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CJ-ONLINE  September 2009

CJ-ONLINE September 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.09.03 RECKFORD, Recognizing Persius

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Recognizing Persius. By KENNETH J. RECKFORD. Princeton: Princeton 
University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 240. Cloth, $45.00 / £30.95. ISBN 
978–0–691–14141–1.

Order this text for $36.52 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20

Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2009.09.03

Don’t even think of recognizing Persius from the gaunt Louvre Chrysippus 
glowering from the dust jacket; and as a likeness of Kenneth Reckford, 
forget it, that’s just as bad a joke. Persius surfed briefly on the youth 
surge of glitzy Neronian Rome; R. is the old-and-new emeritus of Chapel 
Hill, playing drama queen down the decades and perennially funsome. Neither 
of <<italics>>them<<italics>> match the icon. Pooh, Oz and Tolkien have 
kept as firm a grip on R.’s literary soul as the grand chain 
Homer-Virgil-Dante-Eliot-Housman. Trying to get Old Comedy right on stage 
as a student kicked off a life project in and on theatre, taking in 
Euripides and Plautus, translation, scholarship, teaching, direction, 
production, in thoroughgoing performativity. R. hasn’t stopped getting 
Latin poetry to leap from the page and into everyone in the vicinity, and 
doesn’t aim to any time soon. This latest instalment on the offbeat verse 
of the Roman satirists sits beside the "Horace" of 1969 (one product seeded 
by the 1957 PhD, "Horace, Augustan and Epicurean"), and I dare say R. has a 
"Juvenal" in his grasp; but dry old stick? Never.

It’s easy to recognize in this perpolished "Persius" a teenager’s 
formative induction into early ‘50s Harvard humanism, specifically 
inspired by Satire lectures from RAB (Robert A. Brooks), and then catalysed 
by (Cedric) Whitman, whence R.’s specially distinctive twist on artistic 
pedagogy through Aristophanes-accented theatricality. The 1962 essay 
“Studies in Persius” has been a big landmark for me since I started in 
showbiz, and so it will be for Latinists to come, through its good-as-new 
incarnation as first chapter in the just published bulging volume "Persius 
and Juvenal" in the "Oxford Readings" series (edited by Maria Plaza, and 
hailed in Susanna Braund’s introduction). "Recognizing Persius" 
represents the honed version of the Martin Classical Lectures of 1999, 
“In Search of Persius,” retaining the title for the “Prologue” and 
the original quadripartition, but energetically re-thought since, in the 
book’s final phase of gestation. Thus the notes for Chapter 2 at p. 193 
n. 1 record in full the press reader’s “critical advice,” to stoke up 
the “performance theme” apparently then in danger of subsiding after 
Chapter 1: music indeed to R.’s ears! If R. were his own reviewer, he’d 
be honour-bound to let us know how much we readers are missing from the 
original gig at Oberlin; he always jovially loves up “presence,” to the 
point where he might pass as less than enthused with verbal ebullience in 
the dance of print. Between them, revelling in the lecture-room scenario 
and packing away close reading into endnotes could risk suggesting that 
philology isn’t where it’s at—but that (if literary biography is 
back) would mean seriously mis-wrecognizing R.

