BMCR 2008.01.15

Pastoral Palimpsests. Essays in the Reception of Theocritus and Virgil. Rethymnon Classical Studies, Volume 3

, , Pastoral palimpsests : essays in the reception of Theocritus and Virgil. Rethymnon classical studies ; v. 3. Heraklion: Crete University Press, 2007. xi, 216 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9789605242374. €25.00.

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

The scholarly re-inscription of pastoral in the 1990s seems to continue into the new millennium.1 Yet, while a theoretical search for the nature and definition dominated pastoral scholarship in the 1990s, the most recent books on pastoral rather look at individual texts and their reception.2 The book under review is typical in this respect, explicitly focusing on the reception of Theocritus and Virgil in texts from pseudo-Theocritus’ Idyll 20 to Bob Dylan’s album Time out of Mind.

Behind the beautiful alliterative title, Pastoral palimpsests, there is not much reflection on the ways in which pastoral in general, or these palimpsests in particular (whether understood as processes of reception or as intertextual networks), function. The strengths of the collection rather lie in readings of particular texts from an impressive team of scholars. There is no common perspective, nor is there any attempt to set a particular agenda for pastoral studies. The aim of the collection is to present ‘selected moments’ of the reception of Theocritus and Virgil (p. 1). Consequently the value of individual articles to individual readers will depend more on their interest in the particular texts highlighted than in the pastoral or receptionist angle. Not least the reader will enjoy the encounter with lesser known texts within the classical world, such as the poems of Miklós Radnóti, Michael Butor’s experimental texts or Sannazaro’s Piscatory Eclogues.

The ten essays in this collection derive from a conference on pastoral poetry held in Rethymnon under the aegis of the Department of Philology at the University of Crete. Although conceived within a classical framework, the volume includes three contributions from outside classics (Patterson, Ziolkowski and Cox). Although all Greek and Latin texts are translated, a few essays admittedly seem directed more exclusively towards a classically trained audience (e.g. Fantuzzi and Hunter). Most articles, however, should potentially appeal to the general student or scholar of literature as well. The essays are arranged chronologically and framed by an overview of the articles by the editor. A brief index gives entries to separate poems. Each essay is provided with its own bibliography.

The first two essays primarily address a classical audience. The first essay, ‘The importance of being boukolos‘ by Marco Fantuzzi, is a study of Pseudo-Theocritus 20 looking both backwards and forwards, i.e. to Theocritus, Id. 3, 6 and 11, to Catullus 99, to Virgil, Ecl. 2, and to Ovid, Met.13.738-897. His focus is on what one might call the erotic pastoral and, more specifically, the development of a literary space for the boukolos in love. Thus Fantuzzi reads the opposition between the rustic and urban sphere in Ps.Theocritus 20 as a development of the agonistic nature of bucolic poetry which carries a metapoetic meaning in the opposition between bucolic and other genres in relation to the representation of love.

While Fantuzzi’s essay is concerned with the question of a pastoral space for love, the pastoral locus amoenus makes up only a small part of Richard Hunter’s analysis in his essay ‘Isis and the language of Aesop’. His general interest lies in the literary treatment of the origin of language and in a reading of the Life of Aesop in the G recension in general. In particular, he looks at the relation between language, power and status in a close reading of the episode in the Life of Aesop where Isis gives the so far dumb Aesop the ability to speak (6-8). His analysis of these relations in turn makes the episode integral to the Life as a whole and pivotal to the analysis of it.

