BMCR 2011.09.51

Virgil’s Schoolboys: The Poetics of Pedagogy in Renaissance England. Classical Presences

, Virgil's Schoolboys: The Poetics of Pedagogy in Renaissance England. Classical Presences. Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xiv, 264. ISBN 9780199591244 $110.00.


Any debate about the influence of classical literature on English Renaissance culture must take on schooling. Whether in the stuffy grammar schools or the homes where the better sort were tutored, from the first moments that they encountered letters children learned both through and about classical authors. They began with Terence and Cicero, but soon made their way to Caesar, Juvenal, Sallust, Horace, Ovid, and, inevitably, Virgil. Their life-long relationships with those texts were surely profoundly influenced by these early classroom experiences, always mediated by the voice and hand of a master teacher.

Andrew Wallace’s Virgil’s Schoolboys: The Poetics of Pedagogy in Renaissance England participates intelligently in a lively ongoing debate about the role of pedagogy in shaping the literary, social and political culture of early modern England. Histories of the content and practice of grammar school education have been mined to produce competing versions of their effects. For some scholars, the intense schoolroom drilling, imitation, and repetition, reinforced by corporal punishment, was designed to produce subservient subjects, despite all the grand claims of the humanist educational reformers. Others have stressed the positive as well as negative effects of this culture that created such intimate relationships, both painful and pleasurable, between student and teacher and student and text. In particular, Wallace expresses his indebtedness to Jeffrey Dolven’s Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, which investigates how this teaching shaped early modern poets, deeply marked by the experience yet conscious of its failures.

Wallace’s own sensitive take on this debate focuses on that intimacy between master and student, and student and text, a relationship filled with desire as well as fear. Where other interpreters of the evidence see “strife or competition” in humanist pedagogy and commentary, Wallace sees amor as the primary driver. While his focus on amor grounds the book’s general argument, his vehicle is the study of the pedagogic and cultural influence of the master text of Virgil. Not only was Virgil the quintessential “schoolbook,” but also, as Wallace argues, Virgil himself was deeply engaged with questions of teaching and learning. Even as they were core school texts, each of the three genres Vigil mastered—the pastoral, georgic and epic—all enact the power and problems of pedagogy. Wallace marshals old school textbooks, early Virgil translations, glossed editions, and woodblock illustrations, as well as early modern poetry, to make a convincing case for the importance of teaching Virgil, as well as the importance of teaching to Virgil himself.

Before plunging into the works, Wallace devotes an initial chapter to the form and function of “Virgil” as a schoolbook in early modern England. Young students would first encounter the poet’s work as fragments in grammars, but more mature ones would come to him encased in a book, “thick with commentary and, after 1502, frequently constellated with woodcuts” (57). In these forms, Virgil’s work could appear at once overwhelming and omnipresent, but it was never monolithic. Between the chapter’s sections on these two different textual encounters with Virgil is a discourse on amor, the complex love or longing evoked in the master-student relationship, which also imbues the scholar’s relationship with the classical text. In both its undercurrents of pederasty and its more elevated meanings of “loving mastery” and a “yearning for knowledge” (56), pedagogic amor converts the schoolroom dialogue and the conversation of commentary into a scene of interaction calling up the master’s physical presence. There, “the body and the voice of the master” become “the source, measure, and gravitational centre of a full lesson” (191). That presence, real or imagined, saturates the moment of learning with desire for what one lacks or may lose, as much as with fear of punishment.

Pastoral is the first place to turn for the Virgilian ethos of instruction, structured as it is through both “dialogue and desire” (79). Here, Wallace ingeniously adapts the pastoral trope of the echo to explore learning through the echo that is repetition and imitation, the primary tools of instruction in the grammar school classroom: “Virgil’s pastoral poems return again and again to this notion that instruction thrives in a echo chamber” (87). Paralleling the pastoral dialogue is Maturin Cordier’s Colloquiorum scholasticorum libri quatuor, a volume of Latin dialogues between schoolboys, an engaging counterpart to the pastoral scene, concentrating on the students’ relationship with their master. Wallace also offers a detailed reading of Virgil’s Sixth Eclogue, and especially the episode of the drunken Silenus, who is bound by two boys and a nymph and made to sing, a strange image of schoolmaster indeed. While Wallace successfully enlists this scene for his argument, treating it is an allegory for the student’s quest for the “recalcitrant original” of knowledge (114), it is curious that he does not do more with the dynamics of resistance in the early modern school room (the history of teaching bristles with such examples of students’ defying their masters).

