BMCR 2021.11.45

Conversations: classical and Renaissance intertextuality

, Conversations: classical and Renaissance intertextuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. Pp. 272. ISBN 9781526152671. £80.00.

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

‘Cicero and I spent ten tranquil, leisurely days together; and I think he enjoyed his stay and liked my company.’[1]

So remarked Petrarch, roughly 1,400 years after Cicero’s death. Petrarch imagines reading an ancient writer as a reciprocal, mutually edifying process. The reader is fully participant despite his seemingly passive role, and the dead author is just as alive as his reader. The playfulness of Petrarch’s statement should not obscure its potency: reading an author and conversing with a friend are not so different.

It is this idea of dialogue across time that motivates the present volume. The book originates in a conference that sought to foster conversations between classicists and early modern scholars, so it is not just time periods but academic disciplines that the volume sets in dialogue. The contributors come from both sides of the disciplinary divide. Appropriately, Syrithe Pugh’s introduction looks at Petrarch’s views of Antiquity and intertextuality, but she is keen to remind us that the notion of an intimate intertextuality between a community of writers across time already existed in the ancient world. Seneca, whose influence on Petrarch she demonstrates, also viewed himself as part of ‘an intellectual community which transcends space and time’ (p. 15). By reading Petrarch’s account of his ascent of Mount Ventoux in the light of Seneca (and Seneca’s own intertextuality), Pugh uncovers a Petrarch who is dedicated to humanist study as a ‘valid path to Christian wisdom’ (p. 25). The scene is set for a series of essays that explore how navigating the imitative, intertextual layers of literary texts can produce new and vibrant readings.

The theme of immortality runs throughout the volume and begins with Philip Hardie’s survey of poets who fly to the heavens, either written in their own poems or by others, or via their characters. Although less about dialogue across time than about the scope and longevity of this topos, Hardie’s contribution shows the similar preocuppations of classical and early modern poets, starting with Horace and ending with John Milton.[2]

Stephen Hinds’ contribution is focused on issues of language. Hinds provides observant and insightful readings of little-known Latin translations of Andrew Marvell and John Milton. Marvell wrote some English and Latin poems as pairs, and Hinds offers close readings of these to tease out the implications of writing the ‘same’ poem in English and Latin respectively. Hinds also looks at Latin translations of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which tend to highlight the Virgilian notes in Milton’s style. Early modern English poetry imitates Latin verse almost by definition, and when translated into Latin, the true depth and weight of that imitation is made visible and even amplified. The idea of ‘hyper-Virgilianism’ recurs throughout the article. Can imitation become, in Hinds’ words, ‘something pathological’ (p. 86)? Can we—should we—enjoy some of the extremes of Virgilianism that early modern Latin translations of the vernacular exhibit? Is there a sense of imprisonment in the authority of the past, especially when Latin becomes the mode of expression? But of course Latin is not just an elite language in the seventeenth century. As eloquently demonstrated by Jürgen Leonhardt, Latin was a world language for much of European history.[3] It is the language, in Hinds’ terms, of ‘free movement for poets and readers across frontiers of space and time’ (p. 86). Hinds’ contribution forces us to consider the central role of language in classical reception and literary imitation, and the way in which the poet’s tools are forever imprinted by their previous users. Hinds writes in a pleasantly chatty yet erudite style that lives up to this volume’s conversational title.

Emma Buckley also discusses translation, this time Marlowe and his version of Lucan, which serves to remind us how vernacular translation of Latin can reshape a classical author or theme for future writers. She links Marlowe’s rewriting of Julius Caesar in his translation of Lucan with Tamburlaine and with the anonymous academic play, Caesar’s Revenge, shedding new critical light on this under-valued work. She also looks at Thomas May’s translation of Lucan, although this discussion is less detailed than the previous analyses. Buckley explores ideas of amorality, blood and destruction throughout the essay. She writes in an impassioned and immediate scholarly style befitting her subject matter.

