Please consider registering as a member of the International Spenser Society, the professional organization that supports The Spenser Review. There is no charge for membership; your contact information will be kept strictly confidential and will be used only to conduct the business of the ISS—chiefly to notify members when a new issue of SpR has been posted.

Syrithe Pugh, ed., Conversations: Classical & Renaissance Intertextuality
by Tomos Evans

Syrithe Pugh, ed. Conversations: Classical & Renaissance Intertextuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020. 270pp. ISBN: 9781526152671. £80 hardback.


οἱ δὲ μακρὰν τοῖς τόποις διεστῶτες τοῖς πλεῖστον ἀπέχουσιν ὡς πλησίον παρεστῶσι διὰ τῶν γεγραμμένων ὁμιλοῦσι·


Men widely separated in space hold conversation through written communication with those who are at the furthest distance from them, as if they were at their side.[1]


Conversations is an edited volume of immense interdisciplinary ambition and its contributors collectively offer important and dynamic ways of thinking about intertextuality in Early Modern literature. The contributors (three hailing from Classics and two from English departments) aim to break down the traditional institutional divide between the disciplines of Classics and Renaissance Studies. From the outset of Conversations, Pugh explains that she and all of the contributors feel that such a divide has impeded a full appreciation of how these two disciplines actually form ‘a single object of study’ (2).[2] By approaching their disciplines as, one might say, twins cleaving together, the chapters of Conversations demonstrate the need to move away from the idea of a singular, static, classical ‘tradition’ that is passed on linearly from one author to the next and, instead, approach intertextuality ‘as a lively process of give and take’ (1) between Classical and Renaissance authors.

Chapter 1 is the volume’s introduction, in which Pugh provides a thought-provoking and wide-ranging exploration of ‘conversation’ as an ambitious way of thinking about intertextual processes. As Pugh explains, since the term ‘tradition’ may support ‘something handed down to be preserved unchanged, bringing up in its train unwelcome and inappropriate connotations of ideological conservatism’ (2), she argues that it is more helpful to think about the intertextuality between Classical and Renaissance texts as ‘conversations’. Temporally, Pugh’s conceptualisation of ‘conversations’ between authors spanning millennia – a broadly un-historicist and perennially contemporaneous dynamic between Latin, Greek, and vernacular authors – is akin to Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s theorisation in Anachronic Renaissance (2010) of the complexities of time in Renaissance artworks and texts.[3] Pugh acknowledges that the conversational framework ‘might seem naïvely a-historicist’ (4) since it differs markedly from ‘the rigorous historicism which has enriched our understanding of the period in so much recent criticism’ (4). Here, it seems to me that the explicitly a-historicist framework put forward by Pugh shares important tenets with recent scholarship (both in Classics and Renaissance Studies) on time and classical reception within Queer Theory.[4] In the place of ‘tradition’, Pugh prefers to explore the intertextuality between Classical and Renaissance authors as an ‘open-ended, polyvocal, fractured, dynamic’ (2).

Pugh’s way of seeing ‘conversation’ as an alternative to ‘tradition’, and as a dynamic that she defines as ‘interactive simultaneity’ and ‘paradoxical contemporaneity’ (3) where ‘it no longer matters which poet is considered the original and which the imitator’ (4), finds a parallel in a recent, major edited-volume in Translation Studies. Matthew Reynolds in Prismatic Translation (2019), for example, argues that the traditional paradigm of translation as a ‘single text translated by one person out of one language into one other language’ ought to be reconsidered, offering instead the view of translation as ‘a matter of interactive discovery and co-creation’ between the source-text(s) and translation(s), or ‘a continuum of variation rather than as a collection of bounded entities’.[5] A crucial figure within Pugh’s conceptualisation of intertextuality as ‘conversation’ is Petrarch. Petrarch’s modes of imitating Cicero and Seneca in his letters addressed to them in the Epistolae familiares are presented by Pugh as a vital paradigm that exerts a powerful, long-lasting influence throughout the Renaissance, whereby the intimacy of social, oral communication with figures from the past can be achieved through literary imitation.[6] As she explains, this sense of immediate, intimate conversation is achieved by Petrarch ‘in part by the way in which many of his letters are replete with echoes of the addressees’ own works’ (9).

