A Walk with Vergil: Esther Popel Shaw’s Journey with Latin in Dickinson College at the Turn of the 20th Century

Dickinson’s first female African-American student Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) was a devoted Latin student, and thirty years after graduation she named classicist Mervin G. Filler as a favorite professor. In the spring of 2017 Michelle E. Hoffer (’17) wrote about the academic experiences of Popel Shaw, with a focus on how she would have encountered the Aeneid. This research was carried out in the archives at Dickinson College with assistance from archivist James Gerencser, and the essay was written as part of the Vergil seminar taught by Prof. Francese.

My research focuses on Esther Popel Shaw, the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, and her journey with the Classics, particularly Vergil’s Aeneid. By examining Aeneid commentaries of the time, as well as archived academic documents such as course catalogs and entrance requirements, I will attempt to reconstruct Esther Popel Shaw’s experience with Vergil at the turn of the twentieth century. I will attempt to paint a picture of her journey through the Latin Scientific Curriculum from 1915-1919, specifically insofar as she was taught to read and interpret the Aeneid and other ancient Latin texts. Ultimately, I aim to answer the question,
“Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?”

Esther Popel Shaw was born in Harrisburg on July 16th, 1896 and was the first African American woman to both enroll in and graduate from Dickinson College. She graduated from Central High School in 1915 and enrolled at Dickinson the following fall.1 Because Dickinson banned African Americans from living on campus at the time, Esther commuted from Harrisburg each day, electing to pursue the Latin Scientific Course (LSC) of study, which was the same as the Classical Course, but instead of taking Ancient Greek, students in the LSC replaced the Greek with additional studies in modern languages and sciences.2

Esther herself chose to study French, German, Latin, and Spanish.3 An incredibly diligent student, Shaw received both the John Patton Memorial Prize, “an academic award granted annually to one student from each class”.4 and, upon her graduation from Dickinson in 1919, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, one of America’s most prestigious undergraduate honors societies. While Shaw held a few jobs following graduation, she spent the majority of her career as a teacher in the Washington DC area, where she taught classes ranging from French, Spanish, and English to algebra and penmanship.5 In addition to teaching, Shaw was also a very well-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as an active community member for both African American and women’s issues.

In the fall of 1915, Esther began her journey at Dickinson. And, while she only mentions Latin twice in her diary from her senior year of high school,6 we can surmise from those entries that she had a solid foundation in Latin by the time she enrolled at Dickinson. This foundation may have been a contributing factor in her decision to pursue the Latin Scientific Curriculum, which was taught in large part by Professor Mervin Grant Filler, a man whose reputation still rings through the lobby of the current Classical Studies Department, as it is named in his honor. To say he was a legend both in the Classics and at Dickinson, would be an understatement. Not only was he an brilliant scholar, but was also beloved by his students and his community, as in Shaw’s alumni survey which she completed over 30 years after graduation, she mentions him by name, saying that he gave her both “inspiration and mental stimulation” and considers herself “fortunate” to have been one of his students.7

Grant himself was a true Dickinsonian, as he attended both the Dickinson Preparatory School and then in 1889, enrolled at Dickinson College, graduating both as valedictorian and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.8 After graduation, he went on to teach Latin and Greek at the Preparatory School and then in 1899 became the professor of Latin at Dickinson College for an impressive 29 years, in which time he was also Dickinson’s 18th president. It was in 1915 that he would have met Shaw, and was very likely the only Latin professor she had in her time at Dickinson. Based on her course of study, records show that Shaw would have taken Vergil her junior year of college with Professor Grant. In his course, Grant stressed Vergil’s “works, life, and literary influence, and readings from the Eclogues and Aeneid VII-XII.”.9 The course was three hours per week for the first half of the year. The second half was devoted to Horace, Satires and Epistles. Through an archived bookstore request from Professor Filler, it is mostly like that in her study of the Aeneid, Shaw would have studied from The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI by Greenough and Kittredge, published in 1895.

