Wednesday, August 3, 2016


Norman Vance, Jennifer Wallace (ed.), The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume 4: 1790-1880. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 746. ISBN 9780199594603. $225.00.

Reviewed by Miklós Péti, Károli Gáspár University (

Version at BMCR home site


This is the second volume to be published in the five-volume series of the Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature (OHCREL, general editors: David Hopkins and Charles Martindale). The period covered is roughly the span of the nineteenth century, from the advent of the Romantics to the late Victorians; the volume contains twenty-seven essays by twenty-two contributors, with the editors and Isobel Hurst authoring multiple studies. After the "Introduction" the first part of the volume ("Contexts and Genres") comprises eleven essays exploring important aspects of classical reception, while the remaining fifteen pieces in the second part ("Authors") are devoted to the works of individual authors.1 The volume ends with an impressive annotated bibliography compiled by Norman Vance and an informative index.

In the "Introduction" the editors provide a concise survey of the most important problems in classical reception in the period under discussion. This brief yet thorough essay is an excellent "crash course" in nineteenth century classical reception: the themes touched upon in it (Hellenism, revolution, reform, gender, the establishment of museums, just to mention some of the prominent ones) appear and reappear throughout the volume in relation to particular authors or movements. True to Hopkins and Martindale's original purpose of conceiving reception "as a dynamic activity in which meaning is constantly generated and regenerated, rather than passively received" 2 Vance and Wallace are especially keen to document the changes in the significance of certain key texts and contexts both within the period concerned and in the time that has elapsed since the end of the nineteenth century.

In Chapter 1 ("Classical Authors 1790–1880") Norman Vance considers the most important tendencies in the reception of major genres and classical authors. Since the period covered by the volume saw a remarkable and unprecedented shift of emphasis from Latin to Greek literature and culture, much of the essay is devoted to the reception of Greek works from Homer through the lyric and pastoral poets, to philosophers, dramatists, and historians. Among the Latin authors Horace takes the prime position, but Vance also considers the changing significance of Virgil and Ovid as well as other poets.

Chapter 2 (John Talbot's "'The principle of the daguerreotype': Translation from the Classics") highlights from several different perspectives how the Romantic and industrial revolutions also brought about a revolution in the translation of the classics. Thus the significant increase in the number of translations and the new emphasis on fidelity is paralleled by the disappearance of great names from among the translators (like those of Dryden and Pope for much of the eighteenth century), and an ever-widening gap between poets and classical translation done by scholars or dilettanti. Talbot's nuanced narrative, however, also shows how some of the relics of the past (e.g. Pope's Homer) survived and exerted their influence in the nineteenth century. The useful analogy of the daguerreotype for the practice of classical translation in the period is one of the most successful of the cultural contexts the volume offers for understanding and appreciating the way classical reception changed and developed in the course of the nineteenth century.

Chapter 3 by Christopher Stray ("Education and Reading) also addresses the fundamental changes that took place in the period; ranging from the curricula of elite education to the emergence of popular compendia (such as Lempriere's Bibliotheca Classica published in 1788) or still-indispensable scholarly resources (the LSJ), Stray presents a varied and sometimes surprising account of the general knowledge of the classics in the period. The concise conclusion considering the "cultural hierarchy of languages" (97), the different forms of dealing with the classics, and the changes in the canon, as well as the instrumentality of the publishing industry in these changes, aptly demonstrates the resourcefulness of Stray's perspective.

Edmund Richardson's discussion of the complicated relationship between politics, class, and the classics (Chapter 4, "Political Writing and Class") provides a similarly colorful and essential background to understanding the way the classics were used and appropriated in the period covered by the volume. Starting with the description of an emblematic scene in Wynch Street, Drury Lane, where for some time native pickpockets and other low characters had to give way to carriages whose distinguished owners were attending Robert Brough's burlesque, Medea, Richardson goes on to show "what is at stake in putting classics and class together, between 1780 and 1880" (104). The essay provides a series of brief, but enlightening glimpses of the variety of class-driven classical reception: the parliamentary speeches are as much in focus here as the "radical classics" of the Chartists, or the "disreputable classicism" of Brough. The story told thus becomes one of both frustration and hope on all sides involved.

In Chapter 5 ("Barbarism and Civilization: Political Writing, History, and Empire") Phiroze Vasunia explores peculiar meanings the concept of barbarism acquires in the period. This concept informs a variety of different texts: political discourse (Burke), historiography (Gibbon, Macaulay) as well as literature proper (Shelley). Classics (especially the Greeks) might represent a way of "overcoming barbarism" (150), but they might also be dangerously close to it (e.g. in De Quincey's story of the Malay who responds fervently to Homeric Greek). It is this pervasive association of Greek culture with both barbarism and civilized modernity that made it an especially relevant frame of reference for Victorians.

