Sunday, March 22, 2009


Katharina Volk (ed.), Vergil's Eclogues. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 293. ISBN 9780199202935 (hb), 9780199202942 (pb). $130.00/£65.00 (hb), $49.95/£25.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Timothy Saunders, University of Tromsø (

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

This book represents a further addition to the long-running and ever-expanding Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series. In particular, its publication alongside that of the same editor's volume on the Georgics means that, 18 years after the appearance of Stephen Harrison's Oxford Readings in Vergil's Aeneid, the Virgil section is now complete (assuming, that is, that a similar tome on the Appendix will have to await the dawning of an entirely new world order). As we are told on the back cover, this book 'collects ten classic papers on the Eclogues, written between 1975 and 1999 by leading scholars from the UK, the USA, Germany, and Italy' and it aims to 'be helpful to students who are encountering the poems for the first time, while also serving as a reference work for more seasoned scholars'. The selection of articles that Katharina Volk (hereafter V.) has made for this purpose certainly does have its merits, although for reasons that will become clear, I would imagine that those for whom this volume will genuinely be useful will be both fewer in number and, on occasion, slightly different in kind from the amorphous group of 'seasoned scholars' and, especially, from the first-time students for whom it is ostensibly intended.

We could no doubt argue until the cows come home about which ten articles really do represent -- to quote the series remit -- 'the best and most influential' work on the Eclogues since 1970 (pre-supposing, of course, that we could first get those two categories of 'best' and 'most influential' to match). At the very least, of the ten papers V. offers us here all are certainly worthwhile; most could probably be regarded as important; and two or three do indeed deserve the title of a 'classic'. By and large, moreover, these papers complement one another fairly well and give a reasonably good sense of the variety of questions and approaches that have been brought to these poems by classicists (and this is a qualification to which I shall return) since the 1970s. On top of this, V. does an able job in her introduction of explaining her selection and describing the shape and progression of the book. In so doing, she also makes a valiant attempt at binding together what was nonetheless always going to remain a slightly disparate group. Rather than question the inclusion of individual articles and suggest alternatives, then, I shall instead confine myself to illustrating the view of the Eclogues and their recent scholarship that emerges from this particular selection of articles, and will seek to highlight some of its strengths and weaknesses.

The book begins with an introduction that, as I have just mentioned, explains the structure and purpose of the volume in more detail and offers a useful survey of scholarship on the Eclogues since the 1970s. V. admits (p.2) that this starting date for the articles collected in this volume is 'somewhat arbitrary', but proceeds to justify it on the grounds that a) this ensures that the papers included 'may still be considered vaguely contemporary'; and b) the 1970s 'saw a number of important new impulses in the study of the Eclogues, ones that have continued to influence scholarship'. Be that as it may, for some readers it is precisely V's survey of studies of the Eclogues from the last four decades that will prove to be the most valuable part of the book, ranging as it does over a whole host of publications that, for obvious reasons, could not be reprinted here. In addition, V. also helpfully identifies some key themes and patterns that recur in the scholarship of this period. Beginning with the observation that all three of Virgil's works have often been felt to be polysemous in nature and capable of sustaining a wide variety of interpretations, she nonetheless proceeds to argue that it is possible to discern two principal strands in the interpretation of Virgil's work in general and of the Eclogues in particular. These strands she calls the 'ideological' and the 'literary' (pp.4-6). Even though these two strands have 'not infrequently' intertwined in the past and still intertwine today, V. continues, there has on the whole been an increasing tendency to focus on the 'literary' quality of these poems rather than the 'ideological'. Present-day studies of the Eclogues, she writes, 'are thus less likely to ask "What do these poems tell us about life?" than "What do these poems tell us about poetry?"' (p.6).