However, just as today, the Aeneid is open to incredible amounts of interpretation. Thus, in order to reconstruct how Shaw may have been taught to view this great work, it is necessary to examine both the Greenough text, other commentaries of the time, and the competing cultural climates at Dickinson itself. In the early 1900s, Latin was still an entrance requirement for Dickinson, including “six books of the Aeneid” and “reading at sight of easy passages from Caesar, Cicero, and Vergil” for those wanting to pursue either the Classical or Latin Scientific Courses of study. This makes sense then why Professor Filler’s course specifically focuses on books VII-XII, as students were expected to be extremely well versed with the first six upon completing high school. Both of these facts show how valued the Classics still were in academia, both high school and undergraduate. Even in a public high school, students were being drilled and versed in the Latin so that they might be prepared for college, a far cry from the public school curriculum of today, in which students are lucky if they even get a single year of Latin. However, in Shaw’s time, Latin was still considered an important part of learning any language, and at least at Dickinson, was required to some extent for every major. Another now antiquated requirement was that of religion classes. From its roots, Dickinson was a religiously affiliated institution, in which students were required to not only take Bible classes, but were also “required to attend Church twice on the Sabbath. The place of worship, however, [was] left to their own discretion, or that of their parents or guardians.”10 And, while these two lost elements of Dickinson life and study may seem unrelated, they share many surprising ties.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Christianity was still very prevalent even in secular life, and people sought biblical meaning even in pagan things, the Aeneid as only one example. While it is impossible that Vergil intended Aeneas to be a Christ-figure, many commentaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s attempt to some level to make this connection. As John Campbell Shairp, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, says in his 1881 book Aspects of Poetry,

There is in Virgil a vein of thought and sentiment more devout, more humane, more akin to the Christian, than is to be found in any other ancient poet, whether Greek or Roman. The religious feeling which Virgil preserved in his own heart is made the more conspicuous, when we remember amidst what almost overpowering difficulties it was that he preserved it.11

Henry Frieze echoes a similar sentiment in his 1902 commentary, saying in part that

[Aeneas] is intended to be the embodiment of the courage of an ancient hero, the justice of a paternal ruler, the mild humanity of a cultivated man living in an age of advanced civilization, the saintiness of the founder of a new religion of peace and pure observance, the affection of parent and child which was one of the strongest instincts in the Italian race. The strength required in such an instrument is the strength of faith, submission, patience, and endurance.12

While no one can be sure whether Frieze intended for his words to have a religious flavor, he describes Aeneas in a way that sounds eerily parallel to that of Jesus Christ, even mentioning a “new religion of peace” and that Aeneas was an “instrument of strength and faith.” Even if this was not his intention, it certainly highlights the extent to which academic thought of that period was steeped in Christianity. In fact, this view of the Classics continued up even into post- revolutionary America, in which Caroline Winterer claims that,

The Aeneid also offered boys lessons about heroism, imperial expansion, quasi-Christian virtue, and the stoic acceptance of fate. Although the lessons in the Aeneid were not inherently more applicable to republicanism than to monarchism, Americans during and after the revolutionary era applied its themes to their project of creating a republican, Christian nation.13

Thus, throughout early American history, ancient texts were read with an eye for modern religious and sometimes political parallels, as people were desperately attempting to make these epics fit the mold of their current lives, perhaps hoping to give their own experiences deeper meaning.

With this perspective of both Dickinson and early American religious climate, it becomes much easier to reconstruct what Esther Popel Shaw might have been taught in her classes with Professor Filler on the Aeneid and how she might have been pressed to interpret them. In the Greenough-Kittredge version that she likely used, while there is no specific Christ/Christian connection made, there is both a political and religious motive attributed to Vergil’s work. The introduction declares that the Aeneid “was not written merely as a work of art, nor from a casual poetic inspiration. It is the product of a patriotic national sentiment and a belief in the divine origin and destiny of the Roman State religion.”14 Once again, political and religious motive are associated with the text and, based off of the other commentaries of the time, it is likely that Shaw would have been pressed not only to see the work through a Christian worldview, but also to apply the Aeneid to her own political and religious surroundings and search for modern-day parallels.

