Tradition and Its Discontents

December 19, 2019   •   By Max Norman


Michael Schmidt

Reading Old Books

Peter Mack

WHAT MAKES A POEM epic? Why do we consider, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost an epic, but Claudia Rankine’s book-length Citizen a lyric? Milton’s retelling of Genesis is a long poem, written in verse, and dealing with mytho-historical people and events. Milton invents an unintuitive and intoxicating style, a Latinate English that screams Important Poem:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse …

Rankine adopts a decidedly different tone, the opposite of whatever epic is:

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor. 

Milton’s you is the Heav’nly Muse. Rankine’s you is, well, you, reader, doing things that you actually do. The epic action of heroes takes place in the past and must now be retold and remembered; the lyric action of the thinker or the lover happens in Rankine’s perpetual here and now, or in the habitual space of the imperfect.

Milton’s poem looks and sounds like epic because it looks and sounds like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In fact, all “epic” really signifies is a family resemblance to Homer (to quote Alastair Fowler quoting Wittgenstein). Once a reader sees the family resemblance, she unconsciously recognizes a whole set of unwritten generic rules, determined not only by the intention of the author, but by literary precedent.

Epic, then, is a traditional genre. Traditional in the familiar sense of canonical but also in the thicker sense that Renaissance scholar Peter Mack defends in Reading Old Books: a genre in which authors self-consciously “use earlier books for plots, for phrases, for ideas to copy or contradict, for moral support, and for lessons in becoming better writers.” Authors are first and foremost readers (or listeners), whose work is shaped in dialogue not just with individual texts and authors, but with the tradition as a whole — with the ideas of priority and belatedness, with precursors and with posterity. It’s an obvious point, but tradition — the “old books” of Mack’s title — continues to guide how we read, write, and teach literature.

Indeed, tradition and the “traditional” feel so natural that it requires a major shock to become conscious of how these literary categories inform our reading. As the poet and publisher Michael Schmidt shows in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem, the rediscovery in 1872 of a long poem much older than Homer still leaves us reeling. Locating the beauty of Gilgamesh precisely in its suggestive unfamiliarity, Schmidt’s book offers us an opportunity to consider not just the rewards of tradition, but its very real risks. In these two very new books about old ones, both Schmidt and Mack advance what might be called literary conservatism, but with a difference: Mack champions a certain vision of Eurocentric tradition as he expands it to include voices from the margins, while Schmidt tries to preserve the integrity of a single beloved poem. In forcing us to go back to the basics of meaning-making, Schmidt works toward a hermeneutics of modesty and care, pointing toward a more expansive, and less imperialist, approach to world literature.


Despite its authoritative ring, “tradition” is a relatively new keyword in literary studies. In 1919, T. S. Eliot remarked that “[i]n English writing we seldom speak of tradition.” The phrase “literary tradition” seems to have originated with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in his 1858 lecture “Qu’est-ce-que c’est la tradition littéraire?” Mack rehearses this history in his introduction, working his way through the OED entry on the word and helpfully alerting us to the historical links between tradition and schooling, as well as the ideological spin put on the word by early Protestants, who rejected Catholic doctrine as non scripta sed tradita — not written, but (merely) handed-down. Perhaps this religious connotation, Mack suggests, explains why the term was not employed by critics until the 19th century, when the intellectual conflicts of the Reformation had moved off the battlefields and into the history books.

It seems more likely that a distinctly modern historical awareness allowed tradition to become self-conscious. And it is fitting that Eliot, who perceived himself to be at a moment of crisis in Western letters, remains the most influential theorist of tradition in English. Originality, for Eliot, means not only rupture with the past, but creative (and often erudite) continuity with the literature that has come before. “The historical sense,” according to Eliot, “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” For Eliot, a great work enters into the timeless pantheon and ever so slightly rearranges it.

