BMCR 2007.06.17

Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the Epic Tradition presented to Jasper Griffin by former pupils

, , , Epic interactions : perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the epic tradition : presented to Jasper Griffin by former pupils. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 441 pages). ISBN 9780191534782. £70.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Jasper Griffin is the only modern classicist, I think, to have had a full-scale profile in the New Yorker. Written by Ved Mehta, the elegant, blind, Indian essayist, whose own autobiography is an extraordinary journey through adversity, this profile combines the heroic and the romantic into a loving portrait of the life of a classicist, which will have struck many American classicists, I suspect, as so exotic as to enter the realm of the mythical. There are Homeric arming scenes, as the young Griffin was dressed for school in the full pseudo-clerical garb demanded by Christ’s College School; there were the aristeiai of verse composition competitions and the silent conflict of University examinations. There were the assemblies and symposia of college life as lived by the archetypal college man — Griffin came up as an undergraduate to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1956, and apart from one year, 1960-1, spent at Harvard, he was there until his retirement in 2004. Above all, there were the reminiscences of tutorials, the personal, one-on-one classes, central to the Oxford and Cambridge educational experience, where a teacher, however distinguished, takes an undergraduate, however undistinguished, for an hour’s exploration of a classical subject. Jowett, Griffin’s distant predecessor at Balliol, was instrumental in the system’s introduction to Oxford. There is nowhere to hide for teacher or pupil; the ideal of intense intellectual study over several years leading to long-term friendship is not always achieved. But it remains an ideal that is all too often crushed these days outside Oxford and Cambridge, either by budgetary restraint, or by the current shameful terror of recognizing teaching as a personal exchange, with all the dangers, thrills and rewards of intimacy. It is a grim irony of our current profession that academics write more and more about “the personal voice”, the less and less they are involved with it in their teaching.

Epic Interactions is a volume of essays dedicated to Jasper Griffin by its editors and contributors, all of whom were his students. As Socrates found out, it is not always a good thing to be known by one’s students, but the roll call here impressively includes the current Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford, Chris Pelling, and a troika of Oxford professors — Richard Jenkyns, Gregory Hutchinson, Stephen Harrison — as well as a number of younger scholars, Mathew Leigh, Emily Wilson (the one to have escaped to Penn), Rebecca Armstrong, Bruno Currie, Matthew Robinson, Simon Pulleyn, a list which shows the continuing influence of Griffin at Oxford. This doesn’t constitute a “school” of Griffin, and these essays are not logoi griffinikoi, but, in choosing to put together a themed volume on how epics interact with one another and with other texts and influences, the editors have focused on a theme which has interested Griffin since at least his ground-breaking Homer on Life and Death of 1980. So a good subject and a good list of contributors…

Yet it remains a curiously impersonal volume. There is a shadowy frontispiece showing Griffin in his B-List Lecture jacket, face half-covered by his hand, amid some remains in a grove. There are the barest remarks of thanks in most but not all the essays. But there is not even a bibliography of Griffin’s work, and the introduction is restrained to the point of the perfunctory. Perhaps this was required by the Press: essays sell, festschrifts don’t is the current wisdom. Perhaps the untimely death of one of the book’s editors, Oliver Lyne, a colleague of Jasper Griffin’s for thirty years, who was due to write the epilogue, prevented a longer or more sparky view of Griffin’s career. But there is so little here that screams out Jasper. On the one hand this is wholly admirable. It is always dodgy when pupils insist on copying their teachers or on quoting them repeatedly in footnotes: it smacks of domineering teaching as much as slavish pupils. The range of material in this volume and its withdrawal from slack mimesis of the master’s voice is certainly testimony to the expansive and generous mind of the dedicatee. On the other hand, Jasper Griffin stands for something in classics. It is not just that he is one of those figures known in the profession around the world by his first name; or that he is a regular contributor to the New York Review. Rather, Jasper Griffin has promoted throughout his career a particular view of how classical literature should be read.

It should, first of all, be read. That is, close reading and sensitive analysis of classical literature is the starting point, and often the end point of the project. It should be read as the foundation of a long classical tradition, where literary texts speak to each other over the centuries, and where readers should know their way around the great tradition (though with none of the moralism with which Leavis imbued this idea). It should be written about with elegance, wit and essayistic prose, in the best sense of that term. Griffin’s humanist ideal also stands apart from politics, stands apart from history (at least in its messy, conflictual, self-implicating form), and has little interest in the power plays of gender, authority, and class (strangely enough for a man who wrote a book on snobbery). Since Griffin’s work has been published over the period that has seen the rise of such concerns to a position of dominance in the modern academy, he has often found himself in antagonistic intellectual exchanges. Those with long memories will recall the bitter and brilliant Lynn-George review of Life and Death in Homer, and more besides. For the classicists who have always been unhappy with the idea of classics as a trendy and progressive field, Jasper Griffin — somewhat unfairly — has become something of an icon.

