BMCR 2016.12.25

The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature: Volume 2: 1558-1660

, , The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature: Volume 2: 1558-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xiv, 788. ISBN 9780199547555. $215.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This hefty second volume of the OHCREL, a massive project under the general editorship of David Hopkins and Charles Martindale, follows publication of volume 3 in 2012, and comes in close company with Volumes 1 and 4, all published in 2015-16. Cheney and Hardie’s remit is the English Renaissance, respecting a conventional periodicity as do all in the series: Volume 1 treats canonical mediaeval England (800-1558), while Volumes 3 and 4 cover respectively the long Eighteenth Century (1660-1790) and the high Romanticism through Victorianism of 1790-1880. Like the others, this book is full of stimulating material contributed by scholars from English Studies and Classics, the former outnumbering the latter. In a few instances inexperience on the classical side is evident, and there are, as would almost have to be the case, weaker as well as stronger contributions. But by far the majority of these chapters are substantial and enlightening; no one remotely interested in the reception of classical literature and ideas in the English Renaissance should be without access to this book.

Yet there are lingering issues. Reception Studies, in its green youth, was an impertinent check on traditional models of classical influence. Post-classical works that somehow involved the words and ideas of Greek and Latin writers and works were not, under the new rubric, “imitating” the classics, laboring in their shadow, or somehow trying to bring them back into currency. The pioneering figures Jauss, Iser, Gadamer et al. turned us who grew up with ‘the Classical Tradition’ all backwards; the authority of a Plato or Vergil —directing, influencing, dictating, modeling—was supplanted by the authority of the reader who processed and formulated a text’s meaning. Martindale’s oft-quoted mot that meaning is constituted at the moment of reception emblematized a theory or reading and a way of seeing classical literature through its presence in later writing and art.1 Reception Studies are now no longer new, however useful its principles and strategies remain, and that does present a problem to scholars involved in a project like this one: how to preserve an element of currency while presenting a broad, historical survey whose anchoring principles are themselves part of that history. To their credit, the editors of this volume face up to the issue and attempt to turn reception into somewhat different ground. Briefly, this has amounted to flipping the prevalent notions of the reception of texts by authors and readers into a reception of generic “ideas,” manners and matters of language, and, conspicuously, authorship itself: the editors see post-classical writers and artists crafting their own self-conception as authors on the perceived authorship models offered by classical antecedents.

The editors do seem to me correct in broadly reiterating the role of classical authority in a period when the classical languages and texts, Latin texts primarily, often in digested, anthologized, and partial form, were central elements of the educational curriculum and features of prestige and popularity. The general idea of imitated classical authorship does, however, seem to restore very familiar ideas about the classical literary legacy. First, that legacy is explicitly meant (real reception here!) to be literary: this volume treats almost exclusively canonical works, largely held quite separate from sub-literary and non-literary contexts—this is so even in the “Contexts” section of this volume. Secondly, textual authority is restored to classical writers, and we are back to observing how post-classical writers “imitate” their classical “models,” a point emphasized by the editors. Some will find this a healthy reworking of the older bearings of the classical tradition—and a few contributors to this volume have made imitation, usually revisionary mimesis, a point of productive analysis (see particularly Colin Burrow’s “Shakespeare,” Ch. 27). But the earlier dispensation looms large, with the result that, despite the energetic drum-beating of the introduction, there is little that is conceptually or methodologically new here: apart from Cheney’s essay on literary careers (Chapter 8a), intermittent mentions of Spenser’s imitation of Vergil’s progress from pastoral to something vaguely like epic, and Martindale’s critical interrogation of Cheney’s argument for Marlowe’s “Ovidian trajectory” in Chapter 26, there is infrequent mention of authorship imitation in the book’s many chapters, whose authors, as is indicated in a saving footnote “have written on the topic as they see fit” (22). In fact, the value of most of the contributions lies in their demonstrating how mediated via Continental and Christianizing reception Renaissance English reception was, how spotty (despite Peter Mack’s statement that “virtually all the classical texts were available to English readers”(51)) ready access was to entire texts in their original languages, and how “plural and unresolved” in Burrow’s words (617) classical presences can be in later writers. This is conventionally understood reception. But it might be observed that conceptual novelty is precisely not what is wanted in a “history” of reception. Under the guidance of the series editors, the tenor of these volumes has been consistently measured, deliberate, and responsible, within carefully defined “literary” parameters. This volume is very much of that cloth, and its generally acute scholarship makes this as good as any in the series.2

Minor bumps, few in a collection so big, generally originate in sweeping statements that override nuance or lead to false impressions: for instance, that Twentieth-century criticism “tended to treat Virgil as the poet of empire, supporter of an authoritarian regime” or that peripeteia and anagnorisis were traditional features of epic. There are others as well, and a typo or two, but as is the case with these churlishly selected examples, usually in the company of much else that is very good.

