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Second Glance: A Virgil or Two

By (March 1, 2013) No Comment

Poets in apoets in a landscape Landscape

By Gilbert Highet
New York Review of Books, 2013

In the waning years of the fourth century, a Roman scholar named Maurus Servius Honoratus was busily composing a massive twelve-volume commentary of phenomenal erudition on Virgil’s Aeneid—a work as distant from his times as Shakespeare’s plays are from our own. We do not know much about Servius’s life, but it is clear that he was one of the last great literati of antiquity. His work is the most intact of its kind to survive the fall of the Roman Empire, and it could even be argued that it is the last such work of literary criticism until the Renaissance.

Servius does not seem to have converted to Christianity; it is tempting to imagine him shaking his head in his study, lamenting the loss of the old gods and rites and ways of life. It is tempting to imagine him clutching talismanically at books that no one bothered any longer to read, lighting oil lamps in the growing darkness. It is tempting to imagine Servius surviving long enough to hear of the Visigoths’ sack of Rome in the year 410, realizing that “the high city walls” whose indomitability his beloved Virgil once lauded had finally yielded to barbaric hands, and then feeling a lump grow in his throat as he snuffed out his evening candle.

Of course, we have absolutely no evidence that Servius did any of these things. But even if it is not the stuff of good scholarship, it is fun to clothe the skeleton of historical fact in the sinews and blood of drama. The childhood imagination of every great humanist is surely fired more by the latter than the former. And Gilbert Highet was keenly aware of this reality.

Highet is no longer a household name, but for decades in the English-speaking world he was synonymous with classical literature itself. He was a prodigy: in only three years, he jumped from elementary Latin and Greek to reading the Odyssey and the Aeneid for pleasure—and all before the age of thirteen. He attended university in Glasgow, his hometown, and only left in 1929 at the age of twenty-six, after receiving a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford. He rapidly rose in the esteem of the dons, and received a tutorial fellowship after completing his degree. Highet left the United Kingdom to become an associate professor of classics at Columbia University in 1937, and was elevated to its senior faculty in the following year.

The mid-twentieth century was a good moment to be a professor on the Upper West Side. It was the time of Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, Meyer Schapiro, and Mark Van Doren—a time when Columbia, nestled in a New York that had suddenly been crowned the capital of the postwar West, provided the perfect platform from which to mediate between the academy, the intelligentsia at large, and the vast American masses. The number of Americans who wanted not only an education but at least a taste of the intellectual life had swelled in the wake of the G.I. Bill and fifties prosperity, giving rise to cultural symptoms ranging from Time and Life on one hand to Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” on the other. To a certain slice of the upper-middle classes, the appearance of cultural literacy mattered more than it ever had before, and more than it ever has since.

This explains, at least in part, the existence of the Great Books of the Western World series, or the surprising popularity of books like The Liberal Imagination. People felt the existence of a literary tradition without necessarily knowing the way in. There was a market for a Virgil or two to lead a reader around the cosmos of arts and letters, if only to understand things like a metaphor predicated upon a knowledge of the Divine Comedy. Highet was one of those Virgils: a man unusually capable of, and invested in, leading a broad audience into the penetralia of the Greco-Roman literary heritage.

Celebrity academics are often (though not always) very good teachers, in large part because because clarity, accessibility, a sense of theater, and a dose of humor—the ingredients to an effective lecture—also occasionally lead to fame. Highet apparently had these skills in spades. (The flexible Glaswegian brogue probably helped.) He wrote the “New Books” column for Harper’s for a number of years, hosted his own radio show on WNYC, and helped select books for the Book-of-the-Month Club: exactly the kinds of activities that a Partisan Review-type would have labelled squarely upper-middlebrow, but in which Highet nevertheless seems to have revelled shamelessly. And it is only in this light that it is possible to make sense of his writing.