The next two essays bring us to the Italian and English Renaissance, and both look at the transitory position of pastoral within the oeuvre of an author, that is, the way pastoral is conceived as a stepping stone to a further poetic career in analogy with that of Virgil (the rota Virgilii). Thomas Hubbard, whose monograph on pastoral3 explores the genre from the point of view of its transitory position, or what he calls ‘literary filiation’, here analyses a text not treated in his book, Sannazaro’s piscatory Eclogues—or, rather, the first four of the six poems. Although he rightly states that these Eclogues inaugurated what was to prove ‘a rich and productive variant of pastoral’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the piscatory genre has not been much treated in the scholarly literature on pastoral.4 What are the implications of moving the shepherd from his Arcadia to the sea? According to Hubbard, Sannazaro’s piscatory world is a counterpoint to Arcadia rather than a relocation of Arcadia to a watery setting. In Hubbard’s view these piscatory eclogues develop the transitory nature of pastoral to such an extent that they rather take the place of Virgil’s Georgics than that of the Eclogues. This reading hinges on two factors: first the entry of labor when the shepherd turns to sea, and second, the epic intertexts apparent in the first four piscatory eclogues.

Philip Hardie in his essay on Milton’s Epitaphium Damonis takes his cue from Hubbard, but this time the transitional potential does not take the shepherd to sea, but into the elegiac realm. Hardie argues that this choice is not only transitional in relation to Milton’s next genre (Thyrsis’ announced epic on British history) but also signals the poet’s farewell to Latin as his literary language. The most important Virgilian intertext is here Eclogue 10, Virgil’s farewell to pastoral genre—a poem in which Hardie also traces important interactions with Eclogues 1 and 5 in relation to their construction or performance of fama. Other key-words in this analysis are exile, the journey and, of course, the lament. Not least Hardie’s reading shows that the Epitaphium Damonis parades its awareness of the tradition in which it stands, from Virgil via Ovid to Sannazaro and Spenser.

With Annabel Patterson’s essay on Wordsworth’s reception of Virgil we move on to the Romantics and to one of the most important moments in contemporary reception of pastoral, especially in relation to the representation of nature and ‘reality’. In an informal style Patterson revisits her own work on the reception of pastoral5 and arrives at the opposite conclusion to the one given in her big book, namely that pastoral of any integrity needs to be anchored in the ‘real countryside’. While the standard poetics of Rapin and others did not take Virgil’s first Eclogue much into account, Patterson argues that Wordsworth, despite concealing his references to Virgil, develops several aspects of the Meliboeus figure and thus creates a figure which should seem much more apt for a ‘realistic’ pastoral. Yet, Patterson ends making the rather contentious claim that Wordsworth also ruined the genre by going beyond the realm of lyric, which Patterson views as essential to pastoral (p. 114).

Just as Patterson argues that there is more Virgil in Wordsworth than often recognised, so Michael Paschalis detects more sophisticated use of Virgil in Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd than previously noticed. Although it is a well-known fact that Virgil in Dryden’s translation was a favourite author of Hardy’s, so far there has been no systematic study of Hardy’s Virgilianism. In this essay (the longest in the collection) Paschalis detects important use of the Eclogues, but even more of the Aeneid, ranging from plot-structure and names to mythological expressions, in what might be called one of Hardy’s pastoral novels.

The next essay, by Theodore Ziolkowski, is also in a way the revisiting and rethinking of a previous work, Virgil and the moderns.6 In his essay Ziolkowski explicitly shuns generic discussion and limits his analysis to the reception of a specific Eclogue, Ecl. 1. Although not much mentioned in seventeenth-century poetics, this is the Eclogue which Ernst Robert Curtius claimed was the most important key to the literary tradition in Europe until the Age of Goethe. Ziolkowski shows that its influence goes much further, well into the twentieth century. While 20th-century German poets made more use of the fourth than the first Eclogue, and the French (with the exception of André Gide’s relocation of Tityrus’ umbra to a Parisian café in his satirical novel Paludes) were more interested in the homoerotic implications of the second, it is the first Eclogue that takes centre stage in English-language poetry of the twentieth century. Ziolkowski offers a tour of some of the relevant works, mostly written before WWII, by Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, and Allen Tate. All these poets used the first Eclogue as a vehicle for the expression of their own political thoughts. After a gap in the 1960s and 1970s (a period apparently more germane to Juvenal and Horace’s irony), a return to the first Eclogue is noticeable in the 1990s. This new wave of pastoral poetry (the examples given are Anthony Hecht, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney) also coincides with the renewed theoretical interest at the end of the century. Ziolkowski argues that the inspiration might come from the commemorations related to the bimillennium of Virgil’s death. Yet, a more substantial answer might come from the change in historical circumstances (such as the war in Iraq and the rise of environmentalism) implicit in Ziolkowski’s own discussion of Heaney’s explanation for the staying power of pastoral, namely ‘the ability to measure up to the challenges offered by changing circumstances’ (p. 167).

