Poetical Geography: The Place of the Antiquarian and the Situatedness of Literature

Poetical Geography: The Place of the Antiquarian and the Situatedness of Literature

Jonathan Sachs
Concordia University

1.        When scholars of British Romantic literature talk about antiquarianism, they generally refer to what Marilyn Butler describes as popular antiquarianism, "the study of British national culture: of English, Welsh, Gaelic, and Irish as vernacular languages, and of their oral as well as their written traditions" (328). For Butler the word "popular" firmly distinguishes the content of such antiquarianism from "classical, religious, and orientalist learning" (328). Similarly, Susan Manning suggests that "Neither academic nor metropolitan in origin, antiquarian activities were characteristically locale- and region-based" (46) and worked to solidify "a regionally based sense of cultural continuity" (47). And when Katie Trumpener argues that "English literature, so-called, constitutes itself in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the systematic imitation, appropriation, and political neutralization of antiquarian and nationalist literary developments in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales" (xi), it is largely such popular antiquarianism that she has in mind.

2.        But antiquarianism broadly understood, including its varieties more attuned to classical and not national cultures, could, perhaps paradoxically, also bolster the creation of national literatures that we associate with Romanticism. Walter Scott, for example, suggested that Homer served what he called the "national muse" (7). Similarly, Anne Janowitz invokes the non-native landscape of John Dyer's The Ruins of Rome (1740) to support her argument that "The ruin provides an historical provenance for the conception of the British nation as immemorially ancient," ratified by "a conflated representation of Britain as nature's inevitable product" (4). Building from Janowitz's insight, this essay takes up the problematic relation between the local, the national, and the international in antiquarianism through a focus on the issue of place in antiquarian writings. It looks specifically at the argument that literature can best be understood in its original place of composition.

3.        Such a claim partakes in antiquarian debates about the meaning and location of culture and of poetry's place within culture, debates associated with Ossian and, especially, Homer that turn around what we now call orality and the status of oral poetics in relationship to cultural progress. Recent scholars, notably Maureen McLane and Laura Slatkin, have argued that these debates reflect "increased sensitivity to the historicity of poetry's several media" (703) and hence ground a "Historical Media Poetics" whose sophisticated arguments about the status of media like orality, writing, and print might also help us to reflect on our own media-saturated present. [1]  In this way, antiquarian discourses become increasingly relevant to contemporary media theory. My argument here reflects these concerns but seeks less to articulate a Foucauldian archaeology of discourse and more specifically to unpack the conjunction between arguments for place and arguments for orality, both of which utilize ethnographic and experiential strategies. The focus will be on the work of Robert Wood, who makes one of the more prominent eighteenth-century arguments for Homer's orality. Wood has commonly been understood as part of a major reevaluation of Homer's poetry, what Paula McDowell describes as "a shift from a neoclassical approach, emphasizing what was universal and timeless, to a new interest in the specific historical circumstances affecting the production of works of art" (239). Such an approach grounds Wood's claim that "Homer could neither read nor write" (Homer 248), an argument that has lately proven important for recent scholars interested in the history of orality and ideas of media shift. As a result, interest in Wood has largely focused on his last work, An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, published in 1775 but circulated privately in 1767 and 1769.

4.        My suggestion here, however, is that the groundwork and methodological approach for Wood's Homeric scholarship is more or less in place in his first published work, The Ruins of Palmyra (1753), in which Wood offers an account of literary interpretation emphasizing the relationship of literature to the place in which it was produced, what I am calling the situatedness of literature. The shift in emphasis has two significant implications for our understanding of antiquarianism. First, it means that Wood is not a late entrant but an early contributor to what McLane and Slatkin call the "media environment" of the mid-eighteenth century, an environment characterized by the belief that poetry originates in an early stage of society, that it is composed orally, that it expresses the local particularity of landscapes and national or tribal culture, and that it can properly be traced and recovered by ethnographic, first-hand engagement with its place of origin. That Wood's theory of ancient poetry echoes (and perhaps anticipates) the later work of Thomas Percy, Joseph Ritson, Scott and others underscores not the separation but the proximity and overlapping concerns of popular antiquarianism with other varieties of antiquarianism less invested in the particular traditions of the British isles, with the important distinction, however, that Wood is less interested in orality per se and more in the material remains and landscapes of antiquity.

