- The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Volume 4: 1790-1880 ed. by Norman Vance and Jennifer Wallace
The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature is an ambitious project that aims to record and investigate in five hefty tomes the manifold and significant ways in which writers in English have engaged with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome from the Middle Ages to the present day. The volume under review is the fourth in the series and covers the period 1790–1880. As such, it includes discussions of all five authors profiled in this journal: John Keats, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Leigh Hunt. I will therefore concentrate my assessment on what the volume contributes to our understanding of these figures and the environment in which they wrote.
The two chapters likely to be of most immediate interest to readers of this journal are Timothy Webb's "The Unexpected Latinist: Byron and the Roman Muse" and Jennifer Wallace's "The Younger Romantics: Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Shelley." As one would expect of scholars of this stature, these chapters are rigorously researched, elegant, and illuminating. In keeping with the general practice of the volume, we are told about the differing levels and kinds of classical education these figures received, about the forms in which they continued to encounter classical antiquity thereafter, about other artistic, historical, and political pressures that shaped their literary responses, and about those responses themselves. This multifaceted approach enables Webb and Wallace to highlight what is distinctive about the individual authors and works they discuss, as well as what they share in common with others. Webb's primary argument is that Roman antiquity played a more important role in Byron's thinking than is commonly acknowledged, and that he took pride in basing his views on classical antiquity on "observed realities" rather than "the distanced abstractions of art" as did many of his contemporaries. Wallace grounds much of her discussion, meanwhile, on the contention that it was the ending of the Napoleonic Wars that established the conditions within which the second-generation Romantics came to distinguish their response to Greece from that of the first-generation Romantics—and above all from Wordsworth.
These two chapters, in short, provide excellent go-to places for those wishing to introduce themselves to the reception of classical culture among the second-generation Romantics or to find its key characteristics pinpointed and analyzed in relatively concise form. Buttressed as they are by extensive footnotes and subject-specific bibliographies, they make readily available several avenues of further enquiry into how these writers experienced and expressed their Greek and Roman heritage. This, though, is by no means where the value of this volume runs out for anyone interested in these authors and their reception of classical culture. Of equal value is the meticulous and exemplary way in which the volume traces two much broader and longer narratives, cognizance of which [End Page 155] should inform any attempt to make sense of the Romantics' engagements with classical antiquity. The first of these is the story of how Keats, Byron, Hunt, and the Shelleys responded to earlier receptions of classical culture and thereby set the agenda for how several of their contemporaries and successors would in turn respond to that culture. The second is the story of the variety of forms classical antiquity takes in its reception and, thus, of the variety of ways in which one can "do" (which is to say both study and produce) classical reception.
The second of these stories is outlined in the editors' introduction and exemplified in more detail in the individual chapters. Taken as a whole, the volume illustrates how Greece rose to greater prominence during this period without ever entirely displacing Rome, how the fortunes of individual classical authors and genres rose and fell, how classics as a discipline became increasingly specialized even as technological and other developments made classical culture available to...