BMCR 2000.07.17

Why Vergil? A Collection of Interpretations

, Why Vergil? A Collection of Interpretations. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2000. xxiii + 451. $40.00.

This is a very good and intellectually stimulating volume of essays about Vergil. In it, Stephanie Quinn (Q.) means to address two different, if largely complementary purposes: to provide a collection of essays for students and teachers of Vergil in schools and colleges, and to present that audience and a broader academic and general audience with a compelling case for reading and thinking about Vergil outside the schoolroom. Largely, the book succeeds.

The book starts with a question, even in its title. Without further qualification, the question is incomplete, and we the audience are asked to supply the predicate. On the face of it, the question answers itself. The collection is patently a response to the Advanced Placement Vergil syllabus. However, it goes beyond its clear remit. The collection as a whole, while containing much of value for AP students and more especially for their teachers, far exceeds the scope of high school students, even ones with excellent Latin. Our initial reaction — that Why Vergil? will be a book on the model of Bolchazy-Carducci’s Why Horace? : a collection of essays on individual passages or broad themes, primarily or exclusively of pedagogical use — demands a second look.

One of the things that strike me reading this anthology, and indeed in reading Vergil (more to the point), is his fullness — the Aeneid is full of humanity, of concern for the ultimate values of our life here, of regard for what it means to be a human and live in human society. At the same time, the epic as a whole is so carefully wrought in detail as much as in the large design, that it is the most subtle poetry. Vergil is also one of the most temporally grounded of writers: his poem is an artifact of the Augustan age and without it, we could not understand that period even to the extent we do. Hence Vergil’s work is subject to an immense variety of interpretations, and has been the object of many different ways of understanding throughout the past two millennia. Q. has chosen to compile a collection of pieces to illustrate how those of us who read Vergil on the cusp of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries do so. This is explicitly a collection for the turn of the century, and approaches the question “Why Vergil?” with the addition of “Why Vergil Now ?”

To see what Q. is attempting to do in the collection, we should look at her Introduction (“Why Words?”) and Conclusion (“Why Vergil?”). This is some of the most interesting reading in the volume, when Q. gives her own take on Vergil’s contemporary importance. In the Introduction and Conclusion we get to go beyond the initially apparent function of the anthology — to provide background for the AP course — and see Q.’s further purpose.

Q. makes her position clear in her Acknowledgements: “The book’s readers will discover that it is not only a collection; it is also an argument, a case, for the reading of Vergil’s poetry. The argument is developed through the choices of the individual selections. I also make the case more directly, in the Introduction and the Conclusion (p. xxii)”. The Introduction sets the stage for the individual selections in the book and establishes the framework in which we are to see them. “The selections accumulate into an argument for a way to learn to read Vergil’s poetry and offer an approach for interpreting its meaning and understanding its value”. Q. initially establishes the power of words, the words of Vergil, and so the first section contains the collection of interpretations of individual passages (“The Power of Words and Meaning of Form”). To quote her own words, “The agenda for Part I of this book is to explicate, to unfold, Vergil’s artistic mastery as we begin to answer the guiding question, Why Vergil? The selections help us penetrate Vergil’s mastery of the shaping and placement of words and the way he marshals them to create his story and its layers of meaning” (p. 5). This leads into a discussion of the first several essays on particular passages. Q. then proceeds to talk about the book’s second section: “we turn from the intrinsic quality of Vergil’s poetry and the benefits and pleasures of understanding a master’s craft to questions of poetic, cultural, and historic context, meaning, and use” (p. 17-18). The passages are meant to illustrate how Vergil is in fact very modern as a poet and provides a key to understanding the contemporary world.

The contents are divided into two sections. In the first, we find a selection of recent (and not quite so recent) papers dealing with some of the main issues in Twentieth Century Vergilian criticism in the US, under the general title “The Power of Words and Meaning of Form”. A list of contents will be helpful:

