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This item is taken from PN Review 131, Volume 26 Number 3, January - February 2000.

Penguin Classics, born out of a spectacular and unanticipated best-seller, E.V.Rieu's Odyssey, are relaunched for the millennium. The list has never been richer. A handsome dedicated catalogue divides the veritable library into periods and cultures; it is heartening to reflect that the programme is not like old J.M.Dent's welcome but seemingly opportunistic Everyman classics, which grew into the expiration of copyright. This is proper publishing, with editions updated, new translations commissioned, old editions corrected and reset, and where necessary royalties and fees paid.

Doubtless Penguin Classics is subject to the usual commercial pressures, but somehow it has escaped - though sometimes narrowly - the kinds of rationalisation which have impoverished similar programmes elsewhere. Reading one of the excellent Plutarchs, I reflected on the nature of the gifts with which Seamus Heaney in Beowulf, Ted Hughes in Ovid, Eavan Boland in her allusions and adaptations of Virgil, C.H. Sisson in Lucretius and Dante, Richard Wilbur and Edwin Morgan in Racine, and many others endow us as we cross into tomorrow. 'The thirty-oared galley in which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned safely,' Plutarch reports, 'was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius of Phalerum [317-307 BC]. At intervals they removed the old timbers and replaced them with sound ones, so that the ship became a classic illustration for philosophers of the disputed question of growth and change, some of them arguing that it remained the same, and others that it became a different vessel.'

In Heaney's bestselling Beowulf the English timbers he trims for the funeral barge are from a different forest. The question must arise, not least at a time of philological impoverishment like the present: what authority does this new translation have? What authority does Hughes's Ovid and Logue's Homer possess? Will these familiar and yet restructured ships prove seaworthy? Do they live as English poetry or are they translations of and for this age only?

In the wake of the restoration (in English) of the 'thirtyoared ships' of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Anglo Saxon literature, will historians and critics be inspired to sail, to recontextualise this growing flotilla, so that a range of inspired new translations becomes available, and as we read Plutarch in accessible forms we can access North's versions with greater ease, and read our way into Shakespeare's use of Plutarch, too; and of Ovid and Virgil? Students of poetry have now heard of Ovid and Beowulf and are less reluctant to listen to the names and translated voices of other strangers. How long will this bias in favour of translation persist? The new old books apparently sell. Will readers be sufficiently inspired to struggle once more with Latin itself, Greek itself, with Old English? Will the secondary school curriculum be re-adjusted (assuming teachers can be found) so that children can rediscover what their grandparents had by right and what their parents were denied?

The age of the pedant was not a wholly unfruitful one. When fragments of early poetry survive, it is often thanks to him, to the dry grammarian for example, who illustrated various usages, dialects, curious features, by quotation from what were to him classic texts that now, apart from those fragments of quotation, have vanished. But what would our pedant have chosen for examples? The odd, the perfected or the 'characteristic' usage, but seldom the run, the extended passage. In the fragments that survive we have a welcome abundance, but also censorship by context.

Plutarch uses poets as historic witnesses as a matter of course; if a king or tyrant was a poet, as in the case of Solon, he uses the verse for evidence. He believed in poetry as a repository of fact, whatever its formal qualities might be, rather than a repository for the parallel narratives of the imagination. There are, too, the powerful verse inscriptions set up on commemorative stones and monuments on the seashore, in the city, on the mountainside, which Plutarch quotes - from the reigns of Theseus, Solon, Themistocles and even 'uncultured' Cimon.

Game, set and match, then, to the ancients. The decade, century and millennium end in Britain with Beowulf, Ovid, Virgil, Homer and other classics alive and well enough, as widely read as ever. In the wake of the unfortunate defeat of the Modernism that breathed life back into our poetry in the 'teens of the twentieth century, there are still poets with the linguistic skill and the formal invention to wrest legitimate fire from millennium-old legitimators, the writers who established and extended the genres within which subsequent poets worked and were judged, until the authority of the genres themselves was cast in doubt. The name of that doubt is Post-Modernism, and it too has its term.

Latin and Greek were made optional years ago. In most British universities, Anglo Saxon is no longer compulsory in the study of English literature. It survives in Cambridge as in Manchester as a separate discipline. Most of the serious work in Anglo Saxon studies is now conducted in the United States. Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf in response to a Norton Anthology editor's commission. This editor seemed to believe, even in the teeth of the end of the twentieth century, that English literature begins in Old English.

Latin and Greek are now generally either/or in British schools, if Greek is available at all; they too are ebbing or have ebbed away from the universities whose foundations they were. The United States offers a different picture: as with Anglo Saxon, the study of the classics is not chalk dust, tedious rote, set exercises. These disciplines are pursued with a candour and curiosity they did not elicit in, say, E.M. Forster's time at Cambridge when they were muzzled and tamed. Quite apart from the adjustments of ear and eye that occur when a reader encounters classical Greek poetry, there is that potent otherness of the informing culture, its certainties, priorities and prejudices, which plays against the prejudices and predispositions of our own. Poets like Anne Carson and Guy Davenport alert us to this otherness.

Some poets are, unpolemically and passionately, fighting the corner of the classics even as the classics in this country lose their institutional centrality - their institutional home. In this respect Ted Hughes and C.H. Sisson, ChristopherLogue and Seamus Heaney, Christopher Middleton and Guy Davenport, are legislators (unacknowledged), providing the living examples. Their advocacy through embodiment, which is what good translation can be, provides pre-political materials from which educators can make a political case.

If the political case is made, and if it prospers, the cultural change will not necessarily be a gradual revival of the traditional 'philological disciplines'. What could be more exhilarating, given the new technologies and the power and speed they put at our disposal for research, analysis and verification, than such a recrudescence? It need not be rote, gobbets, Churchill into Latin, Greek hexameters at ten paces. Reviving the classics through the new technologies requires new forms of discipline, but one thing is certain: the dead languages are no more dead than the serviceable, inaudible 'languages' with which computers chat to one another before transmitting living, or at least electrified, word.

Correction, then. Game, set and match to the electronic media. The decade, century and millennium end with a downloadable Beowulf, Ovid, Virgil, Homer and other classic texts. Electronic texts within which searches can be made, manuscripts and editions compared. One can riffle through a veritable Bodley in the privacy of one's room. The great ally the classics have as they fight their way back from a brink even more precipitous and terminal than the one they tottered on in the seventh century is the electronic media, the most generous and democratic mode of memory ever devised, a rich and randomly accessible collective unconscious humming in the corner of the room.


This item is taken from PN Review 131, Volume 26 Number 3, January - February 2000.

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