BMCR 2009.01.23

Response: Dugdale on Fratantuono on James Morwood, Virgil: A Poet in Augustan Rome

Response to 2009.01.10

Response by

I am responding to Dr Lee Fratantuono’s review of James Morwood’s Virgil: A Poet in Augustan Rome in my capacity as co-editor of the new Cambridge series (Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts) which this book inaugurates. I shall avoid the temptation of responding to particular details because ripostes of that kind often come across as sour grapes. But in view of the fact that this is the first review of a book in our series, I would like to provide some clarification of our general approach, since F.’s characterization of its intended purpose and audience is likely to mislead the reader.

The aim of the series is an evangelistic one: to make accessible to as broad an audience as possible key texts of the ancient world. Through our series, we hope that many new students will get to discover the works of Virgil, Cicero, Lucretius and others. F. writes with apparent disdain of “a syndicated version of Virgil’s poems”, in which “hundreds upon hundreds of lines have been consigned to periwinkle boxes”. Like F., I myself prefer reading whole works rather than selected parts. But how many students nowadays get to read any of the Eclogues or Georgics, much less to read them in their entirety? Even among students who major in classics and who read the works in the original, few read more of Virgil’s works than his Aeneid, more of Cicero than a speech or two, and many read none of Lucretius’ poem at all. Thus F.’s comment that the book is “aimed at an audience that will not be reading the poet’s three works in toto anytime soon” describes a situation that is sadly true, but one that the book aims to begin to remedy. Far from being conceived as “a substitute for reading the originals”, as F. supposes, we hope that an accessible translation of excerpts, with notes at the bottom of the page providing the help necessary for the understanding of the historical and literary context and with color illustrations presented as primary sources in their own right, will stimulate students to explore further.

That is also why there is, as F. notes, “a fair amount of attention to Virgilian scholarship”, though F. draws from this the misguided “inevitable conclusion that the student is expected to move from this book to a major monograph on the Aeneid without ever having read the poem (one gets the sense the bibliography and references that appear passim are here to facilitate term papers)”. Quite the contrary: we believe that even at their first exposure to Virgil’s poems, we can provide students with a window into the lively scholarly debate that these rich works provoke and invite them to join in. (On Eclogue 1, for example, Morwood includes the following quotation and discussion question: “‘By including such images of current events in his poems, the poet boldly transformed the pastoral genre’ (Josiah Osgood, p. 112). Do you feel that the fact that it reflects actual historical events makes a difference to your appreciation of this poem?”) This too is why the book showcases the rich afterlife that Virgil’s creative genius has inspired in the works of Shakespeare, Coleridge, Milton, Arnold and Berlioz as well as in visual art, though F. construes this as a negative: “Any student who can profit from everything M. provides should be reading Virgil in the first place…” We do not intend to tell students what to think, to provide a ‘key’ to the poem or ready-made references for term papers, or to limit the stimulus material by trying to guess what a single imagined student might profit from. Underlying the reviewer’s at times vituperative assault on Morwood’s book lies, in my estimation, a fundamental antipathy to the whole approach of excerpting a text. That F.’s predilections are quite different is clear from the blurb for his impressive commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid, Madness Unchained: A Reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, Lexington Books: 2007): “The book aims at providing a coherent guide to the entirety of Virgil’s Aeneid, with analysis of every scene and, in some cases, every line of crucial passages. The book tries to provide a guide to the vast bibliography and scholarly apparatus that has grown around Virgil studies (especially over the past century), and to offer some critical study of what Virgil’s purpose and intent may have been…”

In short, the books in our series are more modest in scope. But they aim to introduce a whole new readership to the ancient world and, we hope, to inspire them to learn Greek and Latin. We are grateful to the Cambridge University Press for supporting this vision and welcome any constructive criticism.