The Prologue sets out the book’s critical project. R. supposes there are 
such things as “cycles” in criticism. Recent postmodern distraction and 
fragmentation “may … help us find our way back … to a reconsideration 
of older, still vital questions about poetry and poets” (p. 10). Running 
past reader-response, reader-reception, and esp. performance theory leaves 
R. longing to “be there,” juggling enjoyment at first encounter, 
letting Persius grow on him as both parties change through reengagement, 
and “…if we will just read Persius’ Satires aloud as they were meant 
to be read…” (p. 13). It’s R.’s privilege to decide what impact all 
the deals that’ve gone down since “that course back in Spring 1951” 
have made on his version of Persius, but I have to say right away that 
“specialists” won’t miss the recuperative drive powering this 
“intuitive and empirical” presentation. R. has stayed receptive through 
the variously discomposing efforts submitted since he took those first 
steps towards what became body criticism (“Hogarthian scenes of decay, 
suffering, and death,” p. 87), but the postulates re-emerge here just as 
was olim. To reward attention, the verse satirist must write a poet’s 
poetry, belong in the company of Dryden, Pope, Gray, Eliot, and (you 
guessed) Housman. “What poets want, what they have always wanted, is 
immortality” (p. 42). All that jive. Let’s write sincerity into 
self-improvement and through morally grounded spirit offer good-hearted 
readers the opportunity to re-appraise their own processes of 
self-recognition. Literature, art, civilization play with wit, charm, 
rhetoric, but they stage dramas of personal progression. Skits on cynicism, 
disgust, self-condemnation check us out, but phew, yep, they too shall 
subserve healthy, reflexive, self-awareness. The author is hero, the 
scholar plays stuntman, the audience takes heed, is entertained. Here’s a 
feast, so imbibe.

There are easier texts to pick for this. Any novice author of convoluted 
satire gives you every chance to relish iconococlasm, bad ideas, 
sanctimonious malice; and at the same time to see through all this to smart 
sarcasm in swish verse specially tailored for a sophisticated market. The 
worst-case scenario could well be the writer who kicks off by staking his 
whole enterprise on recitative sketches deriding the institution of 
literary performance, including sketches like these. Surely this 
dis/agreeable dilemma puts authorship in double jeopardy, specially devised 
to quiz authoriality: what certainty would here sponsor 
“re-performance” as an exquisite ordeal-structure for the precious 
“integrity” of the writer-critic dyad? If <<italics>>kinda<<italics>> 
angry punks just starting out know they can only ever suck up to the 
patronal-professorial establishment, even when they step out and tell 
everyone so, then what price revulsion at implication? “There’s nothing 
on the TV nothing on the radio that means that much to me | There’s 
nothing on the TV nothing on the radio | that I can believe in | All my 
life | watching America | All my life | there’s panic in America….” 
Dear boy!

"RP" is beautifully, persuasively, designed (and produced) [[1]]. 
Everything here is meant:

Chapter 1, "Performing Privately" runs us through Satire 1, with the 
choliambics orbiting around the entrée as appendix 1, to heave us through 
the pain-barrier of scepticism, and push through to a safe place where 
contact can be established for the fray. R.’s frankly “Modernist” 
Persius “pursues truth and integrity with a passionate self-honesty that 
is hard to follow” (p. 51). He talks us into talking his retreat from 
satire’s dramatic stamping-ground out in the market-place and actual 
habitat before invited glitterati audiences into the book we are reading, 
and into the paradoxical lifeline of dramatized “non-performance or 
metaperformance” of “non-poems,” and dialogical authenticity 
actualized by our reading. R. dearly wishes he could be there, first time 
around, for what the choliambics promise (promised? will promise?) us, “a 
nonfoundation of critical judgement from which to read what follows”; and 
if only we could be there for his best recreation of the event … He’s 
just loved having people round, and around, poetry, to play, for real.

But we are, and he is, (t/here) and nothing is lost, unless you despair of 
books—whether you, a couple of you, maybe, read to yourself out loud, 
whether dramatically (in the mind’s WiFi—“the private theater of your 
mind,” p. 51) or for real. So many academics think they’d get closer to 
Rome if they could do it out loud: why keep up such a down on writing, 
writing as such? R. can show so many <<italics>>ideas<<italics>> 
intricately worked out through intertextual imagistic inventive friction, 
with Horace, of course, but also diatribe, Lucilius, and mainstream 
philosophy from Plato through Aristotle to Cicero—and 
<<italics>>none<<italics>> of it even faintly caught at the level of aural 
audibility or appreciation denied to graphematics. Have you 
<<italics>>heard<<italics>> the Eliot recording murder "The Wasteland"?

