Greek Poetry Every Day

Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Literature (Preface):

To read and re-read the scanty remains now left to us of the Literature of Ancient Greece, is a pleasant and not a laborious task; nor is that task greatly increased by the inclusion of the ‘Scholia’ or ancient commentaries. But modern scholarship has been prolific in the making of books; and as regards this department of my subject, I must frankly accept the verdict passed by a German critic upon a historian of vastly wider erudition than mine,and confess that I ‘stand helpless before the mass of my material.’ To be more precise, I believe that in the domain of Epic, Lyric, and Tragic Poetry, I am fairly familiar with the researches of recent years; and I have endeavoured to read the more celebrated books on Prose and Comic Poetry. Periodical literature is notoriously hard to control; but I hope that comparatively few articles of importance in the last twenty volumes of the Hermes, the Rheinisches Museum, the Philologus, and the English Classical Journals, have escaped my consideration. More than this I have but rarely attempted.

If under these circumstances I have nevertheless sat down to write a History of Greek Literature, and have even ventured to address myself to scholars as well as to the general public, my reason is that, after all, such knowledge of Greek literature as I possess has been of enormous value and interest to me; that for the last ten years at least, hardly a day has passed on which Greek poetry has not occupied a large part of my thoughts, hardly one deep or valuable emotion has come into my life which has not been either caused, or interpreted, or bettered by Greek poetry. This is doubtless part of the ordinary narrowing of the specialist, the one-sided sensitiveness in which he finds at, once his sacrifice and his reward; but it is usually, perhaps, the thing that justifies a man in writing.

Cicero and Caesar: Destroyers of Latin Education

Edmund Wilson, Reflections on the Teaching of Latin:

It is still possible for a student to- day, as it was forty years ago, to have been through four or five years of Latin and yet, as I have recently had a chance to note, not to have learned, for example, the words for the commonest colors and animals, the parts of the body and the seasons of the year. Why?

The answer is: Caesar and Cicero – the military vocabulary of the one, the highfalutin rhetoric of the other. And what is the reason for prescribing these writers? The answer to this is that Caesar, at some now remote point of the past, was selected as the only example of classical Latin prose that was simple and straight-forward enough for a schoolboy to make his way through, and that Cicero represented the ideal of Latin diction at a time when it was thought essential for every educated man to write Latin. And why the years of grinding at grammar at the expense of learning to read? This is a part of the ancient tradition of abstract intellectual discipline. The justification for it is the same as the justification for piling problems of algebra on students who have no mathematical interests and will never have occasion to use algebra. Both at worst have a minimum of practical use. Latin syntax does give us some training in the relation of words in a sentence, as algebra gives us some idea of what is involved in mathematical method; but there is nevertheless a fallacy in this old ideal. It strikes us as rather monstrous when we read about how Karl Marx, that intellectual prodigy, used to exercise his mental muscles by committing to memory whole pages of languages he did not understand; yet actually our teaching of Latin inflicts something not very different. The student is made to memorize pages of declensions, conjugations, and rules for grammatical constructions that mean little or nothing to him as language.

Does the minimum of real Latin that he acquires in this way serve any useful purpose in later life? The lawyer hardly needs this instruction to pick up the Latin phrases of the law; the student in most scientific fields can learn the terminology of his subject without worrying about Cicero and Caesar.

Caesar, Cicero and 'The Best and Most Vigilant Consulship' « The ...

Greek Rhythm

Ezra Pound, Letter to Iris Barry (August 1916)

I prize the Greek more for the movement of the words, rhythm, perhaps than for anything else. There is the POIKILOTHRON and then Catullus, ‘Collis O Heliconii,’ and some Propertius, that one could do worse than know by heart for the sake of knowing what rhythm really is. And there is the gulph between TIS O SAPPHO ADIKEI, and Pindar’s big rhetorical drum TINA THEON, TIN’ EROA, TINA D’ ANDREA KELADESOMEN, which one should get carefully fixed in the mind. I’ll explain viva voce if this metatype-phosed Greek is too unintelligible.

It is perhaps a sense of Latin that helps or seems to have helped people to a sort of superexcellent neatness in writing English — something different from French clarity. It may be merely from the care one takes in following the construction in an inflected language.

Stop Talking Like a Professor

Erasmus, Adagia 1.39:

Less Cultivated and More Clearly:

Indeed, that phrase is put less elegantly by the Greeks, but it has the same force: Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ [speak less learnedly and more clearly], which is found in Gellius as well. He says,

‘For you know, I think, that ancient and commonly circulated phrase, Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ,’

that is, Speak less learnedly and more plainly, and say it more openly and clearly. It appears to be taken from from a comedy of Aristophanes, titled Βάτραχοι, that is, The Frogs:

Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον,

that is, Speak less learnedly and more clearly. In this song, Bacchus chides the obscurity of Euripides, who had proposed something or other with insufficient lucidity. Suidas and an interpreter advise us that there is a proverb underlying it, which runs:

Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον,

that is, Speak to me more openly and less learnedly. I suspect that it was taken from the fact that in antiquity, those sophists (as they call them) were accustomed to exert a fair amount of labor in covering over the mysteries of wisdom with certain enigmatical entanglements, clearly with the intention of keeping the profane mob not yet initiated into the sacred secrets of philosophy from following it. Nay, even today, some professors of philosophy and theology, when they are about to relate what any little old lady or workman might say, tangle and wrap up the matter with little spikes and portents of words so that they will seem learned. Thus Plato with his numbers obscured his own philosophy. Thus Aristotle, with all of his learned collections, made a lot of things more obscure.



