not requisite for a full and satisfying meal -- and perhaps, ipso facto, their inclusion here is especially to be praised.

So what comes of these four divisions -- of these twenty articles? In short, an Ovid who is less a droll, smart-alecky imitator and more a poetic genius in his own right; one who is less living in Virgil's shadow and more walking beside him, delighted to have that man's works as poetic silage; one less willing casually to accept political oppression and more apt to speak out against it -- and consequently, perhaps, an Ovid who is more intelligent than scholars might have previously thought, but less wise than might ultimately have been advantageous. Is this a just portrait, representative of what has been the prevalent developing image of Ovid during the last three decades? Yes, in fact I think it is. Plainly put, this is a remit well-fulfilled. Is it, however, a remit that should go unquestioned?

III. Why Publish O.R.C.S. in the First Place?

None of the above critique -- all well and good though it may be -- answers the basic question "why?" For instance, even with the praise I have offered of them above, why reproduce here Barchiesi's and Wyke's articles -- regardless of their utility -- when both had already been reproduced (and Barchiesi's translated) in their individual anthologies just a few years ago? Their inclusion here is, of course, a nod -- and a wholly deserved nod, at that -- but is it not a nod which diminishes the overall usefulness of the collection as a collection? And this is just a small "why". What of the big "why?" That is, why collect and republish these articles, almost wholly unchanged, at all? Cui bono? But then, one should also ask, in fairness, cui malo?

The purpose of a collection of this nature is clearly not "to advance the state of scholarship or criticism" (Farrell's words). Collections which do have that purpose in mind are, naturally, a benefit for everyone. Then again, it would seem that neither can this particular collection be said "to collect scattered and largely unavailable (and therefore neglected) critical masterpieces", which would be a benefit at least for experienced scholars: ten of its articles come from journals whose holdings are accessible online, either via JSTOR or direct from their publishers (CQ, CJ, Arethusa, PCPS, and HSCP), two were originally published in well known and widely-circulated collections (Feeney's in Powell's 1992 Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus and Wyke's in Cameron's 1989 History as Text -- republished in Wyke's own 2002 anthology The Roman Mistress), while one other had already gone from periodical to widely-circulated anthology (Barchiesi's, republished in his 2001 Speaking Volumes). As for the rest (four from MD and one each from Ramus, Lampas, and PLLS), MD is limitedly available online and is in reasonably wide circulation otherwise, Ramus only somewhat less so, and I have already offered, above, my criticism of Holzberg's Lampas contribution. One hopes, then, that this is not a criterion by which we are actually meant to judge the volume, since its strength would then rest heavily on but a quarter of the collection, and possibly less than that. For that matter, one could argue (as Farrell, in n. 1) that 'benchmark' articles such as those I have highlighted will already be familiar to serious Ovidians, well before their republication here. One must ask, then: why republish?

Is the criterion of "best and most influential" a good enough justification, on its own, for the unaltered republication of articles? Were the articles not already readily available, or were they not (very possibly) already well known by the most likely interested parties, then yes, perhaps this would be unproblematically acceptable; but neither is really the case here. It is not part of the remit of O.R.C.S., admittedly, that the collected articles need to have been revised and modernised thoughtfully to account for, illustrate, and point forward to the intervening years of scholarship, nor even that they should to cross-reference one another's discussions. It is not surprising, then, that while footnotes and reference methods have in all instances been streamlined and standardised here, in the vast majority of cases the only 'updating' that has taken place has been the barest essentials of compensating for the time differential (e.g., changing 'now' to 'then', etc.).4 I acknowledge that this was never a stated requirement of the project; nevertheless, I wish to subject that very fact to brief, but serious scrutiny.

To be clear, in almost every respect it cannot and should not count as criticism either of K. or of his contributors that they did not do something they were never asked to do. My basic point, however, is "why weren't they?" Who potentially stands to benefit the most from collections such as this? Presumably, those who most often lack the journal access and other research resources often taken for granted by more established scholars at larger universities -- specifically, the small-college undergraduate and her coursework-seeking instructor; more specifically, not the stated target audience of this collection. Yet that point is somewhat moot: whether uninitiated novice or experienced scholar, neither truly benefits from the unaltered format in which these articles have been presented. Without the aid of pro-visional notes and revisions -- which not only look forward, but which also cast these essays as what they actually are: that is, decidedly not the final word on a given subject -- republication ends up casting them as little more than essentially isolated literary-historical artefacts -- untagged, or at best poorly tagged, museum pieces of Ovidian scholarship, gathering dust even in their would-be renaissance here. This, in retrospective evaluation, does them a serious injustice. Indeed, without such updating which might help to contemporise these debates and to offer detailed appraisal of their 'best and most influential' status, the fundamental benefits of the book to any 'interested reader', regardless of her knowledge-base, are critically limited. She neither can nor should be expected to rely solely upon the necessarily selective and general references to more recent material provided in K.'s otherwise very good introduction -- or, for that matter, on the book's 33-page (and un-compartmentalised) bibliography. This is all too vague; this is all, quite simply, not enough.