While the pastoral stages scenes of instruction, the Georgics seem to have been composed explicitly to teach, and it has been most often received as such, as a textbook on agricultural practice. Wallace’s point of entry into the Georgics’s pedagogy is Francis Bacon’s characterization of The Advancement of Learning as a “georgics of the mind,” which Wallace reads “as a claim about the instrumentality of the methodical procedures he advocates in his text” (136). That is, words do something, both logically and rhetorically; texts teach, thus standing in for the master. The focal point of the chapter, however, is a reading of a relatively small slice of text, the Aristaeus epyllion at the midpoint of the Fourth Georgic, the link being the curious directions for “breeding bees from the corpses of slain bullocks” (140). Wallace offers an elaborate analysis of the epyllion’s allegory of pedagogy, both as text and as it was illustrated, focusing the sea nymph’s Cyrene’s wavering instruction of her son Aristaeus. This is a story that has challenged scholarly interpretation, and Wallace joins the fray with his own reading of it as a commentary on the contingencies of the pedagogic process.

The final chapter of Virgil’s Schoolboys tackles the primary genre of the poet’s opus: the Aeneid. For the early modern English student, the sign of pedagogical accomplishment would have been the mastery of epic, and the Aeneid was “the master-poet’s master text” (179). Epic was the destination of the scholar who was drawing ever closer to leaving the school behind, compelled to remember (or forget) all that he had learned. It makes it all the more poignant that the Aeneid itself recounts the remembrance and forgetting of the loss of Troy. Wallace compares with the Aeneid the early modern teacher’s worry that his work “immerses him, and his schoolboys too, in a sea of forgetting” (188). This approach foregrounds the striking fact (also noted by Lynn Enterline) that the genre of epic never did take a strong hold in English Renaissance literature.

While this chapter is thus about “forgetting epic,” it leads inevitably to a consideration of the one great English epic of this period, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene itself is rife with scenes of instruction. As Spenser tells us in the dedication to Raleigh, the poem provides “doctrine by ensample,” not “by rule.” While Jeffrey Dolven considers the overall perils of teaching by example in Spenser’s epic, Wallace focuses on the “agonizing over the nature and possibility of instruction” (208) in the pedagogy of the “example” that does not depend on the master’s presence. The chapter follows the adventures of Guyon, the hero of Temperance, and his guide, the “Palmer.” The Palmer is usually seen as reason embodied in the figure of a pilgrim, but he is also a teacher, whose appearance and disappearance throughout Book II marks the charged relationship between master and student (Wallace notes ingeniously that while “palmer” meant pilgrim, it also signified a piece of wood used to strike the palm of a recalcitrant child). Like Dolven, Wallace sees The Faerie Queene as demonstrating the failure or at least instability of the effects of teaching and learning. Mastery may be sought, but in the end, the figure of the schoolmaster must recede from the scene, and self-mastery may never fully be achieved.

What then does one learn from reading Virgil’s Schoolboys ? This reader took away a great deal (and hopes she can remember it). This is a relatively short book, but it packs a great deal of erudition into its pages. Wallace shares his deep knowledge of both Virgil’s texts and the landscape of early modern English learning, both inside and outside the classroom. That erudition does not weigh the book down, however. For the most part, Wallace’s style is straightforward and even eloquent. Most impressive is his sympathy for his subjects of both Virgil and pedagogy. While not ignoring the pain, Virgil’s Schoolboys evokes well the longings and the pleasures inherent in the acts of both teaching and learning.