Mack makes unlikely bedfellows of Eliot and Hans-Georg Gadamer, who argued in Truth and Method (1960) that we are born into tradition the same way that Martin Heidegger — one of Gadamer’s teachers — imagined us to be thrown into the world. Tradition emerges when a historically situated reader tries to make sense of an artifact, balancing what she expects to find with what she actually discovers. Reading Old Books proposes five such encounters between authors and their predecessors, “a sequence of moments in which individual readers and writers make use of what previous writers and thinkers give them in order to make something new.”

The book begins, predictably, with Petrarch, the self-appointed founder of the Italian Renaissance and its most important theorist of literary imitation. Mack then moves to Chaucer and his use of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato as a model for Troilus and Criseyde, a medieval romance that unfolds against the backdrop of the Fall of Troy, before taking on the epic proper in an impressive chapter on Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Through expert readings, Mack brings Eliot’s literary tradition to life, showing these authors rewriting previous epic poets to explore questions of fate, genre, and psychology.

The character of his book changes, however, as Mack moves away from Renaissance imitation to the modern era, away from epic to prose fiction, and away from the strictly literary to social and historical “traditions.” In his essay on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), a novel that grapples with the poverty and social unrest of 19th-century Manchester, Mack argues that Gaskell “used her understanding of literary tradition to articulate and develop her new female point of view on the new urban poverty caused by industrialization.” Using the tools of realist fiction — above all, lifelike detail — Gaskell compels the reader to sympathize with the plight of those whom prosperity left behind. Just as many of her female characters urge charity and mercy toward the disadvantaged, Gaskell teaches her reader to see social ills through (in Mack’s slightly cringe-worthy formulation) a “woman’s point of view.” Gaskell’s books stirred controversy; in the author’s own account, her novel Ruth was even burned. In order “to justify and encourage her own originality,” Gaskell makes references to the many (mostly male) authors she had read, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Scott to Carlyle. At the same time, Gaskell corresponded with other female writers, notably George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, forming a horizontal community of women writers for moral support that the fossilized vertical tradition of past writers couldn’t provide. Gaskell wielded, and expanded, tradition to countercultural ends.

The semantic and geographic expansion of “tradition” continues in Mack’s final chapter on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s caustic satire of post-imperial Africa, Wizard of the Crow (2006). In this final chapter, “traditional” signifies something very different than Eliot’s vein of timeless European genius, or Gadamer’s second-personal encounter. Mack writes that Ngũgĩ combines “African and western traditions to make something new” and critiques “traditional beliefs and practices even as he uses the oral and literary traditions” from his East African milieu. Non-African readers, Mack observes, may miss many of the political subtleties — just as non-European readers may not immediately understand the historical, religious, and literary subtleties of Chaucer or Spenser or Gaskell — so Mack highlights the novel’s allusions to the likes of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Conrad. Ngũgĩ’s immersion in both “traditional” African culture and “traditional” European literary history allows him to combine “the capaciousness of the novel form with folktales, songs, proverbs, and biblical language.” The result is a book that speaks to readers of one tradition who need a way in to another.

There is a productive and interesting tension between the many meanings of “tradition” in this chapter: social and literary, African and European, self-proclaimed and retrospectively assigned. But Mack does not acknowledge these ambiguities. Is Mack suggesting that “traditional” African literary history forms a tradition that resembles T. S. Eliot’s or Gadamer’s? Is he trying to make space in the European tradition for non-European literary modes? Or is he arguing that, as his own style of analysis seems to suggest, African “tradition” is only accessible to a non-African reader when it is translated into the familiar narrative language of the novel and peppered with intelligible references to the European tradition? Mack never directly considers the question of universality, even as he gestures at something like world literature.

Mack’s readings are compelling and thorough — sometimes exhaustingly so, like when he lists and explicates precisely 12 ways in which Chaucer learned from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, or distills his conclusions on tradition to seven handy points. But, as the unaddressed terminological slippage in these final chapters shows, Mack operates either at 40,000 feet or at 500, either in the heady, male, and Eurocentric realm of Gadamer and Eliot or the dense thicket of close reading. Petrarch and Chaucer write poems in response to precursors, and Gaskell and Ngũgĩ, unable or unwilling to leave behind the historical situation that shaped their lives, trope on social and cultural “traditions” through their intervention into literary tradition. But it is Mack who, in picking up on their clues, completes the circuit. Or doesn’t. Reading through and for tradition enriches some texts, as Mack shows, but it might warp our reading of others.

