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 James Morwood, of Wadham College, Oxford, author of many books, including the A Latin Grammar, The Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek, and most recently The Oxford Latin Course, College edition (Oxford University Press, 2012).
My favourite commentary is R. Deryck Williams’ Aeneid, which dates from 1973 and is now published by the Bristol Classical Press. I think that the main reason that I love it is that it is the work of a man who himself loved Virgil both wisely and well. This love shines on every page. It is a deeply civilized edition, constantly slipping into quotations from English poetry which set the Aeneid in its place near the font of European literature. It is odd that, as reception gains a more and more firm foothold, editors have become increasingly uptight about including literary parallels from the Renaissance and later in their texts. Williams read the Aeneid once a year – each time, he used to say, wondering whether Aeneas would bring himself to abandon Dido – and his understanding of the poem as a whole informs the edition throughout.
Of course, it is a work marked by its seventies vintage. It advances the “two voices” view of the poem that we identify with Harvard, and up to a point it tells us what to think. In fact, the two voices approach seems to have weathered well; and even if my own feeling is that editors should present the evidence objectively, giving their own view but not trying too overtly to influence their readers into accepting it, the passage of time has meant that we can regard Williams’ obiter dicta with a questioning sense of detachment. The thoughtful student of any age has nothing to fear and everything to gain from immersion in these pages.
It is not difficult to patronize Williams, as indeed Nicholas Horsfall has done. He wrote too much about this poet and was liable to repetition; his views could later slip into the banal. But he was a good scholar who lived and breathed Virgil, and that has made his edition an inspirational vade mecum for the Aeneid.