Today, the dialogue has shifted away from religion and onto many different branches of academic thought. Some scholars are fascinated by the underlying political message of the work, attempting to examine the ways in which socialist and democratic nations interpret the Aeneid to fit their own political structures.15 Other scholars shift the focus onto Aeneas as a hero, attempting to justify his portrayal within the larger context of epic heroes.16 And still others, like Peter Jones, take a much more multifaceted approach, examining not only Aeneas as a hero, but also Vergil and his style and his possible motivations. Perhaps Jones’ most brilliant observation in his introduction is his comparison of Aeneas to a modern hero. He says that, “Aeneas is a man who must learn to submit to the will of the gods, a response wholly at odds with much of today’s ‘culture’ which insists that following the devices and desires of one’s own heart represents the very zenith of human achievement.”17 Not only is he perfectly witty, but he also makes an astute point about the dangers of trying to force Aeneas to fit any modern conception of what it means to be a hero. Aeneas is not from our time, and he is not meant to be. Instead of desperately trying to thrust him into a mold in which he simply does not belong, we must try to use him as a model of ancient values, always keeping him within the context he was meant. There are many qualities of Aeneas’, such as determination, passion, and patience, that are still very applicable to modern life; however, if we attempt to base his worth as a hero off of some sort of one-to-one comparison with the superheroes of today, he will fade into the background, utterly misunderstood.

So, to finally answer the question, “Why were people at this time reading the Aeneid?” I must turn to Professor Robert S. Conway’s lecture, which he delivered in 1931, on the bi-millennium of Vergil’s birth. His lecture, which was titled “Poetry and Government: A Study of the Power of Vergil” ends with a call to keep the Classics strong and alive for future generations. He says, “Let us see to it that our successors may have the privilege that has been given to us of hearing the great voices that older times speak in their own accents across the silent years, of being quickened by them to know the gold from the dross, of learning from them what is simple, what is high, what is human, what is true.”18 This answer not only answers why people in Shaw’s day read Vergil, but is also just as applicable to Latinists and Classicists today. Conway understands that if we lose the ability to understand the Classics, we also lose the ability to understand the past, to understand people who somehow saw the world through a clearer lens. To Conway, these are not merely stories but windows into truth and beauty and goodness. They teach us virtues even without our knowing, like that of hard work as we struggle through the Latin, and persistence as we try to peel back the layers of meaning in each word. Conway does not see Vergil as antiquated, but as timeless. Vergil’s words stand as pillars of truth as much today as they ever did, for he showed us through his bright words and gentle verse how to be brave, how to be patient, how to be weak, and most of all how to be truly, painfully human.

1. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.
2. “Courses of Study,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 15. The Classical Course of study consisted of four hours of both Latin and Greek per week freshman year, and then an elective three hours per week for the rest of the course.
3. Doran, Malinda Triller. “Esther Popel Shaw (1896-1958).” Esther Popel Shaw (1896-
1958) Dickinson College. 2013. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/esther-popel-shaw-1896-1958.

4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. In a diary entry from Friday, June 19, 1914 she tells how her junior year report card had just come in the mail, specifically stating that she received a B in Virgil. Then again on Monday, September 28, 1914 she says that she “had a test in Greek History & rec’d a test paper in Latin in which I got a B.”
7. Esther Popel Shaw’s Alumni Questionnaire which she filled out in January of 1955.
8. Dickinson College Archives. “Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931).” Mervin Grant Filler (1873-1931) Dickinson College. 2005. Accessed April 05, 2017. http://archives.dickinson.edu/people/mervin-grant-filler-1873-1931.
9. “Latin Language and Literature,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1916-1917): 31.
10. “Public Worship,” Catalogue of Dickinson College (1834-1835): 14.
11. John Campbell Shairp, Aspects of poetry; being lectures delivered at Oxford (New
York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 140.

12. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21.

13.Caroline Winterer, “Why Did American Women Read the Aeneid,” in Blackwell
Companions to the Ancient World Series: A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and its
Tradition 2010, ed. Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-
Blackwell, 2010), 368.

14. Virgil, Walter Dennison, and Henry Frieze, Virgil’s Aeneid. Books. I.-XII. (New York,
American Book Company, 1902), 21. J.B. Greenough, and G.L. Kittredge, The Greater Poems of Virgil: Vol. 1, Aeneid I-VI.
(Boston, Ginn & Company, 1895), 34-35.

