- Optimism and the Pessimism of the Harvard School:Contrasting Perspectives
My very first lecture as an undergraduate and my earliest introduction to Vergil came from the Vergilian scholar and very eccentric man W. F. Jackson Knight in 1960. He wore white gloves, a bow tie, and a monocle clenched in one eye from which a grand loop of a chain hung from his waistcoat pocket. He had already written his Penguin translation of the Aeneid and before that his Roman Vergil—he told me in six weeks in total—some of it in the summer of 1939 when he was expecting military appointment, the rest in the ensuing winter.1 The range of his book on Vergil is immense and his chapters on "Tradition and Poetry," "Form and Reality," and "Language, Verse, and Style" are famous for his focus on how Vergil's mind worked, fusing and blending past poetry by a poetic process of integration. In the third of these chapters, Jackson Knight (known to his students as JK) focused upon the semantic penumbrae of individual Vergilian words and phrases and whole passages. He showed how Vergil worked to give new meaning to inherited poetry. Today it is called intertextual criticism. In lectures he compared Vergil's art to the sorcerer's refrain in the story of Aladdin's lamp, "new lamps for old, new lamps for old!" His point was that Vergil really could, by the mere hint of a word or a phrase, turn old poetry into new and imbue age-old traditions with new meaning.
Jackson Knight preceded this by demonstrating the same poetic process of integration and fusion in respect to traditions, detailing the layers of thought and emotion that went into, for instance, Vergil's creation of [End Page 57] the tragedy of Dido's love (1966: 125–31). He saw Vergil's manner of integrating themes in the grand structure as a process of alternation and reconciliation between conflicting forces. But in the Georgics, reconciliation was not quickly reached, as Vergil had to take account of conflicts in the form of wars and plagues and was ready "to face the tragic vision, and take the tragic way" (152). In the Aeneid, too, the Roman world "had to grow to the universe of human suffering and human hope" (153). The fall of Troy in the second book is a tragedy of a world, and of war. But then Venus appears, and her star (2.694), bringing hope out of horror. The tragedy that befalls Dido is a tragedy of an individual and love, leaving a solution "less of hope than despair" (172). Nevertheless, Jackson Knight warned against what he saw as the danger of taking the small things as mattering more, and of regarding the grand structure as of no use at all unless words and phrases (to which he should have added events) are all perfect poetry (149). Roman Vergil, as we have seen, was written in the throes of World War II. Jackson Knight saw the collapse of civilization as the predominant obsession in Vergil's day, and he endorsed the view that Vergil was hopeful for humanity (165): eventually a new world is born, the Julian family emerges from the darkness, and Turnus passes into the shadow (224).
Roman Vergil made Jackson Knight a prominent figure in British culture, and he was instrumental in the foundation of the British Virgil Society, which he thought "might be made to link Vergil to the growing problems of the modern world." He shared the thought that in war-torn Europe Vergil may have a message for the modern world: the poet of war with a vision for peace. He was offered the first presidency and accepted, but on condition that the poet T. S. Eliot (who had approved the publication of his book for Faber and Faber, where it was published in 1944) took it first—in deference, as his brother G. Wilson Knight tells us in his biography,2 to the fact that "Eliot was already a figure of renown in the literary world." And so in 1944 Eliot gave the first presidential address of the new Society, entitled "What...