BMCR 2006.07.21

The Common Spring: Essays on Latin and English Poetry

, The common spring : essays on Latin and English poetry. Bristol: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2005. ix, 268 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781904675488. £39.95.

In this volume Niall Rudd presents seventeen papers, four previously unpublished, from a career of five decades as a leading Anglophone critic and scholar of Latin poetry and its reception (there are seven pieces on Latin poetry itself, eight on its reception, and two more general pieces). This book joins the welcome recent reprint (2004) of his important Lines of Enquiry: Studies in Latin Poetry, Cambridge, 1976) and a further fine volume of reception work ( The Classical Tradition in Operation, Toronto,1994), not to mention R’s partnership in the great Oxford commentary on Horace Odes 3 (2004) with Robin Nisbet, in stressing the continuing range and significance of his work.

The volume has something of an ideological agenda. R. argues forcefully for a traditional classical and humanist approach to ancient literature, believing that firm answers can usually be generated to problems of literary criticism through careful analysis, rational argument and assuming an unchanging human heart and values, and is consistently opposed to more ‘post-modernist’ approaches. R. was himself an important pioneer in literary-critical work on Latin literature in the 1960’s and 1970’s; indeed, his own assessment of what passed for literary criticism in classics before the impact of the New Criticism is salutary reading (in his introduction to Essays on Classical Literature, Cambridge, 1972). It is interesting and perhaps inevitable that, a generation on, R., like his British co-evals and fellow-pioneers Robin Nisbet and David West, now deems classical literary criticism to have gone too far in its interest in theory and intertextual complexity [for Nisbet see his ‘Tying down Proteus’ in Collected Papers on Latin Literature, Oxford, 1995; for West his Classical Association Presidential lecture, ‘Cast Out Theory: Horace Odes 1.4 and 4.7′, Oxford, 1995].

The published papers in this nicely produced volume stretch in date from 1963 to 2002. Some have been updated, but it would fair to say that complete and current bibliography is not R.’s top concern, perhaps understandably, given his stated audience of ‘university students or members of the Classical Association’ and ‘students of English’ (vii). Each chapter ends with an indication of where similar themes are pursued in R.’s other published work, a useful reminder of his extensive and notable output.

The first chapter, ‘Virgil’s Contribution to Pastoral’ (1996), neatly identifies five Virgilian modifications of Theocritus in the Eclogues : toning down T’s rumbustiousness and raising the tone, use of other genres (crucial, but his avoidance of Conte’s work is interesting), presenting Roman current events in Theocritean mask ( Ecl. 4,5,8), use of unTheocritean Greek poetry ( Ecl. 6) and the Romanising of the Theocritean style [here he might have cited the important treatment by Nisbet, PVS 20 (1991) 1-14]. All this is nicely accommodated in the framework of the Virgilian poetic career as a consistent intertextual modifier of Greek poetry.

The second chapter, ‘Necessity and Invention in the Aeneid‘ (unpublished lecture), argues persuasively that the epic shows an effective economy by combining literary invention with characterisation and other literary requirements. There is much sensible argument (R. is surely right against Austin that the Pythagoreanising theory of transmigration narrated by Anchises in Book 6 is owed to literary convenience rather than to personal conviction), though not all would agree that Nisus is presented as seventeen to Euryalus’ fifteen (he could be much older) or that ‘the deafening sound of Augustan propaganda drowns Virgil’s Homeric music’ (an allusion to Oliver Lyne’s Further Voices in Vergil’s Aeneid, Oxford, 1987, might have been apposite here).

The third chapter, ‘Horace’s Odes : A Defence of Criticism’ (unpublished lecture), is a clear presentation of R.’s critical methodology in holding that there are some evident limits on interpretation, and makes a good case for three important propositions that perhaps need some nuancing : that empirical analysis is crucial for literary interpretation (indeed, but will we all agree on its effects?), that probability is important (yes, but should that be defined in a particular cultural context, first-century B.C. or twenty-first century A.D.?), and that ambiguities and differing subjective responses will always remaining in difficult passages (is this not close to Derrida’s diffrance ?). As ever, the close readings offered are full of interest (e.g. of Odes 1.14, where important additions are made to Nisbet/Hubbard in arguing against the reading of the ship as woman).

The next three chapters are relatively brief pieces: a note (1980) arguing convincingly that hunc at Horace Epistles 1.2.13 refers to Achilles not Agamemnon, a careful reading and structural analysis of Propertius 2.15 (1982), and a clearly articulated analysis of the theme of duality in Ovid’s Echo/Narcissus episode (1986; it would have been interesting to know what R. makes of Philip Hardie’s recent arguments in his Ovid’s Poetics of Allusion, Oxford, 2002). The final classical piece is ‘The Topicality of Juvenal’ (unpublished lecture), on J.’s continuing modern relevance. Here R. explores the various viewpoints possible in Juvenalian satire (satirist, victim, reader) and argues that Juvenal can appeal both to issues in his own time and their equivalents in later periods (the M25 London orbital motorway, urban house prices and Saddam Hussein): ‘the problems of the megalopolis are not new and can be made entertaining’ (93). Here R. is good on the social problems of J’s own time, but it would also have been good to have some consciousness of J.’s confrontation with contemporary literary targets, especially Statius in Satire 4.