5.        Second, the tendency of scholarly interest to focus on Wood's later Homeric scholarship at the expense of his earlier work on Palmyra suggests something about the difficulty and occasional opacity of much antiquarian publication. While the very title of An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer makes its subject plain, [2]  The Ruins of Palmyra, in contrast, is a hybrid volume, one that combines its interest in the ruins with an unusual generic mix of travel narrative, specimen book, archaeological record, reproduction of inscriptions, and treatise on how to read classical literature. The prominence of its measured engravings and the relative absence of Palmyra from the classical archive often work to displace interest in the work's prefatory material and hence to obscure the strong claims being made for its method of literary interpretation. This hybrid, I would suggest, is what makes The Ruins of Palmyra so contiguous with other antiquarian works and what often causes them to be neglected by scholars seeking a more straightforward or traditional genealogy for the sort of disciplinary inquiry that begins to emerge in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

6.        The eighteenth century, as Penelope Wilson has argued, "saw a steady growth in historical, topographical, and antiquarian interest in the ancient world" (272). At the very start of the century, for example, Joseph Addison prepared for his Italian travels by swotting up on classical authors that might be relevant for his journey. As he explains in the preface to his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, &c. in the Years, 1701, 1702, 1703, Addison took care

particularly to consider the Several Passages of the Ancient Poets which have any relation to the Places or Curiosities that I met with; For before I entered on my Voyage I took care to refresh my Memory among Classic Authors, and to make such Collections out of them as I might afterwards have Occasion for. I must confess it was not one of the least Entertainments that I met with in Travelling, to examine these several Descriptions, as it were upon the Spot, and to compare the Natural Face of the Country with the Landskips that the Poets have given us of it. (n.p.)
In the travel narrative that follows the preface, Addison carefully notes correlations between ancient place names and modern variants, and he repeatedly cites classical authors to augment his own descriptions of Italian landscapes. His work shows how what was in the seventeenth century a largely text-based classical curriculum began to accommodate topographical experience as a helpful guide to the understanding of classical authors.

7.        What was for Addison in the early eighteenth century an invitation to consider classical texts "upon the spot" had become by the mid-eighteenth century an imperative for others. In his first published work, a series of folio engravings of the ancient city of Palmyra printed in 1753, Robert Wood insists that ancient texts can be better understood in the landscapes that produced them. As he puts it in "Letter from the Publisher to the Reader," , "The life of Miltiades or Leonidas could never be read with so much pleasure, as on the plains of Marathon or at the streights of Thermopylae; the Iliad has new beauties on the banks of the Scamander, and the Odyssey is most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses traveled and Homer sung" (Palmyra n. p.). If Addison took pleasure in comparing ancient descriptions with modern views, Wood's claim is much stronger, for he insists that the full aesthetic appreciation of classical texts, their capacity to deliver pleasure and "new beauties," can only be fully apprehended through what we might call first-hand, eyewitness experience. In such an account the proper understanding of ancient texts can only be arrived at by interpretive methods that are more than philological. This theory of literary interpretation emphasizes the geographical situatedness of literature and the shaping influence of place, insisting upon travel as a means of achieving proper textual understanding. In her gloss on this theory, Trumpener links Wood's emphasis on the situatedness of literature to the "continuing touristic interest of literary sites" (78), and she further characterizes Wood as inaugurating "a new mode of literary tourism" (103). My suggestion, in contrast, is that Wood's argument introduces more than literary tourism and, furthermore, that his insistence on the situatedness of literature is part of a sophisticated interpretive methodology that emphasizes the specific historical circumstances—topographical and otherwise—that produce works of art.

8.        Wood was a British traveler, politician, and member of the Society of Dilettanti who made two prolonged journeys through the Mediterranean world in the 1740s and 1750s. These travels resulted in three publications: The Ruins of Palmyra, in 1753; The Ruins of Balbec, in 1757; and, finally and most famously, the posthumous An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, in 1775, where Wood claimed that Homer was an oral poet who could neither read nor write. Today, if Wood is remembered at all, it is largely for this idea of Homer's orality, a view marked by skepticism toward the received wisdom about Homer that places Wood in an interpretive tradition running from, say, Giambattista Vico to Friedrich August Wolf and beyond. [3]  While literary tourism may have been the result of Wood's work, the source of his claim for the importance of place—a hybrid volume devoted to a site that has only a minimal presence in ancient literature—is curious. What are we to make of this figure whom we associate with Greece and with Homer, who made his reputation with a publication showing the ruins of a Roman province in the middle of a desert? How can we make any connections between Wood's interest in Homer and the Greeks and a specimen book showcasing the architecture of late Imperial Rome? And, finally, what might these questions tell us about eighteenth-century antiquarianism and its relevance for Romanticism?

