BMCR 2007.10.21

English Literature and Ancient Languages. First published in 2003. Paperback edition

, English Literature and Ancient Languages. First published in 2003. Paperback edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiv, 210. $35.00.

[The 2003 edition was reviewed at BMCR 2004.08.11.]

A Classics teacher in a French lycée is a professeur de lettres classiques. He or she will take care of a proportion of the French (mother tongue) teaching in the school as well as classes in Latin and/or Greek. Such teachers are trained not only in the ancient languages but also in French language and literature. The same is true of Italy and some other European countries, but not in Germany or any Anglophone countries where the classicist is a specialist. Haynes’ (H.) book deals with the presence of Latin and Greek in English literature: a phenomenon which is perhaps less familiar to the English-speaking classicist than the equivalent is to a French- or Italian-speaking colleague. H. reminds us that English literature is not reserved for the English department only. Equally the English specialist not trained extensively in the languages of other times and countries, may find much new material here too.

H.’s focus is on literature, with extensive treatment of authors such as Milton, Shelley and Hopkins. He begins though with a consideration of topics from linguistics: code-switching and interference. The second of these terms is rather out of favour with linguists as it implies a hierarchy of languages. Interference occurs for a speaker of more than one language when one language influences another to the detriment of expression in one or other of the languages in question. Classicists have all been there in doing translations, when the English comes out in the garbled form so neatly parodied by Housman in his Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, (O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots,/Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom etc). The English, as target language, is suffering here clearly and can perhaps be said to be interfered with. However, linguists would argue that it would be difficult to talk of interference between, say, French and English without privileging one over the other. Code-switching, on the other hand, is the phenomenon of a speaker of two or more languages switching between them, even within a sentence, (Would you like a croissant with your cappuccino?). Socio-linguists prefer this term and try to find reasons for the switch, which can be attributed to a number of different socio-cultural possibilities. A switch into Latin from another language (H. deals with examples from French and German literature as well as from English) may be for purity, an appeal to authority or a desire to elevate the tone. It is difficult to recover the exact status of Latin (or Greek) for a modern writer, but, as H. argues, it is too easily assumed that when Latin appears in a modern text it is an ancient presence, “rather than as a contemporary language with important social implications”. Multilingualism is the norm rather than the exception, and so for the writers under consideration Latin and Greek will have had more of a living presence than we imagine. Modern preoccupations with elitism and snobbery are not relevant to the discussion of literature from earlier periods.

H.’s first chapter on multilingualism in literature gives a concise account of the place of Latin and Greek in modern Europe before examining examples of the ancient languages in a wide range of literature from Du Bellay to Pound. He treats authors who are equipollent (his word — the influence of Latin on H.’s prose style?) in both English and Latin, not only Milton but others too, and then writers who quote extensively, such as Gibbon for reasons of decency or Pound for mysticism. Some authors, such as Molière or Shakespeare, give Latin to pedants or scoundrels; others are downright hostile to the ancient languages, such as Dickens. H. concludes that we become better readers if we appreciate that Latin (and Greek) had different connotations for writers at different periods, and that we need to know the socio-cultural status of the languages at a particular time to understand what may be influencing the writer to use a Latin word or phrase or to make an obvious Latin allusion.

Chapter two deals with language purism and the moves at different periods to recast English vocabulary and diction in a purer classical style. This introduces the idea of the dual nature of English: the elements deriving from Saxon language and those from Latin and Greek often via French. At various times writers have frequently adopted one of two positions: either to emulate a high latinate style, or to purify English and write in unadorned, simple language. The contrast can be seen in Macbeth’s “the multitudinous seas incarnadine/making the green one, red.” Shakespeare is adept at using the two registers here. The battle between the high latinate style with its avoidance of low or mean words and the plain Saxon style has raged back and forth over the centuries, with neither side landing a knockout blow. “Sun-print” for “photograph” never took off, for example. H. provides many such fascinating illustrations of this question from language commentators as well as from literature. The place of the Saxon monosyllable in English receives particular attention. This chapter should be required reading for teachers of both Latin and English.

H.’s discussion of Latin interference in chapter three examines how a foreign presence may be detected in English, as a source or a deviation from the ordinary or where the foreignness marks the subject and style as unusual. These features do not really coincide with what linguists used to use the term for: some debasement or degradation of the native language by the introduction of structures and vocabulary from a second language. The writers he examines (Jonson, Milton, Pound) tend to allow in Latin influence to heighten their style, indeed H. comments on Milton that in Paradise Lost Latin lends “a sense of Latin permanence and magnificence, and also, at times, of strangeness, all features of the high style”. The feature which receives the longest treatment here is the use of “there are who” for Latin sunt qui, as a marker of Latin presence in English. H. shows by extensive analysis of the phrase in Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and others how the phrase becomes accepted English poetic style which does not always signify heightened style or an evocation of Rome.

Greek is given separate treatment in its own chapter, where H. distinguishes its principle influences on English poetry as compound epithets, negative or privative adjectives and in metre. Housman in his parody was on to the tendency to make up English descriptions on the line of Greek compounds (how purposed art thou come /To this well-nightingaled vicinity?), but “rosy-fingered dawn” is acceptable in English. Milton is central to this discussion (violet-imbroider’d vale, night-warbling bird), as is Shelley (insects rainbow-winged) but so is the Greekless Keats whose extensive use of this type of epithet shows how deeply influenced English had become. Hopkins also receives in depth treatment as well as others. The use of negative adjectives (words in un- and -less,) have long been traced to Greek influence, but words such as unravish’d (Keats) or passionless (Milton) seem so much a part of normal English that a conscious evocation of Greek seems a long way away. Finally in this chapter H. discusses the adaptation of Greek metres to English. This section puts a high demand on the reader’s familiarity with the technical vocabulary of Greek (and Latin) prosody and any student not conversant with anapaests, dactyls and sapphics might find the discussion of the effect of the obsolete term anacrusis on the verse of Swinburne difficult to follow.

H. concludes with a chapter on Apollo and Dionysus in German and English Literature. With its discussion of Nietzsche’s distinction in 19th century poetry, it is more a treatment of the influence of Classical authors on, in particular, Shelley, Swinburne and Hopkins. It is a discussion of the Classical tradition of the kind we are used to, rather than the more purely linguistic angle taken in the other chapters. For Classicists an interesting feature is the discussion of passages of English verse in the analytical mode usually reserved for passages of Latin and Greek. Criticism of English verse does not usually include discussion of concessive subordinating conjunctions, but H. shows that attention to this kind of detail is the manner in which authors indicate their evocation of Aeschylean language rather than the more expected harmonious balance of Sophocles. Familiarity with the distinctive styles of the Greek authors which dominated these English poets’ reading is demanded here.

This is a valuable book for students on literature courses that combine Classics with English or a modern language. It is full of interesting examples which open up new areas of investigation, and revives some old favourite quotations, such as Thomson’s once notorious “O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!”, which are in danger of being forgotten, owing to the changed position of Classics within the curriculum. It is also of value to Anglophone educators in the ancient languages as it will enable them to point up the influences of Latin and Greek on English — the language used as medium of instruction of the class. One of the great values of learning the ancient languages, to which former students nearly always testify, is the awareness of language generally that it brings and the ability to analyse language in a technical manner. Anglophones unaware of foreign languages will find this a challenging task, but H. will give students of English and any student of literature working in English a necessary reminder that English is a foreign language too. H. will also remind English students just how deeply the nineteenth century writers they study were steeped in the vocabulary, style and prosody of the ancient languages and how some familiarity with this source of influence will enhance their reading. This is an inexpensive paperback edition (with corrections) of the original publication of 2003.