Chapters 2 and 3, "Seeking Integrity" and "Exploring Freedom", present 
short and straightforward Satires 2 and 4 as curtain-raiser cues to the 
definitive coruscations of 3 and 5. First do the sermon, second apply it to 
self and speak from there, as weak-willed student, as grateful supervisee. 
(In appendix 2, R. goes most translucently preachy-didactic: “students 
… people who, we might say, had taken their PhD … a graduate student 
protests—he has been writing the most polished philosophical essays at 
the master’s direction…”, p. 100). Despair of your own regression 
through boyhood, grow up fast—so fast that your damnation of species and 
self acquire as you go the right to pontificate and self-valorize like some 
sage, some jumped-up sage. (“He tricks us, as a friend might, through his 
art into growing a little ourselves into self-awareness and personhood,” 
p. 112. Look behind you!) Say thanks to your guru, never resent 
<<italics>>his<<italics>> Chrysippan strictures, stand fortified against 
the frailties and temptations of mankind, beyond scathing 
<<strike>>satire<<strike>>. Call in the angels, so you (your Per-se-ius) 
can be one. ("Living in Truth" with Václav Havel, join an imaginary Roman 
scene where the poet recites in the gardens of martyr Thrasea, for samizdat 
freedom-daring bravery apt for “our own fearfully overcast days…”, p. 
129).

Chapter 4, "Life, Death, and Art" writes the envoi, Satire 6, into an 
internal and internalized (epistolary so, I guess, mute) retrospect on the 
trajectory through the lifework libellus, as the record of an adolescence 
reaching for maturity, the dividend of graduation through satiric fire; 
before the book of Saturae is done, we’ve already made it here and out, 
to the haven of exceptionality, surviving stormy passage across “the 
challenge of personal growth and satire’s response to its almost 
universal failure” (p. 15: that “almost”…!). To the haven from, 
apparently, not of, lunacy. R. has walked us through with chunks of poem 
with lively translation and exegesis deftly intercut with various 
contextualizing frames—iambos and diatribe, Augustine’s I, Epictetus’ 
chats Lucretian abyss, and, cometh the hora, cometh the man, Horace the 
byword for honesty, communicativity, and lyricism, in judicious doses; to 
put Persius up there, we never lose touch with eternal, Shakespearian, 
heights, and in particular theatre is there calling us always away from our 
poor old page, to listen “with understanding and enjoyment” to R.’s 
trademark Aristophanes, the poet, that is, who socks it to his following, 
so he can “voice a neo-Aristophanic protest against any and all 
spoilsport attitudes within himself, that might diminish his zest for 
life” (p. 150). In sum, “(if I may read between his closing lines)… : 
his business is to write honestly and well, for himself primarily, and then 
for whatever readers can and will appreciate honest satire—people who can 
listen, and understand, and maybe in some measure be healed by the further 
catharsis that this satire, like the Old Comedy long before it, has to 
offer” (p. 159).

R.’s “Epilogue” formally wraps up the package, bringing on Juvenal 
(1, 2, 7, 10) to play the role of <<italics>>another<<italics>> “strong 
reader” who “can still bring us back to Persius with renewed 
appreciation” (p. 15). Reckognize him?

“I wonder: has the time come round to pay renewed attention to the 
author?” (p. 16). No, times change; they don’t come round. On my 
reckoning, that is an ideological myth. Behind the “implied author” 
Persius, right where R. neatly locates the imperious “implicated” 
author, that’s where to find implicated <<italics>>readers<<italics>>, 
sparking all manner of sceptical fractiousness. In the name of 
disintegrative, disaffective, disenchanted “yoof” who won’t be told 
what they mean, even by themselves, let alone by the likes of us. (“His 
own right growth as a person,” indeed!; p. 150). I agree Rome had a 
really good one: don’t miss him.

JOHN HENDERSON 
King’s College 
Cambridge 
[log in to unmask] 

[[1]] There are one or two false stops, pp. 68, 92, 134; Oakley gets the 
wrong initials; after the frisson pilgrimage to Etruscan Volterra and the 
Museo, with R.’s Muse, plus Lawrence and Terrenato in tow, I was 
expecting to meet Aules, not Aulus: pp. 130, 172.


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