CJ Online Review: Farrell and Putnam, Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition

posted with permission:

Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds., A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its Tradition. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pp. xiv + 559. Hardcover, £130.00/$209.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-7577-7.

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University

The contemporary proliferation of companions to and readings in classical topics can be traced to Stephen Harrison’s exemplary compilation of classic articles on the Aeneid (Oxford, 1990), which set a high standard for one-volume excursions on a single ancient subject. And, in a previous generation, the late Steele Commager produced his Virgilian contribution to the “Twentieth-Century Views” collection (Prentice Hall, 1966) with similar success. The present volume is a most worthy successor to those two venerable predecessors, and, like other “Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World,” the contributions are new, not reprinted from journals common or more obscure. The Harrison and Commager volumes reprinted great masterpieces of Virgilian criticism, papers produced in seemingly simpler, not too say more innocent days for critics of Latin poetry. The papers assembled for the Farrell–Putnam volume emerge in arguably more challenging times for Virgilian scholars, both because of the tremendous advances in Virgilian Quellenforschung (due largely to Damien Nelis, a contributor to the present work, and Nicholas Horsfall), and (depending on your point of view) the light or shadow shed on Virgil by more contemporary literary approaches and theories.

Overall, these are happy days for Virgilians, not least for the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia edited by Richard Thomas and Jan Ziolkowski. Like its massive Italian predecessor, which Farrell and Putnam reference at the start of their introduction, the Thomas–Ziolkowski work attempts nothing less than a comprehensive guide to Virgiliana. The aims of the present work are more modest, despite the omnibus title. And principal among those aims is the desire to say something new (not an easy desideratum in Virgiliana).

The Farrell–Putnam companion is easy to assess for the second part of its title, the Aeneid tradition, which actually occupies the majority of the book’s space. Fully four of the five sections of the companion are concerned with the Virgilian reception, and here there is much indeed that is new and presented in useful form. Part II is devoted to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where Sarah Spence on the Dares and Dictys legends (surprisingly understudied) and Craig Kallendorf on “Vergil and Printed Books, 1500–1800” provide especially helpful essays. This section would have been vastly improved by a separate article on the Aeneid reception in French literature; an article on the Old French Roman would have been most welcome, let alone the pervasive influence of the Aeneid on the French Renaissance. Part V, like Part II, is more or less chronological in survey, and concerns “Modern Reactions to the Aeneid.” Here, Susanna Morton Braund offers a fascinating look at Aeneid translations that rewards close study.

Part IV is devoted to the “American Aeneid” and the reception of the poem in the history of the United States. Michèle Lowrie’s paper, “Vergil and Founding Violence,” is best here, with important consideration of the question of Roman exempla; this is the sort of article that can and should readily be assigned with profit to graduate Aeneid seminars. Indeed, Lowrie’s paper is, I would venture to say, a new classic of Aeneid criticism, one which blends the best of old and new tools of literary study, a provocative study whose implications go beyond the geographic and temporal boundaries of this section of the collection.

Part III, which focuses on the Aeneid in music and the visual arts, is probably located where it is in the collection because the subject matter largely falls in chronology between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. This is a difficult section because of the vastness of the material, as even a cursory glance at Reid’s mammoth Oxford compendium reveals. Regrettably, here again the French are somewhat underrepresented, especially in music, though space considerations must have weighed heavily on the whole enterprise. Glenn Most’s chapter on “Laocoons” is especially noteworthy.

The book’s first section is entitled “The Aeneid in Antiquity,” and is overall the strongest of all. There is much gold to mine here: “Vergil’s Library” by Nelis; a lucid and succinct chapter on the Aeneas legend by Sergio Casali; a marvelous discussion of “Vergil’s Roman” by Jay Reed; a consideration of the theme of exilic poetry with reference to both Virgil and Ovid by Putnam; and a treatment of inconsistency and the nature of “unfinished” epic by Jim O’Hara that repays close examination.

One of the great strengths of the Harrison Oxford Readings was its superlative survey of the history of Virgilian scholarship, itself worth the price of the volume. No companion that seeks to cover as much ground as the present work can hope to produce a similar overview for the sake of the perhaps mythical general reader who will approach the collection, or for advanced undergraduate and graduate readers who suffer from feeling both lost and, perhaps, too embarassed to ask for a roadmap to an overgrown wood. If anything, the chapters of Part I of the present compilation offer the best overview to the “problem” of the Aeneid, even if the reactions to the problem in literature, music, and the arts—the whole Nachleben that Parts II-V seek to explicate, not to say control—offer too daunting a field for any one volume to handle without omission and shortchanging.

Many of the modern “companions” to antiquity, at least in hardcover incarnation, are prohibitively expensive for those who might most profit from ownership. The Farrell–Putnam Aeneid companion is not only worth the publisher’s exorbitant cost, but a book every anglophone Virgilian of these confused and confusing, yet happy and blessed days for Latin poetry enthusiasts, will cherish.

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