9.        I should emphasize from the outset that this essay does not necessarily answer all of these questions. Posing them, however, reflects the frustrations of a literary scholar trained to make certain kinds of arguments in response to certain genres of texts yet when confronted with a work that doesn't in any way conform to these generic models; and this problem, further, underscores some of the general difficulties inherent in reading antiquarian texts. Like so many other antiquarian works, The Ruins of Palmyra is a hybrid text. It joins a series of more or less familiar genres into an unlikely generic mix—in this case travel narrative, specimen book, archaeological record, and treatise on how to read classical literature. Reading Wood's writing, one is tempted to make concrete arguments: Wood was a conjectural historian, Wood was a literary scholar obsessed with mimesis, Wood was the bold innovator of historicist methodologies for literary studies, and so on. Such claims would be vastly overstated, and they only make sense, furthermore, if we think of The Ruins of Palmyra as the coherent and unified work of a single author. But it is a fundamentally different kind of text, one that bears Wood's name as its author, but one that, like many other antiquarian texts, actually represents a diverse and sometimes competing series of agendas. These conflicting tendencies can make it difficult to recognize that the volume contains a sophisticated theory of poetic interpretation, one that pushes away from privileging an autonomous aesthetic in favor of a range of interests including the aesthetic but also encompassing the type of historical, cultural, patriotic, and philosophical values that we now recognize in antiquarian works. Given this fact, in order to understand more fully Wood's emphasis on the need to experience classical literature in its place of composition—and the role of this claim within both The Ruins of Palmyra and Wood's larger, lifelong obsession with Homer—we need to think about the connection between Wood's insistence on the situatedness of literature and his far-ranging travels in the Mediterranean region from 1749-1751.

10.        Wood first visited Greece in the 1740s when he traveled among the Agean islands and also to Syria and Egypt.  [4]  Some time after this, he settled in Rome, where he met the young and wealthy James Dawkins and the dilettante John Bouverie. While walking from Rome to Naples to see classical ruins there, the three set upon the idea of exploring antiquities in the Mediterranean region. This, the voyage that made Wood's reputation, began in 1749 when, accompanied by Dawkins, Bouverie, and the Italian engraver/sculptor Giovanni Borra, Wood set out from Naples for the Troade. Though the men traveled together, each cultivated his own distinct interests, and this more than anything helps to explain many of the hybrid qualities of the publications that followed the voyage. [5]  In both Palmyra and Balbec, Wood, like Addison before him, compares the statements of ancient geographers and modern travelers with the physical conditions as he found them.

11.        Travel in the East was certainly difficult, but because of the resources possessed by the travellers, the voyage has been described as a "scholar's dream" (Spencer 75). THE MEN had every feasible convenience including their own 160-ton ship, the SS Matilda. Wood notes that this boat "brought from London a library, consisting chiefly of all the Greek historians and poets, some books of antiquities, and the best voyage writers..." (Palmyra, "Publisher to Reader," n.p.). Again, we should note the particular emphasis on the Greeks, and not the Romans, even though the group chose to publish first on a Roman site. Their travels were certainly comprehensive, and in Wood's description, "We visited most of the islands of the Archipelago, part of Greece in Europe; the Asiatic and European coasts of the Hellespont, Propontis, and Bosphorus, as far as the Black Sea, most of the inland parts of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine, and Egypt" (Palmyra, "Publisher to Reader," n.p.). In order to get to Palmyra and Balbec, which were at the time under the control of the Turkish empire, the men essentially had to hire a private army from the Aga of Hassia, "an escort of the Aga's best Arab horsemen, armed with guns and long pikes" (Palmyra 33). It must have been a grand procession, and Wood later suggests that their caravan numbered two hunderd men with as many beasts for travel. After visiting Palmyra and Balbec, the the crew—minus Bouverie, who had died earlier in the tour—set out for Athens in May of 1751. There they assisted James Stuart and Nicholas Revett on the project which would become the Antiquities of Athens (1762).

12.        Following the tour, Wood returned home to prepare his two great folios, The Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Balbec (1757). After once more returning to the Continent as the tutor to the Duke of Bridgewater, Wood was given a position in public affairs when the reputation established by the Palmyra volume led William Pitt the Elder to make Wood Under-Secretary of State in 1756. Wood subsequently held various appointments through several changes in government and was a Member of Parliament from March 1761 until his death. The irony of Wood's being called to public service is that it left him little time to continue with his classical labors, his professed design to describe the insights gained from reading the Iliad and the Odyssey in the lands in which Homer wrote, and to produce a geographical description that mapped the ancient and present state of the Troade. A rough sketch of this work was proposed initially in a letter to the ailing Dawkins, likely written in 1755 when Wood was in Rome with Bridgewater; seven copies of this letter were privately printed in 1767, an enlarged an anonymous edition appeared in 1769, and, after Wood's death in 1771, the whole scheme was eventually edited by Jacob Bryant and published as An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer in 1775.