HighetFor Highet did not write books for other academics. He wrote as a generalist for the general reader, in a way that makes his work both extremely compelling and, seen from a distance of fifty or sixty years, stunningly obsolete. He was uninterested in producing new ideas (one of the reasons why his books have not aged as well as those of his Columbia contemporaries), but a clever synthesizer of old ones in a way that made the reader feel accomplished. With one exception—a monograph on Juvenal—his books vault blithely over entire civilizations and millennia and even the species itself: they have titles like The Classical Tradition, The Anatomy of Satire, or Man’s Unconquerable Mind. They are at one and the same time daunting in their scope and baffling in their generality. Highet begins a 25-page chapter on lyric poetry in the Renaissance by remarking, “Songs are the simplest, commonest, and most natural kind of poetry. The people of every nation, every little clan or county, make up their own songs, and sing them to their own tunes, and often dance with them. Songs need not all be gay…” Who could argue with such unevidenced, if obvious, ideas? Who would bother?

In and of itself, this kind of speculation is not an awful habit, but it is everywhere. On Pindar, Highet writes, “We have nothing left but the words and a ghost of the dance. The thoughts and images of Pindar’s poems do not always succeed each other in logical sequence. They are chosen for their beauty and their intensity and their boldness.” It is an accurate, completely unobjectionable, platitudinously unremarkable assessment of Pindar’s odes. No one nowadays would ever assign Highet to a seminar of undergraduates. It can be wonderful, however—and avoids complete banality—because little could make a reader want to read Pindar more, or even learn ancient Greek in order to better trace the “ghost of the dance,” than hearing Highet’s description of his poetry. And few nowadays could pull a seminar of undergraduates into the grammar of Theban lyric quite as successfully. That project—engaging readers—is the one into which he threw himself, and he was happy to disavow the footnote and collegial respect in favor of sweeping generalization and a professor’s version of fame in order to achieve it.

NYRB Classics has reissued Highet’s 1957 book Poets in a Landscape, which has the linked merits of being both shorter and better than Highet’s omnibus volumes. It consists of biographical essays of seven major Latin poets, and a final essay on Rome itself during the years of the early Empire—but that description doesn’t quite capture the unusualness of the book’s tone or approach. With his usual sense of showmanship, Highet writes nothing as boring as mere biography. He intersperses his vivid sketches of the lives of the poets with travelogues of his journeys through the Italian countryside to their ostensible homes and birthplaces; extensive cultural trivia; a number of elegant ad hoc translations of Latin poetry; and wild if memorable palaces of historical fantasization built on the homelier facts of his subjects’ lives. And in doing so, he accomplishes something that every classicist aspires to do, but few actually achieve: he brings the literature of the classical world to life for the curious but otherwise uninformed reader.

Hannibal and Cicero and gladiators are hard enough for the historian to reanimate in their past glory, but the task of engaging a general reader in classical poetry is even more challenging. Greek and Latin, as languages, are about as linguistically dissimilar from modern English as Hindi and consequently, the poetry almost always wilts in translation. Greco-Roman poetry plays with the relative duration of syllables more than with stress accent; English, highly accentual, has no standardized principles of vowel length. The grammar of the two classical languages was strongly inflected, allowing a loose and impressionistic word order; English word order is by comparison rigidly fixed. Trying to convey the aesthetics and meaning of, say, Horace, to a person who does not know Latin is like trying to explain a Vermeer to the blind.

In a world where every educated person had at least a little Latin—where, indeed, to know Latin was the very meaning of education—this does not present a problem. And for centuries, there had been little need for any kind of English-language biographical material for the lay reader: after all, if you already know Latin, why not simply read Suetonius’ Life of Virgil in order to learn about Virgil? And whatever English biography did exist didn’t have to ingratiate itself with a large audience, or even especially want to do so: a classical education was supposed to separate the educated from hoi polloi, and if its impenetrability turned away the riff-raff, all the better.

