Friday, August 23, 2019


Silvio Bär, Emily Hauser (ed.), Reading Poetry, Writing Genre: English Poetry and Literary Criticism in Dialogue with Classical Scholarship. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. xi, 256. ISBN 9781350039322. £76.50.

Reviewed by Charlie Kerrigan, Trinity College, Dublin (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book gathers together ten contributions from scholars (eight women, two men) working in the UK, US, and Norway, under the auspices of Bloomsbury's Studies in Classical Reception series. It aims 'to map the history and development of English poetry and the literary criticism connected to it as a story of genre discourse in dialogue with classical scholarship' (p. 1). I found it useful to keep in mind the 'triangle of key concepts' that the editors, in their introduction (p. 2), note as being central: this is a book about the interrelated histories of classical scholarship, literary criticism, and genre. That introduction gives a concise history of the term 'genre', covering Aristotle as well as current scholarship, and then previews each of the ten chapters. The editors' stated wish for the volume is 'to emphasize how genre is constantly negotiated, reworked and contested in dialogue with contemporary debates in literary criticism and classical scholarship' (p. 6); their conception of genre is open and plastic, noting as they do 'the permeability of genre in response to its literary and cultural context, its openness to re-shaping and its dialogism with … critical movements' (p. 6).

The ten contributions stretch from the grammar schooling of medieval England to the twenty-first-century 'transgressions' of poet Josephine Balmer, taking in along the way neo-Latin poetics in Elizabethan England, the Virgilian translations of James Harrington (1611– 77), eighteenth-century georgic poetry, Paradise Lost, the epyllion (in both classical and Elizabethan contexts), as well as Homeric scholarship and reception, both Victorian and twentieth-century; traditionally canonical figures like Milton, Dryden, and Tennyson feature, but so do Elizabeth Barrett Browning, H. D., and Balmer. For certain contributors (Pellicer, Bär) questions of genre are of primary concern, while for others (Canevaro, Hauser) genre appears in the midst of broader studies in reception. This is a positive, in the sense that those looking for work on classical reception (and translation) in English literature will find as much here as the reader interested specifically in the history of genre.

I would have liked more interrogation of that term, more probing of its utility and politics. How useful is genre as a continued frame of reference? Is there anything to be learnt from how other cultures in other parts of the worlds have thought about such classification, or is the return to Greece and Rome inevitable? In many of the chapters one realizes that one is dealing with 'a relatively small set of literary men' (p. 82): what are the implications of this narrowness, both for studies of genre and for classical reception more generally? This is not meant to slight what is an informative and well-researched collection, one whose chapters got me thinking along such lines in the first place, and one that adds to the growing body of work done on the reception of classical literature in English literature.1 The book is well presented: notes to and references for all chapters are grouped at the back; I found it helpful that each of the chapters has a distinct conclusion, while the one typo I found is so minor as to almost not warrant mention: it should (I think) be poets' rather than poet's on p. 20, seven lines down. The front cover features an image ofLyric Music, a bronze statue by American artist Paul Howard Manship (1885–1966).

Each of the contributions has something to offer, but for reasons of space I mention here only five. Gerber takes us to medieval England at a time when words like 'epic', 'elegy', and 'genre' had yet to enter English and when Aristotle's classifications were either unknown or just finding greater currency. Far from a world of literary-theoretical backwardness, however, she convincingly argues that it was the medieval system of grammatical and literary exegesis, with its practical, pedagogical focus, that not only preserved classical modes of thought but made use of them in distinctive and idiosyncratic ways. Renaissance developments in this regard are thus shown to be less a rebirth than a continuation indebted to the work of medieval forebears.

Pellicer begins by noting that, apart from the famous essay by Joseph Addison, there is little evidence for the influence of classical scholarship on the many poetic imitations of Virgil's Georgics published in eighteenth-century England. In seeking to look beyond Addison, Pellicer's scepticism at several points strikes a useful note of caution. The influence of scholarship on the georgic genre was 'necessarily of a general character' (p. 80), he argues, while the image of the Georgics as a lightning rod in contemporary debates about literature and science is based on certain and select incidents (like the exchanges between Jethro Tull and Stephen Switzer in the 1730's) rather than on a large body of evidence. Against the view of Frans De Bruyn (quoted on p. 83), that science and literary scholarship clash uneasily in the commentary of Cambridge scholar John Martyn (1699–1768), he notes—correctly, I think—that the distinction is a false one, particularly when viewed in the light of much later commentaries like those of Mynors and Thomas, works equally comfortable with the literary and scientific aspects of Virgil's poem. More generally, in terms of investigating scholarly and literary receptions, Pellicer's caution is again instructive: 'the scarcity of available hard evidence is chastening' (p. 92).

