Tuesday, April 01, 2014


Gone Out of a World Gone Wrong

Richmond Lattimore, "Memory of a Scholar (W.A.O. 1880-1945)," Classical Journal 57.6 (March, 1962) 271-272:
I set this down. Magister, can it be?
How shall I shape the wind that once was you?
Fancies seduce the memories in me.
This must be true, though nothing else were true.
I dared not praise you when you were alive.
Not I. You would have blown me off my feet
with stormy courtesy, the roar of wit
hiding the old Greek dread of godlike praise
for living men. But how shall verse contrive
your presence? Wave, my wand. So I recall
a Wilamowitz seen as Buffalo Bill,
Boeckh on a bicycle, and with it all
a better bibliographer by far
than any of your German idols. Now I see
the calligraphic hand, the blacksmith's bust,
the Civil War commander's brusque imperial,
the cavalry moustache, the chin upthrust,
the big bold pipe, the bolder black cigar,
the paleographer's fastidious eye.
You my professor, you before my face
unrolled the script of scholars, put in place
Traube and Vahlen, Leo, Reitzenstein,
and set the stars for all our lives to steer them by.
Your force was schooled to skills, the leonine
turned lapidary; syntax and the line
at fault and needing surgery brought to bear
the steely grammar shaped in pain and care.
You mounted on minutiae to aspire
with Plato up the staircase of ideas
and ranged, a ruler, all his cloudy sky
and came down to his deep cave with light and heat
in worlds where men see dust and you saw fire,
to blow your edicts from your chair at ease,
Jupiter of the seminar benign
with poets nuns and Baptists sitting at your feet.
It was the river. Far away and late
I heard the story of the overturned canoe,
your call, "go help the others," and the great heart stayed
in death. Think of that country that we knew
so well, land of black woods and trailing vines
and inland muddy streams that held your fate,
the Pollywogs, the flooded Danville mines,
Sangamon and Vermilion and Salt Fork,
our professorial playground. How we played
beside the crawfish-catfish-haunted Lethe stream
through overall-and-gallus groves of Academe.
Sulphured for chiggers, through the green opaque
fills of the scoops we swam, and dried in air,
played softball in cow-pastures, fried our steak,
stood by the fire and rocked the night with corny song
and shone the moon with outlaw rye and legal beer.
And now you are gone out of a world gone wrong.
Spirit in storm. You can not catch and keep it near.
Verse will not hold you fixed. The river took
you, and your spirit on the plains
will shout with the old laughter over all my pains
to put a man alive inside a book.
End from an epitaph you turned me to:
the tribute to a Roman Spanish charioteer:
Now pour the wine. Your friends and flowers are here.
Never forget. For there was none like you.
W.A.O. was William Abbott Oldfather, who drowned while canoeing. The "tribute to a Roman Spanish charioteer" can be found in Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum II.4315, translated by Lattimore in his Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962), pp. 273-274:
Some of us of the Venetan team who were admirers of Fuscus and loved him have consecrated an altar to him from our own funds, so that all may know the monument and this token of love. Your fame was complete, and you deserved honor for your racing. You strove against many, and though a poor man, feared none. When you were hated you always held your peace like a strong man. You lived fairly, but being mortal, you were fated to die. If you are human, seek for such a man. Stay, traveler, and read; and if you remember, if you knew the man as he was (for all fear fortune) say this only: Fuscus has the epitaphs due to death, he has his tomb. The stone covers his bones, it is well with him. Good-bye, Fortune. We have shed tears for this good man; now the wine, and we pray that you may lie in peace. No one was like you.

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