13.        This brief chronology suggests that though ultimately published much later, Wood's theory of Homer was clearly developed in connection with the travel that resulted in the Palmyra publication, and needs to be seen as part and parcel of the same project. Wood's theory of how to read classical literature and his emphasis on its place of composition, in other words, begins with The Ruins of Palmyra and is later developed as a sustained argument about Homer. The connection, however, is easy to overlook because The Ruins of Palmyra presents itself not as a theory of textual analysis but rather as a visual record of the material remains of antiquity, and a tension between text and image marks the presentation of the Palmyra volume and the interplay between its textual apparatus and the visual material that it frames.

14.         The Ruins of Palmyra, Wood's first published work and the tangible result of his Mediterranean tour, is an enormous volume that blends the verbal and the visual. It consists of an introductory "Letter from the Publisher to the Reader," followed by "An Enquiry into the Ancient State of Palmyra," a description of its present state, reproductions of and commentary on a number of inscriptions that the group found in and around Palmyra, and a brief description of the journey through the desert. In all, there are roughly 50 pages of text that precede a lavish set of fifty-seven measured engravings.

15.        Looking at the Palmyra volume as a book and as a material object, the most immediately obvious fact is the prominence given to its engravings. Palmyra seems first and foremost an architectural specimen book, and Wood emphasizes that "Architecture took up our chief attention" (Palmyra, "Publisher to the Reader," n.p.). The large size and precise details of the plates tower over the prefatory material, and seem further distinguished by their careful reproduction of the scale, proportions, and setting of the ancient buildings. As Wood explains,

All lovers of [architecture] must be sensible that the measures of the antient buildings of Rome, by Monsieur Desgodetz, have been of the greatest use: We imagined that by attempting to follow the same method in those countries where architecture had its origin, or at least arrived at the highest degree of perfection it has ever attained, we might do service.
While most of the plates present measured drawings of Palmyra's architectural remains, the first image is most striking: a view from the north-east of the ruined city of Palmyra as it appeared to Wood in 1751, the plate folds out to the width of three elephant folio sheets (22 inches by 15 inches per sheet, or nearly 2 feet by 4 feet when fully extended).

Figure 1: Robert Wood. Frontispiece, Ruins of Palmyra (1753). Courtesy of Webster Library, Concordia University, Montreal.

16.        This kind of detailed engraving marks the volume's strong affiliation with the first generation of antiquarian plate books in the 1750s. This was the decade that included not only both of Wood's volumes, but also new work from France including Caylus's Recueil des Antiquités (1752) and Leroy's engravings of Greece (1758); the first publication of Piranesi's Antichità Romane (1756); and the original "grant proposal" that led to Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens. A self-consciously visual approach to antiquity distinguished these new antiquaries from their predecessors. While images had always been an integral part of the study of antiquity, these sophisticated engravings, along with the training provided by academies of art, gave a new impetus to the visual tradition.  [6]  The clear place of The Ruins of Palmyra in this tradition of antiquarian plate books and the emphasis it places on the visual record of Palmyra is one reason why it is easy to overlook Wood's theory of reading.

17.        A second reason is the inherent contradiction between a theory of reading that emphasizes place and a volume on an archaeological site that figures only minimally in the classical record. The quotation from Pliny's Natural History that runs along the bottom of Plate One indicates that Palmyra is not entirely absent from classical literature, but the authors and historical events discussed in Wood's opening section on "The Antient State of Palmyra" make clear that Palmyra is hardly the place one would go to learn what is to be gained from reading classical authors in situ. Furthermore, Wood's theory of culture (and his understanding of the relationship between works of art and the historical circumstances that produced them) is scattered throughout the numerous sections of prefatory material. Nonetheless, The Ruins of Palmyra—with its emphasis on the link between works of art and the historical circumstances of their production, with its insistence on the importance of eyewitness observation, and with its account of the engagement with Bedouin oral culture—contains the basis for Wood's theory of Homer.

18.        The fundamental contribution to literary interpretation made by The Ruins of Palmyra is the suggestion that one needs to visit the remains of classical civilizations if one is ever to understand the writings they inspired. As Wood explains:

