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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 10, Issue 2 (June 2012) : 271-301
Making Poets Serve the Established Order
Editing for Content in Sophocles, Virgil, and W. S. Gilbert
Frederick Ahl
Rubric A: Literature and the State
Rubric B: Then and Now



“Pray what authors should she read, who in Classics would succeed?” the director of a new women’s university is asked in W. S. Gilbert’s comic opera libretto, Princess Ida. In the new schools and colleges that were extending formal education to women and to the poor, the core curriculum was still selected “classic” Latin and Greek writers as it had been in the traditional boys schools of the rich. The director’s three selected “classic” authors, Ovid, Aristophanes, and Juvenal (in that order) would have surprised Gilbert’s audience, since they mark a progression from risqué sexual allusiveness to crude and overt sexual satire. Then she adds: “if you’re well advised, you will get them Bowdlerised.”

Dr. Bowdler’s removal of elements he considered tasteless made his name synonymous with sexual censorship. But sexual reference, overt or oblique, is not the most important element altered in the public presentation of classical poetry in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.  Educators were no less anxious about inflammatory or revolutionary political ideas and wanted “classic” texts that could be used to enhance a patriotic agenda.  The only ancient epic that suited their needs was Virgil’s Aeneid.        

This paper discusses why and how Gilbert’s libretti were (and still are) misread as supportive of the very ideas he was criticizing; why Virgil’s Aeneid was, by a process of judicious excerpting, represented throughout Europe as a paean of praise to Rome and Augustus, and why it has been as difficult for us to escape this nineteenth century view of the Aeneid as it has been to escape from Freud’s understanding of Oedipus or Nietzsche’s reading of Greek Tragedy.

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