Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.02

Craig Kallendorf, The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 252.  ISBN 978-0-19-921236-1.  £45.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Moul, The Queen's College, Oxford (
Word count: 2097 words

Table of Contents

This new book by Craig Kallendorf (hereafter K) is important, timely and well-written. For those familiar with his recent work, it builds upon themes he has been exploring for several years, but an argument such as the one made here -- about the general prevalence of a reading or reception over a given period -- lends itself particularly well to a monograph. The cumulative reinforcement over a series of case-studies widely variant in origin, genre and period is both fascinating and convincing, and without doubt he succeeds in his stated aim: 'to show in some detail that there is a continuous tradition of 'pessimistic' readings [of the Aeneid] that extends through the early modern period in Europe and the western hemisphere, in works written in English, French, Italian, Latin, and Spanish' (p. viii). In fact, he does rather more than this: in addition to providing a kind of history of such readings, The Other Virgil goes a long way, too, towards establishing the uses -- both political and literary -- to which such 'pessimistic' readings might be put.

Between Introduction and Conclusion, the book is divided into three main sections: 'Marginalization', 'Colonization' and 'Revolution', each of which is further subdivided into three parts. Section one, 'Marginalization', is concerned in all three of its subdivisions primarily with Filelfo's fifteenth-century neo-Latin epic poem Sphortias and the tools required to read it intelligently -- primarily, that is, an understanding of its Virgilian appropriations and the use to which they are put by the author in his attempt to cast himself as Virgil to Sforza's Augustus. This section also includes a good deal of well-integrated material on intervening 'Virgilianisms', both scholarly and literary: excellent short surveys of points of interest in Petrarch, Vegio, Pontano, Ariosto and Vida, among others (pp. 35-50). This concise mapping of an 'alternative critical tradition' (p. 50) is valuable in itself, distinct from its application to Filelfo's work, particularly in its sustained and convincing attempt to trace the history of a reading in 'literary' and 'scholarly' sources alike.

In the second major section, 'Colonization', K discusses Ercilla's La Araucana (an epic poem in Spanish on the colonization of South America under Philip II), Shakespeare's The Tempest, and the lyric poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a sixteenth century Mexican poet. The inclusion of South American sources in this section reveals how the re-working of Virgilian material not only allows the 'colonizer' to imagine and evoke the victims of colonization but, in a further development, permits South American authors schooled in the classics 'to incorporate the voice of the colonized into the literature of the colonizer' (p. 101).

Finally, the third section, 'Revolution', considers Milton's Paradise Lost, Joel Barlow's Vision of Columbus and its revised version, the Columbiad -- primarily concerned, despite its title, with the American Revolution -- and finally Le Plat's Virgile en France, a mock epic retelling of the first six books of the Aeneid as an allegory of the French Revolution. The bold connections here between the revolutionary movements in England, France and America make for perhaps the most strained section of the book: these three appropriations of Virgilian 'pessimism', although fascinating, are very different, and the satiric tone and form of Le Plat's poem marks a particularly major shift. K's remarks on Milton are not, I think, the most original section of The Other Virgil, but his suggestion of a kind of 'ethics' of allusion is valuable and important: if we notice that Adam's sinfulness both reflects and, in an allusive sense, derives from Aeneas' own imperfections, we discover a rich and nuanced model not of perfect heroism, but of Christian striving, failing and striving again towards virtue (pp. 161-2). Arguably, the model of readership demanded by Milton's complex and subtle intertextuality works in a similar fashion to inculcate and reward readerly 'virtue': 'one of the attentive reader's jobs is to figure out how pagan poetry can support Christian truth' (p. 159). This strikes me as a correct, and fruitful, understanding of Milton's allusive practice more generally.

The scope of K's book is obvious from this summary, and The Other Virgil is entirely convincing in the demonstration of its premise: these texts, like many others, do undoubtedly display not only widespread appropriation of Virgil, but also a fascinating tendency to rewrite, or respond to what is dark, troubling or uncertain in the Aeneid. That being the case, the questions raised for this reader, at least, are the success of this particular set of case-studies, and the extent to which the range of texts K has chosen to focus upon -- and the categories under which he has organised them -- help other scholars to formulate and to answer questions raised by the early modern texts with which they are concerned. This is especially pressing given that the terms and structure of K's book will undoubtedly influence the shape of future work.

The tripartite structure of The Other Virgil, as described above, encourages us to organise other early modern texts engaged with Virgil's 'darkness' under similar headings: firstly, the possibility of nuanced or equivocal voices even within political panegyric (as in the apparently straightforward 'laudatory epic' of the Sphortias); secondly, the possibility of using Virgilian imitation to hear and express the voice of the colonized and the cost of empire (whether in epic, lyric or dramatic verse); and, finally, the role of Virgilianism in thinking through the processes of political change and the establishment of a state ('revolution', of various kinds), with an awareness of human fallibility and the costs and dangers of such movements. These seem to me rich and suggestive categories, although any student of Virgil and of his reception might want to add others: the troubling aspects of a dialogue or rivalry between Virgil and other models of poetic authority, whether classical or Christian; the role of Virgilian reception in more private texts, in religious material, or in other genres, for example. But the great strength of K's style and of the organisation of the work is the extent to which it opens up, rather than closes down, thoughts of this kind: Sor Juana's work, discussed in section two, is lyric, not epic, and written by a woman, not a man; similarly, the discussion of Filelfo in section one is concentrated upon Virgil, but sensitive to the importance of Petrarch, Ariosto and Renaissance commentators and critics.

