Monday, September 21, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Roger Rees (ed.), Ted Hughes and the Classics. Classical Presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 348. ISBN 978-0-19-922971-0. $135.00.
Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge

There are at least three types of reception study in classics. The first takes a work of the ancient world -- the Aeneid, say or the Antigone -- and sees how it has been adapted by later artists. It derives its logic and its focus through a linear genealogy -- a sequence of works descended from an original text, interrelating with each other. The second type takes a post-Classical author and sees how this particular artist works with a classical paradigm -- Dante's antiquity, Wagner's Greeks. It derives its logic and focus in the vision of a single artist, reading antiquity. The third type takes a more general cultural model and explores how classical antiquity has provided models and inspiration in a time in history or in a genre or an artistic movement: the Victorians and ancient Greece; modernism and the classical body. In this case, there is potentially a more diffuse focus and potentially a wider set of cultural questions. The specific problem for contemporary reception studies is how these three models fit together. When looking at the reception of the Antigone (say), how much can the broader vision of any one artist find a place in the analysis? When looking at an individual artist, how much can cultural context or the reception history of a particular text play a part?

Ted Hughes and the Classics is very much a work of type two. It looks at how one artist reads antiquity -- adopts, adapts, translates, manipulates the texts of the classical past in his poetry. It has a tight focus, for sure, and one cost of such a focus is that there is very little sense of the wider reception of classics in the twentieth century. Thus we get Ted Hughes on Ovid's Metamorphoses but very little of how this might fit into a tradition of the reception of Ovid's epic; Hughes on democracy, but very little on the class and education issues Hughes invokes. You get what it says on the tin: this is "Ted Hughes and the Classics".

This volume is the seventh or eighth in the Classical Presences series edited by Lorna Hardwick and James Porter. It has already published some exceptional volumes, both in terms of the sheer quality of research and in terms of the interest of the topics. The series has made a name for itself in supporting both monographs and collections of essays on the cutting edge of reception theory -- feminism and myth, French political thought and the classics, African version of Greek drama (and so forth). In such a context, this volume, edited by Roger Rees, is rather more conservative in scope and ambition. It looks at Hughes' works in roughly chronological order, roughly by genre, and discusses his allusions to classical texts, his translations, and his general classicizing techniques.

I should probably come clean here. With the first money I made from writing -- a schoolboy prize for Horatian lyrics, I am afraid, a competition that I suspect no longer exists -- I went to a second-hand store and bought first editions of two of Sylvia Plath's early volumes. They were -- then -- just within the price range of an earnest schoolboy, and they were lovingly read and re-read. Like many, I also had to study Hughes at school, those fierce animals prowling even the London suburbs where I languished with verse so much older in outlook than my experience. I came back to Hughes with intense pleasure with his Birthday Letters, a collection I regard as one of the great volumes of poetry in our time. As for many people of my generation, Hughes and Plath have travelled with me, as my understanding of the politics of gender as much as of modern poetry has developed over the years. So I have no problem -- and much pleasure -- in reading a book on Hughes and the classics. And at its best, this volume is revelatory, and provides some super readings. Michael Silk, for example, is on great form, comparing Plath's and Hughes' wonderful poems, each called "The Rabbit Catcher", written many years apart -- two versions of a moment in their marriage, transformed and translated by poetry, allusion, raw emotion and memory. Roger Rees, the editor, bravely takes on the poems for royal occasions which Hughes wrote as Poet Laureate. Such poetry is regularly dismissed or laughed at; but Rees shows how understanding court poetry through classics helps us understand Hughes in a new way. Sarah Brown has some smart thoughts on Hughes as a translator, and draws out interesting implications for translation in general. If Hughes is your man, there is plenty of work here of genuine quality.

But I also had a lingering sense of an opportunity wasted. Although this volume started in what must have been a stimulating conference, there is precious little sense that the authors have read each others' contributions, or that the editor has required any cross-referencing. There are few thoughts shared. The same sentences of Hughes are quoted three or four times but without any sense of development or interaction of analyses. Problems raised in separate chapters make no progress for being raised more than once. The book thus rarely manages to be more than the sum of its parts.

And the focus on Hughes, by the end, left even a fan feeling short-changed. There are some big questions which slipped through the gaps between the narrow focus of the chapters. How typical (or odd) is Hughes? How much is he a figure of his generation? What to make of how his interests interweave with Tony Harrison's? What place does his interest in classics have in his ongoing argument with -- or excoriation by -- Plath's radical supporters? A sign of his conservatism? A sign of his radicalism? A sign of nothing to do with Plath? Gender, politics, history -- those buzz words -- are surprisingly under-theorized in this volume, and it feel like rather a loss.

It is typical that we are told three times of the dream that Hughes had as a student at Cambridge of a huge, smouldering fox entering his room on its hind legs. Each time, this dream is recounted as if it were simply a true guide to Hughes' intellectual transformation at this moment. No one stops to consider why Hughes told this dream, what place it has in his self-representation, why the critics like to (re-)tell it, or what the mythology of the transformative moment for a poet might mean for Hughes (one of whose most famous poems is called "The Fox"). When adults tell their adolescent dreams, it is usually more self-serving than can be revealed by the piety of these Hughes' fans. The dream is interesting enough, but it would benefit from slightly more self-conscious critical analysis. There are rather too many points where the volume veered towards hagiography, which gets in the way of the more serious overall project on Hughes and the classics.

So, for Hughes' fans this will be a useful, even a groundbreaking volume; for reception theorists there are some fascinating individual readings, but the big questions lurk, like a Hughes animal, darkly untouched, just outside view.

[There are a few pretty grim misprints: the same lines of Hughes are quoted with different orthography; some Latin gets a bit mangled. Sagar's opening essay is a gentle rehash of already published material; Janna Stigen Drangsholt suggests a model of myth few classicists will sign up to; David Gervais' chapter feels rather like outtakes from his recent book on Racine.]

Here are the authors and titles of the individual chapters:

Keith Sagar, 'Ted Hughes and the classics'
Stuart Gilespie, 'Hughes' first translation: 'The Storm from Homer, OdysseyV'
Lorna Hardwick, 'Can (modern) poets do classical drama?'
John Talbot, 'Eliot's Seneca, Ted Hughes' Oedipus'
Janna Stigen Drangsholt, 'Living Myths'.
Vanda Zajko, '"Mutilated towards alignment?": Prometheus on his Crag and the "Cambridge School" of anthropology'
Neil Roberts, Hughes's myth: the classics in Gaudete and Cave Birds'
Roger Rees, 'Between monarchy and democracy: neo-classicism and the laureate poetry of Ted Hughes'
Garrett Jacobsen, '"A holiday in a rest home": Ted Hughes and the vates in Tales from Ovid'
Anne-Marie Tatham, 'Passion in extremis in Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid'
Jennifer Ingleheart, 'The transformations of the Actaeon myth: Ovid, Metamorphoses 3 and Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid'
Genevieve Lively, 'Birthday Letters from Pontus: Ted Hughes and the white noise of classical elegy'
Michael Silk, 'Ted Hughes: Allusion and Poetic language'
Hallie Marshall, 'The Hughes Version: Commercial Considerations and Dramatic Imagination'
Sarah Annes Brown, 'Classics reanimated: Ted Hughes and reflexive translation'
David Gervais, 'Beyond tragedy: Ted Hughes, Racine and Euripides'

1 comment:

  1. Ted Hughes' famous poem is, of course, called 'The Thought-Fox' rather than 'The Fox'; the transformation takes place even in the title.


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