The Cambridge Companion to Virgil
ed. C. Martindale, Cambridge University Press, pb ISBN 0 521 49885 6, £14.95; hb ISBN 0 521 49539 3, £40, 1997
reviewed by Peter Heslin
With a very lengthy and distinguished list of contributors The Cambridge Companion to Virgil is not only an important new resource for those approaching Virgil for the first time, but it also affords a useful overview of the current state of Virgilian research. The editor in his preface makes it clear that his intention was never to purvey a potted synthesis of a vast and sometimes polemical mass of criticism, and this volume will surely disappoint a host of students looking for an essay-writing crutch. It will, as the editor hoped, reward those 'seeking intelligent and sophisticated comment' (p.xvii), including even specialists in the field. This is no mere introduction, but a generous selection of some of the finest of current scholarship on Virgil. There are difficulties for the general reader in approaching a work of such sophistication and topicality; some of these are inevitable, while others might have been eased through greater care in accommodating a broader class of readers.
The volume comprises twenty-one essays by seventeen scholars; and the topics of the essays seem more often to have been determined by each contributor's interest and expertise than by a desire to be comprehensive. The advantage of this approach is that all of the contributors are fully engaged with their tasks; a disadvantage is that there are gaps in the volume's coverage. Yet most areas of interest are treated, even if the ordering of topics may seem unconventional. In accordance with the editor's own interests, the first section is devoted to essays documenting various points in the history of Virgil's reception in the West, a topic too often relegated in volumes of this kind to an appendix at the the end. The second section is called “Genre and poetic career,' and it provides essays on Virgil's biography and on each of his major works: the Eclogues, Georgics, and the Aeneid. The third section, 'Contexts of production,' and the final section 'Contents and forms' are devoted to a variety of themes, many of which track avenues that have been particularly fruitful for the scholarship of recent years. Thus there are up-to-date treatments of such themes as intertextuality (or allusion), ecphrasis (or visual effects), narrative techniques and sexuality and gender, alongside essays whose stated concerns are more traditional: characterisation, style and political, historical and philosophical contexts.
One major opportunity for making this Companion more generally congenial was missed through lack of care in ensuring that all of the Latin should at least have been paraphrased, if not translated. The majority of the contributors let only a few words slip by here and there, but others risk becoming unintelligible to the primary audience at whom this volume claims to be targeted: those with insufficient Latin to read Virgil and thus to make use of the many commentaries. The editor himself may 'deliberately refrain from offering translations' (p. 17, n. 36) at one polemical juncture, but further on it would have helped his own case to offer translations rather than elliptical paraphrase while making an argument about Virgil's relationship to the poet Gallus (p.114).
In the same volume we find proof that to explain all of the Latin and indeed the sometimes more obscure terminology of philological and literary critical jargon does not in fact necessarily need to be clumsy or otiose. James O'Hara in his survey of 'Virgilian style' (ch.16) manages the difficult task of giving an elegant account of Virgil's use of language and metre that should be clearly intelligible even to those without any Latin. He carefully translates all of his examples and provides unobtrusive glosses to technical terms both ancient and modern. Another great boon for the Latinless is Don Fowler's short but very useful and suggestive chapter on the ancient commentary of Servius (ch.5) that provides some samples in translation of this crucial document, which can seem daunting and inaccessible to the uninitiated.
The most distinctive feature of the arrangement of the twenty-one essays in the collection is the way it privileges the reception of Virgil's works. For no other author could such a choice be more appropriate; as G.B. Conte has put it, 'Virgil's Nachleben is Western literature.' (Latin Literature: A History, tr. Solodow, p.284) It is always interesting to look at a subject from a different angle, and Martindale's decision to begin this volume with a series of essays on other people's readings of Virgil has the value of making one acutely aware while reading the rest of the book of the historical contingency of our own present preoccupations. Yet this new focus has a cost. It may be that traditional accounts gave too much weight to the way Virgil's poetry transformed the traditions of his predecessors, rather than the way our sense of Virgil has been constructed by his successors, but a neophyte still needs to know something of Homer, Hesiod, Theocritus and the Alexandrians, Naevius, Ennius, the neoterics and the other poetic traditions that were Virgil's patrimony. In fact, most of the essays in this collection implicitly presuppose a basic knowledge of such matters. Some of them provide some limited and adventitious background to Virgil's sources, but none provides the beginner with the coherent treatment that should have been thought an absolute necessity in a Companion to Virgil.
One result of having solicited the input of seventeen scholars all actively working in the same field is that the contributors do not present anything like a united front. There is one insistently recurring point of controversy: the ideological dimension of Virgil's poetry, especially the Aeneid. We hear from several contributors how Virgilian criticism in the Anglophone world has been tossed in the past few decades between a view of the epic as essentially optimistic and imperial, and a view of it as pessimistic and sceptical, and we are told just as often that this crude opposition has become jejune and reductive. This anxiety over ideology in the Aeneid manifests itself in a proliferation of discussions about the death of Turnus at the end of the epic, which serves here, and not for the first time, as a kind of interpretive litmus test. Does Aeneas do the right thing, the Roman thing, in killing him? We hear about Turnus' death at varying length from Burrow (pp.83 and 89), from Kennedy (p.147), from Theodorakopoulos (pp.163-4), from Tarrant (p.181), from Zetzel (p.188), from Braund (pp.206 and 214-6), from Laird (p.288), from Hardie (pp.314-8) and from Oliensis (p.308). And yet despite this multiplicity of opinions and a common desire to find a place to stand outside the traditional ideological polarities, it seems that for the moment the discussion is still defined by the same issue. The problem remains, reflecting among other things the continuing ability of people from widely different political standpoints to invest equally in Virgil's poetry, an historical phenomenon brilliantly documented in this volume by Colin Burrow (chs.2 and 6).
There is not enough space here even to mention each of the twenty-one essays, so I will only say that while some are more accessible than others, all are rewarding to read. There is a good index, but there is no index of passages discussed. This is compensated somewhat by frequent cross-referencing in the footnotes. Two essays have misleading titles. Duncan Kennedy's “Modern receptions and their interpretive implications' is all the more interesting for actually being an essay focused on T.S. Eliot, while in counterpoint Philip Hardie's modestly titled “Virgil and tragedy' is in fact a suggestive and sweeping theorisation of genre and power in Augustan Rome.
I can recommend this book to anyone interested in Virgil. Although I imagine that it may prove sometimes frustrating to the general reader, and as an introduction it is not entirely comprehensive, nevertheless there is much in it that is useful. In the end this volume occupies a space somewhere in between a survey written for students and a volume of research papers; it is more cogent and compelling than most research volumes of multiple authorship and it is more challenging than most introductory textbooks.