In fact, a particularly admirable feature of The Other Virgil is its focus upon what we might term the 'conditioning context' for intertextuality in the period: the distinctive reading, writing and commentarial practices which shaped how readers and authors approached and understood classical works. K is right to stress that '[t]hroughout most of this period, reading was intensive rather than extensive -- that is, reading focused not on rapid absorption of large numbers of books, but rather on careful, meticulous study of a small number of texts that were held in great esteem' (p. 3). The Other Virgil incorporates, in text and footnotes, an immensely valuable commentary and bibliography on reading practices of the day, and flags up, too, areas particularly ripe for further research.

Like any suggestive and important book, The Other Virgil raises as many questions as it answers, and inevitably a work as wide-ranging as this will prompt many follow-up thoughts in readers with various areas of expertise. K's sections on Milton and on Shakespeare are perhaps most likely to provoke questions and worries of this kind; aside from Virgil himself, these are the authors with the largest and most daunting quantities of existent scholarship. K's extremely suggestive discussion of Prospero's 'casting' of Ferdinand as a (Renaissance) Aeneas -- and therefore tempted by the lure of Dido's political power -- made me wish for an extension of this point in relation to Tamora in 'Titus Andronicus' (possibly an even more deeply Virgilian play than The Tempest). Similarly, K's remarks on the Virgilianism of Paradise Lost could be related extremely fruitfully to the more literal Virgilianism of, for instance, the Epitaphium Damonis -- Milton's Virgilian neo-Latin is among the best and most moving 'fake' Virgil there is, and an essential background to the 'English Virgilianism' of his mature work. No doubt scholars with expertise in French, Spanish, Italian and American literature would have similar responses. But much of the appeal of this book is its ability to be urgently suggestive in this way without this reader, at least, ever feeling that the argument was seriously marred by an obvious omission. This is in large part due to the erudition and even-handedness of K's footnotes, a treasure-trove of information and ideas in themselves -- particularly fine examples are note 96 on p. 111 on the mysterious 'widow Dido' exchange in The Tempest; and note 66 on p. 42 on Maffeo Vegio's Supplement to the Aeneid, a fifteenth century 'thirteenth book' for the epic, regularly printed in editions of Virgil until late in the Renaissance.

The majority of readers of this review are, naturally, likely to know Virgil himself better than any of the instances of his reception under discussion. K's book is, quite clearly and properly, about the reception of the Aeneid specifically, not Virgil more generally. But if there was one question I felt it raised, more insistently than any other, it was the place of Virgil's earlier works (and indeed of the pseudo-Virgilian pieces regularly attributed to him in the Renaissance) in this narrative and analysis of 'pessimistic' readings. The continuities between the distinctive kinds of sadness and darkness in the Eclogues and the Georgics -- especially of erotic loss and human constraint -- and their role in the Aeneid strikes most readers who know the whole corpus well, and this must have been still more the case for Renaissance readers encountering Virgil, very often, in editions of his Works dense with notes and cross-reference. Indeed, an element of the 'darkness' of the Aeneid is itself derived from such correspondences: as when Turnus and Aeneas, at the end of Book 12, are compared to a pair of bulls, violent with lust, whom we have met before in the Georgics.

There is perhaps one further particularly fascinating question which K's book raises but does not entirely confront: his selected case-studies are very varied in their current popularity, but also, more interestingly, and by his own admission, in their "success". On several occasions, K's description of his subject's 'Virgilianism' incorporates or implies an account of their 'failure' -- such as Barlow, whose 'Virgilian allusions made him seem too conservative at home and his increasingly radical republicanism made him seem suspect abroad' (p. 212). Similarly, on the now obscure Filelfo, whose 'Virgilian imitation collapses in failure along with his position at Sforza's court' (p. 14). K concludes his book with suggestions for the direction of further research, and one of these is greater sophistication in our handling of intertextuality. Clearly the kinds of intertextual strategies described in this book are vulnerable to 'failure' of various kinds: of over-subtlety, such that their subversion or nuance goes undetected; of falling victim to changing dominant readings of Virgil himself; or of simply failing to establish or invite a readership of the appropriate kind. Such 'failure' is hardly a fashionable theoretical term, but it is one that deserves, I think, further thought.

Perhaps most valuable of all, The Other Virgil gives those of us working on associated matters an authoritative reference point on a host of related issues: not only the possibility of reading Virgil 'negatively' in the period, but also the possibility of 'against the grain' or 'anti-authoritarian' readings of Augustan texts in the Renaissance more generally, and of the presence of such readings in political panegyric in particular. What might the 'pessimistic' reader of the Aeneid, writing themselves at an early modern court, have made, for example, of Horace Odes Book 4?

Very few readers -- and certainly not this one -- will approach K's book with equal expertise in all the works, cultures and periods under discussion. But The Other Virgil amounts to more than a series of compelling case-studies of interest to scholars of Virgil's reception (though it is that). Classicists, intellectual historians and scholars of neo-Latin will all find much here of interest, and a rich crop of notes and directions for their own future work. Above all, in common with all the best work upon reception, these acute readings of major early modern writers take us back with fresh eyes to the Aeneid itself, and contribute to our understanding of the depth and nuance of Virgil's poetry.

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