Monday, January 19, 2009


Communion with the Ancients

In an email about Virginia Woolf's essay On Not Knowing Greek, David Norton drew my attention to a delightful passage from A.E. Housman's Cambridge inaugural lecture (1911, published as The Confines of Criticism in 1969):
When Horace is reported to have said seu mobilibus veris inhorruit adventus foliis, and when pedants like Bentley and Munro object that the phrase is unsuitable to its context, of what avail is it to be assured by persons of taste—that is to say persons of British taste, Victorian taste, and sub-Tennysonian taste—that these are exquisite lines? Exquisite to whom? Consider the mutations of opinion, the reversals of literary judgment, which this one small island has witnessed in the last 150 years: what is the likelihood that your notions or your contemporaries' notions of the exquisite are those of a foreigner who wrote for foreigners two millenniums ago? And for what foreigners? For the Romans, for men whose religion you disbelieve, whose chief institution you abominate, whose manners you do not like to talk about, but whose literary tastes, you flatter yourself, were identical with yours. No: in this aspect we must learn to say of our tastes what Isaiah says of our righteousnesses: they are as filthy rags.

Our first task is to get rid of them, and to acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression, the tastes of the classics; not to come stamping into the library of Apollo on the Palatine without so much as wiping our shoes on the doormat, and cover the floor with the print of feet which have waded through the miry clay of the nineteenth century into the horrible pit of the twentieth. It is not to be supposed that this age, because it happens to be ours, has been specially endowed with a gift denied to all other modern ages; that we, by nature or by miracle, have mental affinity with the ancients, or that we can lightly acquire it, or that we can even acquire it at all. Communion with the ancients is purchasable at no cheaper rate than the kingdom of heaven; we must be born again. But to be born again is a process exceedingly repugnant to all right-minded Englishmen. I believe they think it improper, and they have a strong and well-grounded suspicion that it is arduous. They would much rather retain the prevalent opinion that the secret of the classical spirit is open to anyone who has a fervent admiration for the second-best parts of Tennyson.
The lines from Horace quoted by Housman come from Ode 1.23 (translated here by Christopher Smart, with the Latin and relevant portions of the critical apparatus from Wickham and Garrod's Oxford Classical Text):
You shun me, Chloe, like a fawn that is seeking its timorous mother in the pathless mountains, not without a vain dread of the breezes and the thickets:

for she trembles both in her heart and knees, whether the arrival of the spring has terrified by its rustling leaves, or the green lizards have stirred the bush.

But I do not follow you, like a savage tigress, or a Gaetulian lion, to tear you to pieces. Therefore, quit your mother, now that you are mature for a husband.

Vitas inuleo me similis, Chloe,
quaerenti pavidam montibus aviis
      matrem non sine vano
      aurarum et siluae metu.

nam seu mobilibus veris inhorruit
adventus foliis, seu virides rubum
      dimovere lacertae,
      et corde et genibus tremit.

atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera
Gaetulusve leo frangere persequor:
      tandem desine matrem
      tempestiva sequi viro.

5 vepris Gogavius: vitis Muretus 6 ad ventum Muretus: ad ventos Keller
Bentley discussed lines 5-6 in a Latin letter (XCIII, to J.G. Graevius), Munro in Q. Horatii Flacci Opera Illustrated from Antique Gems by C.W. King...The Text Revised, with an Introduction, by H.A.J. Munro (London: Bell and Daldy, 1869), p. xxi. Here are Munro's comments:
From habit many of us look on the first verse as highly poetical: it seems to me scarcely classical, and surely it is not common sense. The fawn's heart is said to beat, its knees to shake, if the advent of spring shivers with (or to, or whatever the construction may be) the lightly moving leaves; or the lizards stir the bramble. The scholiasts explain it as an hypallage for 'folia inhorruerunt adventu veris'. The advent of spring then must mean when the 'genitabilis aura favoni' begins to blow freshly and steadily ; that is, on some day in the month of February. But in the Italian forests the lightly moving leaves come almost or quite as late as in the English; and the zephyr blowing steadily for days together would be the last thing to startle a fawn. Now just suppose with Bentley and some others before him, that VERIS took the place of VEPRIS: then adventum or ad ventum would at once be changed to adventus. Then how admirably 'mobilibus vepris inhorruit Ad ventum foliis' tallies with what goes before and what comes after.
Nisbet and Hubbard, in their commentary on these lines from Horace, are less enthusiastic about the conjecture:
vepris ('a thorn-bush') was conjectured for veris independently by Gogau, Salmasius, and Bentley; together with ad ventum this gives a reading that deserves serious consideration. For the combination of vepris with rubus cf. Plin. nat. 12.89 'densissimis in vepribus rubisque', Colum. 7.6.1 'nec rubos aversatur nec vepribus offenditur', Sen. Phaedr. 1103 'acutis asperi vepres rubis'. Yet vepres is normally listed among the semper pluralia, although admittedly veper was used by an Aemilius (anon. gramm. 5.592.20). Moreover, the diminutive veprecula suggests that the nominative singular should rather be vepres, and vepris is condemned by Prob. gramm. 4.198.16; cf., however, Prop. 4.10.44 for torquis (also condemned by some grammarians). In addition to these oddities of accidence (never desirable in a conjecture), a more general point may be made. We find references to the rustling of pines (Pl. anth. Pl. 13.1 f., Theoc. 1.1 f., anon. anth. Pl. 12.1 f.), cornfields (Virg. georg. 3.198 ff.), reeds (Ov. met. 1.707 f.), and the golden bough (Virg. Aen. 6.209). But though a thorn-bush does rustle in certain circumstances, it is not typically associated with rustling in the conventionally minded ancient poets (though it must be admitted that other rustling plants equally lack parallels).
For a spirited defense of the paradosis, see Robert Renehan, Classical Philology 83 (1988) 320-324.

It may be possible to identify at least one of the "persons of British taste, Victorian taste, and sub-Tennysonian taste" excoriated by Housman. I suggest Thomas Ethelbert Page (1850-1936), master at Charterhouse. In his school edition of Horace's Odes, Page commented on Ode 1.23.5-6:
Bentley and other editors object to these exquisite lines because, they say, when 'spring arrives' the trees are not yet in leaf.
(Emphasis added.) These are the very words criticized by Housman. In his school edition of Vergil, Page also quotes some of the "second-best parts of Tennyson," namely his ode To Virgil, that ends with the stanza:
I salute thee, Mantovano,
    I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
    ever moulded by the lips of man.
I haven't seen Niall Rudd, T.E. Page: Schoolmaster Extraordinary (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1981).

Of course, what Housman said about "the exquisite" could also be said about "the beautiful," namely:
What is the likelihood that your notions or your contemporaries' notions of the beautiful are those of a foreigner who wrote for foreigners two millenniums ago?
In an unguarded moment recorded by one of his students, Housman let his own notions of the beautiful and exquisite show:
One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.' This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said: 'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.' Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. 'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room. A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. 'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said. 'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'
Related post: Spring: Horace, Ode 4.7.

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