The final two essays share a focus on Virgil’s ninth Eclogue. Fiona Cox’ essay ‘Night Falls on America’ on examines Virgilian pastoral in the French author Michael Butor’s experimental text Mobile. This is another text which does not refer explicitly to the Eclogues but where it is still possible to see them as haunting the whole work in a meaningful way. In Butor’s fragmented presentation of the United States, which the author likens to a quilt, shadows are literally falling on America. Fox identifies a darkening of these shadows in a sorrow like the sorrow of Meliboeus routed from his home (Ecl. 1) or, even more poignantly, in Moeris’ fear for the extinction of poetry (Ecl. 9). In particular she sees the dark foreboding pervading Butor’s text as stemming from the kind of cultural amnesia, guilt and loss present in the ninth Eclogue. Given that the pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America since the age of its discovery.7 this adds a reasonable and important dimension to Butor’s learned and intricate text, not least along the familiar lines of melancholia for the loss of a previous innocence.

Pastoral melancholia and Virgilian shadows are also at the heart of the closing essay of this collection, Richard F. Thomas’ ‘Shadows are falling: Virgil, Radnóti and Dylan, and the aesthetics of pastoral melancholy’. Thomas sketches an aesthetic of melancholy by looking at concepts of time and memory, place, absent object and shadows, and how these elements might be construed as key melancholic concepts in Virgil’s Eclogues. And again it is the ninth Eclogue which deals most intensely with this melancholy aesthetics. Thomas then goes on to follow these key-concepts and their Virgilian use into the modern tradition and, in particular, Miklas Radnóti and Bob Dylan. While Radnóti translated Ecl. 9 into Hungarian and wrote eclogues himself, some of which were dramatically found when his body was exhumed in a German concentration camp, Dylan’s use of the melancholy aesthetics is Virgilian more in the abstract sense. In the analysis of both these modern poets he returns to his key melancholy concepts and shows how these are put into play and create a similar feeling across the 2000-year gap.

The reception of Theocritus and Virgil is an incredibly vast and varied field—or should one say meadow? Though only treating selected areas of this meadow, the collection as a whole gives a good impression of the varied responses to these two ancient poets as well as evidence of what Heaney called their staying power. I am sure that, depending on their different inclinations, almost all readers will find something of interest, but a reader looking for reflection on pastoral as a genre or reception should look elsewhere. As often happens with conference proceedings, the volume has no unified focus, and, while the discussion at the conference might have tied the papers together, these essays hardly ever interact with each other (rather like true palimpsests). To me the high point of the collection is Thomas’ essay, which in particular struck me as offering important insights into the genre of pastoral as a whole, as well as intriguing readings of individual texts. The publication of this volume has been impressively swift, less than a year intervening between the conference in Rethymnon and the publication of the book. Yet, this rapid processing does have its drawbacks. Behind the beautiful cover there is ample evidence of haste, ranging from a vast number of typos and incomplete sentences to plain mistakes which should have been observed by an alert proof reader.8


Michael Paschalis, Introduction

Marco Fantuzzi, The importance of being boukolos : ps.-Theocr. 20

Richard Hunter, Isis and the Language of Aesop

Thomas Hubbard, Exile from Arcadia: Sannazaro’s Piscatory Eclogues

Philip Hardie, Milton’s Epitaphium Damonis and the Virgilian Career

Annabel Patterson: Too much Virgil? Too much talk? Wordsworth’s Anxiety of Influence

Michael Paschalis, Thomas Hardy and Virgil

Theodore Ziolkowski, Twentieth-century Variations on Eclogue 1

Fiona Cox, Night Falls on America: Virgilian Pastoral in Michel Butor’s Mobile

Richard F. Thomas, Shadows are Falling: Virgil, Radnóti, and Dylan, and the Aesthetics of Pastoral Melancholy.


