Monday, August 20, 2012


Death of a Classical Scholar

S.P. Zitner (1924-2005), "By His Own Hand," in his Before We Had Words (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002), p. 39:
Desolate and unshaven,
one of his favorite students
told me the news in tears,
slightly misquoting the Greek
dirges for heroes in Homer
his master had taught by heart.

No need to avoid the man now,
or his icy corrections, proclaimed
in the tone of marriages failed;
or avert our glances from his
with their wordless lament
of longing for distant sons.

He had meant this act to atone
for vows unfulfilled or broken,
death as the wages of weakness,
but he set too high a price
on the life he had not led,
and too low on the one he did.
Is it possible to identify the classical scholar whose death is commemorated in this sad and moving poem? Zitner taught at Grinnell College from 1957 to 1969. His time there overlapped with that of John M. Crossett, Jr., who taught classics at Grinnell from 1963 to 1970. Crossett died by his own hand on August 6, 1981, according to this newspaper article (probably from the Herald Register in Grinnell, Iowa). The entry on Crossett by James A. Arieti in Ward W. Briggs, Jr., ed., Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 119-120, says only that "he died unexpectedly". James A. Arieti, "John M. Crossett: A Memoir," in Donald V. Stump et al., edd. Hamartia: The Concept of Error in the Western Tradition. Essays in Honor of John M. Crossett (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983), pp. 281-287, doesn't mention how Crossett died. Zitner contributed an essay on "Hamlet and Hamartia" to the same Gedenkschrift.

It is at least possible that Zitner's poem was suggested by news of his former colleague's death. 1981 was a tragic year for classical scholarship. Colin MacLeod also died by his own hand later that same year.

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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