But not only did this snobbery offend a person like Highet—a provincial outsider in Oxford, who, after leaving Britain, embraced American citizenship in the fifties and never looked back—it also threatened the impending demise of his profession and discipline. Suddenly, he faced a world in which not even the highly educated could be assumed to know Latin and Greek. Harvard had abolished its classical language entrance requirements in 1898; Columbia, in 1916; Yale, the last Ivy League school to do so, in 1931. Oxford and Cambridge kept their requirements until 1960; and as a result, the American intellectual élite that the grown Highet was teaching looked entirely different from the British one that he had known in his youth. The American study of classics at the undergraduate level risked becoming the privilege of a few boys from Andover and the like. But Highet—even more so than most classicists, then or now—was determined to win new converts to the flock.

Poets in a Landscape has held up much better across the decades than any of Highet’s other classical works, and there is no more genial or genuinely fascinating introduction to the personalities, times, and works of Rome’s greatest poets. He renders the lives of his subjects in a style that resembles nothing so much as a New Yorker profile from the William Shawn era. For example, Highet transforms the youth of Catullus into one instantly recognizable by 20th-century readers:

Catullus’s journey to Asia was an attempt to make something of his life. He had done little except make love and write poetry. He was spending too much money. He had no career. He had no clear future. All around him, less intelligent and less sensitive men were rising high in politics, becoming distinguished lawyers and orators, carving out their futures with the sword, enriching themselves with the plunder of the western world. … [Caesar] made a gesture of friendship towards Catullus, which evoked a contemptuous epigram: “I am not really anxious for your approval, Caesar. / Whether you’re white or black, I do not care.” Yet, after a while, Catullus seems to have been won over by the almost irresistible charm of Caesar’s intelligence and personality; perhaps also by the fact that Caesar was a friend of his family, so that it had been base disloyalty to attack him.

Never mind that this is a paragraph predicated almost entirely on contextual inference—that the only thing we actually know is that Catullus spent an unhappy part of his brief life as a government underling in Bithynia. Highet turns him into a kind of Roman Baudelaire—young, dissolute, aimless, neither rich nor ambitious enough to be happy. A decade before The Graduate, Highet projected a very Benjamin Braddock-esque psychological makeup onto a young man who had lived two millennia ago. Compare Highet’s account with the more sober, standard treatment the same period of his life receives at the hands of the illustrious and punctilious commentator Kenneth Quinn:

His father seems to have been an important citizen of Verona (then part of Cisalpine Gaul), and still alive in the time of Caesar’s proconsulship (see Suetonius, Jul. 73, quoted on Poem 57; cf. Poems 43; 67; 68.27-35; and 100). Catullus himself lived in Rome (see especially 68.34-5), though he seems to have returned to Verona more than once. Poems 67 and 68 seem to have been written in Verona before the year in Bithynia; Poem 31 suggest he returned there after the year in Bithynia; cf. Poem 35. The reconciliation with Caesar (see on Poem 57) presumably took place in Verona—either before or after Bithynia.

Quinn’s is by far the more responsible account. But no one ever learned Latin in order to shake the hand of Quinn’s Catullus. Highet’s Catullus, however, is someone you want to meet—as is also the case with his Vergil, his Propertius, his Tibullus, Juvenal, Ovid, and Horace. He does not engage in outright fabrication, nor does fiction ever entirely mask fact. However, he never declines an opportunity to flesh out the past in the most colorful way possible, like the paleontological artist who decides to paint his pterodactyl purple. Yet the result is defter than the work of a hundred lesser biographers. With five or six brushstrokes, he gives us just enough of an outline of Tibullus’ character to leave us craving a crisper resolution:

He was a gentle, sensitive soul. He was a skilful artist. He was happiest and most truly himself when he was alone in the quiet countryside. But he was unable to resist the fascination of pretty women—even when they were ruthless, even when they were worthless. They dominated him, and wrecked a life which might have been better spent.

