“…it was a sign that the creative spark was fading.”

We should try to keep the different meanings of ‘classical’ distinct, but they easily bleed into one another. It should be clear from this book that plenty of ancient literature is ‘romantic’, in any of the senses of another elusive word. At the end of a survey of classical antiquity we may also be sturck by how original are all its greatest writers. This is worth stressing, as the idea is around that the ancients were not so much concerned with originality. it is commonly said that these authors were keenly conscious of the genres in which they worked, and of the rules or at least the expectations that each genre brought with it. There is a kernel of truth in this, but the ‘rules’ of genre should be understood as a description of those ways of writing which authors found congenial and rewarding, not as a set of pre-existent commands that authors felt obliged to obey. (One might compare a modern genre, the Hollywood epic, which has some familiar rules or conventions, but only because some cultural authority has imposed them.) Whenever rules hardened into commands (and this did happen sometimes in antiquity), it was a sign that the creative spark was fading. As we have seen, Latin literature as a whole was secondary, written under the shadow of Greece, but the best Latin writers are the ones who found ways of being original despite this.

And these are the truths that the great spirits of later centuries understood. Shakespeare and Milton, the architects of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, Titian and Tintoretto did not find that their classical sources inhibited them; rather, they stimulated our parents, and on the whole they have been good parents. The healthy fledgling quits the nest, and it is among the achievements of the best ancient authors that, properly appreciated, they have enabled us to fly free.”

-Richard Jenkyns, Classical Literature. 

BookTuber Tuesday – Starting the Classics


[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]

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“So the Iliad is not in fact the story of the Trojan War”

“So the Iliad is not in fact the story of the Trojan War, but of one short episode within its ten-year length. After Homer, the work was divided into twenty-four books. Books 2 and 23 of the Iliad cover a period of only three days; the first and last books extend the whole action to a few weeks. Such expansiveness seem to make Wagner feel terse; yet Matthew Arnold, poet and critic, famously described Homer as ’eminently rapid’. This is true in two senses. Although the grand narrative unfolds across an immense distance, the battle scenes are multiplicity of small incidents; there is no lingering. The speeches too are fast and forceful; the longest of them, Achilles’ explosion in Book 9, is furious in its pace….”  – Classical Literature, Richard Jenkyns, 2016.

On Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

“It is hard to be sure how much Ovid is in control of his own effects. Is it that he cannot resist a clever turn of phrase, as some readers already thought in antiquity? Or is it the ethos of the poem that cheerfulness should keep breaking in? But perhaps this uncertainty is part of the tease.

The Metamorphoses was very widely read in the Middle Ages and after, and it thus became for many centuries Europe’s chief source for classical mythology: Ovid’s, essentially, are the gods who crowd those Renaissance canvases and sprawl across those Baroque ceilings. It is easy, therefore, to get the impression that classical mythology was normally like this, but it was no. Ovid’s way of handling the gods was new. We have seen Aristophanes making fun of them, but still with the sense that at the back of it all that they are real and powerful beings. Ovid turns them into counters in a game’ he invites the reader, as a sophisticate like himself, to look down upon them, a little as Theocritus invited his friend to look down on Polyphemus, but with less human sympathy. The game is to suck all the numen out of them. An Olympian god is turned into an awkwardly boastful swain, a goddess into a naive ingenue.

Some of the humour is cheerfully broad. When Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, he suggests to her that if she runs more slowly he will pursue more slowly too; it is as though the pursuit were a game played for the reader’s amusement. (Ovid also notices that she looks even prettier in flight.) Apollo also boasts of the important places where is is worshiped and points out that Jupiter is his father. Jupiter himself, courting the maiden Io, observes that he is not one of your plebeian gods but the one who holds the sceptre and launches the thunderbolts. Sometimes the humour is slyer: when one of the nymphs, ravished by a god, becomes pregnant, the virgin goddess Diana is too innocent to realize what has happened. Ovid adds wryly, ‘The nymphs are said to have noticed.’

His account of Daedalus and Icarus shows his narrative at its most engaging. The tale of the youth who flew too high, so that the wax of his wings melted and he fell to his death, lends itself to either of two morals: on disobedience (his father, Daedalus, had told him not to), or on pride (flying too high). For a moment it seems that Ovid will take the moral path: Daedalus tells his son to take the middle course, for whereas the sun is a danger if he goes too high, if he goes too low over the sea the spray will weigh the wings down. This sounds like a metaphor for the idea of virtue as the mean between two opposite virtues. But Ovid gestures at this possibility only to toss it aside. He makes Icarus a child, an innocent: the picture of him getting in his inventor father’s way as he works on the wings in charmingly done. And Icarus flies high because he is ‘touched with desire for heaven’; that is sheer glorious aspiration, and we can hardly resist it. But as we are preparing to shed a tear Ovid suddenly turns the tale into a just so story (why the partridge flies low to the ground), and Daedalus turns from sympathetic victim into a past murderer. There was a partridge in a bush by the place where he was burying his son; and by strange coincidence it had previously been his nephew, Partridge, whom he had killed from jealousy by throwing him from the Acropolis in Athens, which is why the bird avoids heights. The switch from heroic myth to animal fable, from sentiment to quaintness, is deliberately incongruous. It is easy to think of a smoother way of moving from Icarus to Partridge, but Ovid prefers the comic deflation.” – Classical Literature, Richard Jenkyns, 2016.