Helen Lynch’s article deals with Milton once more, but this time Samson Agonistes. Rather than putting Milton into dialogue with a particular classical author, Lynch offers a reading of Samson Agonistes as looking back at Shakespeare and to a lesser extent as looking forward to the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.[4] Ideas of oratory, suicide and immortality occupy Lynch in this essay, which asks us to view Milton, the overtly political thinker, in light of Shakespeare’s less explicit political thought. All this is done through the lens of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, in which the theme of republicanism, so pressing an issue in Milton’s mid-seventeenth century context, plays out. As Lynch states, for the ancients ‘the main feature of being dead is that you stop talking’ (p. 168), and so death and speech are intertwined throughout her analysis. Ultimately, she argues that Shakespeare’s Roman republicans and orators speak to Milton on the issues of tyranny, freedom and public speech. This essay is less interested in any particular classical author than it is in the interplay between different early modern receptions of ‘Romanness’.

Syrithe Pugh rounds out the volume with an essay on Adonis, taking the Ancient Greek bucolic (Theocritus, Bion and Pseudo-Moschus) as a starting point. She goes on to analyse Edmund Spenser and Percy Bysshe Shelley. As in Lynch’s article, the conversations here are between different early modern writers as well as their classical antecedents. Spenser writes a poem dedicated to the memory of Sir Philip Sidney, and Shelley writes a poem dedicated to the memory of John Keats, so both writers are in conversation with ancient bucolic poetry whilst also memorialising the deaths of contemporary poets. Pugh’s discussion sheds light on the legacy of ‘minor’ Greek bucolic poetry, the reception of the Adonia, Spenser’s Garden of Adonis, Shelley’s poetic and political stances, and even Plato. If any essay in the volume speaks to the fruitfulness of looking back and forth across time in order to better understand ancient and (early) modern texts, it is this one. Pugh is equally engaged with Greek, Roman, Elizabethan, and Romantic literature and philosophy and interested in how the practice of imitation allows all these to intersect. Adonis is an especially rich figure for analysis, and Pugh’s conclusions are concerned mostly with poetry as resistance to death.

It seems to me that poetic immortality is, in fact, the underlying theme of the entire collection. Through imitation, this is achieved. Imitation is not, as this volume easily proves, a simple, rudimentary or unimaginative act. It is inherent to genre, necessary for conversation, and essential to tradition—and I think it is fair to say that all the writers discussed here work within a shared tradition, which is not by any means to say that they are confined by writing in said tradition. The classical tradition as discussed in this volume is a highly productive series of conversations that continues to this day as we talk back to the past, and listen to the many overlapping conversations already had. The essays in this volume, taken as a whole, suggest that in some ways this tradition is self-reflexive and concerned with its own existence, constantly arguing for the power of words to create immortality via this ever-evolving literary tradition.

The book will surely invigorate scholars of the ancient world and of Renaissance English literature. I do not think, however, that it will convince classicists that Petrarch is as useful for understanding Cicero as Cicero is for understanding Petrarch. Chronology does, after all, still exist. Nevertheless, looking at these eras together can unquestionably enrich our understanding of both. Classicists will benefit from this book’s deep engagement with reception studies and its celebration of the immortality that early modern writers granted to their classical interlocutors, even as they echoed their words in new tones. Although this is a series of essays, I would suggest that it would be best read as a whole. The contributors have each been given the space and freedom to explore their topics in great depth, and the overall effect must surely come close to capturing the enlivening twenty-first century conversations from which the book derives.

Authors and titles

1. Syrithe Pugh, Introduction
2. Philip Hardie, Flying with the immortals: reaching for the sky in classical and Renaissance poetics
3. Stephen Hinds, In and Out of Latin: diptych and virtual diptych in Marvell, Milton, Du Bellay and others
4. Emma Buckley, Reviving Lucan: Marlow, Tamburlaine, and Lucans First Booke
5. Citizenship and suicide: Shakespeare’s Roman plays, republicanism and identity in Samson Agonistes
6. Syrithe Pugh, Adonis and literary immortality in pastoral elegy


[1] Francesco Petrarch, Letters from Petrarch, Selected and Translated by Morris Bishop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 12.8.

[2] The reader who enjoys this survey would do well to consult Hardie’s other work on related themes, especially Rumour and Renown: Representations of Fama in Western Literature (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2012).

[3] Jürgen Leonhardt, trans. Kenneth Kronenberg, Latin: Story of a World Language (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA & London, England, 2013).

[4] Lynch uses Arendt more extensively in her monograph Milton and the Politics of Public Speech (London, New York: Routledge, 2015).