The eight pieces on reception of Latin poetry show a laudably detailed grasp of the literary and cultural contexts of both received and receiving texts, crucial in reception studies as Lorna Hardwick has stressed ( Reception Studies, Oxford, 2003), and will be welcome for those working in this increasingly lively area. Those on the classical presence in Titus Andronicus (2002) and The Taming of the Shrew (1980) provide useful catalogues of classical references for the play (the kind of catalogue that Shakespeare specialists a generation ago could provide for themselves but which classical scholars can now usefully supply). That on Milton Sonnet 17 (1995) provides a good defence on classical and other grounds of the interpretation of ‘spare to interpose’ as ‘refrain from interposing’, dispelling the ambiguity argued for by Stanley Fish, while that on Dryden’s comparison of Horace and Juvenal (1963, an early piece) effectively but perhaps uncharitably points out that ‘Dryden’s essay is wrong or misleading in almost every major point’ (142; R. must be right that this is partly to do with ignorance of Roman literary history, but it must also have something to do with 17th century literary preference). More sympathetic and contextualised is the unpublished comparison of Horace’s Philippus and Mena anecdote from Epistles 1.7 with Swift’s imitation, which shows clearly how Horace’s nuanced presentation of Maecenas (interpreted as perhaps too self-justifying by R.) is countered by Swift’s attack on Harley the false patron. Pope’s use of Horace in his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot is the topic of a further chapter (1984: here R. rightly notes that Pope, though he uses Horace in detail, is in fact more like Lucilius the fearless assailant of distinguished contemporaries), and, after a brief note (1986) convincingly supplying a source for some lines in Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes from Cicero’s De Senectute, this section ends with a highlight. This is the splendid comparison of Tennyson’s invitation ode to F. D. Maurice with Horace Odes 3.29 to Maecenas (1991), which irrefragably demonstrates the Victorian poem’s close and subtle reworking of (and culturally determined departures from) the Latin original. This is a model reading for all those interested in the English reception of Latin poetry.

The two final pieces return to the volume’s central critical concerns of humanist interpretation of classical literature. That on ‘Romantic Love in Classical Times?’ (1981) pursues the unchanging human heart in questioning the common claim that romantic love is a medieval invention of the trouvères. R. plausibly suggests that it ‘it was not unknown in antiquity; it was not confined to homosexual relationships; nor was it exclusive to couples who would not or could not marry’ (211). This piece might have benefited from engaging with the opening chapter of Oliver Lyne’s The Latin Love Poets, Oxford, 1980, which probably came out too late for the original publication but has been influential on debate since; it is perhaps too sceptical about the claim by Sullivan and others that Latin love-elegy provides most of the elements of romantic love identified by R. himself ( coup de foudre, physical symptoms, idealization, lover’s life indelibly altered, marriage desired but impossible, love envisaged beyond the grave, relative lack of physical fulfilment), though R.’s focus on Catullus and the Hellenistic poets is also important.

The last chapter, on ‘Classical Humanism and its Critics’ (1996), defines ‘classical humanism’ as ‘the rational study of the Greeks and Romans as fellow human beings’ (213) and surveys ‘some of the broad movements in Western thinking which have extended the range of scholarship and enriched the tradition of Classical Humanism’ (214). This leads to something of a Whig progressivist exposition, acknowledging the contributions of Marx, Freud and the discourses of feminism, anthropology, sociology, myth and religion (though consciously not in their Parisian or more theoretical forms). But when it comes to post-structuralism and post-modernism, R.’s position is resolutely traditionalist : he upholds ‘clarity’ over ‘jargon’, favours ’emulation’ over ‘intertextuality’, and presents us with a theory of interpretation which sees three worlds intersecting in the reading of texts — A, the writer and his/her world, B, the reader and his/her world, and C, the text and its world — and interestingly argues that the idea of the ‘persona’ was generated by post-New Critical scholars interested in world C as a response to over-biographism. He might have made more of reader-response theory here as a theoretical background to B (which readers, and what are their expectations?).

This is a fine collection which well displays the scholarly characteristics of its writer: clear, forceful argument based on close, analytical, historicised and intentionalist readings of texts. In some ways it is a Jeremiad against what R. regards as modish and unrigorous modern theories of interpretation and is consequently likely to appeal more to traditionalist conservative scholars than (for example) most members of R.’s own former department beside the Avon. But all those who care for Latin literary studies should acknowledge R.’s considerable commitment and impressive contribution, both in this volume and in the course of a long and distinguished career.