In Chapter 2, ‘Flying with the Immortals: Reaching for the Sky in Classical and Renaissance Poetics’, Philip Hardie explores poetic flight or anabasis (in contrast to katabasis, a descent to the Underworld) in poetry and art, from Lucretius and Horace to Spenser and Milton, and from Raphael to Ingres. Hardie draws upon several salient arguments from two of his major monographs, Lucretian Receptions (2009) and Rumour and Renown (2012), in this exploration of poetic immortality. As Hardie observes, the train of poetic flight(s) that follow in the wake of Lucretius’ proem to the third book of De rerum natura, where the poet acknowledges that he follows the steps of Epicurus, in turn sets a flexible model for ‘celestial flights that allusively acknowledge their dependence on earlier pioneers of flight’ (32). His chapter can be divided into two halves. The first half (31-40) outlines models for poetic flight in Latin and Italian poetry, and here he expounds the (re)figurations of poetic predecessors’ celestial flights spanning from Lucretius through Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Claudian, Dante and Tasso: a squadron of winged poets that Hardie characterises as ‘a team of poetic Red Arrows’ (53). The second half (40-53) predominantly explores Spenser and Milton’s handling of (and position within) the wake of these Red Arrows’ far-stretching flight path.

For example, in his discussion of Sidney’s apotheosis in Spenser’s The Ruines of Time, Hardie focuses on the nexus of Virgilian allusions in ll.323-343. Hardie carefully delineates the network of allusions to Eclogue 5, Eclogue 6, and Aeneid 6 within Spenser’s portrayal of Sidney in the afterlife where, in the poet’s vision, Sidney will experience a two-fold flow of poetic praise and immortality by ‘being euer song’ (l.338) on earth as well as ‘singing euermore’ (l.337) the songs that he will perform in the Elysian Fields. Hardie shows that, while closely modelled on the fiction of pagan poetry, Spenser’s Christianization of the Classical trope of poetic flight and ensuing literary immortality (and of experiencing celestial singing at the same time as being sung about on earth) ‘is reminiscent of the Christian idea that a saint is alive and present both in heaven, at the right hand of God, and on earth in his relics and shrine’ (42). With respect to Paradise Lost, Hardie’s argument takes its cue from David Quint’s identification of Milton’s extensive allusions to poetic flights.[7] Focusing on Virgilian intertextuality and allusions to Ariosto in Paradise Lost, Hardie explores the numerous, complex, criss-crossing ascents and descents throughout Paradise Lost (though focusing especially on Book 3). For instance, Hardie reflects upon the problematic mirroring of the poet’s own ascents and descents in Paradise Lost with Satan’s. While the poet has been ‘taught by the heavenly Muse to venture down / The dark descent, and up to reascend’ (PL 3.19-20) these vertical movements are reflected in Satan’s ascent through chaos and descent to earth. While Milton follows Aeneas’ footsteps in the Underworld, where the ‘Virgilian descent and re-ascent […] undergoes a Christian metamorphosis’ (49), Satan arrives at the outer sphere of the world: a moment that proleptically looks ahead to Aeneid 8 when Evander reaches Pallanteum, the future site of Rome.

