Homer and Virgil and Broch

George Steiner

  • Oxford Readings in Vergil’s ‘Aeneid’ edited by S.J. Harrison
    Oxford, 488 pp, £45.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 19 814389 3

A suggestive history of Western moral, literary and political sensibility could be written in terms of the relative status, at given periods and in different societies, of Homer and Virgil. The actual Homeric texts come late into European Christendom. Dante knew of the ‘sovereign poet’ only by hearsay and via derivative epics. The Virgilian presence is continuous. Christological readings of the Fourth Eclogue bestow on Virgil an aura of prophetic illumination. He is known as a magician and sibylline prognosticator in Medieval Italy. The Renaissance ranks Homer as almost divine, but is Virgilian in its poetic practices and aesthetics. Generally, the Enlightenment and early Romanticism – Shelley would be an instance – are Homeric in preference. But an artist such as Turner sees in Virgil the prophetic witness to the imperial politics and aesthetic tone of the times. Angles of incidence and of interpretation are complicated by the deepening understanding of the decisive but often oblique status of the Iliad and Odyssey ‘inside’ the Aeneid, and by the realisation, even more challenging, of the ways in which Virgil’s epic retrospectively alters our responses to Homer.

What of our own epoch? The sense of polarities is almost too neat. No short list of the principal novels in this century – where ‘novels’ is too restrictive a term – can omit either Joyce’s Ulysses or Broch’s Death of Virgil, the one immersed in Homer, the other in the Georgics, Eclogues and Aeneid. If the turn of spirit in, say, Robert Graves and Saint-Jean Perse is radically Homeric, that in T.S. Eliot and Valéry is unmistakably Virgilian. The equations become non-linear, as it were, by virtue of the several presences of Dante. Recalling early childhood, Proust sees himself trailing behind his impatient parents as Dante does behind his master, Virgil. T.S. Eliot’s Virgil, but also Mandelstam’s, is experienced through the prism of the Commedia. The pressure of political and historical events on comparative and reciprocal reception is at once evident and intricate. Educated Englishmen more than once went to their deaths in 1914-18 in the lofty resonance of the Homeric model, its special aura of masculine eros and sacrificial glory. Not only in Joyce is peregrine Odysseus a symbol of the unhoused, investigative ways of 20th-century man and thought. With the Second World War, recognitions seem to alter. The shattered, burnt cities are still perennial Troy. But the desolate light on them is that of Virgilian pathos rather than Argive-Homeric triumph. It is not so much Odysseus homeward bound but Aeneas the refugee, the man hunted towards the unknown with the scarred remnants of his people, who addresses our fortunes. It is not cunning Penelope but outraged Dido who enacts perceptions, long overdue, of the victimisation of women.

I would conjecture that the current climate is more one of at-homeness in the Aeneid than in the Iliad (Simone Weil’s attempt to misread Homer’s fierce battle-songs in a Virgilian-Christian register is indicative). And even the Odyssey, so much closer to us than its partly archaic predecessor, retains, when looked at soberly, a deep strangeness. At a time when European history is again essentially European, when the matter of Europe’s shared legacies and eventual identity is most urgently under debate, it is, indeed, Virgil who looks to be ‘the father of the West’. This is the title given him by Theodore Haecker in an influential study of 1931. Steeped in the sense of the bonds which knit European Christianity and the Latinity of the European vulgates, laws, institutions to their Roman source, Haecker saw Virgil as the inner pulse in Europe’s sense of self and destiny. In a different but related vein, and with Dante as central intermediary, the scholarship of Curtius and the criticism of Eliot extended this argument for Virgilian paternity. Our landscapes at evening, our manifold intimation of ‘town and country’, the ambivalent stance we take towards warfare, toward the exactions which public, civic life places on privacy, are at many points consequent on the Bucolics and Aeneid. Because our European speech is permeated by Latin, the famed music of Virgil, the incomparable interplay of rhetoric and intimacy, of the imperial and the elegiac, lies to hand as Homer’s Greek cannot. Virgil is background in the poetry of Rilke or Montale or Bonnefoy. It is part of the idiosyncratic genius of Pound, notably in the first of the Cantos, to ring authentic changes on Homer, via an amalgam of Elizabethan and Late Victorian adaptations.

Above all, Virgil is European, or so we take him to be. Asia Minor, the Levant, possibly North Africa, are elemental to the fairy-tale world of the Odyssey. The Virgilian Mediterranean, the Aeneid’s vision of Carthage, the cardinal themes of the instauration of civic institutions, of a state cult, of a politically-animate historicity, are ours, or, more precisely, they lie at the roots of our European conditions. Neither Homer nor Shakespeare has very much to say of the illusions or potentialities which now engage European self-consciousness. Virgil and Dante are talismanic and exemplary of just that consciousness and of its singular contamination of Classical and modern, of pagan and Christian, of private and public modes. We follow on disaster as does Aeneas. The dead swarm at us with dire demands both of due remembrance and future resolve as they do in Book VI of the Aeneid. We are twilit, uneasy imperialists or exploiters of less privileged peoples in ways for which Virgil found the most searching expression. Being survivors in Europe, we grow wary of vengeance as Odysseus did not.

