Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.75

David Hopkins, Conversing with Antiquity: English Poets and the Classics, from Shakespeare to Pope. Classical Presences.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. vii, 343.  ISBN 9780199560349.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Dan Hooley, University of Missouri (

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This is a welcome and in fact valuable publication that will be widely appreciated by those interested in classical reception in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That observation covers a lot of ground, both in terms of the matter of this book and its potential audience. The matter first: introduction and twelve chapters, each of which, “in a substantially corrected, revised, and updated form,” was (or will be) published elsewhere, from 1976 through “forthcoming” in 2010. Although the essays in their earlier incarnations are generally not difficult to find, several in fact having appeared in widely available, major press collections, the argument implicitly and at points explicitly made for consolidated re-publication is their updating and placement within a conceptual frame, literary reception as “conversation.” How satisfactory that framing is will be briefly discussed below, but one could hardly object to the ready availability of revised versions of already important studies focusing on Dryden, Pope, Cowley, Shakespeare, and a good many others.

The potential audience for this book is obvious, as noted above, with some qualification. Hopkins writes as an English scholar well versed in the classics rather than as a classicist looking at British literature, and so stands in a long and rather venerable line of scholars of the classical tradition. That term might seem mildly pejorative to some these days, and probably to Hopkins too since he insists strenuously on “reception” as the appropriate descriptor of his work. Yet the his critical universe, in which his sometime teacher H.A. Mason is pre-eminent, does not much speak the critical language of the Konstanz school, of Jauss, Iser, Habermas, and Gadamer. Readers will not find much reference through the bulk of these essays to the theoretical side of reception--though Hopkins’s introduction makes clear that he is familiar with much of it. Rather, as did Mason, Hopkins writes a poised, deliberate, expansive, intensely literary “essay.” Its manner is one of carefully wrought conclusions woven through with a plenitude of quotations from his subjects--and others--in the Restoration and eighteenth century literary universe. Hopkins’s prose, punctuated by a fair number of italicized emphases, can be at times a little too earnestly “instructive”; on the other hand, it is prose made to last: intelligent, scrupulous, unstinting of detail, and informative. Readers with a yen to learn something about the classics in the the literature of the long eighteenth century in England should turn, perhaps first, to this book.

The book’s introduction seeks to organize the chapters that follow into a kind of methodological coherence. Briefly, after discussing some of the fundamental ways in which reception differs from studies in the classical tradition, Hopkins goes on to raise (some) issues in reception theory, notably the “rift” as he sees it between historicist, ideologically self-conscious reception (“ideology critique”) and the Kantian “reception aesthetics” advocated by Charles Martindale (Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste: An Essay in Aesthetics). This is not the place to expand on that discussion, though it does strike me that Hopkins’s treatment is fairly superficial, which may not be terribly inappropriate in that it seems intended chiefly to introduce Hopkins’s own theoretical compromise, reception figured as “conversation.” It is an agreeable enfiguration of the interactive process taking place when an earlier text is invoked or engaged by a later author/text: it eliminates both the one-sidedness implicit in conventional descriptors like “influence,” “tradition,” “adaptation,” or “appropriation” and the passivity implicit in “reception.” And Hopkins makes a sound if limited case for its critical viability, though the notion is of course less a theory than a metaphorical way of thinking of reception, and particularly translation, one of Hopkins’s primary interests in this volume. It is a little odd (to register a minor quibble) that, in adumbrating the several features and dimensions of receptive conversation, he observes an “intuitive sympathy” between respective (conversing) authors without noting here in the conceptual introduction the “friendship” model of translation conspicuously raised by Roscommon in the later 17th century, though substantial mention of the latter’s 1684 Essay on Translated Verse does appear in Chapters 4 and 9 of this book. Other important contributions to the long history of translation theory go unremarked here as well, though he does home in critically on Lawrence Venuti’s recent advocacy of “foreignizing” translation.

