Thursday, September 03, 2020


A New Approach to Vergil

Ward W. Briggs, Jr., "Foreword," to Brooks Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry, new ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), pp. vii-xiii (at vii):
Arguably the most important publication of this remarkable, though brief, golden age was Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry, Brooks Otis's first book, published at the age of 55. Even in this sterling crowd, the book's importance was attested almost immediately by lengthy reviews and frequent citations, by Otis' promotion to Olive Palmer Professor of Humanities at Stanford University in 1964, and by the American Philological Association's 1966 Goodwin Award.
Review of the 1963 edition by Georg Luck, "A New Approach to Virgil," Latomus 24.1 (January-March 1965) 128-132 (at 128):
He fails to give a convincing interpretation of the poet, because his approach is too narrow and his interest in the traditional methods of classical scholarship too superficial. He fails because he often projects his own ideas into the text of Virgil and states them as facts. He rejects the views of others and proposes new ones categorically, without discussing the evidence in detail.

André Bellessort and Theodor Haecker, to mention only these two, have written fine books on Virgil without making use of an elaborate scholarly apparatus. One enjoys reading them as one would enjoy conversing on Virgil with a man of taste and culture. But if you claim to write as a scholar — and Mr. Otis does — you must expect to be judged by the standards of scholarship. And if you write a book on Virgil, these standards are high.

In the preface (p. vii), Mr. Otis intimates that he realized after reading the Latin and Greek Fathers of the fourth century, that no classical scholar before had clearly understood « what was the magic in the Latin language and milieu » that made Virgil's achievement possible. This could be a significant discovery, and if Mr. Otis had just expanded this statement, he might have made a contribution, but nowhere in the book does he refer to this again, and neither Augustine nor Ambrose are ever quoted, as far as I can see; they are not even included in the « General Index » (pp. 421-31).
Id. (at 129):
Now and then there are observations on metrics, but they either reflect purely personal impressions or are downright wrong: p. 47 on Aen. 5, 320: « The striking fifth foot spondee here vividly expresses the distance between Salius and Nisus »; p. 114 « Then the 'tear-jerking' synaloephae of vidi ut, perii ut are followed by the inexorable dactyls of me malus abstulit error », on Ecl. 8, 41. There is no synaloepha between perii and ut, and I fail to see why these dactyls should be « inexorable ».
Id. (at 129-130):
While Mr. Otis lacks interest in the proper business of classical scholarship, he shows a regrettable attitude of condescension towards the work of other scholars. What has been done, so far to explain the achievement of Virgil is, according to Mr. Otis, « at best vague and at worst misleading » (p. vii). Richard Heinze, for example, « fails to deal » with something which is « surely ... not in the least doubtful » (p. 264, n. l), and he « quite misunderstood » (p. 355, n. 2; cf. 246, n. 1) or « misinterpreted » (p. 244, n. 1) other problems. Eduard Norden « quite missed » the « literary, poetical and even Roman meaning » of Virgil's underworld in Book VI (p. 290, n. 1). Bruno Snell has « correctly seen the ideal character of Virgil's Arcadia » but added a « quite unnecessary hypothesis » (p. 119, n. 1). No evidence is produced in any of these instances; we just have to take Mr. Otis' word for it. The contributions to the problems of the sixth Eclogue (Franz Skutsch, Günther Jachmann, Zeph Stewart and others) are summarily dismissed (pp. 137, n. 1; 406 f), because these scholars did not (and could not) know the chronological plan of the Eclogues which is proposed by Mr. Otis in this book (pp. 131 ff) and which is — to say the least — improbable. Mr. Otis does not give those men an opportunity to speak for themselves, and he answers none of the arguments which they thought valid. Anyone may sometimes disagree with the most eminent scholars, but Mr. Otis disagrees so often and so emphatically that one registers his reluctance to state any reasons with increasing uneasiness.
Id. (at 130):
We are left with the impression that little work of value has been done on Virgil before Mr. Otis.
Id. (at 131):
This is dangerous: take a number of words, such as « objectivity » and « subjectivity », « continuity », « symbolism », « structure », « Homeric » and « un-Homeric », « ideology », « empathy » and « sympathy », combine them in different ways, and you will have a series of statements on Virgil. Remember certain verbs, such as « editorialize », « subjectivize » (p. 56) and « Augustanize », and avoid the precise word if you can think of two meaning roughly the same thing : « Hellenistic or post-classical » (p. vii); « literary or written style » (p. 3) ; « idea or ideal » (p. 6); « romantic or amatory » (p. 62); « 'model' or at least inspiration » (ibid.) ; « narrative or feeling-tone » (p. 63). If you proceed in this fashion, you may easily lose touch with your text.


On most pages of this book, the reader will find one or several of the following words or phrases : « obviously », « certainly », « undoubtedly », « clearly », « surely », « plainly », « manifestly », « there is every reason to believe », « there is no reason to suppose », etc. We all use these expressions and probably use them too often. But when they appear in such numbers (the reader can easily verify this), they cease to be merely implements of style. They form the picture of a closely reasoned scholarly discourse, based on well-established premises and proceeding logically step by step. This picture is misleading, because most of the things that Mr. Otis calls « certain » and « plain » are far from being plain or certain.
Id. (at 131-132):
At a time when classical studies in many countries fight for their existence, this book with its dogmatic attitude, its unconcern for genuine issues of scholarship, its easy generalizations, its neglect of accepted methods and its loose writing compares unfavourably with much of what students of Virgil have been trying to do in the past and are trying to do now. To many readers who know the great poet and love him, Mr. Otis' Virgil may appear as an unfamiliar and uninteresting figure. By its sheer, relentless effort to arrive at a new image of Virgil by structural analysis, this book is no doubt remarkable, but neither its methods nor its results will find general acceptance.
On the general acceptance of Otis' book, see Briggs (op. cit., p. xi):
The critical reception of the literary judgments in Otis's book was very positive. R.D. Williams called it "a book of outstanding importance in Virgilian studies, and indeed in many aspects of the literary appreciation of Hellenistic Latin poetry."2 Remarking on the debt to Heinze's stylistic analysis and Pöschl's elucidation of structural unity, L.P. Wilkinson credited Otis with "a far more satisfactory and complete exegesis than could be made from a combination of these two."3 Charles Segal set it in the context of current criticism: "It sometimes happens that a single book embodies and, as it were, completes a mood and a direction that have animated a decade or more of scholars working in a given field." For Segal, the value of the book lay in "consolidation, on a large scale, of a number of tendencies in recent critical approaches to Vergil and, second, in his combination of a conventional literary, historical, and philological approach with some contemporary modes of criticism."4

2 Classical Philology 60 (1965): 30.
3 Classical Review 79 (1965): 184.
4 Arion 4 (1965): 126.

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