Choosing notes on the Aeneid

The ideal book must contain enough material to insure an adequate presentation, yet not so much as to dismay the beginner by its amount or to perplex him by its subtlety. It is a question of perspective and proportion which must be adapted to the learner’s point of view; he alone is to be considered. The progress of the pupil, not the display of the editor’s erudition, must be the constant objective. ((H.R. Fairclough and Seldon L. Brown, Virgil’s Aeneid Books I-VI with Introduction, Notes and Vocabulary (Chicago: Benj. H. Sanborn, 1919), p. iii.))

As mentioned in an earlier post, we are in the process of creating a multimedia edition of the Aeneid, to include

  • Notes, drawn mostly from older school editions, that elucidate the language and the context
  • Images, art, and illustrations, annotated to make clear how they relate to the text
  • Complete running vocabulary lists for the whole poem
  • Audio recordings of the Latin read aloud, and videos of the scansion
  • A full Vergilian lexicon based on that of Henry Frieze
  • Recordings of Renaissance music on texts from the Aeneid
  • Comprehensive linking to Allen & Greenough’s Latin Grammar
  • Comprehensive linking to Pleiades for all places mentioned in the text

Here is a list of the editions we are focusing on when compiling the notes. The most promising so far seem to be those of Fairclough and Brown, Greenough and Kittredge, Bennett, and Frieze. I thought it might be interesting to post the evolving  list of criteria we are using to select notes, mainly because there is such a dearth of written discussion about the process of writing annotations on classical texts. True, there are book reviews of commentaries, but few commentators themselves seem to come out with positive statements of the sorts of notes they are trying to write.

We have already published guidelines for contributors that speak to this issue, but the practical task of selecting useful notes from older editions (and omitting the dross) has prompted me to re-phrase and focus that discussion. So here, for what they are worth, and in hopes of prompting a discussion, are the rules of thumb designed to create a useful and consistent set of notes for those who have some Latin but not much acquaintance with Vergil and his style:

Choosing Notes

Include notes that explain

  • idiomatic words and phrases
  • complex word order, where the syntactical connections between words may be for whatever reason less than clear to a first-time reader (prefer notes that re-arrange the Latin to make the logic clearer)
  • unusual grammatical constructions. Choose a note that most economically and specifically elucidates the sense and helps the reader to understand the original language. Use and Allen & Greenough reference where possible. There is no need to repeat grammatical explanations that can be found in the standard grammars.
  • cultural, historical, and literary context, such as personal and geographical names, clear and important allusions to other texts, and customs and historical items that would have been familiar to the imagined audience of a text but are not familiar to non-specialists now.
  • style and tone: Notes that observe tone, nuance, and implication are more valuable than notes that simply point out a nameable stylistic feature. When naming rhetorical or poetic figures, seek out a note that discusses the effect, rather than simply points out the figure.

Avoid notes that

  • paraphrase or translate large chunks, since this only obviates the necessity of understanding the original language;
  • simply name a grammatical construction when a judicious paraphrase or translation is also required. If an Allen Greenough reference is available, give that instead.
  • give an un-translated parallel passage in place of the other types of elucidation
  • cite parallel passages without explaining why a passage is parallel and important
  • merely say “cf.” followed by something whose relevance is not clear.

3 thoughts on “Choosing notes on the Aeneid

  1. Pingback: Related News Sources: Choosing notes on the Aeneid << Dickinson College Commentaries | archaeoINaction

  2. Have you given any thought to including word frequency in the vocabulary citations? I think this might help teachers determine their vocabulary word focus. I’m an advocate of testing vocabulary in context, but frequency would also guide their word selections. Keep up the great work.

  3. Thanks, Jill. We now have the data to do this. We could list the number of times a word appears in the Aeneid, its frequency rank in the Aeneid, or its frequency rank in the LASLA database. How would you suggest it be done? Numbers in brackets after the words? Frequency rank? Raw counts?

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