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Favorite Commentaries: Ariana Traill

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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 Ariana Traill, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Sidney Gillespie Ashmore (1852-1911), Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Union College from 1881 to 1911, was the author of what is still the only complete commented edition of all six of Terence’s extant plays in English. A fine scholar and exacting teacher, Ashmore had little patience for the encroachment of non-traditional subjects into the college curriculum. According to Union’s Shaffer Library website:

He considered Latin, Greek and English literature and language far more important for a student than mathematics or the physical sciences and felt that Union was straying from the path of true education when it began offering programs in what Ashmore termed “pseudo-practical” fields such as electrical engineering.

Sidney Ashmore, circa 1881

His passionate nature also occasionally made “Ashy,” as students nicknamed him, a target of student pranks. In October of 1883, again according the researchers of the Shaffer Library, a group of sophomores got an organ grinder to play outside his classroom. Ashmore paid him to go away, but when the organ grinder was found playing at the back window, Professor Ashmore jumped out the window to chase him away, famously putting on his hat prior to doing so.

Whatever his failings as an appreciator of music, his Terence commentary is still very valuable, and I have retained a fondness for it first gained during my own days as an undergraduate student. It is an old-fashioned commentary in the nineteenth century style (you can find all of Suetonius’ Life of Terence in the introduction – in untranslated Latin), published by Oxford in 1908. What I liked about it as a student was Ashmore’s unerring sense of the stumbling blocks for novice readers. He supplies the missing words, without wasting any space about it (Eun. 666, “miserae: sc. mihi”), and will helpfully tell you when an ellipsis “was hardly felt” (as at Ad. 326, quis ergo: sc. fecit). He always names the construction (especially when it isn’t what you might think it should be, like facis at And. 322, “the pres. is more vivid than the fut.”) and he anticipates issues that stump first time readers (Who is subject of inquit at Eun. 581? Oh yes, Thais. The dum at Phorm. 512? “Purely temporal; ‘while’.”) Ashmore doesn’t miss much: it’s a rare line that does not have its own entry in the comments. You can count on him for admirably brief, but informative, definitions of unfamiliar vocabulary: frugalior (HT 681) “comparative of frugi; ‘more exemplary’”; depexum (HT 951) “combed down,” “curried,” hence “flogged.” The notes are sometimes amusing (e.g., perduint, “the form was archaic even in Terence’s time, and confined mostly to this curse”, HT 811).

And Ashmore did more than explain grammar and translation questions: he provided reminders of what one character knows that another doesn’t; he pointed out staging (HT 731, for instance, was “said in a loud voice, that Clinia and Syrus may hear”), explained characters’ motivation and noted ironies. Even more useful, he presented the information needed to follow the plot on a scene-by-scene basis. There were no long plot summaries to read (and forget) at the beginning of the play: just three to four sentences every few pages, throughout the commentary, where they helped most. Yes, you had to flip back to cross-references to find the first time a question was answered; you had to know Greek to get the point of the untranslated phrases that appeared regularly throughout the comments; and, despite the introduction and occasional notes, there was not enough help to elucidate the far-from-simple scansion of Terence’s iambo-trochaics. But there was never a lot of reading to get the essential information from Ashmore’s elegant, concise, and lucid comments, and it was never a waste of time to read his note on a line. He did what the Bryn Mawr Commentaries, and now the DCC, do: he helped students understand the Latin with a minimum of explanation.

What I came to appreciate later, as a scholar and teacher, is that Ashmore wrote with a view to teaching reading comprehension, not just translation. He glosses in the target language (HT 723 Syri promissa induxerant = Syrus promissis induxit). He explains much that is implicit, what we might call the cultural competence of a native speaker. For example, a note on cistellam, at Eun. 753, explains birth-tokens, infant exposure, and the implication here that “Pamphila had been kidnapped.” His comment on ridiculum at Ph. 901 explains what Demipho is not saying but clearly means, namely “that it’s absurd to ask such a question, as if their purpose in coming to him were not self-evident. Phormio must return the money, which (in their view) he is no longer entitled to keep.” Ashmore understood that there is much more to following a Latin conversation than simply glossing the grammar and the vocabulary. He translated frequently, but always with a view to elucidating the Latin, often juxtaposing a literal translation with a freer one. Eatur (HT 743) is a good example: “let a start be made (then),” “let us go.” After years of teaching myself, I recognize the scene summaries as a well-tested pre-reading strategy to promote comprehension of passages that are being read for the first time. Ashmore also integrated his scholarship so deftly that, to be perfect honest, I ignored it almost entirely as a sophomore reading Terence for the first time. I came to recognize later that this text and commentary was a substantial work of scholarship. Of course, recent and fuller commentaries on individual plays have superseded Ashmore, notably R.H. Martin’s Adelphoe, John Barsby’s Eunuchus and A.S. Gratwick’s Brothers. Yet Ashmore’s remains a model of a commentary with a keen awareness of what students actually need.

Favorite Commentaries: Meghan Reedy

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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 Meghan Reedy, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Dickinson College. Her current research is on emotional display in Roman poetry, particularly in the moody love poems of Propertius.

