Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.45

Kristi Viiding, Die Dichtung neulateinischer propemptika an der Academia Gustaviana (Dorpatensis) in den Jahren 1632-1656. Dissertationes Studiorum Graecorum et Latinorum Universitatis Tartuensis 1.   Tartu:  Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastuse trükikoda, 2002.  Pp. 309.  ISBN 9985-56-699-8.  



Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark (minna.s.j@gmail.com)
Word count: 1167 words

This pioneer work, a presentation and edition of six collections of Estonian Neo-Latin poetry, analyses the sum total of preserved valedictory poems composed during the first period of Tartu University's existence. By concentrating on a limited object and describing the poems in their social and literary context the author succeeds in drawing a careful picture not only of the poems analysed, but of poetic practice and ideals in this part of Europe in the middle of the 17th century.

The University of Tartu (German: Dorpat) has a vexed history. It was founded 1632 by the Swedish authorities as part of their cultural policy in conquered areas, but in 1656 it closed down because of wars. In 1690 it was reopened, only to close again in 1710. Although its subsequent history was also troubled, it still exists today, and with her dissertation Kristi Viiding became the first doctor on a Latin thesis from this university since 1942.

Four of the collections are addressed to Germans, two to Swedes. One of the addressees is a professor, the others are students, who are either proceeding to another university or going home. One of them is Andreas Arvidi, who has an important place in the history of Swedish literature, similar to that of Martin Opitz in Germany. Back home in 1651 he published the first handbook of Swedish poetry and argued that it would be possible to compose artistically in the vernacular.

Most of the poets are students, but the local professor of poetry and rhetoric, Laurentius Ludenius, has contributed to five of the six collections. In all, they comprise 75 poems (1267 verses), of which 65 (1015 verses) are in Latin. Of the remainder most are in German; besides, there are three small poems in ancient Greek and one in partly old church Slavonic, partly Russian. Notably, there are no poems in Swedish. As is often the case with Neo-Latin poetry, they have survived as printed volumes, preserved in a single or very few copies. They are edited and translated into German in appendix 1.

In her analysis, Viiding treats them as a whole, describing their characteristics from a variety of angles, but with an emphasis on questions of literary form. She refers regularly to the theoretical handbooks in use, by J. C. Scaliger, Menander Rhetor and G. J. Vossius, but her study focuses on the actual practice of the texts and emphasizes that they represent poetical traditions that go well beyond what is to be found in the manuals.

Viiding first discusses the general tradition of poetry at the University of Tartu during this first period -- its background in teaching, its classical and contemporary models, the accessible textbooks, the various genres represented, and the problems of language choice.

The study proper of the propemptica opens with questions external to the text such as social context and material transmission. In the solid main chapter of the book, Viiding approaches the poems from various angles in order to reveal the poets' notion of the genre (their Gattungsbewusstsein). She first considers the term propempticon. It is established in Scaliger's Poetics and first mentioned in Tartu in a theoretical work on poetry in 1642. In the six collections analysed, it occurs twice in headlines, but never in the poems. Next, Viiding discusses at some length a couple of passages in the poems in which the process of composing is explicitly treated and underlines the fact that the ideas expressed come very close to what is found in similar Swedish or Northern German contexts. Then subject-matter and motifs are studied. Here Viiding first broadens the view to the whole Eastern Baltic region in order to establish a general picture of the genre. Against this background she lists the motifs that are used in Tartu and describes the specific characteristics of this local practice. Finally, she considers the subgenres (Gedichttypen) represented. There are ten in all: epigram, elegy, anagram, Horatian lyrics, phalaeceum, chronogram, epic, Anacreontic lyrics, crossword poem and prosimetrum.

A closing chapter discusses whether the poems were perhaps orally performed in connection with farewell parties.

Besides the monograph and text edition, the book contains summaries in English and Estonian, a list of sources, bibliography, various appendices, an index of the persons who appear in the poems, and an autobiography of the author.

Viiding's approach is strictly descriptive, and only rarely does she allow herself to comment on poetic qualities. But when she does, it is to underline positive aspects of the poems (e. g. p. 126). She is well read in the relevant scholarly literature, not only as regards studies in Latin poetry, but also the much richer field of analysis of vernacular poetry from the same period. In this respect her study is an important contribution to the efforts towards understanding the fascinating multilingual side of Baroque poetry. She is regularly comparing her Estonian material with Northern German and Swedish collections of Latin poetry, and here, too, she is very well informed. Often, however, she has to refrain from too clear-cut conclusions because they would have had to build on research that has not yet been performed. In other cases she is politely critical of too sweeping statements, such as Luc Deitz' opinion that Scaliger's poetics was no longer read in this period, but known only indirectly via Opitz' work (pp. 27-8). This "does not seem" to hold good for Tartu, according to Viiding. Her own study is a model of solid, careful scholarship.

A few points of criticism may be added. Viiding's choice of analysing the six collections as one coherent corpus implies a tendency for the individual poems to disappear in the investigation of general characteristics. She does, however, compensate for this when in some cases she pauses to offer a closer discussion of a given text, such as in her analysis of the strange case in which a satirical epigram is used as a valedictory poem (p. 96-8). Her style is somewhat heavy, and now and then she involves herself in periods of almost monstrous length (e.g. the one leading from p. 73 to 74). Much relevant material that might well have been part of the running text is hidden away in notes. Also, indices to the monograph part of the book, of persons as well as of subjects treated, would have been helpful.

This need is all the more felt because Viiding's work lends itself to being used as a handbook. Its explicit theme is narrow, one genre in one town during a few decades, but since (to my knowledge) the Neo-Latin propempticon has not previously been the object of a book-length study, her work will be an essential point of departure for further studies in the field. Furthermore, the way Viiding handles her six collections, systematically studying them in a much broader historical, geographic and thematical context, adds considerably to the scope of the book and its usefulness as a more general work of reference.

Her study deserves to find readers well beyond the range of Neo-Latinists.

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