For the most part, the papers collected here would seem to support this analysis, although the contributions by Christine Perkell ('On Eclogue 1.79-83) and, especially, Seamus Heaney ('Eclogues in extremis: On the Staying Power of Pastoral') both indicate that the desire to read these poems for what they have to say about such things as 'human life and the human condition' (themes which V. includes as subjects of 'ideological' approaches, p.4) is still alive and well. Indeed, one of the many reasons why scholarly interest in these issues has persisted -- and Heaney explicitly acknowledges this -- is because of such influential studies as Paul Alpers' books The Singer of the Eclogues (1979) and What Is Pastoral? (1996), both of which sit comfortably within the temporal limits of V.'s survey. A different selection of articles from this period, one therefore suspects, could just as readily have suggested a different set of emphases. What is more, I would not be at all surprised to find that this impression of a shift from 'ideological' to 'literary' concerns is at least in part a reflection of the volume's primary focus on studies of the Eclogues that have been produced by classicists and that concentrate upon reading these poems in what might loosely be described as 'their own terms' or within their original and immediate context. Heaney's paper, for instance, is the obvious exception and it is notable that this straddles both of V.'s categories. Ernst Schmidt's, meanwhile, looks ahead to Sannazaro's Arcadia mainly in an attempt 'to lift some of the layers that have come to cover the bucolic poetry of Vergil' (p.17). Were we also to take our soundings from works that discuss the Eclogues in far broader contexts than this, I would hazard that the resulting picture would similarly be far more mixed. One need only cite Annabel Patterson's hugely influential book Pastoral and Ideology: Virgil to Valéry from 1987 (the title of which speaks for itself) as preliminary evidence for this.1

To observe that this volume tends to concentrate on studies that have issued directly out of classics departments is not necessarily a criticism in itself (and any potential detractors on this score would certainly be obliged to give some credit for the inclusion of a piece by one of the most celebrated poets of our time). Nonetheless, it should also be acknowledged that this concentration does affect the resulting characterisation of the Eclogues. As I have just mentioned, most of the papers reprinted here treat the Eclogues (as it were) 'in themselves', 'on their own terms' or 'in their immediate context'. This may all be well and good, but it rather limits the book's own self-professed intention of representing a variety of approaches to these poems (p.12). Quite apart from anything else, studies of the Eclogues that seek to relate them to other -- and especially later -- historical, political, religious and cultural contexts are likely to ask different questions and to bring into play different kinds of reading practices from those that focus on their immediate milieu. Thus, while V. can fairly be said to have achieved her goals of including 'scholars from different countries, with different styles and different critical convictions, whose views on the texts they treat vary considerably' (p.12), the collection as a whole does nonetheless continue to feel rather safe: even the most unorthodox and unusual voice represented here, John Henderson's, is likely to sound somewhat familiar to any but the most first-time of first-time students. It would be challenging indeed to put together a collection of essays that are classic, important and influential on the one hand, yet surprising and new to many of its readers on the other.

In addition to expressing her desire to represent a variety of critical approaches to these poems, V. also states that her aim has been 'to cover major topics of contemporary research on the Eclogues while also highlighting particularly prominent poems' (p.12). Given the constraints of focus mentioned above, V. has done a remarkably good job of meeting her goals. Readers of this review will be able to see from the list of contents reprinted at the end of this piece the kinds of topics represented in this volume. Those which appear either as the central concern of any given article or as one of their more prominent secondary themes include: the role of Arcadia, the Eclogues' poetic style and programme (including their structure), their relationship towards and engagement with previous literary traditions, and the question of whether they are bucolic or pastoral. By opening with Ernst Schmidt's account of how the later pastoral tradition has influenced the way in which we continue to (mis)read certain aspects of these poems today and by closing with Seamus Heaney's discussion of a number of recent poems that might be thought to continue Virgil's pastoral legacy, this volume also gestures subtly towards the increasing importance of reception studies in contemporary interpretations of the Eclogues.

As far as the commitment to highlight 'particularly prominent poems' goes, even though the result might initially appear somewhat arbitrary and partial (the inclusion of a whole article on just a few lines from Eclogue 1, for instance, or the omission of a piece on Eclogue 9 could rise a few eyebrows), in practice the coverage is fairly good: every poem receives a mention somewhere or other, while those articles that concentrate on just one poem tend to refer to, and reach conclusions that are relevant for, several -- and often all -- of the others. What is more, in her introduction V. runs through each poem in turn and offers a helpful summary of the issues they have raised, along with a brief bibliography for further study.

