in Language, Reviews, Scholarship

Farewell, K.J. Dover

I’ve read on rogueclassicism of the death of Kenneth Dover, and thought it might be worth sharing what may be the first assessment of his work as a Hellenist in print.

When Kenneth Dover was just 19 (in 1939) Oxford published his winning lines for the Gaisford Prize for Greek Verse. His model was a selection of 113 lines from Racine’s Phèdre, and this publication was reviewed very favorably by the great Lionel Pearson (perhaps best known for The Local Historians of Attica, published three years after this review), who wrote that this “Oxford prize version in iambic trimeter is a reminder that the wholesome and fascinating practice of Greek verse composition has not been abandoned by English undergraduates and that their standard is a high one.”

I’d like to quote at length to show the respect the young Dover earned from Pearson, and which he should still command from us now:

The opening scene of the Phèdre introduces a theme entirely strange to the story told by Euripides. Hippolytus, after first giving the excuse that it is high time he departed in search of his absent father, explains to his tutor Theramenes that he must flee from Troezen because he has fallen in love with Aricia, whom he can never marry because of his father’s deadly feud with her brothers, the Pallantidae; and since he has not yet performed any heroic exploits, he dares not face the shame which his love is likely to bring him if he remains behind; the irregular loves of Theseus, he feels, can be excused only in consideration of his benefits to civilization; he himself cannot give that excuse

ὡς ταὐτὸ κείνω πανδίκως φράσαι παθεῖν.

Such argument is in the Euripidean spirit and it is admirably presented in lucid idiomatic Greek.

— CW 33. 5 (1939), p. 52

At 19 Dover was a master of Greek verse in a way that it seems none of us can be today, and in that he seems to have belonged to another time. The scholar he became seems just as out of time, but I suppose great scholars always do.

Reading through his commentaries (e.g., his Theocritus is still the best in my eyes) is an experience unmatched by more modern, chattier, less-definite works. He could be authoritative while being frank about the state of the evidence, cutting through the common mistakes and false suppositions of other editors without condescending. He was, unlike so many, willing to say that a question could not be answered, and both his front matter and notes were tempered by good judgment and attention to the needs of his readers. (Too often today scholars are prone to cram their research into every page, whether the reader needs it or not.)

I’ll be giving some time again to reading through his works and finding inspiration from his example.