These shifting valuations make timely the volume edited by S.J. Harrison. The papers assembled, 26 in number, range from an article by Bowra dated 1933-4 to a lecture published in 1987 by D.A. West. West and Nicholas Horsfall are each represented by three contributions, as is R.D. Williams. E.L. Harrison figures twice. Some of the essays are celebrated: such as G.N. Knauer’s summary, dated 1964, of the textual and structural relations between the Homeric epics and the Aeneid. Other papers are of a more specialised interest: they include Nisbet on the representation of Roman generalship in the second half of the Aeneid, a look at the persona of Hercules in Virgil’s treatment, and an analysis of the shield of Aeneas (contrasted with that forged for Achilles in the Iliad). The one text composed especially for this survey is the editor’s own ‘Some Views of the Aeneid in the 20th Century’. Reflecting on the putative two thousandth anniversary of Virgil’s death, widely marked during 1981-2, S.J. Harrison pays lip-service to the significance of literary and interpretative approaches to the Aeneid in recent times.

It has, for some decades, been a commonplace of Classical studies, in both France and the United States, that the ‘presence of the past’ entails the closest mutual notice of the textual scholar, historian, literary critic, translator and writer, where the latter takes up and gives the renewal of felt life to antique themes and works. It is the dynamic ‘interface’ of these several perspectives, together with the background of the Marxist and Freudian re-readings of Greek and Roman literature, history and society, which has quickened the response of modernity to the Classics into vivid and controversial life. Dr Harrison’s token gestures are out of a rearguard action, parochial and self-defeating. It should, in 1990, be sheerly impossible to offer a programmatic statement on the Aeneid in this century which does not even mention The Death of Virgil or the art and music it has, in turn, inspired. As it happens, Hermann Broch’s scholarship was scrupulous and often incisive. But what matters is the sustained, detailed metamorphic interpretation of Virgil’s poetics, of the status of the Aeneid in respect of Augustan realities, of the compositional and ethical aspects of its incompletion. Unless I am mistaken, the name of Broch appears nowhere in this tome. But then he was not only a writer and thinker of genius but a foreigner. Professor Jackson Knight stood on home ground. Though he reprints West’s bracing W.F. Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture, Dr Harrison omits from his keynote opening both Cumaean Gates, one of the most stimulating if unorthodox (pas du tout Oxbridge) works in modern Virgil studies, and the Jackson Knight translation of the Aeneid.

This is a crucial issue. The translation of a classic text, as it challenges and inserts itself within the heritage of prior translations, is a radically hermeneutic act. Translations may, indeed, be the most immediate of critical-interpretative means. The more so when they are the work of poet-scholars such as C. Day-Lewis and Robert Fitzgerald or of so remarkable a stylist as Jackson Knight (time and again, one finds oneself reverting to his lapidary, taut prose-version when trying to get the original into focus). It is hoped, says the editor, that this assemblage ‘will be of use to undergraduates and sixth-formers as well as their teachers’. Truly the most significant of intended targets and exactly the one whose sensibilities, whose alertness to the ‘presentness’ and seminal powers of the ancient material, need to be most thoroughly woken. Numanus Remulus, or the vexed crux of the spuriousness of the notorious Helen episode (G.P. Goold’s long paper in detection is a model of the genre), are important. But why should they exclude, in the awareness of the student, of anyone seeking to experience the Aeneid now, Broch’s epic counterpoint, or Robert Lowell’s utterly Virgilian ‘Mills of the Kavanaughs’, with its poignant reprise of one of Virgil’s great motions of spirit?

Why not have the courage and the joy of offering a guide to the Aeneid in which work by a Fraenkel or a West or a Sandbach stands fruitfully beside some consideration of Broch’s or Eliot’s Virgil and, say, a comparison between major English translations from Gavin Douglas and Dryden to today? Dare one even mention how stringently apposite an insight might be won from a contrastive look at the musical apprehension of the Aeneid in Berlioz’s Troyens and in Barraqué’s massive, if incomplete settings of Broch-Vergil? Does English Classical scholarship, where it means to fire the young, have to sell imagination and wider interest short?

Given the misère of the editorial strategy, there is, in this anthology, much that is outstanding. If, justly, the bias is towards Dryden’s ‘divine poem’ rather than Landor’s ‘most misshapen of epics’, the learning represented here is frequently critical. Of manifest interest are the cases in which authorities differ. R.O.A.M. Lyne argues persuasively that Aeneas is a ‘stoic imperialist’ whose heroic nation-founding role is thrust upon him. In an equally fine portrayal (with refreshing asides on De Gaulle and Lawrence of Arabia), Professor Nisbet concludes otherwise: ‘Aeneas is an unfulfilled hero, clutching at phantoms, pursuing receding shores, issuing from the Gate of Illusions (6.898), fated to wander but not quite to arrive, not to be found in his city ... but to fall before his time on the barren sand (4.620), in Stoic terminology sometimes proficiens but never perfectus.’