Circumstances of climate and situation, otherwise trivial, become interesting from that connection with great men, and great actions, which history and poetry have given them. The life of Miltiades or Leonidas could never be read with so much pleasure, as on the plains of Marathon or at the streights of Thermopylae; the Iliad has new beauties on the banks of the Scamander, and the Odyssey is most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses travelled and Homer sung. [Palmyra, "Publisher to Reader," n.p.]
This theory not only makes tourism a prerequisite for the appreciation of classical texts, but it also signifies a fundamental move away from neoclassical orthodoxies because it focuses our attention not on what is timeless about the classics, but on what is particular about them. Accordingly it encourages us to value classical authors for the mimetic faithfulness of their writing to the manners and conditions of their specific time and place (Constantine 66-84). Moreover, recognizing the link between the work of art and the geographical context that inspired it requires eyewitness experience; therefore, such a connection can only be appreciated by one who has visited the places described. In a comment that hints at a contradiction in this justification of his publication project, Wood elaborates:
The particular pleasure, it is true, which an imagination warmed upon the spot receives from those scenes of heroick actions, the traveller can only feel, nor is it to be communicated by description. But classical ground not only makes us always relish the poet, or historian more, but sometimes helps us to understand them better. Where we thought the present state of the country was the best comment on an antient author, we made our draftsman take a view, or make a plan of it. This sort of entertainment we extended to poetical geography, and spent a fortnight with great pleasure, in making a map of the Scamandrian plain, with Homer in our hands. [Palmyra, "Publisher to Reader," n.p.]
In part the issue here is that Wood's reveling in poetical geography seems confined to the region associated with Homer and therefore to have little connection to the claims of the Palmyra volume itself. But there is also, when Wood notes that the pleasure experienced by the traveler is not "to be communicated by description," an allusion to a more fundamental problem, for one might legitimately question the purpose of a set of engravings that must by definition fail to capture the essential experience of place. The language of the passage, however, with its distinction between relishing and understanding literature, suggests a potential solution. To relish a poet or a historian has its linguistic origins in sensual experiences of scent and taste and implies an act of both sensual flavor and artistic appreciation, of combined physical and aesthetic pleasures. As The Plan of an Academy for the better Cultivation, Improvement and Encouragement of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Arts of Design (1755) puts it, "the more Attention we bestow upon the Arts, and the quicker Relish we acquire for them, the more enlarged the Province of Pleasure becomes" (v); similarly, in James Miller's comedy The Man of Taste (1736), Maria tells her cousin Dorthea, "People of Taste and Sensibility have a higher Relish for Life" (18). Relish is a term of connoisseurship and applies to the active appreciation of material objects. A more philosophical concept like understanding, in contrast, might serve more sedentary, bookish readers. The Ruins of Palmyra attempts to accommodate both.

19.        In the "Journey through the Desart" [sic], for example, Wood describes the wonder of first approaching Palmyra:

the hills opening discovered to us, all at once, the greatest quantity of ruins we had ever seen, all of white marble, and beyond them towards the Euphrates a flat waste, as far as the eye could reach, without any object that shewed either life or motion. It is scarce possible to imagine any thing more striking than this view: So great a number of Corinthian pillars, mixed with so little wall or solid building, afforded a most romantic variety of prospect. But the following plate will convey a juster idea of it than any description. (35)
The distinction Wood makes here between the image represented on the plate and his "description" suggests that he means to limit description to the verbal account of an image. Such a distinction further implies that earlier, when Wood indicated the particular pleasure of classical scenes for "an imagination warmed upon the spot" and claimed that they could not be "communicated by description," he left open the possibility that sophisticated engravings, executed to a measured scale and proper perspective, might be able to convey a sense of place in the way that verbal description could not. And if this is the case, then Wood seeks to provide the users of the Palmyra volume with the experience of both relish and understanding through the book's combination of text and image. As the passage above indicates, the opening plate is meant to recapture for its viewers the astonishment at coming upon such a relatively undisturbed display of desert ruins.

20.        This seems precisely the allure of Palmyra. Because its ruins have not been built over or repurposed (except insofar as the Bedouins had, at the time of Wood's visit, "about thirty [huts] in the court of the great temple" [37]), they lacked stratigraphy. As Wood notes,

It is the natural and common fate of cities to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins. Troy, Babylon, and Memphis are now known only from books, while there is not a stone left to mark their situation. But here we have two instances of considerable towns out-living any account of them. Our curiosity about these places is rather raised by what we see than what we read, and Balbeck and Palmyra are in a great measure left to tell their own story. (1, emphasis in original)
The passage shows that Balbec and Palmyra are distinguished by the fullness of their material remains and their relative lack of presence in the written classical record. They are material and visual sites, places, as Wood notes, that we see rather than read about. The very absence of Palmyra and Balbec from the classical record, in other words, is what attracts Wood and his travel companions to the site, and the lack of any substantial writing about the two towns means that material and physical ruins provide the predominant means to understand each site. But to publish a volume on each place puts them in the record. With their accurate measured engravings of Palmyra and Balbec, Wood and Dawkins become the preservers of the memory of antiquity. Their work makes Palmyra and Balbec timeless.

