CUP (2019) h/b 270pp £75.00 (ISBN 9781108493864)
For any classicist with limited knowledge of sixteenth-century love poetry, this volume is a treasure trove of quirky details. From Jonson’s satirical Poetaster, in which Ovid and Augustus’ daughter Julia are cast as Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene, to Aretino’s rewriting of Aeneid IV as a cautionary tale told by a prostitute to her daughter, there are classical receptions to amuse, fascinate and prompt future research.
However, the collecting of interesting examples is not G.’s purpose in this volume. Her focus is on offering an in-depth analysis of a few chosen texts, in order to highlight the complex web of classical influences and intertextualities at work in the Renaissance—none of which are linear, straightforward or easy to unpack.
The book is divided into five main chapters. Chapter 1 focuses generally on the transmission and reception of Roman poetry during the Renaissance, and on the status of Roman elegy (also including Catullus) as classroom texts. It also discusses the intriguing question of whether Sulpicia was thought of as being a woman elegist, or whether she was seen as a persona of Tibullus—a question to which there is no clear answer, since the earliest commentators make no reference to her sex at all.
The following four chapters offer case studies, with each one presenting an in-depth discussion of the connections between a chosen Latin text or theme and its Renaissance reception by a specific poet. Throughout, there is a strong focus on women and constructions of gender. Chapter 2 looks at ‘Women’s Words’, with a focus on Catullus’ Lesbia and Thomas Wyatt’s ‘Lesbia’ in terms of their unreliability and the construction of masculinity around them. Chapter 3 focuses on Propertius’ Cynthia and subversive influences in Astrophil and Stella. The next chapter compares authority and impotence in Ovid’s Amores with Donne and Nashe; while the final case study looks at the writing of women, connecting Sulpicia with Mary Sidney and Mary Wroth.
This volume is by no means a broad survey of the relationship between Roman elegy and Renaissance poetry—and G. presents this as an important methodological choice. She points out that ‘attempts to consolidate and unify may succeed, unintentionally, in flattening out differences and variations’, and shows how her tightly focused approach can draw attention to the richness of those differences and variations. As such it is a thought-provoking study, rather than a place to look for a grounding in Renaissance classical reception.
G. also challenges the theorising of reception studies within Classics. Her suggestion is that reception could be more ‘historicised’, with closer attention paid to the intricacies of reception practices within a particular time or culture, and specifically to the ways in which Roman erotic poetry became ‘Englished’ during the Renaissance.
G.’s in-depth comparative approach makes a strong case for focusing on individual receptions, with all their depth and intricacy, to draw attention to the nuanced understanding of Renaissance writing. But perhaps the most enjoyable thing about this volume is the author’s delight in the poetry she presents to the reader, which is described within the space of a couple of pages as ‘exuberant’, ‘un-anxious’, ‘creative’ and ‘confident, even blasé’, with an ‘untroubled “pick-and-mix” approach’ to reception that is ‘programmatically promiscuous’. For G., Renaissance classical reception is a playful and imaginative adventure—and her enthusiasm carries the reader along.
At a print price of £75, this may be a volume for library use—but for anyone interested in extending or challenging definitions of classical reception, it is well worth a read.
Cora Beth Knowles