- The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton
In this book, Warner attempts nothing less than a new history of the epic tradition in the Renaissance, focused on the role of Augustine, which has not, he argues, been adequately recognized in previous scholarship. Warner's story begins, as it must, with the Secretum, where Augustine, we recall, confronts Petrarch and urges him to free himself of the two chains that bind him to life on earth, his love for Laura and his love for the fame that accompanies his literary achievements, one of the most important of which is his unfinished Latin epic, the Africa. Augustine is apparently successful in the first case, but not the second, for although Petrarch concedes that he should do as Augustine urges, he instead continues to work on the Africa in the hopes that his poem can turn the accomplishments of the Romans to Christian ends and make literary achievement into a path that leads to salvation. As Augustine constructed an account of his life that was plotted against the Aeneid, so "the Africa represents Petrarch's bid to compose the epic plot of a life journey that is at once Vergilian and Augustinian." Augustine and Virgil remain at the center of Warner's story, which extends "through late Renaissance commentaries on the Aeneid to Gerusalemme liberata and through the two Neo-Latin Christiads to Paradise Lost" (5). In other words, instead of approaching Tasso and Milton through vernacular epic or through direct comparison to their classical models, Warner begins with the Neo-Latin poems and commentaries that linked Renaissance readers to the classical past and explores the ways in which the Augustinian tradition affects how these works were used.
Warner's alternative literary history proceeds down two paths. The first one ends up with Tasso, via the allegorical epic, which works demonstratively, [End Page 839] presenting an allegory of the journey from a life of earthly pleasure to a life of heavenly contemplation. The examples used are the Africa, read as Petrarch suggested it should be read; the Aeneid, as explicated by medieval and Renaissance allegorical commentaries; and the Gerusalemme liberata, read in light of the Virgilian commentaries of Tasso's day and of Tasso's own "Allegory of the Poem." The second path ends up with Paradise Lost, via the biblical epic, which works rhetorically, using seduction and persuasion to prompt responses that will guide their readers from the earthly to the heavenly, from sin to grace. Both allegorical and biblical epic, it turns out, use similar patterns of organization and figuration to similar ends, and each relies on an allusive poetics that informs the other.
It is not possible, of course, to attend to the details of the argument in a short review. But I can attest that this is a learned, intelligent book, one that blends boldness of vision with the hard textual and bibliographical work on which enduring scholarship rests. Neither the decision to devote more attention to Virgil's Renaissance commentators, nor the focus on the Christiads of Marco Girolamo Vida and Alexander Ross, involves brilliant new critical insight: several recent studies on Shakespeare, for example, have returned to Virgil through his fifteenth-century commentator Cristoforo Landino, and the poems of Vida and Ross have long appeared in lists of intertexts for Paradise Lost. Warner's achievement is to pull both of these critical strains into the Augustinian tradition, and to trace them through such Augustinian motifs as the two Venuses, the earthly city and its heavenly counterpart, and so forth. As a result, The Augustinian Epic ends up engaging with both modern scholarship and its Renaissance predecessors in some surprising ways: the Virgilian commentary of Giovanni Fabrini, for example, returns to something of its old prominence, and Warner finds in the Neo-Latin epics an unexpected source for the reading process that Stanley Fish attributed to Milton some forty years ago, in which biblical epics stimulate inappropriate responses in their readers in order to correct their errors and...