On a broader scale, the volume’s organization might be queried. Three large sections reflect the editors’ programmatic intentions (“Institutions and Contexts,” “Genres,” “Authors,” the last of these covering ten major classical and early modern authors). Yet one might reasonably wonder how some of the essays (Cora Fox on “Sexuality and Desire,” Ch. 8b, Cheney on “Literary Careers,” Ch. 8c, and Hardie on “Fame and Immortality,” Ch. 8d) really belong in the subheading “cultural contexts.” Or indeed, how Gavin Alexander’s “The Classics and Literary Criticism” (Ch.5) belongs in “Institutions and Contexts.”

The first, broad rubric, as it works out, treats a great many authors and, aside from other consequent issues, there is considerable overlap in these essays. Different perspectives can be useful when not merely repetitive, but, for example, by the time one gets to Richard McCabe’s brilliant Spenser chapter on page 557, one may feel already a little Spenser-sated. Indeed, Spenser can be hard to love; the chivalric allegorizing of Christian virtue(s) in the Faerie Queene, for instance, can accord all too closely (rather than hypocritically conflict) with the brutal, colonialist bigotry of A View of the Present State of Ireland. McCabe gets there, while at the same time demonstrating why Spenser is such a necessary figure in any discussion of English reception. His careful unpacking of Spenser’s densely subtle negotiation of classical precedent and Christian authority and his own self-positioning (political and otherwise) through his generic turnabouts, the ventriloquism of his persona Colin and ‘E.K.’’s paratext in The Shepheardes Calender, and the deployment of allusion and classical reference, adumbrates an artistry that in the end transcends its component elements.

It is impossible to discuss all 32 chapters of this volume (followed by a weighty, though not comprehensive, annotated bibliography put together by Craig Kallendorf, a real service). Selective comments, then. The opening “Contexts” section is a grab bag containing primarily informational chapters; there is little that is groundbreaking here and certainly not all of it is compelling reading, but no history of reception in this period could do without (most of) the information and perspective these chapters convey. Their foundational orientations serve as solid preamble to the meatier chapters of the “Genres” section where the volume takes flight. Helen Cooper in an exemplary chapter (Ch. 9), “Pastoral and Georgic,” tracks those genres from Spenser on through to Milton and, though the representative examples are unsurprising, Cooper brings to light their evolving political engagement (more to less) and how far from “narrow imitation” of Vergil Elizabethan poets were, how mediated and altered by Christianizing, European and contemporary English influences the genres would become. Her “Prose Romance” (Ch. 13) features classical and early modern generic interplays that render easy mapping of new to old difficult: “the classicism of most early modern English romance, therefore, is much more likely to be diffuse and allusive than it is to be an act of considered imitation…(295).”