Chapter 6 by Paul Giles takes a slight detour to American literature ("American Literature and Classical Consciousness") to present an alternative perspective on the handful of themes (politics, empire, class consciousness, etc.) discussed in the previous chapters. American history in the nineteenth century can of course provide a number of such perspectives: of special interest are the sections of the essay dealing with how both supporters of slavery and abolitionists appropriated the classical past for their purposes. But slavery is just one of the themes: Giles surveys a great number of authors from Freneau to Melville to demonstrate that "the uses of classical learning were designed to encompass the new United States within a wider republican orbit" (181).

In Chapter 7 ("Myth and Religion") Norman Vance discusses the role of classical myth and its sometimes uneasy reception by churchmen of the nineteenth century. Writers of the period used and appropriated myth for a great variety of reasons, some of which included the critique of Christianity or religion altogether. At the end of the chapter Vance sketches two emblematic responses to ancient myth: the "language-based theories" of Max Müller (199) and the work of Andrew Lang in developing a more accommodating cultural anthropology.

One of the longest chapters in the volume, Jonah Siegel's "Art, Aesthetics, and Archeological Poetics" (Chapter 8) takes a look at the nineteenth century's responses to material remains of the ancient past. After reflection on the fundamental changes in this process (e.g. the creation of museums, the advent of modern archeology, etc.), and what English and continental texts have contributed to the shaping of "the poetics of the fragment and of classical antiquity," Siegel goes on to enumerate concrete examples of reception from Blake to Ruskin. Such instances, as Siegel demonstrates, are often caught up between "inherited desire" for the remnants of antiquity and "something that does not feel entirely like satisfaction" (237).

In "'Greek under the trees': Classical Reception and Gender" (Chapter 9) Jennifer Wallace provides a fascinating discussion of the vexed questions of gender and the classics in the nineteenth century. As the author points out, in the period men and women were more segregated than before, and this of course had its impact on their different interpretation of the classics. Yet there were clearly more opportunities for women than in the past, and Wallace demonstrates through several important examples (Sara Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Robinson, and Augusta Webster) how "women transformed classical reception into a form of performance, one in which the ambivalent tension between spontaneous expression and self-conscious artifice was explored" (261). Thanks to her ample perspective, Wallace can go well beyond the strict confines of literature to consider women and the classics in such cultural fields as the activities of bluestockings, the family, or even the circulation of gift-books.

In Chapter 10 ("The Novel") Wallace's fellow editor, Norman Vance, first provides a thorough reappraisal of the classical roots of the English novel, then goes on to discuss the different forms of appropriating the classical past in nineteenth century narratives. Vance considers narrative plots, classical themes in novels, and the uses of allusion. This wide-ranging essay is indispensable for anyone who wishes to get to know more about the original literary context of by now canonical works: among the handful of well-known examples (e.g. Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean) Vance enumerates and interprets works which have long since disappeared from the radar of the reading public.

In the final chapter of the first part of the volume (Chapter 11, "Shakespearean Sophocles: (Re)-discovering and Performing Greek Tragedy in the Nineteenth Century") Fiona Macintosh has for her topic one of the most interesting features of nineteenth century English literature, the rising to prominence of Greek drama, especially tragedy. In her exploration of the subject from translations to loose adaptations and even burlesques, Macintosh convincingly shows how Greek tragedy came to the "forefront of the theatrical innovation which led ultimately and collectively to the New Drama at the end of the nineteenth century" (320), even allowing for the fact that the general taste of the period tended to favor only Sophocles who, together with Shakespeare, became something of a "honorary Victorian."

In the second part of the volume ("Authors") the essays are more or less uniformly structured: an introductory section about the classical education of the author(s) under discussion is usually followed by close readings of selected works, typically from the most distinctive phases of each author's career. Thus, in Chapter 12 ("William Wordsworth") James Castell argues that Wordsworth's reception of the classics "is always already embedded in other acts of reception" (341) by reading the sonnet "The World is too much with us" and the poem "Laodamia." The complicated and often elusive influence of the classics on Wordsworth's poetry could readily be contrasted with the vivid and apparent presence of Greek and Latin literature in the works of Coleridge who, J. C. C. Mays points out in Chapter 13 ("Coleridge: The Reception and Transmission of Classical Learning") used the classical tradition throughout his life as "an evolving method of research and discovery" (360). Although the third most well-known Lake poet, Robert Southey, is referred to throughout the volume, the last essay on the first generation of the Romantics is devoted to Walter Savage Landor (Chapter 14, Adam Roberts, "Walter Savage Landor and the Classics") whose insistence (as both a Latin and an English writer) on the aesthetic and moral purity of the classics and classical models, as well as his more controversial performance in what Roberts calls his "hefty, generically hybrid epic", Gebir , makes him one of the forerunners of the second generation (i.e. Shelley).

