Posted by Dennis » 1 Comment »
I first encountered the story that Eric lately referred to in Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, but allusions crop up here and there, due in no small part to the contrast which it offers to Housman’s published persona, which was powerfully polemical and often alienating. I think it’s worth reading, so stick around through the set-up.
In chapter 21, “A Century of Scholarship,” Professor Highet (who wrote elsewhere on The Art of Teaching) has some words for what he considered the worst possible teaching, namely that which views Greek and Latin as “a science, and nothing but a science.”
His illustration is the life of A.E. Housman, who believed that his purpose as Professor of Latin was to be a textual critic, which is to say to work toward the reconstitution of ancient texts. Until that work was done, literary criticism was not possible.
It was admirable, and he was responsible for great advancements in philology best exemplified in his essay “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (available in The Name and Nature of Poetry, and some online versions may be found, though they often have corrupt Greek). I think we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction, producing generations of un-philological classicists who fancy themselves literary critics while acting under the false assumption that our texts are secure. But I digress.
Housman took his appointment so seriously that he abandoned Greek, an area in which he had previously received such high praise from the likes of Wilamowitz. And we should remember that Housman, who acknowledged himself a pedant, admired the legendary Richard Bentley, whose emendations are ubiquitous, often brilliant, and always instructive even when incorrect.
And in this pursuit of textual criticism, Highet believed, he became a bad teacher of poetry. This is a matter of perspective. Housman saw himself as a teacher of language and of texts, not of poems.
But here, then, comes the surprising moment when Housman revealed his appreciative, poetic soul. The following was recorded in a letter by one of his students, and reprinted by Highet:
‘[O]ne morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached…the seventh ode in the fourth book of Horace…. This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said: “I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.” Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own (now the fifth in More Poems). “That,” he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and walked quickly out of the room.’
One of the men who watched this said, ‘I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’ He was. In part because of the the extreme sensitivity which made it uncomfortable for him even to recall certain lines of poetry while shaving, because his skin bristled and turned the razor’s edge; but in part also because of his embarrassment at feeling that he he had permitted personal emotion to escape, and invade what he held should be nothing but an objective field of thought, sterile as ice, bright as an operating table.
I think it’s obvious that Highet is wrong on one point, which I’ve already mentioned above: it’s not ‘Greek and Latin’ that Housman strove to keep sterile, but his very specific task as a textual critic. It was not his business, not his academic charge, to advocate for poets or to impose taste upon other men: his was simply to restore texts and teach others the skills necessary to do the same.
Outside his job, he was as human as the rest of us.
Posted by Eric » Add Comment »
Color me excited. I just leard that the topic of our special seminar with Michael Putnam next Saturday (part of the annual Michels lecture events) is Horace Odes 1.4 and 4.7, two poems that we read in class this semester. Housman said that 4.7 was the most beautiful poem in the Latin language. Dennis has an even better Housman anecdote about the poem, if he would be so kind to share it with us and tell us where he learned of it :).
Posted by Dennis » Add Comment »
Maximus Planudes, the great Byzantine scholar of the Palaeologan renaissance, composed a Greek translation of the Distichs of Cato (Catonis Disticha), a collection of moral advice in Latin, of late date and popular for centuries. The portion that caught my eye was the prologue to book two:
Εἰ μὲν γηπονίας ἐθέλεις μαθέειν πολυκάρπους,
Ἡσίοδον μέτιθι κλυτόν. εἰ δ’ αὖ εἰδέναι αἱρῇ
τὰς βοτανῶν δυνάμεις, Νίκανδρος τάς σε διδάξει.
εἰ δὲ Φρυγῶν ποθέεις Δαναῶν τε δαῆναι ἀγῶνας,
δίζεο θεῖον Ὅμηρον, ὃς Ἄρεος ἔργ’ ἀγορεύει.
εἰ δέ γ’ ἐρᾶν βούλει τοῦ ἐρᾶν τε τέχνην ἐπιγνῶναι,
στεῖχε Θεόκριτον ἀμφὶ γυναιμανῆ. εἰ δὲ μέλει σοι
σὺν σοφίῃ ζώειν, κλύε μοι κείνων ἃ μαθεῖν χρή,
ὧν διὰ πᾶς βότον παθέων δίχα πάντα διοικεῖ·
δεῦρ’ ἴθι γοῦν καὶ τίπτε πέλει σοφίη σύ γε μυοῦ.
I’ll give a quick and dirty translation (no time to look things up):
If you want to learn about fruitful tillage, follow famed Hesiod.
And if you’d rather know the powers of plants, Nicander will teach you these.
And if you long to learn about the contests of the Phrygians and the Danaans, seek out divine Homer, who tells the works of Ares.
And if you prefer loving and learning the art of love, follow Theocritus on madness for women.
The oddest bit here is probably the reference to Theocritus as a writer of love poetry on women.
Here’s the Latin original:
Telluris si forte velis cognoscere cultus,
Virgilium legito; quod si mage nosse laboras
Herbarum vires, Macer tibi carmina dicit.
Si romana cupis et punica noscere bella,
Lucanum quaeras, qui Martis proelia dixit.
Si quid amare libet, vel discere amare legendo,
So on agriculture Vergil was preceded by Hesiod. Despite this common connection, Hesiod was less a model for Vergil than was Nicander, author of the lost Georgica (only fragments, preserved by Athenaeus, survive). Planudes must have known this, but knew just as well that the Georgica could not be consulted, which would render his translation inept in a sense. Advice only matters when it can be followed, even if it is just a literary exercise.
Aemilius Macer will tell you the powers of plants, and he too followed Nicander, this time inspired by the Alexipharmaca, one of Nicander’s two extant works (one of our principal manuscripts of the Theriaca and the Alexipharmaca is written in Planudes’ own hand). The poem concerned both poisons and antidotes. Lucan, rather than Vergil, is the poet of epic, and he of course followed Homer. Finally Ovid’s love poetry was preceded by the amatory idylls of Theocritus. If they did not predominate among his idylls, then at least Ovid had a prodigious output not limited to love poems.
What makes this translation most interesting to me are two things: (1) that Planudes substituted Greek authors who wrote on their various themes before the Romans, and were often their models, and (2) that Planudes only used extant works that his own audience actually could read. This is translation of a sort we rarely see, making the material as relevant and accessible to the audience as if it were not a foreign work at all while still maintaining its antiquarian nature.