In tune with recent trends, the Readings dwell on the second or Iliad half of Virgil’s Aeneid. Inevitably, this chronicle of savage warfare and political imbroglios has occupied a lesser place in the canon. It is the fall of Troy, the love of Dido and the descent into the Underworld that have informed Western schooling and echo. But as R. D. Williams alerts us, the structural complications and richness of Books VII-XII are of the essence. It is Turnus who is Homeric and a mirroring of Achilles. It is Aeneas who is now a victorious Hector and builder of cities. Yet Aeneas slays the wounded, pleading Turnus in a moment of pure ire. The motives for this almost deliberately archaic act are closely discussed. Honour is at stake (Turnus is adorned with the mortal spoils of Pallas whom he had done to cruel death). But also a sort of desperate sadness, an exhaustion of moral means in the face of a bellicose destiny. As Bowra reminds us, the motif of human sacrifice, of ritual blood-letting where a nation is to be rooted, where laws are to be given, is never very distant from the elegiac civilitas and sophistication of Virgil’s art. And nothing in this book is more finely observed than Williams’s remark that the great topic of Roman guilt, as it arises in the pageant of futurity in Book VI, is left on an unfinished line: proice tela manu, sanguis meus ...

G. N. Knauer opens great doors when he finds the Aeneid ‘marked by an eschatological interpretation of history’. A contrast is to be made with the typological mirrorings between Old and New Testament. It is not only beginnings that are reflected and confirmed:

Aeneas instead unites in his person, in the epic acting in the present, the awful Trojan past – represented for instance in the reliefs of the temple of Juno in Carthage – as well as the glorious Roman future reaching to Augustus. Of course eschatology for a Roman of this period could not mean the same thing as for a Christian, but it could mean the hope that now, at this very moment, in Augustus’s and Virgil’s lifetime, the Golden Age of Saturnus might return. Here too, history is understood as a repetition of things past. The neo-Pythagorean flavour of this conception is, by the way, a distinctive element of the Roman epic.

On how many examination papers yet to come out of Hades will this passage, with its mandarin ‘by the way’, be followed by the Furies’ dictate: ‘Discuss.’

As may be, also, D. C. Feeney’s probings of the ‘Reconciliations of Juno’ (where the plural is crucial). Or Professor West’s robust but not wholly persuasive blast at those who still regard the nature of the Golden Bough and the meaning of Aeneas’s exit from the Underworld through the Gates of Ivory, which are those of falsehood and illusion, as problematic. West lays about him with a Shavian asperity. ‘There are no problems here.’

I hope I have made clear how much knowledge and stimulus can be derived from this gatherum. But the sense of a time-warp remains oppressive. There is hardly a line in this collection which looks beyond the notion of reading familiar to A.C. Bradley. No student, no teacher using Dr Harrison’s guide could even guess that the very concept of ‘readings’ has, during the past thirty years, entered a phase of the most acute critical debate. No hint obtrudes on these donnish findings of the possibility that ‘character’, ‘authorial intention’, ‘truth’, ‘rhetorical stability’, are regarded by the most challenging of modern readers and interpreters as suspect or illusory. I believe that post-structuralist and deconstructionist hermeneutics and theories of insignificance are fundamentally erroneous. I take them to be the satyre play and epilogue after the great motions of nihilism in Nietzsche and in Freud. But such a belief must be argued, and argued stringently. The provocations of the ‘anti-readings’ of poetic texts to be found in Barthes or Derrida or De Man are not only of formidable ingenuity. They are radically fruitful. The exercise of refutation, the reaffirmation of the meaning of meaning, must throw fresh, rigorous light on the very act of reading, on the very idea of the classic canon. Together with the absence of women’s voices, the total innocence (or cosy arrogance?) of these ‘Oxford Readings’, in the face of what is most energetic and, in its own way, serious in the entire modern tenor of critical, hermeneutic sensibility, leaves one at a loss. And should leave exasperated the audience at which it aims.

Not that the undergraduates and sixth-formers addressed by Harrison get much help even in traditional guise. There is no index. Contributors are not identified beyond their names. Depending on the article, we read ‘Vergil’ or ‘Virgil’. Some contributors translate Latin citations, others do not. The numerous learned journals adverted to in the footnotes are given only their initial-letter titles. No identifying list is provided. In other words, these pieces have simply been reprinted from the relevant journal or book. No editing whatever has occurred. The adjective ‘lachrymable’ makes a brief appearance in English around 1490. In a Virgilian context. Perhaps it ought to be reinvoked.