In Chapter 15 ("The Unexpected Latinist: Byron and the Roman Muse") Timothy Webb sets out to reevaluate the influence of Latin literature on Byron's works. Although widely and emblematically recognized as a philhellene, Byron was a proficient Latinist (as, among other things, his correspondence shows), and the formative influence of Horace on his oeuvre is detectable from his earliest publications (English Bards and Scotch Reviewers) to his mature work (Don Juan). Jennifer Wallace continues to discuss the second generation in Chapter 16 ("The Younger Romantics: Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Shelley"). Besides reappraising the political implications of these writers' classicism (by contrasting some of their most important classically-inspired works with Wordsworth's Excursion), this essay also offers valuable insight on the second generation's interpretation of classical objects and their popular reproductions.

Victorian authors also receive their fair share in the volume. In Chapter 17 ("Elizabeth Barrett Browning") Isobel Hurst provides a thorough account of how Elizabeth Barrett Browning incorporates Hellenism into her "variety of strategies for placing herself within a literary tradition dominated by men" (452). Nicholas Shrimpton, by contrast, turns to consider in Chapter 18 ("Matthew Arnold") the developing role of Greek and Latin literature in Matthew Arnold's poetry and prose. Arnold achieved a kind of "disinterested objectivity" (modelled to a large extent on Homeric epic) in some of his works to "escape from the late-Romantic dead-end" (485), and he advocates the same disinterestedness in his criticism (especially in "The Function of Criticism") along with the "corrective model and imaginative stimulus" ancient texts can provide to modern literature (492). After an overview of Arthur Hugh Clough's Greek learning (prodigious even by the standards of some authors featured in the volume), Chapter 19 ("Arthur Hugh Clough") goes on to discuss two of his poems, The Bothie and Amours de Voyage; Isobel Hurst also reflects on how Clough's interest in late antiquity made him a forerunner of Aesthetic and Decadent writers (506). Yopie Prins's long essay (Chapter 20, "Translating Tragedy: Robert Browning's Greek Decade") provides an absorbing analysis of the interaction of translation and creative work, as well as Greek and English in Browning's work in the 1870s. As Prins argues, Browning's difficult renditions of the Greek tragedians (which might themselves be interpreted as performances) also serve as commentary about translation "self-consciously reflecting on the task of the translator and the cultural function of translating classics in Victorian England" (509).

Chapter 21 ("Tennyson" by A. A. Markley) shows how Tennyson's complex engagement with the classics, ranging from metrical experimentation to appropriations of myth in dramatic monologues, was an integral part of both the poet's self-fashioning and his position as a poet laureate. By contrast, William Morris's interest in classical literature was more narrowly focused, concentrating on the great narrative poems (Homer, Virgil); his remoulding of these works in "pre-Raphaelite sensuousness" (561) or a distinct medievalizing style is nothing short of "repackag[ing] classical narratives for a mid-Victorian readership" as Stephen Harrison argues in Chapter 22.

Shanyn Fiske considers George Eliot's life and work (Chapter 23, "George Eliot") and explains, mainly through the consideration of the impact of Greek tragedy on her work, how her "revisions of classical material [aciheve] a delicate balance of historical synthesis and adaptation" (595). As Ralph Pite demonstrates (Chapter 24, "Thomas Hardy"), Hardy was similarly preoccupied with the classics; of special interest in his early career (covered by the volume) is his "plac[ing] georgic at the mid-point between epic and pastoral, where they meet and in which both may be achieved" in Far from the Madding Crowd. The last chapter but one ("Swinburne") takes a closer look at Swinburne's "fleshly" Hellenism, and how the poet found new "models of creativity" in Greek myth outside the Olympian pantheon (and how through this he anticipated the work of both Nietzsche and Walter Pater). Finally, in Chapter 26 ("Towards the Fin de Siècle: Walter Pater and John Addington Symons") Stefano Evangelista explores how the works of these two authors in the 1870s "can be seen as working together toward extending the aesthetic method to the study of classicism" (657).

The huge enterprise of OHCREL would probably not have come into existence without a general upsurge in recent decades in reception studies, but I have no doubt that it will generate further interest in the reception of the classics. The clear structure, the brisk essays, and the cutting edge scholarship of the contributors will make this excellent volume an indispensable companion to both scholars and students of classical reception in the nineteenth century for a long time to come.


1.   Due to the limitations of the review I chose to deal with the essays of the first part in more detail and to cover the second part with shorter reflections.
2.   David Hopkins, Charles Martindale (ed.), The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Volume 3: 1660-1790. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 7.

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