“Introduction, Why Words?” by Stephanie Quinn; Vergil, Aeneid 1.1-11: translations by Dryden, Mandelbaum, Copley, Fitzgerald, McCrorie; Daniel H. Garrison, “I. Proem,” from The Language of Virgil: An Introduction to the Poetry of the Aeneid; Edgar C. Reinke, “Onomatopoetic Alliteration in Vergil’s Aeneid“; Gregory A. Staley, “Aeneas’ First Act: 1.180-194”; Bernard M. W. Knox, “The Serpent and the Flame”; Roger A. Hornsby, “The Vergilian Simile as Means of Judgment”; Charles Segal, “Dido’s Hesitation in Aeneid 4″; Marilyn B. Skinner, “The Last Encounter of Dido and Aeneas: Aen. 6.450-476″; D. C. Feeney, “History and revelation in Vergil’s underworld”; Helen H. Bacon, “The Aeneid as a Drama of Election”; John Frederick Nims, “Golden Numbers. On Nature and Form” from Western Wind. An Introduction to Poetry; George E. Duckworth, “The Architecture of the Aeneid“; Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid“; Robert Gurval, “Introduction,” “Chapter Five. ‘No, Virgil, No’: The Battle of Actium on the Shield of Aeneas”, from Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of the Civil War; Susan Ford Wiltshire, “Chapter 2. Grieving Mothers and the Costs of Attachment”, from Public and Private in Vergil’s Aeneid; Herbert W. Benario, “The Tenth Book of the Aeneid“; M. Owen Lee, “The Sons of Iasus and the End of the Aeneid“; Gerald Petter, “Desecration and Expiation as a Theme in the Aeneid“; Michael C. J. Putnam, “Daedalus, Virgil, and the End of Art”.

Here is the most AP-oriented section, with papers on individual books and individual selections, all on the AP syllabus. Some are chestnuts (notably the selections by Knox, Parry and Duckworth), emphatically none the worse for that. There is a reason everybody reads “The Serpent and the Flame” for instance — because it is superb literary criticism —, and our own students should know it too. Much of the other material is of the 80’s and 90’s; this is a collection very much of this time, a reading of Vergil as we do it now.

There is not scope in this review to notice all the articles, and it is scarcely necessary: most of them are familiar enough, or accessible to readers of this review. I make a few observations. Garrison’s notes on the first 11 lines of the Aeneid can serve as an excellent introduction to the poem as a whole for students, and every teacher should examine these pages on his/her own: it is the basis for an ideal first assignment. The synopsis of the Aeneid (pp. 36-41) seems pleonastic, since anyone trying to plow through this collection will surely have enough interest to read the poem in English at least — and (for the AP audience) the entire poem in English is in fact part of the AP syllabus. Herbert Benario’s excellent piece on Book 10 will be of great benefit to those AP teachers facing the revised syllabus: that book has been, as he says (p. 195) “more completely ignored than any of its companions”, a neglect that the new syllabus, and indeed this very collection, will surely help to turn around. The selection does not condescend and includes several more difficult essays: as Q. says in her note at the start of Feeny’s article (adverting also to Helen Bacon’s), “Although the two articles in this collection devoted to book 6 are … difficult, they will repay the effort of studying them”, both of which statements are true. Feeny and Bacon will not be easy for any of our students, and I imagine that these are not the only articles of more use to the AP teacher than to the high school AP student. All the same, one cannot quibble over the selection too much — the material here has been chosen with care and purpose.

The second section, which addresses the issue of Vergil’s place in literary tradition, is less exclusively concerned with the Aeneid. There are several pieces that refer to the Georgics or the Eclogues, and there are several snippets of discussions of Vergil’s influence on Dante, Milton, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Phillis Wheatley and Spike Lee. The contents are as follows:

Brooks Otis, “Chapter I. The Mystery of the Aeneid“, “Chapter III. The Subjective Style”, from Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry; Michael C. J. Putnam, “The Lyric Genius of the Aeneid“; Annabel Patterson, “Introduction”, from Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valéry; William W. Batstone, “On the Surface of the Georgics“; Charles Fantazzi, “Homage to Virgil”; Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey T. Schnapp, eds., “Introduction”, from The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dante’s Commedia; John E. Rexine, review of Virgil and the Tempest: The Politics of Imitation; Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms; Erich S. Gruen, “Presidential Address, 1992: Cultural Fictions and Cultural Identity”; Meyer Reinhold, “The Americanization of Vergil, from Colonial Times to 1882”; Phillis Wheatley, “To Maecenas”, from The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, Julian D. Mason, Jr., ed.; W. R. Johnson, “Introduction”, from Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil’s Aeneid.