The essays of Epic Interactions show too little awareness of Griffin’s important place in the imagination or the intellectual history of the profession, or what an engagement with it might mean. (This may be what Griffin himself would prefer, but it does make for a less celebratory volume.) Oswyn Murray, Griffin’s colleague at Balliol, retired the same year; Oliver Lyne, the third member of the team, died less than a year later. A great generation of Balliol teaching has come to an end. This might have been an opportunity, somewhere in the volume, for a little more extended reflection on what the volume was marking.

The best essays certainly do interact productively if tacitly with Griffin’s oeuvre. Michael Clarke, one of the editors, looks at Medieval Irish Epic and wonders about how apparent echoes of Greek epic could be understood. When there is no chance of direct reading what does influence mean? How is tradition constructed? He explores whether these echoes are the product of a cross-cultural, inevitable effect of men getting together to make war, or whether there is a historical transmission of tales between cultures, or some combination of the two. This is a profoundly important question which goes to the heart of current obsessions with Homer and the East, as well as with the more general ideas of influence and tradition. Similarly, Chris Pelling discusses how Herodotus might be thought to echo Homer — an immensely complex topic which Pelling neatly dissects, in a way that gently reveals the all too often unthinking use of the phrase “Homeric echo”. Emily Wilson for her part looks at how change becomes an intellectual and literary concern in Tasso and Milton. That is, as these poets of the classical tradition creatively change the texts with which they interact, so their epics are obsessed with figures of change, as, in Milton’s case, with Satan’s progressive changes from angel to adversary of God. Richard Jenkyns is his usual amusing and informative self on Victorian epic — a brilliant topic, not least as Griffin at school had to translate Arnold’s “Sorab and Rustrum” into Greek verse (as did I, twenty years later, if one is talking of the construction of tradition). Jenkyns is excellent on the range of material to count as Victorian epic and the reaction of Victorian audiences to it. Regrettably, he is rather sniffy and indeed rather silly about Latin after Virgil (“Ovid was, in more than one sense, thoughtless. Lucan tries to think, but his thoughts were puerile. The Flavian thinkers do not think”. This attempt at a Victorian bon mot fortunately has little to do with the weight of the essay and can be dismissed as a temporary bêtise). Each of these four essays looks intelligently and interestingly at how tradition is constructed and reflects on itself. They are also by far the best- written pieces in the volume.

Gregory Hutchinson and Matthew Leigh add a different note. Both are concerned with how the literary tradition is mediated by the critical tradition — a topic which Griffin brought to the fore by his use of Homeric scholia. Hutchinson discusses the potential of Aristotelian theories of poetic unity to help understand Hellenistic poetry in a densely written chapter which highlights how Hellenistic writers experimented boldly with the fundamentals of design which Homer was thought to exemplify in the literary critical tradition. In a similar way, though with more brio and less control, Matthew Leigh uses Longinus to suggest a connection between the poet and his figure of Capaneus. Leigh sees Statius as more feisty and ornery and aggressive towards Virgil than he is often taken to be: “I like Statius” concludes Leigh, “because I think he was really of the Devil’ Party”.

There is some fine work here, then, as one would expect, and it contributes usefully to what is a contemporary critical focus, namely, the construction of tradition, the working of literary influence, the economics of allusion — or, in short, reception studies. But there is also some less convincing material and some bizarre editorial practice. Nearly 90 pages of the book, the first chapter and the epilogue, are contributed by the third editor, Bruno Currie. The epilogue is a serious misjudgment. First it summarizes at great length (44 pages!) all the articles. When you have just read the pieces, it is pointless and annoying to read such a drawn out summary: are we to assume that the articles were too unclear to follow or too dull to remember? Second, its attempts to draw out collective themes are thin (at best): again, are the readers assumed to be too slow to have seen that the last three chapters are on the modern world and this changes the nature of epic interaction with the past? Is it not the job of an editor to have the authors make cross-references and links? Third, when he criticizes the material, it is not clear why as editor he had not made his views known before. As a contributor and epilogist, he is in the invidious and, frankly, bizarre position of summarizing his own article and then comparing it with the next piece in the volume. Altogether it would have been wiser to have asked another person to write the epilogue, if one was needed, and this would have been the place for a more searching recognition of how this work relates to Griffin’s output and to the field in general.

