BMCR 2012.05.02

Virgil’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing. Classical presences

, Virgil's Presence in Contemporary Women's Writing. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xi, 284. ISBN 9780199582969. $99.00.

This book considers a thus far lamentably understudied facet of the Virgilian Nachleben.1 And it does so with an elegantly understated charm that makes the volume a delight either to read through or to consult for reference and material on one of the ten authors considered in its pages, and for a profitable study of how another modern Virgilian critic, the author herself, reads the Aeneid in particular.

The introduction to this volume may be one of the strongest sources of recommendation for a wide readership among those interested in not only Virgil and Augustan poetry but the very art of verse composition and its reception. The strength of the introduction is the way the author carefully provides a foundation for remarks on the mainly twentieth-century female receivers of Virgil whom she studies with insightful commentary on the entire preceding tradition of Virgilian reception. You leave Cox’s introduction with a clear sense of how she has absorbed the place of Dante, Tennyson and Auden in the long queue of ardent admirers and critics of Virgil, and has in turn mapped out the important presence of contemporary female authors in the landscape. The introduction could profitably be assigned as required reading in graduate seminars on Virgil; in particular, Cox strikes just the right balance between quotation from primary sources and commentary.2 The introduction provides an overview of many of the problems considered later in the individual chapters and especially the conclusion, but it holds its secrets well, so that it can be usefully detached and appreciated as a separate work for those looking for a convenient overview of the reception of Virgil in contemporary literature.

The heart of Cox’s monograph is the set of ten chapters on ten authors and critics: Ruth Fainlight, Eavan Boland, Michèle Roberts, Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, Christa Wolf, Monique Wittig, Joyce Carol Oates, Janet Lembke (translator of the Georgics), and Ursula Le Guin. The chapters, like the introduction, are detachable and can be read independently, though read in sequence they fashion an argument that the women writers of the last century offer one of the most important readings in the unfolding of Virgilian reception, a reading that is at once unified and diverse, informed by different historical and social contexts, but born out of consideration of timeless problems. The chapter on Oates’ fiction is particularly valuable in this regard, as it studies Virgilian reception in the world after the events of 11 September 2001, with a situation of contemporary problems in light of the reading of Virgil after the Second World and during the Cold War.

Not surprisingly given the prevailing responses of contemporary authors, there is far more on the Aeneid here than on the Eclogues and Georgics. Still, the Georgics in particular receives close attention, largely because of the influence of Virgil’s Eurydice on later literature, as well as the Virgilian pastoral poems that so inspire Boland’s verse.

This is not an easy book, largely because the writers it considers are difficult and challenging figures and require a fair grounding in far more than Virgil studies to appreciate fully, and because Cox is engaged in her own hommage to Virgil, no less than to the artists she studies. And while this book is not particular to the problems of any nation or ideology, it does develop a careful thesis that Virgil has been foundational to the development of an identity for the American nation, and for the reconsideration of the identity of several others (Britain, Germany). The section on Roberts’ fiction situates the author’s Virgilian reception in the cultural context of her own shared French and English heritage, which allows for an especially rich reading of a classical poet who is concerned throughout his Aeneid with the intercourse between different traditions and the amalgam fashioned by the union of disparate national identities (Trojan, Italian, Etruscan, Greek), and the omnipresent consideration of the final ethnographic disposition of affairs in Virgil’s Italy. The problems of Virgil’s day are viewed as not dissimilar to modern and contemporary concerns; ultimately Cox’s monograph is about the continuing relevance of Virgil’s poetic achievements, a relevance that is nurtured by the work of such artists as the ten women whose work Cox investigates.

Part of the success of Cox’s work is lies in the way the consideration of national identity is woven through a book that is refreshingly devoid of partisanship, whether for theory or approach. The study is not limited, either, to the Virgilian corpus in se, but extends to the place of Virgil’s own antecedents in the understanding of the Aeneid by contemporary authors, in particular the ghost of Homer’s Troy that haunts Wolf’s Kassandra. Some attention is also given to Virgil’s own followers in the Latin poetic tradition, especially Ovid.

Ultimately, Cox’s book is her own reading of Virgil, developed and written through the prisms of very different yet similarly focused female artists, writers and critics whose concerns are shared by the poet they study, explicate, emulate and reinvent. Part of the magic of the argument that unfolds through the chapters is the way the author takes her place among the Virgilian critics; this is most apparent in the chapter on the last writer Cox considers, Ursula Le Guin. Here, Le Guin’s comments on Camilla are analyzed as part of an argument on how Camilla and Lavinia and the relationship between the two offer a cipher for understanding Virgil’s game in crafting his epic vision of Rome’s origins. And it is Lavinia who opens Cox’s conclusion, where we have a sense that the present book in part provides a voice for that famously silent Virgilian character, the ostensible cause of the war in Latium and the erotic theme of the second half of the epic, the girl who can blush and yet is deprived of the power of the words Virgil’s critics and receivers exercise. Le Guin’s novel of the young woman who would be the object of rivalry between Aeneas and Turnus introduces the last movement of Cox’s book, where the disparate threads from the individual studies of diverse authors are connected.

“Virgil leads us into personal underworlds, offers us an access to our former selves.” (p. 265). The conclusion of Cox’s book is a katabasis of sorts, where each of the preceding chapters is revealed to have been a study of that author’s individual underworld journey of introspection through the study of Virgil. Ultimately, this is the vision that Cox explores, and by the end of the book we realize that part of the thesis is that the female characters Virgil employs, in particular Eurydice, Creusa, Dido, Lavinia and Camilla, are the defining element of the personal voice that the poet’s public epic employs; Cox’s book is about the women of the Aeneid (and the key woman of the Georgics) as much as the women who have written about the poet. The Aeneid in particular emerges as a feminine epic, a poem about the interactions of women and the impact they have on global affairs, whether Juno’s successful rage with Jupiter and its influence on the settlement of affairs in Italy, or the lasting consequences of Dido’s romantic involvement with Aeneas on the course of relations between Rome and Carthage. The women authors Cox studies become modern voices for the same themes the ancient poet explored in the very different cultural context of Augustan Rome, and they join the ranks of those best of readers of Virgil’s difficult verse across time and space. The vision of the underworld in Aeneid 6 that provides the climactic bridge between the two halves of the epic is the lynchpin of Cox’s study, too, as examination of the influence of Virgil’s eschatological musings on contemporary women writers expands to include Cox’s own study of the underworld of both Georgics 4 and Aeneid 6, a study in which the Sibyl (whose depiction by Michelangelo graces the cover) joins with Eurydice, Dido, and the other women in the Lugentes Campi to provide keys to unlocking Virgil’s mysteries and purpose. Virgil’s Sibyl is the spokeswoman for the women of the Aeneid, both the dead and the still to be introduced.

A bibliography (especially rich) and index round out a success for Cox and Oxford University Press, a book that should be on the shelf of every Virgilian, indeed every lover of evocative verse and its reception by gifted artists.


1. Note, though, Karl Kirchwey, “Virgil’s Aeneid and Contemporary Poetry”, in Joseph Farrell and Michael Putnam, eds., A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and Its Tradition, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 465- 81, and the forthcoming entries on some of the women authors considered in Cox’s book in Richard Thomas and Jan Ziolkowski, A Virgil Encyclopedia, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

2. Cox nearly always provides both the originals, whether French, German, or Latin, and translations.