These selections are followed by a variety of literary works of the Twentieth Century, collectively called “Some Twentieth-Century Heirs: Poetry and Power” . Included are Robert Frost, “Build Soil — A Political Pastoral”, from The Poetry of Robert Frost; Joseph Brodsky, “Eclogue IV: Winter”, from To Urania; Dana L. Burgess, “Vergilian Modes in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing“; C. Day Lewis, “Dedicatory Stanzas. To Stephen Spender”, from The Georgics of Virgil; Allen Tate, “Aeneas at Washington”, from Collected Poems 1919-1976; Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”, from The Poetry of Robert Frost; W. H. Auden, “The Shield of Achilles”, from W. H. Auden: Collected Poems; Rosanna Warren, “Turnus ( Aeneid XII)”; Robert Frost, “For John F. Kennedy At His Inauguration”, from The Poetry of Robert Frost; Derek Walcott, Omeros (a selection: scarcely the whole thing); Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil, Jean Starr Untermeyer, trans. The section concludes with an essay by Charles Segal, “Art and the Hero: Participation, Detachment and Narrative Point of View in Aeneid 1″.

The selections are less obviously focussed on Q.’s theme of “Why Vergil?” — the focus is softer and while we get a series of impressions of Vergil’s influence on other writers throughout Western literary culture and his own appropriation of the literary tradition he inherited, we seldom see this relationship established. The piece about Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing shows some similarities between Vergil’s Arcadia and Lee’s picture of the ghetto but we do not see any conscious relationship demonstrated. Too often in this section we find that the selection leads us to think something along the lines of, “Oh, Vergil influenced” one poet or another, and no more. I daresay most of us know that already. Several of the pieces (Patterson, Jacoff and Schnapp, Lewalski) are excerpts from scholarship about the other authors, and the selections we are given are clearly attempting to demonstrate the influence of Vergil on those authors. The excerpting, although it leaves us with more than a simple, “Vergil influences Milton”, by no means says enough for us to come to any developed sense of what that influence consisted of or what its importance is. For that part of the section, the selections should have been much fuller, or left out.

The selection is, in my opinion, somewhat jarring — none of the selections in the first section (“The Power of Words”) deal with the Eclogues or Georgics, while here we see several literary works and reviews discussing just those poems, or demonstrating the influence they have had. At the same time, there are things missing. W. H. Auden, for instance is represented by “The Shield of Achilles”, but not “Secondary Epic”. “The Shield of Achilles”, though, is a reaction to Vergil’s model, Homer, rather than to Vergil himself. It would have been more relevant to the concerns of the anthology to have included “Secondary Epic”, since an excerpt of Broch’s The Death of Vergil is here. Both Broch’s novel and Auden’s poem are mentioned by several contributors to this volume, yet only Broch is included. Both Auden poems are worth reading by readers of Vergil, but the “The Shield of Achilles” is far better known and more frequently anthologized. We should have access to the other poem, too.

In her Conclusion: “Why Vergil”, Q. makes her case explicitly and leads us to a way of reading Vergil that is intimately engaged with the concerns of the late Twentieth Century. She attempts to bring Vergil and his poetry into the sphere of public discourse, to become our guide to the complexities and ambiguities of life as we find it there. Vergil will thus become part of the public dialogue within the world of education and beyond — a part of the formation of our understanding of the world. Q.’s last paragraph draws the moral: “Vergil anticipated the emotive and moral catastrophes of our century through the comparable experience of his own. With the Aeneid, he exercises our comprehension of the moral and emotional incomprehensiblity of those histories. Our century’s brutality is not news on the world’s stage; our understanding of it may be. Maybe. A surety abides. When we have the creative, loving strength for it, when love and need are one, Vergil will be our guide as we work to make the world we want in the world the way it is.” (p. 430).

These are high hopes. We who teach and read Vergil should heed these words. If Vergil is important to us, he should be important in these terms; if he is to be important to our students, he will be important in this way.


There are few misprints for such a long volume. I note the ones I found.

P. 30, note 27. The page cited should be 321, surely, rather than 312 (the article is on pages 321-48).

P. 31, note 35, Farrell’s work is cited as op.cit. — I can find no earlier citation.

P. 57, lines 3 and 4 of text are editorial additions, but are not identified as such.

P. 404, third line from the bottom, “touchs” for “touches”.

There are also several places where a cross-reference to a piece in the volume is lacking (pp. 184, 204, 267).