15. Ernst A. Schmidt, “The Meaning of Vergil’s “Aeneid:” American and German
Approaches,” Classical World 94 (2001), pp. 145-171.

16. Adam Parry, “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid,” Arion 2 (1963), pp. 66-80.
17. Peter Jones, Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2011), 27.

18. Robert Seymour Conway, Makers of Europe (Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
1931), 83.

Podcast: Creusa’s Farewell (Aeneid 2.776-789)

Michelle Hoffer discusses Creusa’s farewell speech to Aeneas near the end of Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid.

Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.
Creusa Appearing to Aeneas (print published in London in 1781, after a painting by Maria Cosway). Aeneas, in armour, staring up on the right, stepping forward to the left and throwing his arms out to try and embrace Creusa, who floats in mid-air, naked holding a veil billowing around her and looking down to the right at him, in the background, Troy burns. Source: The British Museum.

‘Quid tantum īnsānō iuvat indulgēre dolōrī,
ō dulcis coniūnx? Nōn haec sine nūmine dīvum
ēveniunt; nec tē comitem hinc portāre Creǖsam
fās, aut ille sinit superī rēgnātor Olympī.
Longa tibi exsilia et vāstum maris aequor arandum,       780
et terram Hesperiam veniēs, ubi Lȳdius arva
inter opīma virum lēnī fluit agmine Thybris.
Illīc rēs laetae rēgnumque et rēgia coniūnx
parta tibī; lacrimās dīlēctae pelle Creǖsae.
Nōn ego Myrmidonum sēdēs Dolopumve superbās       785
aspiciam aut Grāīs servītum mātribus ībō,
Dardanis et dīvae Veneris nurus;
sed mē magna deum genetrīx hīs dētinet ōrīs.
Iamque valē et nātī servā commūnis amōrem.’

Did she trip and fall over burning wood and lose sight of him? Was she grabbed from behind by a Greek and stabbed through the heart? Did she cry out his name as he became smaller in the distance? Did the blazing walls of a nearby house collapse on her as she fled? Or could she simply just not keep up? These are questions that we will never have the answers to, because as Aeneas and his family fled the burning Troy he told his wife to follow him “at a distance” and never looked back to make sure she was safe until it was too late. For this, he bears not only the guilt he takes on himself, but the blame of generations of readers who cannot understand why he did not protect her, why he did not let her go in front, why he did not look back.

However, this is not the reputation he deserves, at least not in Creusa’s eyes. If you look closely at the words she chooses in her farewell speech, like dulcis, comitem, dilectae and nati communis amorem, it becomes clear that these two shatter the stereotype of Roman husbands being tyrants over their wives. These two were in love. That much is clear through her words. There is a deep emotional connection embedded in this speech and it paints a picture for the reader of the love they shared, helping us to feel the pain of his loss.

Creusa, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was Aeneas’ Trojan wife whom he loses as he flees the burning city with his father and son, asking her to follow them longē or “at a distance” (2.711). Aeneas only realizes that he has lost her when he arrives at the meeting point outside the city, and immediately rushes back, only to be confronted by her shade, who delivers a moving and prophetic speech before her spirit disappears from sight. While Creusa’s final speech is the only real window we have into her character, we are provided a telling glimpse into who she was as a wife, mother, and catalyst for Aeneas’ fateful journey.

While Vergil is well known for modeling his works on those of his great predecessor Homer, Homer himself “does not have any character named Creusa, nor does he include any mention of a wife of Aeneas” (Cassali, 312). In fact the “name Creusa for the wife of Aeneas is not attested before the Augustan age”, in which both Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy mention her in their respective works (ibid.). In some of the earliest versions of the myth, Aeneas’ wife is named Eurydica, but “perhaps feeling that the name could not be dissociated from the Orpheus legend, Vergil accepted the account that her name was Creusa” (Briggs, 43). However, while Vergil may have accepted this origin, there are many textual clues that suggest the story of Orpheus and Eurydice was not far from his mind.

