Scholia Reviews ns 5 (1996) 5.

Theodore Ziolkowski, Virgil and the Moderns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Pp. xv + 273. ISBN 0-691-03248-3. US$35.00.

Bernhard Kytzler
University of Natal, Durban

Here we are presented with a book that will provide all of us with brilliant quotations for the rest of the millennium. The best of them concerns a famous professor who advises the author of what is to become an important book not to submit it as a doctoral thesis for the following reason: 'The standards of a D.Litt. are purely academic and bear no relation to the cultural value of a work' (p. 131). What a golden word of wisdom! Where else does one find such a poignant clarification of the antagonism between 'purely academic' standards and 'cultural values'? It was Sir Maurice Bowra who made it clear to Jackson Knight where the place of his Roman Virgil was - and where not.

The second best is the opening sentence of the preface: 'Virgil is too important to be left to the classicists' (p. ix). Not to confuse any of his readers, Ziolkowski goes on to clarify immediately that he intends no disrespect for classics scholars and that he rather feels that the general public would suffer an inestimable loss if Virgil were left to the classicists or to the 'canon' (p. ix). As he goes on to prove, the Roman poet provides 'the patterns, the images, the values, the very words that inform many central works of American, English, French, German, Italian and other literatures of the twentieth century' (p. x).

Who, then, are the intended readers? Paradoxically enough, the classicists. Who else, if not they, are able to master the quatre langues which are used throughout the book? Already the motto (Mis noches esta/n llenas de Virgilio) is Spanish, taken from Jorge Luis Borges' Al idioma alema/n, and it is only 8 pages later that this line is en passant translated into the English. Further down, in addition to Spanish, the reader will also use his French, German, Italian and Afrikaans to savour the flavour of all the subtleties in the translations compared, be it Paul Vale/ry vs. Publius Maro or Rudolf Alexander Schroeder vs. Theodor Haecker. Thus, he will be introduced to the delicacies of the French Bucoliasts, the German Millennialists, the Italian Hermeticists and the Modern British Georgicists. He will face the proto-Fascist Virgil and the proto-Christian Virgil, study the Annus Mirabilis Virgilianus and meet Aeneas Americanus. Then there are 'The Case of T.S.Eliot' (pp. 119-129) and 'The Case of Hermann Broch' (pp. 203-222). And there is much much more: on the ancient vitae, on the bimillennial celebrations, on 'The Roman Analogy in Modern Thought' and on 'Virgil in a Post-Virgilian Age'. The breadth of the panorama is breath-taking, the thesaurus of information overwhelming.

The structure strikes me as logical but uneven. The seven chapters of the work proceed (after an introduction and a chapter on 'Ideological Lives') from the Continent (where Italy has 9 pages and Germany 12) to Britain (47 pages) and the New World (48 pages); finally there is a chapter on 'Virgil redivivus' and a 'Conclusion'. But it is not quantity which is important, but quality, and here Ziolkowski meets the highest standards. The way he explains Ungaretti or Broch in their relation to Virgil is exemplary. His elucidations on the bimillennial frenzy in the thirties are eye-openers of singular clarity. And as a whole the book is the best presentation of Virgilianism in our time - there is nothing to match it.

Obviously, there is a lot of information based on the Enciclopedia Virgiliana but, since the local library does not hold this standard work, I was unable to check to what extent it was used. But however it might have been collected, the mass of detailed information is impressive. On the other hand, some restrictions become evident. The 'Moderns' of the title relate to literature only; there is no word on paintings or sculptures, on the visual arts or on music. Neither Raffaello nor Berlioz are mentioned. And these 'Moderns' and their activities are not followed further than to around the end of the middle third of this century. To put the matter more precisely: the book is based on the bimillennium of Virgil's birth, but it neglects entirely the bimillennium of Virgil's death. It is on the latter occasion that Werner Suerbaum has given an informative report in which he discusses no less than 16 expositions in Italy, Germany and London.[[1]] Interestingly enough, the title of the first of these is 'Bamberg: Virgil 2000 Jahre. Rezeption in Literatur, Musik und Kunst', whereas the last reads 'Wolfenbuetteler Kunstverein: Virgil Aeneis Buch II Vers 708ff. Der Mensch ist ein Fluechtling auf der Erde.' It becomes evident that attention to the arts and to music as well as a focus on the celebrations of 1981-82 would have yielded a more interesting and wider spectrum.

However one should not complain about what is missing but enjoy what is at hand. At hand is a masterful overview of Virgil's so-called 'influence' or, if you like, Nachleben from the ancient vitae to Hermann Broch's Der Tod des Virgil. For the Middle Ages we still have Comparetti's Virgilio nel Medioevo, recently supplemented by Fabio Stok in his substantial article Virgil between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.[[2]] Ziolkowski's book provides many insights into the ancient poet's followers in our time, some of them doubtful personae, some of them great creators; it also provides a deepened understanding of how 'The Classical Tradition' works in this our strange century.


[[1]] W. Suerbaum, 'Publikationen zu Vergilausstellungen' Gnomon 56 (1984) 208-228.

[[2]] Fabio Stok, 'Virgil between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance', The International Journal of the Classical Tradition 1.2 (1994) 15-22.