For the most part, then, V. can be commended for having successfully achieved her own remit: these essays do represent a variety of approaches; they do cover many of the major topics discussed in the past 35 years or so; and they do offer a good selection of close readings of individual poems. The question remains, however, of how useful a volume of this kind will actually prove to be and -- a related issue -- whom it is actually for.

As I indicated at the outset, I suspect that those for whom such a book will genuinely be helpful will be both fewer in number and slightly different in kind from the 'seasoned scholars' and 'students ... encountering the poems for the first time' identified on the back cover. To start with the first of these groups, I imagine that most of those who are here being conjured up in the guise of 'seasoned scholars' will already have access to most of the articles reprinted in this volume. (In this, it would seem, V.'s collection follows most of its stable-mates in largely ignoring the goal of the series to publish 'important essays which are normally difficult to obtain'.2 Part of the problem, I suppose, is that essays that are deemed important rarely remain difficult to obtain, even if they were so in the first place: more than half of the papers collected here, for instance, have already been reprinted elsewhere. Having said that, not every scholar of the Eclogues, seasoned or otherwise, will necessarily have access to a sufficiently well-stocked (or well-subscribing) research library, and there will doubtless be many who will gladly make room for a copy of the paperback version at least on their own shelves. To this extent alone, such a volume could reasonably be deemed 'helpful' to the scholarly community (albeit in far fewer numbers than its back cover implies), and a further point in its favour is the opportunity it provides to take a moment's reflection and consider what has been underplayed or even omitted entirely from studies of the Eclogues from 1970 and after.

In my view, though, the true contribution this book has to make to contemporary Anglophone scholarship lies in its inclusion of two articles that are published here in English for the first time: Ernst Schmidt's 'Arcadia: modern occident and classical antiquity' from 1975, which offers an alternative -- and earlier -- account of how Sannazaro's Arcadia has impacted latter day understandings of Virgil's Arcadia than Richard Jenkyns' commonly cited article 'Virgil and Arcadia' from 1989;3 and Lorenz Rumpf's 'Bucolic nomina in Virgil and Theocritus: on the poetic technique of Virgil's Eclogues'. (The translation of Conte's 'An Interpretation of the Tenth Eclogue' has been available for many years now and has clearly been widely read.) This leads me to think that what might ultimately benefit our increasingly monolingual English-language community the most are collections of essays of this kind that consist solely of translations of articles from other languages: and not just from the great German and Italian traditions represented here, but from those of France, Russia, Spain and, of course, Scandinavia as well (to mention but a few).

So much (for the time being) for the seasoned scholars. How helpful will this book be for 'students who are encountering the poems for the first time'? This depends on what is meant by 'for the first time'. If the question is, quite literally, where should one go first to begin one's study of these poems, then the answer, I suggest, would lie rather in the numerous surveys of Virgil that exist with separate chapters on the Eclogues, in the various Companions to Virgil, and in some (but by no means all) of the scholarly monographs that encompass all ten of these poems in their scope. Individual papers from V.'s selection might indeed be recommended at an early stage, but -- unless those papers really are not already available in their original venue at that student's university or college -- this in itself does not serve to enshrine the volume as a whole as a first port-of-call.

This is not to say that this volume will not have its uses for students, simply that those students would be well-advised to have read some of this other secondary literature first. Indeed, this volume clearly has been designed with students and others who have not yet achieved the status of 'seasoned scholar' in mind: all foreign languages, including Greek and Latin are translated, even when this was not the case in the original version; there is a useful index of passages cited and a bibliography; and the articles are, as a rule, quite simple to read. (Some may find Henderson's style somewhat challenging, but on the other hand it's a lot of fun.) I would, however, question the wisdom of putting the two chapters on style so early on: they are both worth reading, but since they are quite technical, they could seem a bit off-putting for first-timers, leading them to conclude that the rest of the volume is likewise beyond their current competence.