Whatever the limitations of its exposition here, the “conversation” model does raise interesting conceptual ideas and Hopkins is right to pursue them. The question is whether the rubric really does theoretically inform or describe the essays that follow, and the answer to that is I think largely negative. Even in the introduction’s illustrative examples of Dryden and Pope on Homer, where Hopkins shows the two Englishmen re-presenting Homer’s “fiery” Achilles in a triangulated conversation between original, scholarly/critical reception (which Hopkins often sets out in enormously helpful detail), and translation, Hopkins’s reading might well have been expressed in other language. That is to say, while the process of rendering a text is complex, entailing historical, political, and personal circumstance, available critical discourse, available models, the dispositions and powers of the translating poet, none of this is in any rigorous sense “conversational,” nor is it clear that Dryden or Pope ever thought of their translating in these terms. Yet weaker, perhaps, is the link of this model to many of the essays that follow, most of which are intellectually acute, even exemplary, expositions of relationships between certain classical and English texts; where the language of the conversation model appears, it seems to be an ex post facto addition to an otherwise motivated essay. Yet such a conclusion is in part unfair. Hopkins does make a reasonable case for thinking in these terms about classical reception and the essays that comprise the book may be read in that light, even if they do not consistently and explicitly invoke the analogy. Hopkins closes his introduction with an extended quotation from H.A. Mason on literary reception that does in more general terms reflect notions one sees in Jauss and Gadamer and is entirely relevant to the project of this book. Requoting just a little: “the spiritual reality we both meet and create in reading a poem occurs in a no-man’s land, neither the present nor the past. It is the only for-ever-land we can know” (35).

A few descriptive and summary comments on the twelve chapters that follow--and here, I may say, is where the treasure is hid:

Ch. 1: “‘The English Homer’: Shakespeare, Longinus, and English ‘Neoclassicism.’” Hopkins re-examines traditional assumptions about ‘neoclassical’ hostility to Shakespeare’s generic irregularity, violation of the unities, and the rest by reading some 17th and 18th century Shakespeare reception in light of Boileau’s (1674) translation of Longinus, which in turn led to the characterizations of Shakespeare as a “fiery” poet of (Homeric) sublimity. An eye-opening essay and utterly persuasive.

Ch.2: “Cowley’s Horatian Mice.” A revised republication from C. Martindale and Hopkins, eds. (1993) Horace Made New. This is an important essay on Cowley’s 1663 “A Country Mouse,” a partial imitation of Horace Sat. 2.6, English Horatianism, and English Epicureanism (via Gassendi’s version of Epicurus). Hopkins’s remarks throughout are judicious and observant, only falling short, since he comments on Horace’s original (quoting only minimally from the Latin), in neglecting recent critical work on the satire (Oliensis, Freudenburg, others). Current scholarship on the classical side, apart from classicists working in reception, does not in fact regularly appear in the earlier-published of these essays.

Ch. 3: “The English Voices of Lucretius, from Lucy Hutchinson to John Mason Good.” One of the more recent essays here, originally published in S. Gillespie and P. Hardie, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (2007). A very helpful survey of Lucretius translations, versions, and adaptations, with nice observations on Dryden’s version and the use of Lucretius in Milton (PL and Pope’s Essay on Man.

Ch. 4: “If He Were Living and an Englishman: Translation Theory in the Age of Dryden.” Revised from 2005 and 2008 versions. Superb brief survey, placing of Dryden’s evolving thoughts on translation in the context of later 17th century discussion. Virtually all of the authors touched upon, Denham, Soame, Roscommon, and others might have enjoyed more attention, and I missed connections between Dryden’s pivotal thinking and translation theory before and after, but both desiderata are clearly beyond the scope of this essay.

Ch. 5: “Dryden and the Tenth Satire of Juvenal.” First version from 1995. This is an essential read for students of Dryden’s rendering of Juvenal, sensitively treating Dryden’s political and personal investment in the translation.