21.        Moreover, since the plates create an imaginative experience for their viewer that replicates, or at least approximates, the physical experience of going to the site, they allow their viewers, according to Wood, to evaluate in a fresh and unbiased manner the relationship between a work of art—here the well-preserved architectural remains of Palmyra, unsullied by centuries of interpretive response—and the state of the society in which it was produced. This, ultimately, is the value of the Palmyra volume. Unlike Homer, whose reception bears the traces of previous interpreters and arguments, Palmyra can be reproduced in a manner that allows it to be relished and understood without travelling to the site, and, further, the method through which it can be appreciated can be seen more transparently in connection with a site that has not been built over and reinterpreted. As Wood asserts, "How far the taste and manner of the architecture may give any light into the age which produced it, our engravings will put in every person's power to judge for himself" (15). Wood firmly believes that the measured engravings of Palmyra reproduce the experience of the ruins to a degree sufficient to allow his readers to evaluate the relation between objects of cultural production and the age or state of the society in which they were produced.

22.         This is certainly how some, most notably Edward Gibbon, responded to the images. In a footnote to the Decline and Fall, Gibbon suggested that "every previous account is eclipsed by the magnificent description and drawings of MM Dawkins and Wood, who have transported into England the ruins of Palmyra and Ballbeck" (3:263). Two aspects of this comment are notable: first, Gibbon uses a visual metaphor—"eclipsed"—to describe his reaction, and, next, he suggests the visceral, physical response that the works produced: Dawkins and Wood have succeeded in transporting the ruins to England. While the pair did not, of course, physically move the ruins anywhere, their measured drawings, like Robert Adams's later volume on the palace of Diocletian (1764), would certainly have functioned as specimen books that allowed English architects to copy the proportions and motifs of imperial Roman architecture.

23.        Wood's preservation of the memory of Palmyra and Balbec, his success at putting these sites into the classical record, meant that Palmyra had a cultural impact beyond its function as an architectural specimen book. Gavin Hamilton celebrated the accomplishments of Wood and Dawkins on canvas (James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra, 1758). Further, James Grainger's ode "Solitude" opens with a description of Palmyra based on Wood's volume, while Diderot's account of ruins in the Salon of 1767, as Jonah Siegel explains, derived from Wood's images and adaptations by Hubert Robert (Siegel 30-32). Palmyra's lack of stratigraphy made it an emblem of pure ruin, and in the widely circulated work of Volney, The Ruins of Empires (1791), Palmyra becomes the point from which all lessons about the decline of empire are delivered. The frontispiece shows a view of Palmyra similar to the first plate of Wood's Ruins of Palmyra, only it includes Volney in the scene as the focal point of the elevated perspective that makes the view possible. The late Imperial site that had largely been absent from the written record now stands as the epitome of ruin, the locus that, as the symbol of a fate to be avoided and not imitated, delivers a very different set of lessons from antiquity.

Figure 2: Constantine Volney. Frontispiece, The Ruins of Empires (1791). Courtesy of Webster Library, Concordia University , Montreal.

24.        In his role as the preserver of an unrecorded antiquity, Wood might be compared to Thomas Percy and Joseph Ritson, among others, thus highlighting the link between popular and classical antiquarians. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), for example, shares with Wood's Ruins of Palmyra an interest in the role of poetry in the early stages of society and a belief that this role changes as society progresses. Percy too sees poetry as the preserver of a long cultural memory. He insists that the earlier minstrel ballads written in Northern dialect are coincident with "the true spirit of chivalry" (xxii), and he repeatedly emphasizes how the poems, when collected, preserve and propagate ancestral memory, "rescuing from oblivion" the "taste, genius, sentiments, and manners" of illustrious ancestors (xiv). Unlike Wood, Percy does not appeal to eyewitness experience; he bases his collection on archival research and credits the many friends, libraries, and individuals who shared their collections of printed ballads with him. Joseph Ritson, however, shares Wood's emphasis on ethnographic and experiential authority. As Ritson notes in his preface to Scotish Song in Two Volumes (1794), he "made repeated visits to different parts of Scotland for the purpose of obtaining materials or information upon the subject" (ii). Such an appeal to ethnographic authority, as Maureen McLane notes, becomes an increasingly important form of poetic authority in the later eighteenth century, and "what had been a liability—a Scottish birth and upbringing—was now boldly announced as a credential, such that the English antiquarian had to find ways to compete" (72). Ritson's solution here might be understood to draw upon Wood's earlier appeal to first-hand experience and an emphasis on the interpretive understanding and "relish" that might be gained from contact with the original sites of poetic composition.

25.        These brief comparisons with Volnay, Percy, and Ritson suggest two trajectories for the later significance of The Ruins of Palmyra: first, as an emblem of ruin and, second, as a contribution to increasingly sophisticated thinking about the relation between works of art and the cultural conditions of their production. This second trajectory contributes to that rejection of the aesthetic as an autonomous category, which we associate now with the late eighteenth-century ballad revival and which would be worked out in greater detail in Wood's theory of Homer's orality.