Inelegantius quidem est illud apud Graecos, sed idem tamen pollet: Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ, quod apud eundem refertur Gellium.

Nosti enim, inquit, credo, verbum illud vetus et peruulgatum, μαθέστερον εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον,

id est Indoctius rudiusque quodammodo loquere et apertius ac clarius fare. Sumptum apparet ex Aristophanis comoedia, cui titulus Βάτραχοι, id est Ranae:

Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον,

id est  Indoctius proloquitor atque clarius. Quo carmine Bacchus Euripidis obscuritatem taxat, qui nescio quid parum dilucide proposuerat. Suidas et interpres admonent subesse prouerbium, quod hunc ad modum feratur:

Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον,

id est  Apertius mihi loquere atque indoctius. Suspicor inde sumptum, quod antiquitus illi σοφοί, quos vocant, soleant mysteria sapientiae quibusdam aenigmatum inuolucris data opera obtegere, videlicet ne prophana turba ac nondum philosophiae sacris initiata posset assequi. Quin et hodie nonnulli philosophiae ac theologiae professores, cum ea quandoque tradant, quae quaeuis muliercula aut cerdo dicturus sit, tamen quo docti videantur, rem spinis quibusdam ac verborum portentis implicant et inuoluunt. Sic Plato numeris suis obscurauit suam philosophiam. Sic Aristoteles multa mathematicis collationibus reddidit obscuriora.



In Praise of Old Heads

Lionel Trilling, On the Teaching of Modern Literature:

In one of his poems, Yeats mocks the literary scholars, the “bald heads forgetful of their sins,” the “old, learned, respectable bald heads,” who edit the poems of the fierce and passionate young men.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk this way?

Yeats, of course, is thinking of his own future fate, and no doubt there is all the radical and comical discrepancy that he sees between the poet’s passions and the scholars’ close-eyed concentration on the text. Yet for my own part, when I think of Catullus, I am moved to praise the tact of all those old heads, from Heinsius and Bentley to Munro and Postgate, who worked on Codex G and Codex O and drew conclusions about the lost Codex V – for doing only this and for not trying to realize and demonstrate the true intensity and the true quality and the true cultural meaning of Catullus’s passion and managing to bring it somehow into eventual accord with their respectability and baldness. Nowadays we who deal with books in universities live in fear that the World, which we imagine to be a vital, palpitating, reality-loving World, will think of us as old, respectable, and bald, and we see to it that in our dealings with Yeats (to take him as the example) his wild cry of rage and sexuality is heard by our students and quite thoroughly understood by them as – what is it that we usually call it? – a significant expression of our culture. The exasperation of Lawrence and the subversiveness of Gide, by the time we have dealt with them boldly, and straightforwardly, are notable instances of the alienation of modern man as exemplified by the artist.

Role-Playing Senecan Suicide

Nicolas Chamfort [Quoted in Maximes, Pensées, Caractères et Anecdotes, 1796]:

“In sum,” he added, “I was reminded of Seneca, and in honor of Seneca, I wanted to open my veins. But he was rich, that one. He had everything he wanted – a well-warmed bath, and in truth, every comfort available. But me, I am a poor devil, and I didn’t have any of that stuff. I hurt myself pretty badly, and here I am still. But I have the bullet in my head, that is the main thing. A little bit earlier, a little bit later – that would have done it!”

«Enfin, ajouta-t-il, je me suis souvenu de Sénèque, et en l’honneur de Sénèque j’ai voulu m’ouvrir les veines; mais il était riche, lui ; il avait tout à souhait, un bain bien chaud, enfin toutes ses aises; moi je suis un pauvre diable, je n’ai rien de tout cela : je me suis fait un mal horrible, & me voilà encore ; mais j’ai la balle dans la tête, c’est-là le principal. Un peu plus tôt, un peu plus tard, voilà tout. »

The Tantalus of the Library

Isaac Casaubon, Letter to Claude Saumaise (DXLIII)

“I received your letters, and the ancient epigrams which you added. How can I show my gratitude for these? To be sure, you can guess how grateful I am from my almost shameless petition for them. So, I’m ashamed of myself for giving you so much vexation. I do not understand the method and aim of your studies. And so, believe me, I am concerned about you and your health – I think of you as a brother. I exceed you in age, but you have outstripped me with the miraculous gifts which instilled in me long ago a marvelous expectation for you. Just spare your intellect, have some concern for your health, enjoy the joy of your age and preserve yourself in this, your youth, so that you can when you are older complete those studies which cannot be completed except by you.

