Voices in Conflict
I first came across the Harvard School as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1970s. While studying the Aeneid, I'd come across in the college bookshop a copy of Steele Commager's Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966) in Prentice Hall's Twentieth Century Views series. I was beginning to develop an interest in mapping literary critical approaches, and Commager's book on Horace's Odes had fixed [End Page 88] him in my mind as one of the foremost proponents of New Criticism in the study of Latin poetry. I was therefore keen to see what would be included in a volume on Virgil in an extensive series devoted to "the best in contemporary critical opinion on major authors." Adam Parry's "Two Voices" struck me as the most intriguing essay in the collection, in particular for the meticulous close reading of Aen. 7.759–760 in the opening pages, which seemed all the more poignant given awareness of the tragic circumstances of Parry's own recent death. The memory of first reading Parry is still vivid, but I found it difficult to feel wholly satisfied by his argument, and not simply because it transpired that these were the last days of the dominance of New Criticism and its default formalism.
Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s was to become conscious of how contested history was. To hear accounts of the same event in the news bulletins of the Irish broadcaster RTE and Britain's BBC was to hear two very different, and not easily reconciled, voices—itself a day-by-day education in the contrasting perspectives generated by different historical narratives and traditions; the political nuances of a language and its terms seemingly shared (thus what constitutes peace, how is it achieved, and from whose perspective?); and divergent notions of how the world worked, usually inexplicit and perhaps unconsciously held. These considerations were relevant to my reading not only of the Aeneid, but of literary accounts of it as well. The dynamism at the start of Parry's reading gave way for me to a conclusion that seemed inadequate to the tensions that he had so thoughtfully unfolded: "The Aeneid enforces the fine paradox that all the wonders of the most powerful institution the world has ever known are not necessarily of greater importance than the emptiness of human suffering." I was not sufficiently equipped at the time to define what it was about the rhetoric of this closing sentence that disappointed me. I read Frank Kermode's The Classic (1975) shortly afterwards, and felt that it was a profoundly important book for the way it explored the poem's engagement not only with history but in history, and that Kermode's perspective was addressing in some way the dissatisfaction I had felt with Parry. However, its influence on me was postponed, as I could not easily place it within the interpretative approaches my philological training had provided me. That had to wait for the well-fuelled lucubrations I enjoyed in Bristol with Charles Martindale as we discussed the challenges (methodological and metaphysical) that reception studies, with their emphasis on the historicity of contexts of reading, not least one's own, pose to interpretative practice. [End Page 89]
These issues continue to exercise me, as my most recent engagement with the Aeneid in the second chapter of my Antiquity and the Meanings of Time (2013) shows. I don't mention Parry there, but he memorably developed for his moment and his context, and for me, an agenda about the relationship of aesthetics and politics. Students in my classes on the Aeneid will recall me juxtaposing his essay with Walter Benjamin's dictum from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" that "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," followed by the injunction "Discuss!" This they duly did, with results for all concerned that were never less than interesting.