In short, Mack does not consider his own blind spots, or more generally how the identity, historical situation, ideological convictions of the critic have any bearing on how a tradition comes to be. An engagement with contemporary theories of reception, literary influence, and canon formation would have forced Mack to address these gaps. But Mack chooses instead to derive his conclusions from textual analysis alone. The result is a fine-grained but narrow study of Renaissance literature with two added chapters that, depending on how you read them, represent either an admirable attempt to test old hypotheses on new data, or a tokenizing and clumsy gesture to colonize new territory.

Mack doesn’t even consider the problem of translation. Understandably, Mack writes on texts written in languages that he knows: literature in Latin, Italian, and English. (Ngũgĩ’s book was written in Kikuyu but translated by the author into English, a language in which he intentionally stopped writing in the 1970s.) Eliot’s and Gadamer’s theories of tradition require an unmediated encounter with an original, and immersion in the social and intellectual world from which it came. Writers can and do read their precursors in translation, but they’ll never reach that dialogue of interpretation Gadamer described; scholars, too, need direct contact to track the subtle interplay of texts. An expansion of tradition beyond a single language, not to mention an Anglophone or even a global literary tradition, is only as possible — or as impossible — as translation.


The questions of literal and figurative translation that Mack avoids in Reading Old Books are at the heart of Michael Schmidt’s probing and playful essay, Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem. For Schmidt, the poem’s resistance to the literary status quo is the source of its poetic energy. Schmidt’s careful and self-reflexive approach to Gilgamesh models the sort of reading required when engaging with the literature that lies at the boundaries of the familiar. If Mack’s approach shows us what tradition has meant, Schmidt shows us what it could mean as the scope of literary study expands.

Though Gilgamesh is the oldest long poem we have, dating from around 2000 BCE (more than 1,200 years before the Homeric poems were transcribed in the version we have inherited), the poem is a “a relatively new classic.” Homer has preoccupied 150 generations of scholars, and Virgil 100, but Gilgamesh was only decoded in 1872. The poem’s 11 canonical tablets (roughly equivalent to Homeric “books,” and probably just as arbitrary) are preserved in Sumerian and Akkadian, languages even deader than Greek and Latin. The poem has, as a result, often been brought into English by translators with little knowledge of the original, and shoehorned into a style that imposes a family resemblance to Homer and Virgil and the influential translations of these poems that fixed the sound of epic in our ears. The many gaps and uncertainties in the fragmentary and polyphonic textual tradition are papered over to create the illusion of coherence and legibility.

But Gilgamesh stands outside the tradition Mack describes, and, Schmidt writes, we should “step away from received dogma that tells us to read it as an early manifestation of the European epic.” Such a reading, he suggests, eliminates any chance for something like an unprejudiced encounter with the poem. Schmidt is haunted by the essential otherness of Gilgamesh, chasing it through his tablet-by-tablet commentary, as well as digressions on the text’s rediscovery, its use for contemporary writers, and above all its irreducible particularity.

That said, Gilgamesh does feel familiar. It’s the story of the arrogant young king of Uruk and how, through travel and misfortune, he comes to terms with his own mortality. Gilgamesh’s first lesson comes in a showdown with Enkidu, a wildman created by the goddess Anu to humble the king. Their fight ends in friendship, and they set off for the Cedar Forest to take on the fearsome god that protects it and to cut down great trees with which to build up Uruk. In a dream, Enkidu learns that he will be punished for this transgression, since it was he who urged Gilgamesh to kill the god, and after a long illness, he dies. Racked with grief, Gilgamesh wanders the earth. He begins to worry that he, too, will die, and sets out to visit the immortals in the underworld to find the secret to eternal life. There Uta-napishti, Gilgamesh’s ancestor, recounts the story of a great flood sent by the god — seemingly an anticipation of the flood story in Genesis, the stuff of newspaper headlines when the poem was rediscovered in the 19th century. He is told of a secret plant that will let him live forever. He goes and finds it, only for a snake to steal it when he is not paying attention. In the end, the hero’s quest nets him nothing besides experience. Older and wiser, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, knowing that death is inevitable. In the poem’s closing passage, Gilgamesh revels in his worldly accomplishments, showing off his great city to the boatman who had ferried him back from the underworld. 