In Chapter 3, ‘In and Out of Latin: Diptych and Virtual Diptych in Marvell, Milton, Du Bellay and Others’, Stephen Hinds offers perceptive readings of Andrew Marvell’s Latin poetry and provides new insights into two Latin translations of Paradise Lost. Hinds’ close readings provide nuanced and highly evocative insights between Paradise Lost, Latin translations of the epic, and Virgil’s Aeneid. In his discussion of Marvell, Hinds argues that the vernacular and Latin versions (like ‘The Garden’ and Hortus) ought to be read as twinned pairs that comment on and editorialise one another. As a classicist, Hinds observes that this poetic phenomenon of the Early Modern period, ‘the high-concept, single-author, poetic diptych’ (56), is very rare in antiquity. Hinds outlines very clearly the intertextual correspondences between Marvell’s Latin poems (namely, Ad Regem Carolum Parodia, Ros, and Hortus) with their key classical models and their English counterparts. An especially riveting discussion is Hinds’ intertextual readings of ‘On a Drop of Dew’ and Ros. Hinds regards these poems as ‘Marvell’s clearest and most closely studied display piece of diptych composition’ (62). Read together, the poems’ depiction of the process of distillation and transformation is reinforced by how the English and Latin poems’ ‘interest[s] in transformation and transcendence can be negotiated through acts of translation’ (62). A particularly astute reading occurs when Hinds argues, in relation to ‘The Garden’ and Hortus, that the physicality in the Latin poem (plantae virides, ‘green plants’) is transformed into a metaphysical terrain as ‘a green thought’ in its vernacular counterpart. As Hinds explains, ‘the change from “green plants” to “a green thought” encapsulates the English poem’s shift from physical to metaphysical – perhaps via the mystical, modern (and non-Roman) mathematics of zero (“annihilating”)’ (64). Hinds veers away from debating the order of composition (did Marvell write the Latin first then the English, or the other way round?). In line with a key point in Pugh’s introduction, he argues that ‘the poems are designed to be simultaneous and interactive’ (64). Rather than a linear process, like the conservative process of ‘tradition’ that Pugh mentions and complicates, Hinds’ reading of Marvell’s Latin and English poems is an excellent example of this volume’s aim to approach intertextuality within a ‘conversational’ framework.

With respect to Milton, Hinds’ discussion of the Latin translation of Paradise Lost begins at PL.4.146-53 when Satan gazes upon the Garden of Eden. Like Marvell’s transformation of the ‘plantae virides’ of a classical, Roman locus amoenus that metamorphoses into ‘a green thought’ belonging to the sphere of metaphysical thinking in seventeenth-century England, Hinds reads a complex temporal and linguistic duality in the ‘lovely […] Lantskip’ (PL 4.152-3) that Satan finds in the Garden of Eden. On the one hand, the ‘lovely landscape’ strongly evokes the classical locus amoenus (with ‘lovely’ closely corresponding to amoenus), yet ‘landscape’ (a recent neologism borrowed from Dutch art terminology) deviates away from the classical locus and points instead towards the contemporary world. Hinds states that, ‘in a virtual Latin version of these English lines, locus amoenus both would and would not be an exact translation of ‘lovely landscape’, probing, more searchingly than the English, the emotional and potentially sexual resonance of ‘lovely’, but missing out on the post-Dutch painterly visuality of the new word ‘landscape’ (landschap)’ (78). This tension is explored in the descriptions of ‘the Cape of Hope’ (PL 4.160) and ‘Mozambic’ (PL 4.161), which are suspended between antiquity and the present day, alluding both to classical literature – the ‘Sabean odours’ of Mozambique are drawn by Milton from the Greek of Diodorus Siculus – as well as deriving details from early modern travel writing. Hinds’ analysis of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Latin translations by Thomas Power (1691) and Michael Bold (1702) shows how such tensions in the Latinate English of Paradise Lost were negotiated by some of Milton’s earliest readers. Far from being dry, academic exercises – like a Gainsford Prize exam in the nineteenth century – Hinds shows that these translations are remarkable (and mostly untapped) sources of valuable Miltonic commentary. This is because they are ‘at once commentary on and complement to Milton’s [Paradise Lost]’ and, most importantly, ‘render concrete the kinds of conversation across codes which are integral to Paradise Lost’ (81). These early translations-cum-commentaries of Paradise Lost, then, are important since they delineate the problems and complexities in the cultural and linguistic code-switching that occurs within the Latinate English of Milton’s verse. Overall, Hinds’ chapter admirably builds on Estelle Haan’s extensive scholarship on Marvell’s Latin poetry and the Latin translations of Milton’s epic.