The entire book is a reflection on what it means to try to see the literary past more closely, to eradicate the distance between the past and the present. Any piece of literary history is, of course; but as Highet treads the bylanes of the Italian countryside in an attempt to retrace the footsteps of his Roman authors, it seems especially evocative—boyish in its enthusiasm for the past, wistful in its sense of loss and fragmentary recovery. Highet treats the sites he visits a little too credulously, but it is impossible to tell whether this springs from a P.T. Barnum-like desire to wow the reader, or an earnest desire to have found the authentic past. He speculates wildly about the environs of Mantua, assuming a continuity between the people and the land on the banks of the Mincio:

Along the Mincio lie the fields which Vergil knew and loved well. Still extant in them is one specially happy union—the marriage of land and water. For miles and miles along the roads and through the fields run long irrigation ditches carrying water, seldom slow-moving, almost never stagnant, usually in active motion to moisten the earth and feed the roots. … To water a field, the farmer and his men lift the barrier, and the ditch fills quickly, with a welcome rippling sound. After an hour or two, he can say, like Vergil’s father in the Bucolics, “Now, lads, close off the channels: the meadows have drunk enough.”

Highet doubtlessly knew better than to presume that the landscape has remained the same since the first century b.c.e., or that the farmers then are the same as the farmers now, or any such thing. But he did anyway, as every literary tourist does. One of the stranger aspects of reading Poets in a Landscape sixty-five years after its publication is the realization that the Italy Highet traveled has itself disappeared. The idea that you would find peasant farmers on the outskirts of modern Mantua opening and closing wooden dykes is preposterous. The roofs of houses in towns like Mantua, Assisi, and Sulmona now have thousands of little satellite dishes sticking up from the tiles. The Italy Highet saw was the last glimpse of the Italy of Fellini’s Amarcord; it might still exist in a few places, but the world has changed, and there are no longer many Western Europeans living a life essentially the same as their medieval predecessors’. It is amazing that it survived long enough after the war for Highet to see it; and now it is as vanished as ancient Rome.

That world was also the world of New York in 1957, and it would be a mistake to read Poets in a Landscape without recognizing that the book is every bit as much a document of a vanished time and place as Horace’s Odes or Juvenal’s Satires. Manhattan has gentrified, Partisan Review folded, Columbia has gone coed. It is hard to imagine today that a book of even very user-friendly biographical sketches of great Latin poets could ever attract the readership that Poets did in its time. Highet himself has started to fade from living memory. His academic work already seems incorrigibly dated, and instead it’s these chatty, acrobatic, imaginative essays that will survive for posterity, precisely because he preferred to be a teacher rather than a scholar. He flouted every convention of what it means to do careful or original critical work, was a hopeless dilettante, and indulged in every level of the imprecision and daydreaming that graduate school is supposed to grind out of you. If the academy were populated with Gilbert Highets, we would know nothing about anything. But without an occasional Highet or two, there would be no one left to carry on the tradition at all.

We can imagine that perhaps an elderly Highet sat down at his desk in a Manhattan apartment in the mid-seventies to answer a few letters from former students, and turned on the radio to hear the news. A President had just resigned, the Vietnam War just ended. It is possible that he set down his pen a bit early, turned on the lamp, and opened a well-worn copy of the Aeneid, which he read fluently for a few hundred lines. His indignation flared briefly at the thought that the number of undergraduates in classics at Columbia had gone down since he retired—still bitter at the riots in 1968, the barbarian hordes at the doors of the lecture halls. It is tempting to imagine him turning off the radio, no longer wanting the flicker of news in the background. It is tempting to imagine him wondering for a moment if civilization would last much longer, or if we’d just bomb each other off the face of the planet; growing despondent; then, suddenly hungry, walking to the kitchen for a snack, leaving the light on in the study behind him.

Spencer Lenfield is a Rhodes Scholar currently studying classics at Oxford University. He blogs at loosesignatures.blogspot.com

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