The Poets on the Classics by Stuart Gillespie; Classical Genres and English Poetry by W H Race - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Life in them Old Bones?

The Poets on the Classics


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Classical Genres and English Poetry


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Who should stand guard over the Classical tradition today – hunchbacks in inaccessible keeps, dragging bunches of rusty keys along the floor, or sincerely hoarse personalities bugling ‘Loadsaculchah! Sunnink for everyone!’ at the lager-belching proletariat? The strong impression that comes over from Stuart Gillespie’s fascinating anthology The Poets on the Classics is that the tradition nowadays is nothing but a corpse. The passionate, though by no means universal, commitment of the 17th c and 18th c has by the 19th c become little more than sentimental simpering. The attack on classical education being articulated at that time can only have been strengthened by the sort of rubbish that Andrew Lang (1880) was writing about Theocritus:

‘Ah! leave the smoke, the wealth, the roar
Of London, and the bustling street,
For still, by the Sicilian shore,
The murmur of the Muse is sweet.
Still, still, the suns of summer greet
The mountain-grave of Helikê,
And shepherds still their songs repeat
Where breaks the blue Sicilian sea.’

Or Lionel Johnson (1890) about the subject in general:

‘Fain to know golden things, fain to grow wise,
Fain to achieve the secret of fair souls:
His thought, scarce other lore need solemnise,
Whom Virgil calms, whom Sophocles controls.’

Who in their right minds would not revolt against this dead handle-turning?

Gillespie’s anthology records and discusses poets’ responses to classical poets (in prose and verse) from the 15th-20th c. The anthology is arranged by classical author, with poets’ responses in chronological order under each head. Each author gets a useful general introduction and the poems are well annotated. While there is much to groan over, there is much also to rejoice in. Anacreon, by tradition a famous lecher and drunkard, is said to have choked to death on a grape-pip. Cowley’s ‘Elegy upon Anacreon’ (1656) ends:

‘It grieves me when I see what fate
Does on the best of mankind wait.
Poets or lovers let them be,
’Tis neither love nor poesie
Can arm against death’s smallest dart
The poet’s head, or lover’s heart.
But when their life in its decline
Touches the inevitable line,
All the world’s mortal to them then,
And wine is aconite to men.
Nay, in death’s hand the grape-stone proves
As strong as thunder is in Jove’s.’

But is the tradition moribund? Tony Harrison, even now preparing a version of Lysistrata and Euripides’s Trojan Women for the National Theatre in 1989, would not agree, but he does not appear in this anthology. I think Gillespie sells the 20th c slightly short.

The corpse certainly rattles its bones in William Race’s Classical Genres and English Poetry. Identifying the typical structure and content of some of the major genres of Classical poetry, eg the carpe diem theme, the recusatio (the poet’s reason for not writing in a particular style or on a particular subject), the priamel (‘Others may prefer a, b and c, but I like…’) etc, Race applies his findings to English poetry. He deduces four major premises concerning ‘life’ in the Classical carpe diem poem – that death is irrevocable, and inevitable, that the future is beyond our control, and existence is transient – and under each premise, identifies typical arguments (eg ‘not even X could escape death’). After considering some Latin models, Race turns his attention to ‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose’, ‘Come, my Celia, let us prove’, ‘Had we but world enough and time’ (among others) and discusses the fit between the Classical model and its later counterparts.

If all this sounds worthily didactic, it is: the book has its origin in an undergraduate course for Americans. As such, it is probably extremely valuable. What will strike the well-read and intelligent reader of LR as something of a plodding tortoise may well, to the addled and recumbent brains of many an American (and English) undergraduate, assume the aspect of an eagle in full thunderous swoop.

For LR readers, I suspect there are two problems with Race’s book. First, the ‘so-what’ factor is alarmingly high. Race’s analysis rarely seems to me to elucidate anything about a poem that its existing structure and content do not already make crystal clear. If these are bones, they are dry bones: they do not make the poems live. Second, Race is carried away by his enthusiasm for seeing Classical paradigms everywhere. Thus, Race calls Keats’s ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’ a priamel. Yet the argument of that poem is not ‘Some people like a, b and c but I prefer Homer’, but ‘It was not till I read Chapman’s Homer that I understood what the fuss was all about’. Race even gets his Classical models wrong. When Sappho argues that the finest thing on earth is not the military, but what a person loves, Race argues that this is a recusatio: Sappho refuses to write about epic subjects, and opts to write about love instead. But there is nothing in the poem about Sappho’s decision to write about a topic, any more than there is in Shakespeare’s sonnet 91 (‘Some glory in their birth…’). To the question ‘What is the finest thing’?’, Sappho answers ‘my love’, not ‘writing about my love’.

These books raise two important questions: in what sense did, and do, these bones live? And what should we do about them? The new, brilliantly stupid National Curriculum, so hostile to invention, wit, diversity and distinctiveness (ie everything that makes education fun), simply consigns them with a clang to the charnelhouse. It will be interesting to see if, in the name of education, our glorious Cabinet finally succeeds in making one mighty Dunciad of the land.

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