Among other good reads in this section, Hardie (Ch. 10) surveys epic reception admirably, as one might expect, without too much treading on the toes of the epic-author essays later. William Fitzgerald, after dutifully surveying classical and early modern epistolary territory, turns attention engagingly to uses of the Ciceronian trope “epistula non erubescit”) picked up in the Renaissance and the tenor of familiaritas seen in Donne and others via Cicero and Seneca’s “si rem nullam habebis, quod in buccam venerit scribito”. Roland Greene’s “Elegy, Hymn, Epithalamium, Ode” (Ch. 14) refreshingly tracks an idea rather than surveys instances; his theme might stand for several of the contributions: “… the adaptation of classical models into the vernacular entails a process of reinterpretation, which is masked by a common nomenclature…. each term [elegy, hymn…] is not only a register of received meanings but a metonymy of the negotiation between past and present” (311). Susanna Braund (“Complaint, Epigram, Satire,” Ch. 15) similarly elucidates reinterpretations, in this case of the satirists. It’s an essential piece, for no account of Elizabethan reception could overlook the scrappy infighting of Marston, Hall, & co. (Herrick’s happy formulation, “snaky Persius” (345) is from “pinge duos anguis, Sat. 1.113, but maybe those satirical hissy fits too), on the edge between high and low literary registers, or the later, normalizing permutations in Donne and Jonson. Here, as Braund correctly points out, “we have an intriguing chance to see English poetry at work self-consciously inventing itself” (345). Gordon Braden (“Tragedy,” Ch. 16), Bruce Smith (“Comedy,” Ch. 17), and Tanya Pollard (“Tragicomedy,” Ch. 18) trace these major genres’ interactions with classical authorities—Seneca, Aristotle, Donatus—and the immediate pressures of politics, taste, innovation, and invention. Or one can read the receptive lens differently, so that one might track, as Bart Van Es has (“Historiography and Biography,” Ch. 19), how shifting interests in different Roman historians, quite processed and assimilated, map onto shifting political landscapes and affiliations. Finally, Reid Barbour and Claire Preston (“Discursive and Speculative Writing,” Ch. 20), despite not dirtying their hands in the Latin or Greek of specific sources, take us on a stimulating, whirlwind tour of expository prose to some literary places and names new to me, and maybe you too.

A closing “Authors” group features several fine chapters: Jessica Wolfe on Homer (Ch. 21), Elizabeth Jane Bellamy on Plato (Ch. 22), Maggie Kilgour on Vergil and Ovid (Ch. 23), Victoria Moule on Horace (Ch. 24), McCabe on Spenser (Ch. 25), and Burrow on Shakespeare (Ch. 27) stand out, as I read them. But mine is but one reception of this many-minded reception that can be taken lots of ways and in other directions. Readers will find startling, contentious, irritating, insightful and otherwise remarkable things in chapters I’ve not commented on as well. What cannot be argued, I think, is the considerable extent to which these classically receptive readings crack open Renaissance English literature to enlightening view.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction, Patrick Cheney and Philip Hardie
Part I: Institutions and Contexts
2. The Classics in Humanism, Education, and Scholarship, Peter Mack
3. The Availability of the Classics: Readers, Writers, Translation, Performance, Stuart Gillespie
4. Classical Rhetoric in English, Peter Mack
5. The Classics in Literary Criticism, Gavin Alexander
6. Classics and Christianity, Mark Vessey
7. Women Writers and the Classics, Jane Stevenson
8. Cultural Contexts
a) Politics and Nationalism, Curtis Perry
b) Sexuality and Desire, Cora Fox
c) Literary Careers, Patrick Cheney
d) Fame and Immortality, Philip Hardie

Part II: Genres
9. Pastoral and Georgic, Helen Cooper
10. Epic Poetry, Philip Hardie
11. Elizabethan Minor Epic, Lynn Enterline
12. The Epistolary Tradition, William Fitzgerald
13. Prose Romance, Helen Moore
14. Elegy, Hymn, Epithalamium, Ode: Some Renaissance Reinterpretations, Roland Greene
15. Complaint, Epigram, and Satire, Susanna Braund
16. Tragedy, Gordone Braden
17. Comedy, Bruce Smith
18. Tragicomedy, Tanya Pollard
19. Historiography and Biography, Bart Vanes
20. Discursive and Speculative Writing, Reid Barbour and Claire Preston

Part III: Authors
21. Homer, Jessica Wolfe
22. Plato, Elizabeth Jane Bellamy
23. Virgil and Ovid, Maggie Kilgour
24. Horace, Victoria Moul (with a contribution by Charles Martindale)
25. Spenser, Richard McCabe
26. Marlowe, Charles Martindale
27. Shakespeare, Colin Burrow
28. Jonson, Sean Keilen
29. Early Milton, Thomas Luxon
Classical Reception in English Literature, 1558-1660: An Annotated Bibliography, Craig Kallendorf


1. Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), p. 3.

2. The substantial introduction treats considerably more than authorship. And although sometimes building argument out of the kind of dubious generalization that compromises a few of the contributions (e.g., paraphrasing without quibble Harry Berger, “Greeks such as Homer and Plato had represented the cosmos as an image of the human mind; the representation was thus a form of mental projection that made reality appear man-made” [11]), much is interesting in itself and less-controversially pertinent to Renaissance reception.