Imagine for a moment what a book like this could be. K. states, in his preface, that "[i]n many respects this collection of papers is intended to complement those volumes," 'those volumes' being the 2002 Cambridge and Brill Companions to Ovid. In its present form, however, our present text does not truly fulfil that objective; there is just too great a difference between this collection's free-floating contributions to Ovidian studies and the purpose-written essays of those Companions. But what if it were part of the O.R.C.S. remit that the editor and his or her contributors should perform a deliberate exercise in academic historiography alongside each article to be included in an O.R.C.S. volume -- that they should, at least in their footnotes, make a concerted effort to trace and describe in specific detail the influence their articles and arguments have been said to have had over the progress of scholarship in recent decades? For instance, in the present book, particular reference could have been made not simply to more recent individual monographs and articles on Ovid, but indeed, to those very Companions which the book claims to complement. Such a volume would then be not only a fascinating and thought-provoking read, but a contribution to scholarship useful both to students and to scholars. The very act of collecting articles has, after all, an inherent benefit: fishing essays out of the vast sea of scholarship and displaying them as prize catches, thereby enhancing their status and essential visibility; indeed, to have one's article dubbed 'best and most influential' by as eminent a scholar as K. must itself be quite an honour. So why not make it part of the remit itself that the owners of those contributions so honoured should take some time (and have enough faith in their own very good work) to demonstrate and discuss why they think their articles have been selected for inclusion? Call me an idealist if you must, but I think that that could be a truly satisfying and enlightening thing to see.

As it stands, however, no such process has been enacted here. Left instead with a collection of already readily available and mostly unaltered pieces of scholarship, we are similarly left having to ask: why? Cui bono, then? It is my hope that this collection may, at the very least, make it that much easier for a student or scholar of Ovid -- or perhaps even a member of a more general, interdisciplinary audience -- to get her hands on one or more of these articles. Cui malo? No one, I suppose, but the trees. An acceptable price to cut a few research corners? My greener sympathies tell me perhaps not.

IV. Lesser Criticisms

There are a few other, lesser criticisms which might bear mentioning before I conclude. One minor gripe: the dustcover states that "[t]he entire range of [Ovid's] poetry ... is covered in this collection," but notably absent is the Remedia Amoris. That poem receives all of about five mentions across the entire volume, an absence further underscored by the inclusion in the collection even of an article on the Ibis. Perhaps this is indicative of a recent loss of interest in the work? Or perhaps it simply means that the RA's revival post-dates the period from which this collection's articles are drawn.5 Further, the translation of Latin and Greek is spotty, done on some occasions but not on others, with the effect of sprinkling the text rather than pervading it; the whole enterprise could have been made much more accessible to the random 'interested reader' -- or to the entry-level undergraduate -- had a greater degree of consistency been maintained in this regard, and, even more importantly, had K. asked his contributors to translate the (at present entirely untranslated) foreign languages in their footnotes, as well. The indices provided are very sound, but a complete index locorum would have been entirely preferable to the restricted "Index of Passages from Ovid" supplied instead. The Acknowledgements section (489-90) proffers full bibliographical information for each contribution's original incarnation; it is unfortunate, however, that K. or the O.U.P. did not see fit to provide their original pagination (in brackets, say, or in the margins) alongside the text of the actual essays -- not a wholly uncomplicated matter, but the sort of attentive detail that would have been appreciated. The book's few illustrations are generally well reproduced, though figures 8.1 and (esp.) 14.4 are too dark for satisfactory study. As I mentioned, however, in terms of the standard requisites of editing, by and large the book has been quite scrupulously prepared -- shy, perhaps, of the O.U.P.'s own very annoying in-house muddle of British and American spelling (which would, for instance, take Stephen Hinds's "Generalising About Ovid" and reprint it as "Generalizing About Ovid" with the rest of its originally British spelling similarly switched about in seemingly arbitrary manner). Further to K.'s credit, then, my corrigenda are limited.6

