As an undergraduate student I didn’t study reception in any formal way, although I did write an ‘optional dissertation’ — slightly eccentrically and without any supervision whatsoever — on Keats and Virgil. My dual interests in Classics and English first came together formally in my PhD, when I investigated Ben Jonson’s relationship with the works of Horace.
I’m now a Senior Lecturer in Latin Language and Literature at King’s College London. Most of my teaching is ‘straightforward’ classics teaching – text, language and literature modules in Latin and Greek. Several of my modules have some reception element, usually towards the end, though I also teach a dedicated neo-Latin module at MA level.
The bulk of my research is concerned with the Greek and Roman classics and early modern poetry, to start with mostly in English – especially Jonson and Donne. I continue to publish in this area, but now work increasingly on neo-Latin poetry – that is, original Latin poetry written in this period. Neo-Latin poetry is a very ‘European’ literature, so although I have a particular interest in British Latin authors I’ve also worked on Latin poets from elsewhere in Europe. Classical reception is central to both of these areas but it is far from the whole story, and although the classical poets I care most about – especially Horace, Virgil and Pindar — have often been the starting point of my research, I try to make sure it is never the ending point.
I have also published occasionally on more traditional Latin literature topics (such as Statius’ Achilleid); and a second ‘sub-theme’ in my research is work on modernist poetry in English, including Basil Bunting, C. H. Sisson, Robert Duncan and Thom Gunn.
In my particular field – that of classical reception in early modern literature – by far the greatest practical challenge is a linguistic one: you can’t work meaningfully in this field without very good Latin, even if writings in Latin aren’t your main focus. For neo-Latin literature, the challenges are greater still. The linguistic demands in this field are very high (because so little has been edited or translated), but so too are the rewards. There are still so many major Latin poets, as well as Latin works by major vernacular poets, which have attracted almost no commentary at all.
But there is also a major question for those who work on neo-Latin literature as to where the field belongs, amongst our sharply demarcated disciplines. If you try to comment upon Campion’s Latin poetry without a very good knowledge of Ovid, for instance, you will struggle to make any sense of it at all; but on the other hand, if you know nothing about sixteenth century poetry as a whole – in both Latin and vernacular languages, in both England and the continent – you might end up saying some pretty silly things about Campion. And there are authors much more problematic than Campion – a poet like Cowley or Chaloner, for instance, writes in difficult Latin with no available translation and in large-scale forms for which there are no obvious analogues in the English poetry of the time. But they are writing, too, in distinctly British Latin.
But classical reception in itself is not what motivates me. My own private sense is that I work on poetry, regardless of language. Understanding and explaining the mystery of how great poetry works is what I care about. I’m also fascinated by the organisation of language itself: the techy bits of Classics, including grammar, syntax and metre. Whereas such matters tend to be ‘transparent’ in prose literature, poetry pushes against and tests these structures all the time. I’m also interested in the different sensitivities we have to poetry in our mother tongue, and poetry in a language that we’ve acquired. George Steiner once wrote that anyone who claims to work on comparative literature should always be learning a language. I’ve tried to live by this rather demanding maxim, though not always with complete success!
Some advice for graduates with similar interests to me:
1. Anyone wanting to work on classical reception in early modern literature needs – and I’m afraid there is no getting around this — excellent Latin, and actually probably much better Latin than those working on most topics in the classical period. If you can get really good at Latin then huge vistas of early modern culture suddenly open up to you. You will also need to have a really good understanding of Christianity – scripture, doctrine and devotional practice.
2. On the whole I would say – to specialise in classical reception you shouldn’t necessarily assume that the best route is a qualification in classical reception. You might be better off – especially if you are clear about the general period or areas of your interest – in a qualification that addresses the aspect in which you have least grounding. So, for someone with a Classics BA, an MA in the later period; for a historian or English literature BA, a qualification in Classics.
3. Aim to match your teaching experience to the kind of job you want at the end – I think this matters more than the department in which you do your PhD. If you know you want to work in a classics department in the end, do Latin or Greek language teaching if you possibly can, simply to show that you can. This is particularly important for anyone working on a topic that is not obviously very language based.
4. If your research is very interdisciplinary – so could fit in in more than one department – it’s important to think realistically about the differences in teaching. I don’t think my research would be very different if I were in an English literature department, but the kind of bread-and-butter teaching you do is very different in English as opposed to Classics – text classes and language teaching in Classics as opposed to, say, a survey of the novel in English. It wasn’t until I was interviewing for lectureships that I finally made up my mind between the two, and I was very lucky to get a one-year Classics lectureship at Cambridge despite a PhD and JRF in English. I think it helped that I had always taught Latin and Greek language – right through my PhD and post-doc years. This is a good tactical move for anyone working mostly on reception I think, given that most classics jobs still want to be sure that you can cover standard text and language teaching.
You can hone your scholarship by reading other scholars; but critical judgment only comes from reading literature, thinking and talking about it. Equally, if poetry is what you care about, being a scholar is a respectable and satisfying way to make a living out of it; but it’s hardly the only option. I think there is a lot of misplaced romanticism and competitive suffering in academia. Don’t put becoming an academic above what made you want to be an academic in the first place (whether that’s a passion for teaching, for research, for grammar or for literature). All those guiding motivations can be satisfied in other roles as well.