Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.23
R. Alden Smith, Virgil. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell, 2011. Pp. x, 210. ISBN 9781405159494. $99.95.
Reviewed by L.N. Quartarone, The University of Saint Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This Blackwell series aims to “provide concise introductions to classical culture in the broadest sense. Written by the most distinguished scholars in the field, these books survey key authors, periods and topics for students and scholars alike.” Clearly attempting to balance the series’ targeted concision and broadness, R. Alden Smith has made a contribution to Vergilian studies that will serve a wide audience. The volume’s arrangement is straightforward, the writing generally clear, the footnotes and suggestions for further reading extensive. Packed with insightful readings, it serves ably as a compact, streamlined presentation of the tremendously complex and challenging poetry of a master poet. Smith adopts a difficult (to say the least) stance in a field where opposing views are the norm, and though clearly influenced by certain scholars and trends, he assumes a thematic approach that avoids strict alignment with particular schools of Vergilian interpretation (e.g., Harvard or European). This approach is both prudent and difficult, yet the resulting assessment is satisfying. Smith, influenced by the ideas of “code” first set forth by Conte (although not openly declaring as much), has produced a useful and inspiring guide to Vergil’s poems. Even one not well-disposed to Conte’s language will find that Smith manages, by the volume’s close, to explicate Vergil’s adaptation of the “epic code” quite convincingly. Despite an initial chapter that seems somewhat disjointed and off-putting, each subsequent chapter proves more focused and solid, and Smith’s engaging and fluid writing style makes the journey a pleasant, direct route rather than the wandering odyssey potentially indicated by the initial chapter’s varied contents.
The first chapter seeks to establish the notion that Vergil’s poetry is “coded” and therefore best understood through a well-informed, educated approach, as Smith introduces the idea that a “Model Reader” is the assumed and ideal audience of Vergil’s text. What makes this reader a “model” is that s/he possesses a background in literary and historic matters sufficient to understand Vergil’s “code” or the “poetic style and...method by which the poet conveys meaning” (p. 1). While it is certainly true that appreciating Vergil requires more foreknowledge than appreciating, say, Homer, this initial chapter could be confusing and challenging, particularly to one seeking a more traditional, historically situated introduction to Vergil’s texts. Most difficult to assess is exactly what Smith assumes his Model Reader to know or not know, as there is some inconsistency in his explanations. For example, he often explains terms no scholar or even upper level undergraduate student would need defined, such as epyllion (p. 12, 14) or panegyric (p. 14), but then neglects to define paronomasia (p. 16,112,113, etc.). This first chapter covers quite varied ground, starting with the suggestion that notations on manuscripts of Vergil’s text become part of the textual tradition that the Model Reader will encounter, and presenting the notion of a “code of readership” (“...the reader begins to interact with the text and its code; this interaction or negotiation with the text is ‘coded’ because the reader is establishing his or her own code of readership while encountering Virgil’s epic code”, p. 5). After that, the subsections “Poetic Craft”, “Thematic Contours”, “Poetic Models”, “Virgil’s Allusive (and Imitative) Style”, and “Telling Themes: Virgil and Story” offer meandering and spare discussions that appear disjointed until one becomes fully immersed in the book.
The list of poetic models summarizes the impact of many important predecessors and may be easier for a more advanced reader to follow; without some experience of Vergil’s penchant for allusion and familiarity with other ancient authors, one could find this list incomprehensible. While Smith directly asserts (quite rightly) “the skilled poet engaged his predecessors through a process of imitation, emulation, and interpretation” (p. 6) such direct statements become lost in further development: “allusion effects a learned game, anticipating a reader with a code-breaking mentality....not necessarily meant to be recognized immediately...written for knowledgeable insiders or intended for discovery on a second or third reading....commentary becomes erudite, response somewhat cryptic, and allusion often opaque, intended for readers ‘in the know’” (p.7). This focus on codes may attract those delighted by such recent best-sellers as “The Da Vinci Code” but demoralize others, who may consider achieving the background required to appreciate Vergil too intricate and demanding. While there are clear benefits to presenting Vergil’s three poems as focused on “dialogue, wisdom, and mission” (pp.10-12), there are many ways of approaching each work, and many more thematic resonances; thus, as an introduction, Smith may have better served his model reader – who at times seems to be sophisticated and experienced enough to follow Smith’s argument but at others needs to be told explicitly what (Smith thinks) Vergil was doing rather than being allowed to cull matters from the works him/herself – by introducing various interpretive possibilities and allowing the reader to grapple with the text (which, I happen to think, is what Vergil’s model reader must do) without telling him/her what to think. Smith touches on the broad trends in Vergilian scholarship of optimism and pessimism by referring to the “gloominess” (p.22) found in Eclogue 1 and Georgic 3, assigning the “dark readings” to the Harvard school and linking the “positive” to European scholarship, but never engaging in a more developed discussion of these perspectives. Many of Smith’s references to Vergil’s poetry are precise and perhaps difficult to follow out of context; that he makes such references seems to suggest that he expects his model reader to have had considerable exposure to Vergil’s texts. However, this is an informative and tightly packed introduction that emphasizes many important matters; it may be overwhelming for a true novice but will certainly serve many readers well.