In Chapter 4, ‘Reviving Lucan: Marlowe, Tamburlaine, and Lucans First Booke’, Emma Buckley explores intertextuality in terms of ‘transfusion’, focusing on Marlowe’s reading, translation, and imitation of Lucan in Tamburlaine and Lucans First Booke, with additional discussion of the anonymous academic drama Caesar’s Revenge and Thomas May’s poetic supplement to Lucan’s epic. Not only is Buckley’s likening of intertextuality to ‘blood-transfusion’ particularly apt for two works that are so awash with blood – Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Lucan’s Bellum Civile – but her study of Marlowe and Lucan provides a visceral analogy to the Petrarchan model of ‘conversation’ (outlined in-depth in the introduction by Pugh) as arising from an intense intimacy with a classical author that is expressed through in-depth imitation. In Marlowe’s case, the complexities surrounding imitation are compounded within Buckley’s readings of Marlowe’s Lucans First Booke where the distinction between Marlowe’s voice and Lucan’s are shown to narrow down to an almost imperceptible degree. This is because Marlowe has ‘drunke [the] latin bloud’ (LFB 9) of Lucan’s poetry so profoundly to the point that his voice and Lucan’s become consanguineous. As Buckley neatly puts it, in the beginning of his translation, ‘the programmatic verb of performance’ becomes truly dual, where ‘Marlowe’s “We sing”, Lucan’s canimus, is now a true plural’ (96).

Buckley’s analysis of Marlowe’s allusions to his own (heavily Lucanian) Tamburlaine within his translation of Book 1 of Lucan’s Bellum Civile is an especially stimulating exploration of intertextual ‘conversation’ as an ‘open-ended, polyvocal, fractured, dynamic’ (Pugh, 2). In Lucans First Booke, Buckley states that ‘Marlowe reanimates Lucans First Booke with his own literary life-blood, transfusing Marlovian imagery of blood with the imagery already to be found in Bellum Civile’ (98). Buckley concludes her chapter by discussing the ways that this blood-trope runs throughout Thomas May’s supplement to Lucan’s famously unfinished epic, where May’s ‘blood image is an equally fitting encapsulation of the conversation between ancient and early modern’ (119).

In Chapter 5, ‘Citizenship and Suicide: Shakespeare’s Roman Plays, Republicanism and Identity in Samson Agonistes’, Helen Lynch explores the intertextual relationship between Milton’s Samson Agonistes and classical and Shakespearean orators and suicides. Lynch’s chapter is divided into three sections and provides an insight into the ongoing research for her forthcoming monograph, Citizenship and Suicide: Republicanism, Oratory and Identity in Shakespeare and Milton. Lynch’s innovative methodology draws just as much upon her practice as a fiction writer as it does on her expertise as a Milton scholar and results in a prioritisation of images: ‘many if not all writers think in images, often associatively, and […] their own preoccupations govern those associations and manifest themselves through imagery’ (122). The most potent images within Lynch’s chapter are those related to sparagmos: the tearing apart of a live victim by maenads, as in the fate of Pentheus and Orpheus. Lynch notes Milton’s ‘apparently lifelong fascination with sparmagos’ that is evident from the recurrence in his writings throughout his career of ‘Orpheus, the singer-poet-orator torn apart by frenzied women’ (149). In her discussion of the Plutarchan, Shakespearean, and other Renaissance sources relating Cicero’s gruesome death, upon which Milton could have drawn in his depiction of Samson, Lynch observes that ‘Plutarch’s account, as Milton would have been aware, has Cicero murdered on the orders of Fulvia, dismembered, his head and hands nailed to the rostrum in the forum – his tongue indeed impaled with Fulvia’s hairpin, in an enduring image of “female usurpation” (SA, 1060), emasculation and silencing’ (148).

Lynch’s chapter also investigates Milton’s political readings of Shakespeare. While work on the recent discovery of Milton’s annotated First Folio have shone new light on his engagement with the poet-playwright, Lynch’s chapter is deeply engaged with scrutinizing whether Milton viewed ‘Shakespeare as a kindred republican spirit as well as a poetic one […] or as an artist from a less enlightened time than his own’ (134).[8] Lynch reaches an answer to this question in her conclusion, observing that ‘it is Shakespeare’s Roman republicans and would-be orators who speak to Milton of the questions of tyranny, freedom, identity, public utterance and individual responsibility’ (176).