26.        With this in mind, I want to speculate on the links between Wood's emphasis on poetic geography articulated in the prefatory material to the Ruins of Palmyra, and his later publications on Homer. We have seen how The Ruins of Palmyra provides the basis for Wood's theory of the relation between cultural production and the stages of social development, a theory that he would later apply to Homer in elaborating his argument for Homeric orality. The recognition of the link between orality and earlier stages of social development, though, would not have been possible without the travel experience that led to the Palmyra volume. Much as later theorists of orality like Milman Parry and Alfred Lord visited cultures thought to be in an earlier state of social development to observe improvisational oral poetic performance, Wood's description of his journey through the desert also suggests that Bedouin oral poetry may have influenced his thinking about Homer. Wood notes that among the Bedouins, "When the business of the day was over, coffee and a pipe of tobacco made their highest luxury, and while they indulged in this, sitting in a circle, one of the company entertained the rest with a song or story, the subject of love, or war, and the composition sometimes extemporary" (Palmyra 35).

27.        In Wood's final volume on Homer, attention is given not to images but to Wood's theory of literature. But Wood's comment from the Palmyra volume about how the architecture "gives light into the age which produced it" and his recognition of the extemporaneity of Bedouin oral composition provides us with an important link between Wood's work on Palmyra and his thinking on Homer. In both his preface to Palmyra and the various incarnations of his writing on the Original Genius of Homer, Wood suggests that the proper way to appreciate Homer—and by implication, all classical literature—is to recognize the close connection between the work, the place of composition, and the age or state of society that produced it. As he puts it: "A review of Homer's scene of action leads naturally to the times, when he lived" (Homer iv). Wood, in all of his thinking about antiquity, is attempting to recreate a sense of past ages by two approaches: eyewitness experience and ethnography. The first utilizes the physical experience of classical landscapes, as we see most clearly when Wood insists on Homer's accuracy through a comparison of his own travel experiences and the conflict between Meneleus and Agamemnon over navigation routes in Book 3 of the Odyssey (Homer 34-61).  [7] 

28.        The second approach, which I am characterizing as ethnographic, suggests that the present native inhabitants of classical sites—especially those associated with the East, like Palmyra and the Troade—provide a present example of the manners of earlier ages of society. Certain comments in the Original Genius reveal Wood the ethnographer most clearly. After noting that the difficulty of reading Homer comes from the need to reconcile ourselves "to usages and customs so very opposite to our own," Wood explains that "we found the manners of the Iliad still preserved in some parts of the East" (128). He continues, and in what Jim Porter has described as "a kind of Homeric ethnography on modern day Bedouins" (333), he likens the Bedouins found amidst the Palmyrene ruins to Hottentots and Cherokees. Subsequently, in a comparison of heroic and Bedouin manners, he notes how unimportant is one's word of honor. "Ulysses," he concludes, "would form a perfect model for those, who wish to make their way in [the desert] with security and respect" (140). Moments like this suggest that Wood is a cultural comparativist working from a model of stadial development, which associates certain kinds of manners with certain stages of social development. They further mark his awareness of what we now call "uneven development," which creates the possibility of travelling to the past by visiting supposedly less developed native cultures. This is the same sort of logic, with its emphasis on the manners and cultural forms that accompany certain ages of society, that Wood uses to support his suggestion that Homer was an oral poet.

29.        Wood consistently frames his appreciation for Homer by emphasizing his ability to provide a faithful, mimetic representation of the age in which he lived. Wood explains,

We shall confine our inquiry to Homer's Mimetic Powers for whether we consider him as a Geographer, Traveller, Historian, or Chronologer, whether his Religion and Mythology, his Manners and Customs, or his Language and Learning... in these several views his Imitation alone is the great object of our attention. We shall admit his antient title of Philosopher only as he is a painter." (vii)
This, then, suggests a further link between Original Genius and The Ruins of Palmyra, for just as in the earlier volume measured engraving attempted to replicate ancient ruins in exact detail to help viewers picture the original sight and to "give light into the age that produced them," Homer is praised for the most exact, mimetic representation of the age in which he lived. "[H]is great merit," Wood claims, "seems to be that of having transmitted to us a faithful transcript or...a correct abstract of human nature...which belonged to his period of society" (Homer xiii). In both cases, in the actual experience of place that Wood emphasizes in and in viewing its mimetic, engraved representation in The Ruins of Palmyra, what Wood values is partly the experience itself, but more emphatically it is the potential of experiences of visiting or viewing to illuminate earlier ages of society and the value of their cultural production.