I have a real fondness for David Mankin’s Green & Yellow commentary on the Epodes of Horace. As an undergraduate I loved Kenneth Quinn’s commentary on Catullus. It seemed to hold out the allure of Things Rare and Obscure, and I remember feeling drawn to its tiny fatness, and its densely printed pages—but it was in using Mankin’s Epodes as a graduate student that I came to appreciate something else: namely that an understanding of Rare and Obscure Things is a common goal, and not a trophy.

The first thing I learned from Mankin was that special, cool things need not be beyond comprehension, chilly or impersonal. A work in any genre of academic writing can give the impression, accidentally or on purpose, that it has been received from a higher plane of super-human erudition, rather than written by an insightful person. But the risk of giving such a false impression is especially high in a commentary. A commentator writing for students tends, for good reason, not to develop ideas at much length—which also means that there is not much opportunity to convey a sense of personality, of a distinctive point of view. The reader, on the other hand, tends to go to a commentary precisely for such succinct explanations, looking for aid in an encounter with the Real Author at hand, Horace or Livy or whoever, and not looking for an encounter with some commentator. But it happens anyway. Even with so little to go on, even without meaning to, one invariably trusts or distrusts a commentator, feels a kinship or a distance, ease or frustration. And with Mankin for the first time I felt a kinship. I had the sense as I worked through his Epodes that we were sharing an aim, and I appreciated his candor about what he thought Horace was up to and what struck him as difficult to interpret. It was a revelation to me that this was at all possible.

Which of course led to a knock-on revelation: I realized that commentaries could be controversial. If commentators were actually people, their work was thus something other people were entitled to form real opinions about, to engage with and turn over in the mind. Marvelous to consider, I found that I too had opinions, and could attempt to solve riddles.

Who would have thought a commentator, a mere commentator, could have such an effect? Who knew that commentators mattered in this way? But they do.

Favorite Commentaries: James Morwood

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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.

Mr. James Morwood, Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford

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.

Favorite Commentaries: Terence Tunberg

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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 Terence Tunberg, Professor of Classics at the University of Kentucky, and director of the Conventiculum Latinum Lexintoniense:

Sallust in usum Delphini

Daniel Crispinus’ 1674 edition of Sallust, in usum Delphini

When I taught Sallust two years ago, I benefited enormously from a commentary on Sallust’s works that most classicists today would consider obsolete.  My students (most of whom couldn’t care less about what is considered obsolete and what is regarded as current practice) enjoyed the commentary even more than I did. Most of them were quite new to reading unadapted Latin texts, and using this commentary seemed to accelerate their appreciation of Latin as Latin. Here is the title, along with place and date of publication:

C. Sallustii Crispi quae ex<s>tant in usum serenissimi Galliarum Delphini diligenter recensuit et notulas addidit Daniel Crispinus (Parisiis apud Fredericum Leonard, 1674)

All of the introductory material and explanatory notes accompanying the text of Sallust in this edition are written in clear and elegant Latin. Moreover, on every page there is a Latin paraphrase of Sallust’s text, which really amounts to a translation of Sallust’s works into a different Latin. This well-written paraphrase/translation admirably fills out the sense of some of Sallust’s more compressed and elliptical phrases. The Latin footnotes (which are written in a very simple style) not only  explain grammatical peculiarities and harder constructions, but also provide historical and biographical explanations to clarify Sallust’s text.

While all participants in my Sallust course benefited in many ways from the seventeenth century edition, we all, of course, felt the need to use supplementary material now and then.  Historical and cultural information, and some of the textual notes, required updating in light of recent scholarship.  Nevertheless, I came away with huge respect for this seventeenth-century edition as a superb pedagogical instrument – which provides all sorts of necessary help, but keeps the reader always in the target language. The students using this edition had many times the exposure to Latin constructions and vocabulary than they would have had, if they were using a recent edition in which the text of Sallust is explained by copious notes in English.

The late seventeenth-century editions of classical texts (both Greek and Latin) printed in Paris, and entitled in/ad usum Delphini, were indeed “for the use of the Dauphin,” namely for the son of the king of France.  But the phrase in usum Delphini also appears in later editions which had no connection with the royal house of France.

Jean Clouet, “The Dauphin François, Son of François I.” First half of the 16th c., oil on panel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.

In such editions this phrase in usum Delphini simply indicates the edition is designed for the younger readers in general, who are still getting used to the reading of the unadapted texts of ancient writers. Such, for example, were the classical texts printed in London in aedibus Valpianis during the early nineteenth century. These British editions also feature detailed explanatory notes written in simple Latin, but these notes are often swollen to such size that there is often room for only a tiny amount of original text on each page. Moreover, by comparison with the 1674 edition of Sallust described above, the Latin paraphrase of the classical author’s text was often vestigial or non-existent.

So, my hat is off to those who produced the original editions in usum Delphini.

Images:Google Books and  Wikimedia Commons.

Favorite Commentaries: William Turpin

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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.


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)