Through both his word choice and his thematic parallels, it is clear that Vergil borrowed the template of a lost wife from the Orpheus and Eurydice episode in the Georgics (4.453–527). Both Aeneas and Orpheus attempt to save their wives from dire situations, and in their attempted escape both men tell their wives to follow behind them. Ultimately, both fail. Both wives appear to their husbands after they are lost and are afforded one final speech. Perhaps the most interesting difference is that “Orpheus loses Eurydice for ‘looking back’ at her, while Aeneas loses Creusa for ‘not looking back’ at her.” (Casali, 312). Whether this is meant to speak anything to the quality of a husband Aeneas was to Creusa is widely debated. (Grillo 2010 is a fascinating discussion on what Aeneas’ loss of Creusa says about his pietas, arguing that he should not be absolved of all guilt, as he was knowingly and intentionally neglectful of his wife.)

Although Aeneas seems, at least on the surface, to be to blame for Creusa’s death, it is apparent in her speech that she does not see it this way, as she speaks gently and without resentment to her dulcis coniunx (2.776). She not only tries to soothe his guilt by reminding him that “these things did not happen without divine will” (non haec sine numine divum eveniunt, 2.776) but also by revealing that through her death she escaped becoming a slave to the Greeks, and instead now rests in the company of the gods. While he will move on, “she will remain in her homeland Troy” (Khan 2001, 909), and seems to be at peace with that. She is not resentful of his future happiness, but instead seems to take comfort in knowing that he will find happiness in the terram Hesperiam (2.781). In this way, her speech “is a combination of farewell, consolatio to assuage Aeneas’ guilt (not sharpen or prolong it), and divinatio, to point his way ahead” (Jones, 291).

She concludes her speech with the same gentleness with which it began, asking Aeneas to “preserve your love for our son” (2.789). She knows that the road ahead for her husband is a difficult one, but even still, “she ends by telling him not to fail in his love for their son” (Jones, 291), as she knows he will soon enough be taking a new wife. In her final words, Vergil shows us that above all else, she was a concerned mother, putting her son’s life and future at the forefront of both her and her husband’s mind. She also uses the word communis (2.789) meaning “common” or “shared,” perhaps in an attempt to remind him that part of her will forever live on in this person they created together, and that to preserve his love for their son is to preserve his love for her also.

Vergil puts his stamp on this speech through the imagery in his words and the themes he so seamlessly weaves in. Creusa depicts the flowing Tiber with “the limpid sounds of l and y” which “begin to give the new land certain charm” (Jones, 291), as if the words themselves are flowing gently through the fields. Vergil goes on to use “a strong but not excessive alliteration of the letter r” (ibid.) with res laetae regnumque et regia coniunx in line 783, before falling back into the gentle sounds of l and y as she begs him not to cry for her saying lacrimas dilectae pelle Creusae (2.784). However, Vergilian themes are certainly present as well, the most prominent of which is the future founding of Rome. This is the first true foreshadowing of that future to Aeneas, and while Creusa admits that the journey will be difficult, it will nevertheless be a worthwhile endeavor. He will not only begin his life anew, but will also fulfil the numen divum (2.786) or “divine will.”

While many would consider Creusa to be a minor character of the epic, I feel that she is the catalyst for the journey ahead. She needs to die so that Aeneas can fulfill his preordained destiny, and he must be forced to confront her shade so that he knows unequivocally that he has her blessing to move on without her, that he can go on knowing that she is not in pain, but in the company of the divine. She is able to put him at peace, a beloved voice telling him that perils await, but joy is inevitable. It is only through her encouragement that he is able to leave his burning city to pursue the numen divum.


Briggs, Ward W. “Eurydice, Venus, and Creusa: A Note on Structure in Vergil.” Vergilius 25 (1979): 43–45.

Casali, Sergio. “Creusa.” In Richard Thomas and Jan M. Ziolkowski, eds., The Vergil Encyclopedia, 3 vols. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 312–13.

Grillo, Luca. “Leaving Troy and Creusa: Reflections on Aeneas’ Flight.” Classical Journal 106 (2010): 43–68.

Jones, Peter. Reading Vergil: Aeneid I and II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Khan, H. Akbar. “Exile and the Kingdom: Creusa’s Revelations and Aeneas’ Departure from Troy.” Latomus 60 (2001): 906–15.