There are, nonetheless, a number of respects in which the volume could have been rendered even more user-friendly than it is, for scholars and students alike. For a start, while there is an index of passages cited, there is no general index. Likewise, all the papers included here have been reformatted in the series style and repaginated to reflect their position in this volume. Those of us who like to give the impression we read the articles the first time around would have appreciated having the original page numbers retained in parentheses in the margins. More seriously, this makes it more difficult for owners of the various versions of these papers to find each others' cross-references. Perhaps more than anything else, though, the value of this volume would have been greatly enhanced had each article been accompanied by a short guide to further reading, indicating how the debate has progressed since the specific intervention reprinted here (this is the practice of Richard Buxton's volume Greek Religion and Andrew Laird's Ancient Literary Criticism, for instance, so it is not without precedent in this series).4 Finally, if this volume really is intended for students -- and if this explains the presence of a paperback as well as a hardback edition -- then the cover price is not quite as 'helpful' as one might have wished.

Still, this is a handsome and well-produced volume. Each article has been reset in OUP's pleasing house style; revisions have for the most part been relatively minor; and the typos that either remain or have been introduced are few and unimportant.5

To conclude, then, would I recommend this book? Assuming a) that you or your library do not have ready access to the articles here reprinted; b) that you are not looking for an introductory guide to these poems; and c) that what you are in search of is a collection of solid, clearly-argued and reasonably varied essays on several of the topics that have attracted classicists' attention in recent years, then I would have no hesitation in saying yes. If one or two of these criteria do not apply, however, you might wish to think more carefully about whether what remains is enough to justify the raid on the piggy bank.

1. Introduction: scholarly approaches to the Eclogues since 1970, Katharina Volk
2. Arcadia: modern occident and classical antiquity, Ernst A. Schmidt
3. The style of Virgil's Eclogues, R. G. M. Nisbet
4. Bucolic nomina in Virgil and Theocritus: on the poetic technique of Virgil's Eclogues, Lorenz Rumpf
5. Allusive artistry and Vergil's revisionary program: Eclogues 1-3, Thomas K. Hubbard
6. On Eclogue 1.79-83, Christine G. Perkell
7. Virgil's third Eclogue: how do you keep an idiot in suspense? John Henderson
8. Virgil's fourth Eclogue: Easterners and Westerners, R. G. M. Nisbet
9. The sixth Eclogue: Virgil's poetic genealogy, David O. Ross, Jr
10. An interpretation of the tenth Eclogue, Gian Biagio Conte
11. Eclogues in extremis: on the staying power of pastoral, Seamus Heaney


1. This book does receive a passing mention on p.12 of the introduction as an example of a study of how the Eclogues relate to the later pastoral tradition, but not it does not feature in V.'s discussion of ideological approaches to these poems.

2. Reading some of the reviews of other volumes in the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series, I could not help but be reminded of the following sigh against the record industry emitted by The Smiths: 'Best of! Most of! / Satiate the need / Slip them into different sleeves! / Buy both, and feel deceived'. See, for instance, Joseph Farrell's comments on the Aeneid volume, BMCR 02.02.11 and Glenn Lacki's on the one dedicated to Ovid BMCR 2007.09.19.

3. R. Jenkyns (1989) 'Virgil and Arcadia', JRS 79: 26-39.

4. I mentioned earlier that V. does provide a guide for further reading for each eclogue in her introduction, but this covers a range of themes and does not tend to indicate where we might go to follow the future development of the specific debates raised by the articles she actually reprints.

5. Examples I spotted include: on pp.44-5, the footnotes shift unexpectedly to the centre; on p.56 (Nisbet) the 'et' preceding Veneris dominae should also be in italics; on p.66 (Rumpf) 'epithets' should presumably replace 'epitheta'; on p.250 (Heaney) we find 'thequestion'; while in the bibliography the editor's own monograph is seemingly in the process of being translated: Die Poetics of Latin Didactic.

No comments:

Post a Comment