BMCR 2007.03.10

Classical Literature and Its Reception. An Anthology

, , Classical literature and its reception : an anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. xxii, 523 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 140511293X. $39.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

This new anthology edited by Robert DeMaria, Jr. and Robert D. Brown aims to develop a sense of the Graeco-Roman heritage in the student of English-language poetry. This is achieved by putting “the experience of reading the classics, rather than a mere reference to them, beside the experience of reading literature written in English” (“Introduction,” xvii). At the same time, the book, carefully arranged and equipped with a first-class apparatus, explicitly and implicitly articulates the ongoing dialogue between the classics and (primarily) British poetry. The Anthology is divided into two parts, both arranged in chronological order: the first half, “British, Irish, and Caribbean Writers,” comprises thirty-six poetic selections, of which thirty-three are by British poets (the remaining three authors are the Irishmen Yeats and Heaney and the Caribbean writer Derek Walcott). This part covers the period from the late fourteenth century (an excerpt from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) to the beginning of the twenty-first (Seamus Heaney’s “Bann Valley Eclogue” was included in his 2001 collection Electric Light). Thirty of the selections, however, date from before 1900.

Each of the selections in the first half of the book is preceded by a preamble in which, in language that is admirably free from both jargon and oversimplifications, the editors discuss the classical influence(s) upon the author in question. They then focus on the selected poem(s) and evaluate the extent and nature of the classical borrowings. The texts in this part are based on first editions, except for certain pieces that underwent drastic revision. While attempting to bring forward the authentic texts of the poems (for example, capitalization and much original punctuation are preserved), the editors “have not hesitated to make small changes here and there for the sake of clarity” (“A Note on the Texts,” xxi). Among other modifications, spelling is somewhat modernized, and the acute accent mark is used to indicate metrical stress. Finally, to make the texts more accessible to the modern reader, the editors provide extensive footnotes that, without overwhelming the reader, comment helpfully on rare or antiquated words and provide vital historical and literary information, including numerous references to Graeco-Roman antiquity.

The second half of the book contains classical sources in translation representing twenty-one Greek and Roman authors. Each source is related to at least one poem in the first half of the work. A framework of complementary cross-references, found in the preambles to each selection and in the footnotes, is employed to assist the reader in navigating between the work’s two sections. Thus, the reader who is looking for a classical model for Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper” (61-62), will be duly ushered to the translations of Catullus 13 (335), Horace, Epistles 1.5 (403-404), and a handful of epigrams by Martial (468-470). On the other hand, if, let’s say, Catullus 13 is tackled first, the reader is reminded that this poem is “the ultimate source” (334) of Jonson’s poetic invitation. In addition to the inside references, there are also two — English-Classical and Classical-English — cross-reference tables set up at the end of the book (496-506).

The Anthology, however, “is hardly a history of British, Irish, and Caribbean literature” (“Introduction,” xvii). Rather, as it comprises mainly those texts that show direct indebtedness to the classics, the collection evolves into an impressive case-by-case study of classical influence. A few examples can give an idea of the overall effect: Heaney’s “Bann Valley Eclogue” (235-236) reverberates with echoes from Vergil’s “Fourth Eclogue” (342-345); influence of the latter is also conspicuous in “Two Songs from a Play” by Yeats (220-221); Shelley’s Adonais (180-196) is in many ways a reworking of Bion’s Lament for Adonis (312-315) and of the Lament for Bion ascribed to Moschus (319-323); Tennyson’s rhetorical piece “The Lotos-Eaters” (202-207) is based on Odyssey 9.82-104 (265-266), whereas Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” (223) requires familiarity with Horace’s Odes 3.2 (400-401). Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” (152-153) and Cowper’s “Epitaph on a Hare” (164-165) share generic features with some epigrams from Greek Anthology 7 (316-317), Catullus 3 (332), and Ovid’s Amores 2.6 (424-425).

In a very few cases, when the classical source is not easy to pinpoint, the editors do their best to find common ground between Graeco-Roman literature and the work in question. Thus, among possible influences upon Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Pindar (197) and Plato (198) are discussed. In many instances, non-Classical influences are also referenced. For example, Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” is indebted, as noted in the introduction to the poem (201), not only to the Odyssey but also to Spencer’s The Faerie Queene 2. The relevant text of the latter is helpfully included in the Anthology.

In addition to pointing out the influences of classical literature on each selection, this anthology also invites the reader to trace the development of classical genres and their constituent elements. Thus, the editors demonstrate how Roman elegy is grafted onto the writings of Donne, Marvell, Aphra Behn, and John Wilmot; Greek bucolic poetry influenced Thomson, Grey, and Heaney; Chaucer, Swift, and Samuel Johnson employ generic motifs of Roman satire. The classical tradition of ekphrases, such as those found in Homer and Theocritus, resurfaces in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (199-200) and Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” (225-226). The book’s second half, which provides translations of the classical sources, is no less interesting than the first. Here, each selection starts with a preamble that, as a rule, contains a brief yet informative biographical account and a discussion of writer’s literary preferences and stylistic nuances. Then, the editors assess the paths of the author’s influence on English-language literature, carefully noting the chronology and intensity of such influence. Finally, individual pieces are discussed and, where such guidance is most needed (as, for example, in Catullus 3), various ways of interpreting the text are suggested. The footnotes — including those that refer to textual and linguistic issues in the sources — are once again plentiful and informative without having an overbearing effect on the reader.

The translations of the classical selections range in origin from the sixteenth century (Marlowe and Golding) to modern times (Ferry, Michie, Shepherd, and Wells). Several of the classical authors — including Catullus, Vergil, and Horace — are represented by more than one translator. The selection from Horace’s Odes (396-403), for instance, includes renditions by seventeenth-century translators Thomas Hawkins (2.18, 3.2) and Edward Sherburne (4.10), by Ezra Pound (3.30), and by a contemporary translator, David Ferry (1.11, 1.37). In addition, four of the British poets whose works appear in the first half of the collection are also found among the translators in the second (Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Dryden, and Pope).

Indeed, the choice of the forty-two translators goes beyond merely providing a contextual frame of reference for the English poems in the first half of the collection. The inclusion of such chronologically and culturally diverse renditions of the classical sources sheds light on the ways in which Greek and Roman authors were read in different periods of British literary history. The translated texts convey to the reader something of the sensibility of the time in which the translator was active, as, for example, in the case of Alexander Pope, whose famous rendering of the Odyssey fits the poetic conventions of “his time and his language” (255). It is also probable that many of the English-language writers represented in the anthology actually read the translations included in the second part of the book.

The evaluation of any poetic anthology hinges ultimately not on its breadth, not even on its novelty, but on its usefulness for its potential audience. In this regard, compiling various texts under a single cover is only part of the editors’ job. The other, more important, part is to make the compilation accessible to the reader — in this case, to reach out to those who have little prior knowledge of classical literature and to both demonstrate the value and provide materials for the development of such knowledge. The Anthology successfully meets this challenge. In fact, no matter where the reader chances to open the Anthology, he or she will be assisted in understanding and appreciating both the modern selections in the first half of the book and their classical sources in the second.