In Chapter 6, ‘Adonis and Literary Immortality in Pastoral Elegy’, Pugh builds on her incisive 2016 study Spenser and Virgil by exploring Spenser’s engagement with the Greek pastoral poem, the Lament for Bion. In Spenser and Virgil, Pugh notes that, while following a distinctively Virgilian pastoral career, Spenser would nevertheless turn to the Greek pastoral poets Moschus and Bion and ‘their high valuation of love’ as an alternative to Virgil’s ‘persistent anti-eroticism’ in the Eclogues.[9] In the Diodorus Siculus quotation above, it is said that people divided by space and time can ‘hold conversation through written communication’ (διὰ τῶν γεγραμμένων ὁμιλοῦσι). While Pugh’s chapter is ostensibly a reception study of the third-century BCE Greek poem, Lament for Bion, it largely explores the ways that the Renaissance and Romantic poets Spenser and Shelley handle the challenges and ironies found within Plato’s Phaedrus, where Socrates argues for the superiority of oral dialectic over written communication. In this chapter – the one which is perhaps of most value to Spenserians – Pugh argues that both Spenser’s ‘Astrophel’ composed for the deceased Sidney, and that poem’s own, Romantic successor, Shelley’s Adonais for the dead John Keats, ‘push back against Plato’s attack on writing [through] their deep investment in strategies of literary imitation’ (228). Pugh’s reflections on imitation in Spenser’s ‘Astrophel’ is linked to the argument she makes in the introduction that Petrarch and succeeding Renaissance authors attempted to close the distance between orality and the writing of their predecessors: by having ‘absorbed and internalized their words and thought, [they] can now converse with them in their own terms, and [their] allusions make us remember the original texts and hear them again as though it were their part in the conversation’ (9).

The collection would be of value to scholars of Classical Reception, Renaissance Studies and Translation Studies, as well as anyone interested in imitation, allusion and intertextuality more broadly.

Tomos Evans

University of Birmingham

[1] Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Volume IV: Books 9-12.40, 12.13.2 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), 400-1. Translated by C.H. Oldfather.

[2] Of course, Pugh does not ignore the fact that such imitative practices are found in the poetry of the intervening Medieval period since she carefully clarifies that she does ‘not exclude medieval literature from this single object of study’ (1) and explains that it was only due to the efforts of medieval scribes and scholars that Renaissance humanists could study classical texts.

[3] ‘An artwork is made or designed by an individual or by a group of individuals at some moment, but it also points away from that moment, backward to a remote ancestral origin [and,] at the same time, it points forward to all its future recipients’. See Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 9.

[4] See Shane Butler, ‘The Youth of Antiquity: Reception, Homosexuality, Alterity’, Classical Receptions Journal, 11.4 (2019), 373-406 and Shane Butler (ed.), Deep Classics: Rethinking Classical Reception (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). See also Valerie Traub, Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), esp. part I, ch.3: ‘The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies’.

[5] Matthew Reynolds, ‘Introduction’, in Prismatic Translation, ed. Matthew Reynolds (Cambridge: Legenda, 2019), 1-18 (2).

[6] See Colin Burrow, Imitating Authors: from Plato to Futurity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 139-160.

[7] See David Quint, ‘Fear of Falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius’ in Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton’s Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] See Nicholas McDowell, ‘Reading Milton Reading Shakespeare Politically: What the Identification of Milton’s First Folio Does and Does Not Tell Us’, The Seventeenth Century, 36.2 (2021), 1-17.

[9] Syrithe Pugh, Spenser and Virgil: The Pastoral Poems (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 23.


  • There are currently no comments

You must log in to comment.


Cite as:

Tomos Evans, "Syrithe Pugh, ed., Conversations: Classical & Renaissance Intertextuality," Spenser Review 52.1.7 (Winter 2022). Accessed January 31st, 2023.
Not logged in or