Those interested in Homer and the Homeric tradition are well served by three excellent essays, whose overlapping themes make them a kind of book-within-book. Canevaro's subject is the impact on Homeric translation of Friedrich August Wolf's seminal Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795)—before Wolf there had been the rhyming translations of Dryden and Pope, whereas with him Homer appeared to move from the realm of poetry to that of philology. Taking a short extract of Iliad 6, Canevaro contrasts the treatment of the text's formulaic elements by both Dryden and Pope with the later, unrhymed versions of Lattimore and Fagles, concluding that, in certain cases, 'free flowing English verse captures something that a more literal translation cannot' (p. 103). William Morris' 1887 Odyssey stands somewhere in between, a rhymed version that nevertheless sticks closely to the Greek text. Growing scholarly recognition that the Homeric poems formed part of a long-standing oral tradition, it is argued, suited and complemented Morris' own socialist politics, allowing him to put forward a vision of 'the people as poet' (p. 116).

In the following chapter Hurst argues for the importance of the dramatic monologue in Victorian receptions of Homer. Not only do Tennyson's short pieces—'Ulysses', 'Oenone'—rise to the challenge of doing something different with the Homeric source texts, but they bring to light broader themes: the capaciousness of epic as a genre, the availability to poetic imitators of 'humble or even disreputable' (p. 125) characters alongside the usual heroes, the 'skill in the handling of inherited materials' (p. 124) which marks out the poets—from Virgil to Tennyson and many more besides—who successfully engage the long tradition of epic poetry.

And that tradition is by no means exclusively male, as the final chapter in this Homeric trio shows. Hauser argues that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and H. D., authors of Aurora Leigh (1856) and Helen in Egypt (1961), respectively, set about the challenge of defining themselves in and against a very male genre partly by engaging with specific works of scholarship. For Barrett Browning, her title character's rejection of Wolf's 'philological and historicist model' (p. 156)—we are shown the moment when Aurora decides to sell her father's copy of the Prolegomena to fund her travels in Italy —symbolises, as Hauser would have it, the determination to do epic her way, 'a personal vision of epic authorship' (p. 156). The engagement of H. D. with the work of Milman Parry is, Hauser admits, 'much more oblique' (p. 161), and the evidence for H. D.'s awareness of Parry—that she was a long-term friend and correspondent of Ezra Pound, who did know of the scholar and his work—is a little circumstantial. That is helpful in highlighting an old crux in reception studies, namely, if and how much it matters that we can prove X definitely knew and read the work of Y, whose work they respond to. For those who prioritize the reader in the here and now, it need not, and Hauser's comparative study of two women poets who constructed their epics 'in dialogue with contemporary issues in classical scholarship' (p. 161) I found useful in illuminating both the poetry and the scholarship, and in adding—along with Cox's chapter on Balmer—a female dimension (see in particular the mini-history of female epics in English on p. 152) to the otherwise largely male world of genre, scholarship, and criticism evoked in this book.

I hope that that is enough to give readers here an idea of the book and its strengths; anyone interested in the triangular themes it investigates, or in the reception of Greek and Latin texts in English literature more generally, should find something useful in it.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, viii
List of Illustrations, ix
List of Contributors, x
Silvio Bär and Emily Hauser, Introduction, 1–12.
Amanda J. Gerber, 'Classical Pieces: Fragmenting Genres in Medieval England', 13–29
Emma Buckley, '"Poetry is a Speaking Picture": Framing a Poetics of Virtue in Late Elizabethan England', 30–50
Ariane Schwartz, 'A Revolutionary Vergil: James Harrington, Poetry, and Political Performance', 51–65
Caroline Stark, 'The Devouring Maw: Complexities of Classical Genre in Milton's Paradise Lost', 66–78
Juan Christian Pellicer, 'Georgic as Genre: The Scholarly Reception of Vergil in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain', 79–93
Lilah Grace Canevaro, 'Rhyme and Reason: The Homeric Translations of Dryden, Pope, and Morris', 94–116
Isobel Hurst, 'From Epic to Monologue: Tennyson and Homer', 117–137
Silvio Bär, 'The Elizabethan Epyllion: From Constructed Classical Genre to Twentieth-Century Genre Propre', 138–150
Emily Hauser, '"Homer Undone": Homeric Scholarship and the Invention of Female Epic', 151–171
Fiona Cox, 'Generic "Transgressions" and the Personal Voice', 172–186
Notes 187
References 218
General Index 249
Index of Passages Cited 253


1.   See, among others, H. Stead and E. Hall (eds.) 2015, Greek and Roman classics in the British struggle for social reform (London, Bloomsbury); N. Vance and J. Wallace (eds.) 2015, The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Volume 4: 1790–1880 (Oxford); H. Stead (2016), A Cockney Catullus: the reception of Catullus in Romantic Britain, 1795–1821; S. J. Harrison (2017), Victorian Horace: classics and class (London, Bloomsbury).

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