V. The Bottom Line

Could I personally recommend that you buy Oxford Readings in Ovid? This depends heavily upon who 'you' are. Are 'you' an academic library? If so, you will probably buy it, anyway -- no doubt in its extravagantly priced hardcover edition -- regardless of anything I say or do. But should you? If you, being a library, do not have extensive journal subscriptions, online or otherwise, then yes, perhaps so. Otherwise, perhaps not. If 'you', however, are an individual scholar, then in good conscience I could not recommend purchase beyond the paperback. Should interested persons read the articles in this collection? Very probably; but to do so is only made easier by, and does not necessitate, possession of this volume. K.'s task, insomuch as was asked of him, has been well performed here; but that task was a flawed one from the outset: O.R.C.S. suffers from fundamental problems of purpose and presentation. This has been noted by any number of other reviewers of books in the series; I find it deeply discouraging that the editors at the O.U.P. have so consistently neglected to take on board this swelling tide of constructive criticism. In its wake, what, one might rightly ask, will it take to make them see these essential issues for what they are? Mutiny?


1.   Consider, e.g., a pastiche of Joseph Farrell's comments on Harrison's 1990 Aeneid O.R.C.S. volume: "Nearly all of the essays included ... are of a very high quality, some of them acknowledged classics, most of them familiar to serious Vergilians. But this fact in itself raises a question ... : Why? [...] The vast majority of the papers they collect were already widely available. I do not believe that the contributions themselves gain very much by appearing in this format; most of them have already made their mark [...] I wonder whether these collections address a real pedagogical need." And so on. Cf. too the similar remarks in other O.R.C.S. reviews by Olson, Kruschwitz, and (most recently) de Jonge.
2.   After all, it is not (for example) as though Ovid stopped toying with genres or renounced intertextuality (I) whilst writing his love poetry (II), manipulating narrative (III), or languishing on the shores of the Black Sea (IV). But then, when speaking of Ovidian poetry, could any two categories ever truly be mutually exclusive?
3.   Specifically: Thomas, R. F. (1986) "Virgil's Georgics and the Art of Reference", HSCP 90: 171-98; Conte, G. B. (1986) The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, ed. C. Segal (Ithaca and London); and Papponetti, G. (ed.) (1991) Ovidio, poeta della memoria (Rome).
4.   Notable exceptions (partially exempt, therefore, from this criticism): Holzberg (a nice afterword, 68 n. 24); Boyd (another good 'forward-pointing' closing footnote, 216 n. 21); Sharrock (e.g., 246 n. 18); Knox (n. 1, e.g., contains references to later work on the mosaics in question). Kenney (265 n. 1) makes a token, but misleading, gesture (i.e., you expect more and never get it). Barchiesi and Wyke get 'Honourable Mention'; they had, after all, already updated their articles for their personal anthologies (2001 and 2002, respectively). Even so, the fact remains that the overall effort put in by anyone here was -- as should be evident from these details -- minimal.
5.   Cf. a recent TOCS-IN search on the subject, of which I can personally recommend the contributions by Davisson, Kennedy, Fulkerson, and Fish.
6.   I offer the following: 41 -- for 'if, for that manner' read 'if, for that matter'; 66 -- for 'Jacobsen' read 'Jacobson'; 96 -- for 'Odes 1:10' read 'Odes 1.10'; 110 -- un-indented pentameter; 235 -- move 'corpora' to its rightful home in the second line of the Met. quotation; 489 -- for 'Casati' read 'Casali'. Also, on p. 228 (n. 17) Smith writes "Cf. also Henderson (1986) 7-10, 37-40, 67-70, 81-5, 113-20 ..." -- this should in fact read "82-5, 114-20," and the book's bibliographical entry, which presently reads "Henderson, J. (1986) 'Becoming a Heroine (1st): Penelope's Ovid ...', LCM 11.1: 7-10" should be revised to reflect that this article was published in stages, across multiple issues: "11.1: 7-10; 11.3: 37-40; 11.5: 67-70; 11.6: 82-5; and 11.7.2: 114-20."

Read Latest
Index for 2007
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:32:14, Friday, 03 April 2009