Nor are all the articles of an acceptable standard. Pulleyn writes about Homeric religion by focusing on three words for lexical analysis, Zeus, ambrosie, and nektar. There is no consideration of whether such a narrowly circumscribed lexical analysis might be useful or distorting for such a subject; it is remarkable to see a discussion of the food of sacrifice without any knowledge of the work of Vernant, Detienne, Durand et al. His use of biblical intertexts ignores any contextualization, historical or literary. Some of the conclusions are strained beyond credibility. It seems a wholly muddled view of tradition to claim that Dione is mentioned in Homer so that the husband and wife team of Zeus and Dione can match the Babylonian husband and wife team of Anu and Antu, and even more bizarre to build an argument on such a claim.

Currie in a long opening article argues that Homer’s epic is responding to earlier texts, now lost, which can be reconstructed from the texts we have. The grotesque circularity of his argument (which he calls “neo-analyst”) is evident, for example, when he suggests that there must have been an earlier story in which Penelope recognized Odysseus by his clothes, which explains why in the recognition scene there is now a story in which Odysseus describes the clothes he had been wearing all those years ago. Leaving aside how any epic would have its hero wear the same clothes twenty years on after war, shipwreck and disaster, this form of analysis seems to ignore that all narratives have alternatives inscribed in them. That is the nature of narrative. “I walked into this bar. . .” inherently raises the possibility of other entrants into other places by other modes of transport. But there is no need to reconstruct a lost epic of abstinence or a misplaced poem of walking into a church or a whole Aeolic catalogue of bars to explain the sentence.

Rebecca Armstrong writes on inheritance and empire. She concludes that the Aeneid is a storehouse of literary forms, absorbing different genres within itself, and this is an analogue to the functioning of Empire. After the work of Hardie, Feeeney, Quint, Barchiesi, (and others), this will come as no surprise. What is a surprise is how little is added to this general and hugely familiar claim. (Although she does state that there is only one joke in the whole Aeneid and tells us what it is.) There is certainly no exploration of the ramifications of this view, as the Roman Empire emerges here as a rather cuddly literary Walmart. This is a jejeune reductio of the bellelettrist avoidance of the nasty political aspects of literature.

The remaining two essays, Harrison on how Virgil’s poetry may allude to Augustan building programmes, and Robinson on Augustan reaction to the writing of the Aeneid are both stimulating but could have done with some expansion. For Harrison’s project, would a comparison with the Fasti (cf. Boyle Ovid and the Monuments) help specify Virgil’s techniques? Would more sense of the long history of buildings as analogues to poetry help, especially in rhetoric? For Robinson, the role of change itself in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a counter strategy to the claims of permanence of empire would help broaden the scope of his close reading into some more general argument.

Epic Interactions has some fine work in it, with some good close reading and some interesting arguments about tradition, specifically focused on how influence functions and the role of criticism in the construction of literary tradition. In this it reflects the work of Jasper Griffin, the book’s honorand. It also sticks rather firmly to the literary world, where texts are self-sufficient and calmly read — but don’t really hurt, or damage the world, or cause political strife, or keep power in its place or challenge it. In this too, we can see the influence of Griffin.


1. Homer and the Early Epic Tradition, Bruno Currie

2. Homer’s Religion: Philological Perspectives from Indo-European and Semitic, Simon Pulleyn

3. Homer and Herodotus, Christopher Pelling

4. Hellenistic Epic and Homeric Form, Gregory Hutchinson

5. The Aeneid: Inheritance and Empire, Rebecca Armstrong

6. The Epic and Monuments: Interactions between Virgil’s Aeneid and the Augustan Building Programme, Stephen Harrison

7. Augustan Responses to the Aeneid, Matthew Robinson

8. Statius and the Sublimity of Capaneus, Matthew Leigh

9. Achilles, Beowulf, and Cu Chulainn: Continuity and Analogy from Homer to the Medieval North, Michael Clarke

10. Quantum mutatus ab illo: Moments of Change and Recognition in Tasso and Milton, Emily Wilson

11. The Idea of Epic in the Nineteenth Century, Richard Jenkyns

12. Epilogue, Bruno Currie.