You might call this an epic, but, why not “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge, the first heterosexual romance in poetry”? Schmidt revels in the primordial pluripotentiality of the poem, the way it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all the genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyric and chronicle, that have followed it.” Yet Gilgamesh doesn’t quite belong to any one of them. “Given the damaged state of the tablets and the ambiguities of the languages in which it survives,” Schmidt writes, “we can never tune in to the poem precisely; there is static and the volume refuses to be evenly controlled.”

The hugely popular Penguin translation by N. K. Sandars, many readers’ first exposure to Gilgamesh, domesticates the poem to Schmidt’s ears. Sandars picks out a single note from the noise and turns the static down to zero. “I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh,” Sandars begins:

This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

The first-person narrator of this translation immediately recalls the opening of the Aeneid; “the man,” and the emphasis on knowledge attained through a “journey,” puts the poem into anachronistic dialogue with the Odyssey. But a closer, foreignizing translation allows us to see that Gilgamesh reads quite differently — that there is, as the writer Peter Davidson put it to Schmidt, an “alternative antiquity” to be found. Scholar-translator Andrew George, whose version replaced Sandars’s in the Penguin series, emerges as Schmidt’s heroic guide. George’s version hovers close enough to the original to allow the reader to participate in making sense of the highly fragmentary poem.

He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
            [who] knew …, was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
            [who] knew …, was wise in all matters!

[He] … everywhere …
            and [learnt] of everything the sum of wisdom.
He saw what was secret, discovered what was hidden,
            he brought back a tale of before the Deluge.

He came a far road, was weary, found peace,
            and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.
He built the rampart of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
            of holy Eanna, the sacred storehouse.

George refuses to conceal the text’s gaps, the questions of interpretation that another translator might answer for the reader. The reader must cope with the poem not just as a story but as a historical document, a product and victim of a physical tradition that changes as clay tablets bearing new bits of text are dug out of the earth. Gilgamesh never lets you forget who, and when, you are.

The very fact that Gilgamesh has not been stabilized and assimilated, the very fact that it has not been integrated into the timeless and immaterial tradition of Western literature in the kinds of encounters Mack studies — the poem’s essential strangeness is what excites Schmidt. “We appreciate how suggestively alien, indeed how original in both senses, the poem is,” he writes. To translate and read Gilgamesh as we read the Iliad or the Aeneid would be to neutralize the poem — and, for Schmidt and the many contemporary poets whose voices he brings into his book, to miss an opportunity to reimagine our literary origin story, or to posit a plurality of stories rather than one continuous tradition.

If Gilgamesh isn’t an epic, what is it? Schmidt suggests that the best way of classifying Gilgamesh is as an agon, or contest, “in a number of (non-generic) senses: a wrestling contest, a wider combat, a religious conflict, a profound confrontation with the almost unbendable facts of human fate.” Resistant both to translation and imitation, Gilgamesh is also an agon with tradition. The poem has yet to find its ideal translator, a modern-day Chapman or Pope, but more importantly it has yet to be rewritten by its Virgil, Milton, or Walcott. It has been neither illuminated and obscured by generations of writers, nor through the impressive but imperious translations that Emily Wilson so powerfully critiqued in the preface to her Odyssey as “silenc[ing] dissent and discourag[ing] deeper modes of engagement.” The very absence of Gilgamesh from Western literary history has paradoxically preserved its power, vertiginously old but, for us, breathtakingly new. The poem awaits us, demanding that each reader wrestle with the “almost unbendable” facts of history and language in the hope of an elusive encounter.


Max Norman has written for, PublicBooks, Literary Review, and Apollo Magazine, among others. He is currently a graduate student in classics.