Favorite Commentaries: William Turpin

What is your favorite classical commentary?  What place did it have in your intellectual development? Recently I asked the members of the DCC editorial board to write for the blog about these questions. Here is the response of William Turpin, Professor of Classics at Swarthmore College, and author of the DCC edition of Ovid’s Amores, Book 1:

In practice the most important commentaries are simply those that help me with the language. Daniel Garrison’s editions of Catullus and Horace, for instance, explain the things that he believes students will usually find mysterious, and that frees up my mind to concentrate on everything else. If I can’t understand a passage after checking the commentary, at least I know that it’s my fault.

The transformative commentaries in my own life have been those of T. E. Page, on Vergil. The small red volumes of text and commentary published by Macmillan were as iconic for classicists of my generation as OCTs and Loebs, and not just because they are so wonderfully portable. Their authors are deeply learned, insightful, and stimulating, though even relatively modern editions were probably unrealistic in what they expected of their readers; Kenneth Quinn, in 1970, could expect students of Catullus 51 to profit from his quoting Sappho 31 in the original Greek, with no translation.

Thomas Ethelbert Page (1850-1936), spent 37 years as a master at Charterhouse, one of the great English “public schools” (or we would say “private boys’ schools”). He remained at Charterhouse despite offers of headships of other public schools, and even the chair of Latin at Cambridge. He is also the subject of a short biography by the distinguished Latinist Niall Rudd, (T. E. Page: Schoolmaster Extraordinary, 1981), which I have not seen, and there is apparently a portrait of him at St. Johns College, Cambridge.

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T.E. Page

In his 1929 autobiography, Good-bye to All That (which is mostly about his experiences as an infantry officer in the First World War), the poet Robert Graves mentions the profound influence Page’s teaching had on him. English poetry, in those days, was rarely taught in schools, which concentrated on Latin and Greek, but Page’s love of poetry and poetic language had a profound effect on Graves, no doubt on hundreds of other boys, and on readers of his commentaries.

A good example of what I mean is offered by Page’s comments on the first two lines of Eclogue I:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena
nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva:
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. 

Perhaps I might have found these lines appealing without Page’s help; they are, after all, some of the most important lines in western literature. But Page can pull the language apart in a way that I have never found easy: he comments on “the marked antithesis between tu and nos repeated in inverse order, and the pathetic repetition of patriae and patriam.” And Page enriches our connection with Musam meditaris by quoting Milton in Lycidas: “and strictly meditate the thankless Muse.”

All of this is the standard stuff of commentaries, and Page is by no means a comprehensive guide to what we would now call the “reception” of Vergil. Moreover his taste in “modern” poetry would now be considered downright reactionary; I remember him as referring above all to Milton, to the Psalms, and I think also Shelley. But he was the first classicist I encountered in print who gave me a sense of what made Latin poetry, and English poetry, worth reading.

William Turpin

image source: Michael Gilleland (no known copyright restrictions)

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