1. Most recently: M. Fantuzzi and T. Papanghelis (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Greek and Latin Pastoral (Brill 2006); B. Breed, Pastoral Inscriptions, Reading and Writing in Virgil’s Eclogues (Duckworth 2006) (reviewed at BMCR 2007.03.39); and M. Skoie and S. Bjornstad Velásquez (eds.), Pastoral and the Humanities. Arcadia Re-inscribed (Bristol Phoenix Press 2006).

2. In fact, the definition of pastoral is a recurring theme throughout the 20th century, ever since William Empson’s somewhat provocative definition of pastoral as ‘putting the complex into the simple’ (Some versions of Pastoral, London 1935). The most recent critical stances are seen in P. Alpers, What is Pastoral? (Chicago University Press 1996) and T. Gifford, Pastoral (Routledge 1999). Important contributions to pastoral theory have also been offered by classicists, e.g. T. Rosenmeyer (The Green Cabinet. Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric, University of California Press 1969), D. Halperin (Before pastoral. Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, Yale University Press 1983) and K. Gutzwiller (Theocritus’ Pastoral Analogies. The Formation of a Genre, University of Wisconsin Press 1991). For an overview of previous debates, see Halperin 1983 and B. Loughrey, The Pastoral Mode (Macmillan 1984). T. Hubbard, The Pipes of Pan (Ann Arbor 1998, on which see Richard Hunter’s review, BMCR 1999.09.09) might be seen to combine the theoretical and reception angle through looking at pastoral as a transitory mode in the career of the poet. A more ‘pure’ reception angle was taken already in A. Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology. From Virgil to Valéry (University of California Press 1987).

3. Hubbard 1998 (note 2).

4. This situation should change when Michael Putnam’s forthcoming translation and notes to Sannazaro’s Latin poetry are published in the Villa I Tatti Renaissance Library.

5. Patterson 1987 (note 2).

6. T. Ziolkowski, Virgil and the Moderns (Princeton 1993).

7. See e.g. Marx quoted in Ziolkowski, p. 146, note 6.

8. Some typos and strange language noted in passing by a non-native speaker: p. 1, ‘Theoscritus’; p. 20 ‘seet’ for ‘sweet’; p.26 ‘throuout’; p. 103 a comma too many; p. 119 ‘when his mother gave him a pocket Dryden’s translation of Virgil’; p. 121 n. 7 ‘Mnasylus’ for ‘Mnasyllus’; p. 122 and 123 ‘Virgil’s’ for ‘Virgil’; p. 130 n. 35 ‘vestigial’ for ‘vestigia’; p. 162, ‘wall’ should be ‘a wall’ or ‘walls’; p.175 n. 34 ‘governt he’ should be ‘govern the’; p. 192 ‘they’ for ‘the’; p. 204 ‘integral to notion of’; p. 206 ‘Ovid in exile invokes the identifies himself with’ ; p.207 ‘glimpse at some the instances’. There are some incomplete sentences, e.g. p.104 (‘Against this delicious ideal of smooth life that Wordsworth lays out, in fierce detail, his view of what life as a ‘real’ shepherd is like, as seen from the vantage point of the Lake district’). The Greek sepulchral epigram on p.195-6 lacks translation, likewise Ecl. 1.67-9 on p. 203. Of the more serious mistakes: p. 114 gives Virg. Ecl. 10 for Ecl. 9; another instance of carelessness is the presentation of Ecl. 6.61 on p. 181 as a reference to the golden apple and the famous beauty contest between Minerva, Venus and Juno, whereas most commentators see it as a reference to Atalanta.