Wednesday, June 25, 2008

'Silver Age' Literature

I was intrigued by a footnote in Stephen Hinds' Allusion and Intertext regarding the post-antique designation of early imperial literature as 'silver'--namely, how long this designation has been around, which according to the OED goes back at least to 1736 (p. 83 n. 66).

So I went to the OED entry for 'silver age'. The first meaning is the mythical one: 'The second age of the world, according to the Greek and Roman poets, inferior in simplicity and happiness to the first or golden age.'

Definition 1.b is the literary meaning: 'The period of Latin literature from the death of Augustus to that of Hadrian.' And indeed, the first use is from 1736, where Ainsworth writes: 'Tacitus, Pliny the historian, Suetonius, and some other prose writers, flourished in the silver age.' The next use comes in Charles Butler's Life of Hugo Grotius:'The language of the Pandects is of the silver age.'

What I find most interesting is the way in which a term used to describe a mythical period in ancient literature (cf. subiit argentea proles, Ovid Met.1.114) has made its way into English as a literary-historical term to describe the actual poetry (and prose) of certain ancient writers. Huh.

1 comment:

Chris Weimer said...

If I recall, some "silver age" authors actually first designated Cicero, Vergil, and company as authors of the "Golden Age". So naturally taken up from that Silver Age would be a complement. My OED is packed before the move, so I cannot check it at the moment.

Chris Weimer