Friday, March 25, 2016


Scholarship and Commentators Go Hang!

Frederic Harrison (1831-1923), Among My Books (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1912), pp. 6-8:
The seventy years which have rolled over me since I first spelt out my menin aeide thea have not dulled the rapture of listening to the ringing clarion of Homer. As he was the first to give me that thrill, communicable only in a foreign tongue, indeed only in Greek, so he remains to the last my supreme joy. And even to this day I love to take him up in my dirty school text, scandalously devoid of critical scholarship and of modern research. When I was a boy a dear old widow lady presented me with the books of her husband who had taken his degree at Christ Church about 1820 A.D. Now the classics current in the first twenty years of the nineteenth century would be thought to-day quite puerile and obsolete. But, as a schoolboy from 1840 to 1850, I used them, a Delphin Horace, Clarke's Iliad and Odyssey, with Latin versions below the text, Porson's Euripides (and even Barnes' of the eighteenth century), a Tacitus in four volumes of 1790, and Pliny's Letters of 1805.

Barbarous and corrupt as these texts would now be pronounced to be by scholars, I used them at school and college. I keep them still. I love to take them up in a spare hour, though I now have the thick, profound, critical editions printed in Leipsic or Berlin on that horrid blotting-paper; and of course I have the editions of our own scholars, my Jebb, and Jowett, Munro, Robinson Ellis, Conington, Verrall, and Murray. But for sentimental reasons I often prefer to take up an old school book. Scholarship and commentators go hang!—I say. I see the sense of the Greek well enough, and I can hear the shout of Achilles in the fighting line, and the wail of the women at the funeral of Hector, without any German professor’s droning about the Digamma, or insisting on spurious lines which he marks to be obelised.

These editors are the death of Greek poetry. Who can really take to heart his Iliad whilst he is worried with disquisitions as to whether Δ belongs to the original poem, and if Ζ were not a later interpolation? Poetry is the very last thing these sages of the MSS., these sticklers for grammatical purism, ever think of or care for. I have never truly enjoyed my Homer until years after I had ceased to read him in those voluminous notes, and did not care one brass obol whether the Zoster panaielos of Menelaus meant a supple belt or a shining belt (of course a brilliant belt makes a better picture)—No! nor whether that aorist was rightly spelled in the Aeolic form. Does your "scholar" really feel the sublimity of the immortal epic, or does he merely dress up the words as the binder puts the pages into russia, calf, or vellum? Let me tell these pundits, if they want to understand the Iliad, to do what I have done: take a 12mo plain Bekker text, as easy to hold as a child's hymn-book, and lie on the deck of a ship as it sails off the plain of Troas in sight of Ida and Olympus; or take an Odyssey bare of notes, and read the story of leukolenos Nausicaa in Corcyra, or the picture of the awakening of Ulysses from the grotto in Ithaca, on the very spot where the myth was first imagined. Homer, gentlemen, was a mighty poet. He was not a meticulous grammarian, nor a garrulous scholiast.
menin aeide thea: Iliad 1.1 (μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ)
Zoster panaielos of Menelaus: Iliad 4.186 (ζωστήρ τε παναίολος) and 4.215 (ζωστῆρα παναίολον)
leukolenos Nausicaa: Odyssey 6.101 etc. (Ναυσικάα λευκώλενος)

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