I seem to see you like Tantalus in the middle of the water, for you cannot enjoy all of the riches of the Palatine Library. I can sense your avidity from your letters, and I also know with what violent force you are driven on to your studies. This makes me fear for your little body. Otherwise, I will write at another time about the poems which you sent – now I am extremely busy. If you see the [???] of Bongars, you will know from it what my cares are. For I have set aside my Polybius for the meantime. Farewell, my dearest friend.”

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Reading Your Way to Ignorance

Joseph Scaliger, Letter to Isaac Casaubon:

“When I want to relax my mind, I take into my hands the writings of that man, who recently published Martial’s Amphitheatrum and Persius. I never laugh more sweetly than when I see something published by that Tuscan. I often marvel that he read so many books that he no longer knew anything. How often he raves! Yet, he has his admirers. Let them have them, but let them be Parisians.”

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Quum animum remittere volo, assumo in manus scripta illius, qui Amphitheatrum Martialis et Persium nuper κατακέχοδεν. Nam nunquam suavius rideo, quam cum aliquid ejus lucumonis video. Saepe mirari soleo illum tantum scriptorum legisse, ideo ut nihil sciret. Quam saepe delirat! Et tamen habet admiratores. Habeat igitur, sed Parisienses.

Books All Day and Night

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon (Sect. X)

“It is well that we should be alive to the price at which knowledge must be purchased. Day by day, night by night, from the age of twenty upwards, Casaubon is at his books. He realised Boeckh’s ideal, who has told us that in classical learning ‘dies diem docet, ut perdideris quam sine linea transmiseris.’ When he is not at his books, his mind is in them. Reading is not an amusement filling the languid pauses between the hours of action ; it is the one pursuit engrossing all the hours and the whole mind. ‘ The day, with part of the night added, is not long enough.

His life, regarded from the exterior, seems adapted to deter, rather than to invite imitation. A life of hardship, in circumstances humble, almost sordid, short of want, but pinched by poverty; Casaubon renounced action, pleasure, ease, society, health, life itself— killing himself at fifty-six. Shall we say that he did this for the sake of fame ? Fame there was, but it reached him in but faint echoes. Even what there was, was all dashed by the loud slander of the dominant ecclesiastical party, and the whispered suspicion of the vanquished. At best, the limits of such fame must always be circumscribed. To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy, the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man. The approbation of our fellows may be a powerful motive of conduct. It is powerful to generate devotion to their service. It is not powerful enough to sustain a life of research. No other extrinsic motive is so. The one only motive which can support the daily energy called for in the solitary student’s life, is the desire to know. Every intelligence, as such, contains a germ of curiosity. In some few this appetence is developed into a yearning, an eagerness, a passion, an exigency, an ‘inquietude poussante,’ to use an expression of Leibnitz, which dominates all others, and becomes the rule of life.”

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Editing the Classics

J.E.B. Mayor, Preface to Thirteen Satires of Juvenal:

“I often think that much of the labour spent on editing the classics is wasted; at least the same amount of time might be invested to far greater profit. For example, if one of the recent editors of Persius had devoted but three weeks to the preparation of a Lexicon Persianum, he would have produced a κτῆμα ἐς ἀεί, a permanent addition to classical learning. We sorely need lexicons e.g. to Cicero (except his speeches), Varro, Livy, the two Senecas, Quintilian’s declamations, Valerius Flaccus, Silius, the Latin anthology, Macrobius, Tertullian, Augustine, Jerome; to technical authors in general, e.g. agricultural, grammatical, mathematical, medical, military, musical, rhetorical: in Greek to the early Christian literature, Diogenes Laertius, Josephus, Philo, Galen, Stobaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origon, Chrysostom, Cyril. If every editor would choose, in addition to his author and to the books commonly read in college, one ancient author and one modern critic, as his specialty, commentaries would be far more original than they are. The universities might issue variorum editions, not on the Dutch plan, not like Halm’s Latin editions of Cicero, or Dindorf’s of Greek authors, but more concise and more comprehensive at the same time. Two or three might combine, say, to edit the commentaries on an author, as Livy, Petronius, Suetonius, or Apuleius. A commentary which takes rank as ‘classical’, e.g. Casaubon’s on Suetonius, Persius, Athenaeus, Strabo, should be given almost entire, and form the nucleus, other notes being carefully sifted, and repetitions cleared away. One colleague might he responsible for all editions of the author; while two others ransacked periodical and occasional literature, variae lectiones, adversaria cet. Madvig says, one is ashamed to be called a philologer, when one looks at the obsolete medley brought together by Moser on the Tusculans; in far narrower compass all that is valuable there, and much that is omitted, might be stored for all time. By such a process books like Rader’s Martial, now no doubt, as Prof. Friedlander says, for most of us, ‘völlig veraltet,’ would once more yield their treasures to the ordinary student; Marcile too and Harault would no longer be mere names”