Ch. 6: “Dryden’s Baucis and Philemon.” This is the earliest original publication (1976) of the book, and is the first of three chapters on parts of Dryden’s Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), all from Ovidian selections. Hopkins describes Dryden’s extensive intertextual engagement with earlier translations, noting how allusions to Milton and Genesis serve to modulate tone into registers of seriousness not seen in other roughly contemporary versions.

Ch. 7: “Nature’s Laws and Man’s: Dryden’s ‘Cinyras and Myrrha.’” Another earlier piece (1985); this one more substantial. Here Hopkins skillfully explores the emotional complexity of the incestuous situation in the context of discussions of natural law and, in particular, as appearing in Dryden’s sensitive rendering. A remarkable essay (but, again, there has been recent work on incest in Ovid that has gone unremarked here).

Ch. 8: “Dryden and Ovid’s ‘Wit out of Season’: ‘The Twelfth Book of Ovid his Metamorphoses’ and ‘Ceyx and Alcyone.’” Originally published in 1988, this expansive essay addresses the common reaction to Ovid’s rhetorical mannerism in certain passages of violence or pathos. Noting that Dryden along with others had voiced the criticism that Ovid “is frequently witty out of season,” Hopkins goes on to show, in select passages and their translations, Dryden’s full engagement with a descriptive manner that is both sympathetic and distancing, so to allow, Hopkins contends, a broader and more complex perspective on human suffering.

Ch. 9: “Translation, Metempsychosis, and the Flux of Nature: Dryden’s ‘Of the Pythagorean Philosophy.’” From 2001, this chapter considers Dryden’s translation of the Pythagorean excursus in Met. 15. 60-478. Hopkins takes very seriously Dryden’s engagement with Pythagoreanism on the political, personal, and even religious levels, which may be further than some readers will want to go, at least in the terms raised. But this is one of the more interesting essays in the volume.

Ch. 10: “Some Varieties of Pope’s Classicism.” A recent piece (2006) from C. Gerrard, ed, The Blackwell Companion to Eighteenth Century Poetry. As might suit such a publication venue, the chapter covers a lot of ground fairly concisely. After a few pages of general introduction, Hopkins focuses on three texts of Pope: Eloisa to Abelard, his translation of Horace Epistles 2.1, and (a few comments on ) the Iliad. Despite the necessarily cursory treatment of each, Hopkins offers here valuable commentary on a number of points.

Ch. 11: “Pope’s Trojan Geography.” This, the most recent of the collection (2010), looks at the two maps and geographical discussion that accompanied Pope’s original publication of his Iliad, then considers subsequent reactions (Robert Wood) and counter-reactions (Jean-Baptiste Lechevalier, Jacob Bryant, and others. Debate centered on the historicity of Pope’s or any representation of Homeric geography, with Hopkins coming down on the side of Pope’s fidelity to the landscape as imagined in the Homeric text.

Ch. 12: “Colonization, Closure, or Creative Dialogue? The Case of Pope’s Iliad.” From 2008, ed., L. Hardwick Companion to Classical Receptions. This chapter resumes some of the dialogic conceptualizing of the introduction. The chief burden of the piece is to make the case for the “assimilative” or “domesticating” translation seen in Pope’s Iliad (as championed by H. A. Mason), over against other models (Venuti’s “foreignizing” and Jan Parker’s “glossed text”). Hopkins credibly makes the case that the engagement represented by Pope’s version is significantly more complex than the colonizing domestication it has sometimes been seen to be, and that is a service here. On the other hand, one can without much difficulty imagine plausible responses to his strenuous criticism of the other translational modes.

The chief value of this book lies in its twelve related but definitely discrete chapters. They are all worth attention, and while readers may well take exception to some of Hopkins’s conclusions and even the manner of his argument, they stand to learn much from this scholar who knows of what he writes.

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