Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.17

David Hopkins, Charles Martindale (ed.), The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Volume 3: 1660-1790.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 735.  ISBN 9780199219810.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle, Australia (


The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Volume 3 is the first in a series of five monographs designed to collectively trace "English writers' engagement and dialogue with ancient Greek and Roman literature from the early middle ages to the present day" (ix). Each volume has its own pair of editors and, in addition to Volume 3, which charts the period 1660-1790, forthcoming works cover 800-1558, 1558-1660, 1790-1880 and post-1880.

In the Preface to Volume 3 (ix-xi) the editors explain that the series is designed as a "History" (ix) as opposed to (merely) a collection of distinct essays, and in this sense, the collection (and, one would assume, the other four volumes to come) is aimed at providing a valuable 'reference resource' (ix) for students as well as professional scholars. To extend the readership to incorporate disciplines such as English Studies, Literary Studies and Cultural Studies, the authors generally employ Loeb translations, transliterate Greek words and use un-translated Latin sparingly.

The Introduction (1-28) establishes the reasons for the choice of authors under examination: "the main emphasis falls on literary texts of high quality and of the greatest historical importance" (2). This editorial decision ensures that those authors who typify some of the best literature in the English canon between 1660-1790 are highlighted, with discussions of them linked to key cultural, historical and philosophical events or ideas as well as pertinent facets of their writing. In addition to discussion of key terminology – Reception, Periodisation,1"Augustan" and "Neoclassical" – historical specificities, or issues pertaining to New Historicism, are examined (including topics such as "Republicans and Whigs" and "Book History and 1774"), providing the reader with important background information. The discussion entitled "Republicans and Whigs", for example, provides a concise overview of (particularly two) scholarly debates concerning the Classical influences on English culture during the Eighteenth Century. 2

The 22 chapters by leading scholars in the field are well organised, ensuring a sense of continuity, with chapters building on each other to provide, overall, a well-rounded volume. The first chapter, "The Place of Classics in Education and Publishing" by Penelope Wilson (29-52) situates Classics in the English classroom, university, and publishing industry, unravelling the threads between the three. Wilson touches on educational reform (which partially enabled some access to the elitism of Greek and Latin to the non-elite) and discusses university curricula as well as early editions of Classical literature. Particularly interesting is Wilson's look at the burgeoning literary magazine, which included pieces on Horace, Vergil and Juvenal, and encouraged readers (gentleman scholars as well as academicians) to contribute 'their own classical insights' (47).

This chapter is followed by a series of discussions on John Milton and John Dryden in particular, as well as other figures such as Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and William Cowper. Some chapters focus on these individuals per se and analyse their uses of Classical literature (Martindale's "Milton's Classicism" [53-90] and Tom Mason's "Dryden's Classicism" [91- 131]), while others examine the ancients and introduce specific authors who responded to them (David Hopkins' contributions on "Homer" [165-96] and "Ovid" [197-215]). These early chapters often consider the problematic nature of reception. Martindale, for example, notes the 'tensions throughout Milton's career between assimilation and rejections in his uses of the classics' (65) and Mason, noticing similar literary traits in the works of Dryden, describes him as a "transmitter" (93), albeit one who was "perpetually changeable" (93).

Other important chapters include Robin Sowerby's in-depth exploration, "Horatianism" (255-85), which begins with an excellent overview of the reasons why Horace was "consistently honoured and valued" (256) during the long period under examination. Sowerby considers translations, imitations and allusions to Horace and covers famous reception pieces such as those by Pope, as well as works regarded with less enthusiasm at the time, including the verse of Christopher Smart (275-79). Likewise, Juan Christian Pellicer's "Pastoral and Georgic" (287-321), a crisply structured study, examines what is defined as (two) "converging genres" (287) and analyses, among others, the works of James Thomson and Oliver Goldsmith.

Areas that have only begun to garner attention by Classicists, such as women writers of the era, Neoclassical historiography, and Neoclassical fables are welcome additions. A second chapter by Wilson, 'Women Writers and the Classics' (495-518), provides a fascinating series of insights into the topic in a piece that clearly suggests there is more work to be done in this field. Her approach to the subject is clearly explained and grounded in solid awareness of the issues of disenfranchisement pertaining to women's access to education – particularly of an elite nature – noting "the unstructured and dispossessed nature of female access to learning in this period." (496) Philip Hicks' "The Ancient Historians in Britain" (569-91) is an effective and seemingly effortless combination of ancient historians and their Neoclassical imitators or offspring. It was particularly interesting to read Hicks' views on Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) in the context of, especially, Milton's The History of Britain (1670) and The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (1702-4) by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Jayne Lewis' 'The Fabular Tradition' (477-94) begins with reference to Addison's piece on fables in the "Spectator" of 1711, which (naturally) traced its origins back to Aesop. She then discusses the various motivations for, and uses of, fables during the era (for pedagogical purposes, for example) and considers the appeal they held for female writers such as Aphra Behn and Anne Finch (as well as the poet laureate Dryden). Lewis' style is appealing and perfectly matched to her subject:

As classical fables told tales of wolves who gobble lambs under trumped-up charges of drinking at the wrong end of the stream, ants who chastise grasshoppers, and foxes who flatter grandiloquent crows into dropping their morsels of cheese, they harkened back to both the primitive and the polished. (479)

Henry Power's chapter, "The Classics and the English Novel" (547-68), is a deft coverage of an enormous field of enquiry as is Malcolm Kelsall's "The Classics and Eighteenth-Century Theatre." (447-76) The chronologically appropriate final chapter by Freya Johnston, 'Samuel Johnson's Classicism' (615-46) is a satisfying end to the collection, providing salient cross- referencing to some of the essays that preceded it, while making some insightful remarks concerning the tensions and reconciliations between Classicism and Christianity in the works of the late Neoclassical age.

Each chapter is accompanied by an excellent series of notes, there is also an exhaustive Annotated Bibliography compiled by Victoria Moul (647-700). The Index (701-35) is comprehensive and, in this reader's experience, never lacking in the entries sought.

Current trends in classical reception studies regularly privilege modern works (particularly those of the twentieth century). In this context especially, The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Volume 3 is a significant contribution to the field because it actively discusses the works of major precursors to the modern tradition, establishing a literary lineage, if you will.


1.   The Introduction includes a thoughtful challenge to "Periodisation" (9-11): "Periodisation ... is critical to almost any literary-historical endeavour, although, necessarily, periods are imposed, at least in part, retrospectively and in the light of current teleologies (clearly, people at the time did not know that they were living in the Middle Ages)." (9). Gian Biagio Conte's early challenge to chronological demarcation zones is also recalled, further suggesting that the reader accept the categories as useful but – at the same time – be suspicious of their limitations. See, Conte, Latin Literature: A History, trans. Joseph B. Solodow (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
2.   For an example of the contested views, see Philip Ayers, Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth- Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) and David Womersley (ed.), Augustan Critical Writing (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997).* For a nuanced discussion of ideas such as 'a Whig reading' (149) and, by extension, a Tory reading, see Paul Davis' chapter on 'Latin Epic: Virgil, Lucan, and Others' (133-64).

* A typographical error in relation to Womersley occurs on page 18, which lists the publication date as 1977; the correct date is printed on p. 27, n.6
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