30.        Wood's notion of both travel and images as an empirical test for Homer's accuracy and hence his literary merit helps to explain why an author preoccupied with Greece in general and Homer in particular would choose to publish initially on a late imperial Roman site, and Wood's emphasis on the link between the engravings of Palmyra and insights into the age that produced its architecture in The Ruins of Palmyra underscores Wood's dominant interest in mimesis as a link between Palmyra and Homer. Wood's interest in reading classical texts in the landscapes in which they were produced—in what he calls "poetical geography," with its emphasis on ethnographic and experiential strategies that extend interpretive authority beyond more typical text-based approaches that we now call philology—can also be understood in relation to his use of mimesis as the primary factor in judging cultural production. Further, the close connections between Wood's earlier and later work detailed by this essay have implications for how we understand the relation between popular and classical antiquarianism. Recent scholarly interest in "popular antiquarianism" and a correspondent revival of interest in local ballad culture have helped us to recognize a historical media environment in the later eighteenth-century characterized by an understanding of the close connections between literary works and their historical and geographical contexts; by an awareness of the differences among orality, writing, and print; and by a belief that eyewitness experience can illuminate the meaning and originality of earlier literature. This essay's focus on Robert Wood has suggested that this environment has its roots not only in the revival of literary nationalism that we associate with Romanticism later in the century, but also in earlier antiquarian interest in the material remains of classical civilizations.

Works Cited

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Butler, Marilyn. "Antiquarianism (Popular)." Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age, 1776-1832. Ed. Ian McCalman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Constantine, David. Early Greek Travelers and the Hellenic Ideal. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Print.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. David Wormersley. 3 volumes. Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, 1994. Print.

Griggs, Tamara. "Ancient Art and the Antiquarian: The Forgery of Giuseppe Guerra, 1755-1765." Huntington Library Quarterly 74 (September 2011): 471-503. Print.

Janowitz, Anne. England's Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Print.

Manning, Susan. "Antiquarianism, balladry and the rehabilitation of romance." The New Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature. Ed. James Chandler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

McDowell, Paula. "Mediating Media Past and Present: Toward a Genealogy of 'Print Culture' and 'Oral Tradition'." This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. Print.

McLane, Maureen, and Laura Slatkin. "British Romantic Homer: Oral Tradition, 'Primitive Poetry' and the Emergence of Comparative Poetics in Britain, 1760-1830." ELH 78 (2011): 687–714. Print.

McLane, Maureen. Balladeering, Minstrelsy, and the Making of British Romantic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Miller, James. The Man of Taste. A Comedy. [n.p.]: London, 1744. Print.

The Plan of an Academy For the Better Cultivation, Improvement and Encouragement of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and the Arts of Design. London: [n.p.], 1755. Print.

[Percy, Thomas]. The Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. London: J. Dodsley, 1765. Print.

Pinto, John. Speaking Ruins: Piranesi, Architects and Antiquity in Eighteenth-Century Rome. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2012. Print.

Porter, James. "Homer: The History of an Idea." The Cambridge Companion to Homer. Ed. Robert Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

[Ritson, Joseph]. Scotish Song in Two Volumes. London: J. Johnson, 1794. Print.

Sachs, Jonathan. "On the Road: Travel, Antiquarianism, Philology." Philology and Its Histories. Ed. Sean Gurd. [n.p.]: Ohio State UP, 2010. Print.

Scott, Walter. "On Popular Poetry." The Poetical Works of Walter Scott, Bart. together with the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. With the Author's Introductions and Notes. New York: Leavitt and Allen, 1830. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

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Smiles, Sam. Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain, 1770-1830. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2000. Print.

Soros, Susan Weber. James 'Athenian' Stuart: The Rediscovery of Antiquity. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

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Wood, Robert. The Ruins of Palmyra. London: [n.p.], 1753. Print.


[1] On this point, see also McDowell, who argues that "Literary texts are a valuable—if notoriously tricky—register of contemporary awareness of media shift" (233). BACK

[2] Acknowledging, of course, the irony that a work making such strong case for Homer's lack of writing should have "Writings" yolked into its title by a posthumous editor. BACK

[3] For recent arguments about Wood and orality, see McLane and Slatkin; McDowell; Sachs. BACK

[4] For information on Wood's life, I am indebted to Spencer and Constantine. Special thanks also to Paul Jackson, librarian at the Institute for Classical Studies in London, for allowing me access to the Wood papers there. BACK

[5] Dawkins focused on natural history, including fauna, flora, etc.; Bouverie observed monuments; while Wood's primary interest was in the topography of the sites visited and their inscriptions. BACK

[6] On this point, see: Pinto; Soros; and Griggs. My thanks to Tamara Griggs for calling my attention to these references. On the fate of visual discourse after the 1750s, with particular emphasis on debates over the cognitive utility of images from the 1770s to the 1820s, see Smiles. BACK

[7] For a more full discussion of this episode, see Sachs, 2010, 134-35. BACK

Published @ RC

June 2014