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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Poets and Critics Read Vergil by Sarah Spence (Yale University Press) Vergil has exerted a stronger grasp on the poetic imagination and critical scholarship than almost any other poet. This absorbing book—a collection of essays and conversations by such leading poets and classicists as Joseph Brodsky, Christine Perkell, Michael C. J. Putnam, and Mark Strand—explores the ways in which Vergil's work has inspired readers of today.

The book takes a broad look at questions of historicism: how we read a work written 2,000 years ago. There are not only close readings of the Aeneid, the Eclogues, and Georgics, but also essays dealing with such topics as Vergil's influence from the Renaissance to the present. The book concludes with two special sections: a lively conversation on translation between Robert Fagles and Sarah Spence and a "virtual" roundtable discussion in which Spence has woven together the responses of poets and critics to Vergil's poetry.

 A Companion to the Study of Virgil by Nicholas Horsfall (Brill Academic) is not yet another introduction to Virgil's poetry, nor is it the thinking man's version of the bibliographies in ANRW. The editor and three outside contributors offer a guide both to the key problems and to the most intelligent discussions. They do not offer `solutions' to all the difficulties, but are not frightened to admit that this we do not know, that that is a mess, and that there more work is to be done. The book is aimed at graduate students and university teachers. Many of the issues are difficult and artificial simplifications seem to offer no advantages. Apart from ample discussion of the poems and the main issues they raise, the book offers chapters on the life of Virgil (Horsfall), his style (Horsfall), his influence on later Latin epic (W.R. Barnes), on Latin life and culture (Horsfall), and on his MS tradition (Geymonat).

Excerpt: This is not intended as a conventionally impersonal manual, in the tradition. These days, Virgil excites strong passions, for example some have become ideological and methodological battlefields. I am not a neutral (though the device on my shield may not always be the same!), and I have tried  to discourage too much cold impartiality in the other specialists who have contributed to this volume. What follows will probably leave the reader convinced of the incontestable validity of one particular critical position uneasy, to say the least. I have myself been lumped with the New Augustans and defined (rather better!) as a cheery pragmatist. Perplexity may after all be forgivable: I cherish an instinctive (and probably excessive) reaction against dogmagogues and their jargonauts; in this I am not, I discover, alone.` In reviews, in particular, I am driven to extremes by extremists, if only in the interests of reasserting the multiplicity of (more or less) legitimate positions and methodologies in Virgilian studies.

If an approach, carefully applied, repeatedly produces credible results, it is probably worth using and may tell us something worthwhile about one or more aspects of what Virgil was doing, or saying. That is all: I can only offer experience; I am a part of all that I have read. But some acquaintance with Virgil and Virgilian studies (I had best come clean and say that I began seriously ca. 1965) and a working knowledge of Latin poetic usage may at times serve as counterweights to the overenthusiastic application of more exciting (but at the last, less convincing) techniques. And even a retrograde pragmatist can perceive that of course Virgil unquestionably and often pulls his readers in several directions, at several levels, at the same time. But the quicksands of indirection, ambiguity, polyvalence, etc. do not always seem to me quite bottomless. Ingenuously, I must voice the suspicion that the centre holds. What follows is not systematic polemic, nor do I (or the other contributors) offer an overall prise deposition. A certain fondness for allusion may even be taken as indicating that de facto I am closer to Conte, Lyne and Thomas (e.g.) than our divergences of ideology and method might seem to suggest. No clear answers, then, to be found here about what Virgil is, does, and says. At most I try to react, and have urged my colleagues to do the same, with due discretion, against what I (and not I alone) see as in some ways a loss of equilibrium and proportion.

The collaborators in this volume were chosen, I freely admit, because their positions were not incompatible with my own, but no attempt has been made to drive them into offering an unbroken shield wall against some common foe! I have myself tried hard not to repeat what I have written elsewhere, nor to presuppose too much of a recent (but inaccessible) small book of mine, written in Italian, about some of Virgil's methods and techniques in the Aeneid.1 Now that we have the bibliographies of Briggs and Suerbaum to the whole opus,' the entire Enciclopedia virgiliana," and the yearly bibliographies in Yergilius, in addition to Ann.Phil., it is very easy to drown in detail or in the history of your problem. I recently, quite by chance, noted three (or was it four?) new items just on the end of Aen.12 in a single fortnight. Let us therefore be clear: the bibliographical guidance here offered is neither comprehensive nor totally up‑to‑date; that would be neither feasible nor even necessarily desirable. I am, though, grateful to the friends, librarians and review editors who have permitted me to keep more or less abreast of the current,' and in particular to my friend Christina Huemer, librarian of the American Academy in Rome. One learns that completeness is a mirage and constant updating in the end a sacrifice to fashion' I know perfectly well that my notes are not completely up‑to‑date, but I have done all that I could! We shall be selective and shall cite what we have ourselves found most helpful and stimulating. We do not even offer a systematic doxography on all the main Virgilian problems, above all when it has been done well elsewhere. Thus, for example, not a word here on epithets: there is ample bibliography; I know of no interesting open problems or burning unresolved issues. Silence seemed therefore the sanest solution. And rather than offer highly abbreviated surveys of all major issues currently under discussion among scholars working on the Aeneid, I have preferred to concentrate much more specifically on each book successively, as exemplifying one, or two, of those issues. I have tried to uphold the cause of realistic accessibility in the bibliography here offered. It is not helpful to cite continually very rare books and articles (though it is sometimes inevitable and essential); it is our purpose to help serious readers of Virgil, not to encourage a general persecution of library assistants. Rather than offer prolonged and systematic polemic against all those Virgilians from whom we­severally‑differ, we have tried to provide relatively uncluttered accounts of the major issues and to relegate dissent, where possible, to the footnote. That does not mean simplification of those issues which remain genuinely open and unresolved. But however much fun it might have been to offer an Index Librorum Prohibitorum, we have tried to concentrate both on the positive results of the best scholarship (so that silence, in respect of a relatively accessible book, may be taken as indicating some degree of dissent!) and on those problems which, strangely enough, remain relatively unexplored. There is still a great deal of work to be done, at least on the Aen.; I shall be at pains to suggest areas for exploration that seem to me promising. That may be taken as a statement of faith, that Virgil is alive and well and amply worth studying. Readers of this book are not geese to be force‑fed with an indigestible concentrate of Virgil scholarship: we have tried, rather, to suggest what information and methods may be relevant to their enquiries, how they may acquire fuller detail, and where indeed they may find themselves on their own.

I am much indebted to Wendell Clausen for sending me his brief historical account of the misnamed `Harvard School' (cf. pp. 313‑4); he and I speak with two voices, but that does not exclude friendship or cooperation! Sarah Spence has most kindly cast herself in the role of `intended reader' and as such has offered much trenchant comment. To the summary account (n. 2, 13) of those who have contributed most to my development as a Virgilian, I should like to add Elisabeth Henry, in whom commonsense and a deep love of poetry coexist happily, and in whom friendship is not suffered to temper honest criticism, and Julia Budenz, scholar and poet: it has been the very greatest help to me to be able to talk about Virgil to a practising (learned, allusive) poet, remarkably well-­read not only in Virgil, but in Servius, Dante and others.


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