The second chapter is an extremely serviceable and concise introduction (a keen editor might have reversed the first two chapters). The presentation of historical background is direct, streamlined and essential for any reader of Vergil’s texts. Save for some overstatement (e.g., asserting Antony as a model for Aeneas, p. 31, when several historical and literary models for his character exist) and the fact that Smith’s chosen quote from Georgic 1.511-14 (on impious Mars) doesn’t seem a useful way to present “the movement between optimistic and pessimistic tones suggestive of the mood at Rome prior to Actium” (p. 31), the overall discussion of the history and political unrest of Vergil’s early years and his later literary coterie offers a concise, informative background.
The third chapter, “Eclogue Dialogues”, provides an excellent overview of the collection, the structure of paired poems, and the scholarship. What at first appears an irritating tendency not to footnote when it is warranted (e.g., Smith directly quotes Coleman’s commentary on p. 50 but provides no note, and despite a reference to the commentary in chapter 2, footnote 4, does not provide a complete bibliographic reference to Coleman’s Eclogues, which seems an oversight) does actually have advantages, particularly for the general or novice reader, in that the text is not profusely cluttered with footnotes. However, an actual bibliography, rather than just the endnotes to each chapter and the separate chapter (8) on “Further Reading” would have proved more useful to novices and scholars alike – the format makes it difficult to locate certain references later. But this is a quibble. Chapter three nicely summarizes the architecture of the book as presented by Otis and later embraced by Alpers, and thus imparts the careful design of the corpus, offering an excellent initiation to new readers of the text. Smith also includes specific comments on Vergil’s allusive technique and historical background through which he aptly demonstrates instances of reading Vergil’s “code”. He executes well his focus on dualism and dialogue as central to understanding the Eclogues while also illuminating the text’s concern with literary genre. Although the references are replete, one missing item – awareness of which would have enriched Smith’s discussion of Eclogue 7 (pp. 61-3), is Rory Egan’s clever explanation of Corydon’s victory [Phoenix 50 (1996) 3-4, 233-39].
Chapter 4 on the Georgics is elegant and insightful; here Smith clearly lays out the poem’s thread while artistically incorporating the poet’s allusions to predecessors into his own reading of the poem’s dualism and wisdom. Here Smith most successfully, up to this point, demonstrates Vergil’s “code” of Alexandrian technique by discussing certain word choices and their literary significance. Readers who find the poem difficult to appreciate in its complexity, variations in tone (aptly compared by Smith to a symphony), and challenging composition will experience this chapter as a useful and lovely exegesis.
Smith shines most in the fifth chapter, where he focuses on the Aeneid’s “mission” but ably integrates the important matters of identity, duality, and pathos into his discussion. His exposition displays the poem’s contrasts and flux, and demonstrates how Vergil’s poetry reflects life’s bright and dark moments. This welcome shift away from the old opposing camps of criticism perhaps signals, like the work of Perkell, that this movement is becoming firmly established among Vergilian scholars. Again, although sometimes his comments seem geared more toward a scholar than a novice, Smith achieves a profitable balance of summary and specificity, providing excellent linkage of details between the later and earlier books, thus demonstrating the poem’s cohesion. While I would have preferred more insistence that matters such as dualism demand the reader’s active participation and thought, Smith’s interpretations demonstrate well how to make the poems attractive and accessible to first- (and even multiple-) time readers.
In the central three chapters dedicated to each poem, Smith clearly expounds his primary concerns: the thematic issues put forth in chapter 1 and a demonstration of intertextuality with the Homeric and Alexandrian works and the “epic code”. From this readers will derive a sense of the unity of each work, and in displaying such Smith succeeds admirably in composing for the less experienced. That these chapters cannot quite stand alone – as some readers may wish – is a testament to how well Smith has integrated the ideas presented in the initial chapters into the latter ones, and although the earlier chapters may challenge a novice, the persistent reader will reap the reward. Smith’s thematic focal points may make the poems seem too neat for some and certainly for more advanced readers, but they suffice admirably in providing a sense of interplay and unity that these complex texts can appear to lack, particularly to neophytes. Smith’s perceptive interweaving of the themes both within each work and between all three achieves a compelling nexus in the discussion of the Aeneid), and his well-articulated exegesis of the final scene beautifully combines matters of theme, historicity and code.
The final two chapters add an important dimension, particularly for upper level undergraduates, graduates, and the more educated general reader. The chapter on manuscripts provides four excellent, concise examples of the types of lexical problems editors confront, along with potential solutions. This will be a useful guide for students and general readers wishing to understand better the science of collating. The final chapter on Nachleben is replete with examples of Vergilian influence throughout two millennia. These chapters also carefully reference the first two, lending the volume a sense of cohesion and completeness. As always, footnotes and suggested readings are ample.
Overall the tome displays careful attention to detail and a learned appreciation for the work of Vergil. There are only a few typos: Celaeno on p. 127 and paronomasia on 143 are misspelled; p. 131 should read “Aeneas” instead of “Virgil”; on p. 153, 6.559 should read 6.179, and 6.185 should be 6.186; on p. 184 the “a” should be moved to precede “culture”. In the larger scope, however, Smith has written a guide that should become a standard for the next generation of Vergilian readers. He demonstrates well the unity of individual poems and the entire corpus, and, save perhaps for more discussion of Vergil’s penchant for polyvalence, nothing is lacking.