Honors Classics at Trinity College

January 19, 2007

jacket imageDavid Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about his university education from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir.

The men who taught Honors Classics in Trinity College had enough of the unusual and exotic to furnish a mysterious element to our education. They were nearly all of the recognizable British eccentric type, something grown much rarer since. There were five or six of them lecturing, or teaching if one preferred that title, and at least three of them—the seniors of the group—combined a well-deserved reputation for scholarship, backed up by a fair amount of scholarly publication, with a remoteness from ordinary life, and manifest loneliness, and very notably an inability to act or speak or dress like any normal members of their class and kind.

There was J. G. Smyly, one of the leading papyrologists of his day. Literary and other texts in Greek were preserved on papyrus for many hundreds of years before people came to use the expensive calfskin and other materials. But papyrus was not very lasting, and most of what has come down to us in papyrus is fragmentary. Indeed, many of the papyrus fragments are not literary at all. An unkind classicist vexed at the intrusion of the archaeologists once angrily discounted the value of learning from the contents of "thousands of washerwomen’s bills in Egypt." Smyly and the two Oxford scholars B. P. Grenfell and A. S. hunt had edited a huge body of this material, called the Tebtunis papyri. At the time I came to college Smyly was temporarily doing a job that he found slightly uncomfortable. The professor who was responsible for Indo-European Comparative Philology had died, and the exam paper in the subject, which was always a part of Scholarship in classics—a very difficult and extensive exam in the middle of the Honors classical course—had to be set by someone, and lectures given as a preliminary. Smyly was taken out of retirement for the purpose because of the enormous knowledge of rare Greek words which he had picked up from his readings in the papyri. These words tended to be useful for explaining the various shifts in sound and form in the evolution of the comparative philology process. Smyly certainly knew something about the theoretical side of comparative philology—mostly Antoine Meillet’s seminal text of the midtwenties, Introduction à l’étude comparative des langues indo-européennes—but he made quite fascinating the use of the rare words to illustrate Meillet. He made me feel a passionate, almost romantic, interest in comparative linguistics because of his own odd approach.

In the early 1930s Smyly looked like a photograph of a gentleman of the 1880s: stiff round collar, full morning dress, and an immense head of white hair framing a face which suggested an old eagle. He was reputed to be a prince—or whatever the proper honorific title—in the order of the Masons; his presence was certainly steeped in aristocratic dignity. I remember the shock that ran through the class when he cited, as an example, the Greek word epibda from Pindar, which there means the consequences of overindulgence in drinking. Smyly translated it for us as "You might say, ladies and gentlemen, the headache of the morning after." Somehow, everything was out of kilter—the pompous address (we were all about eighteen), the formality of the words and the dress, and the appeal to us in a colloquial reference which was supposed, quite wrongly, to put us at our ease with him. He was also a librarian of the College, and a somewhat remiss librarian. His own main interests were music and pornography, and books connected with these subjects were carefully attended to. I was told by his successor that he found boxes and boxes of volumes treating other subjects that had never been unpacked. He used to play the violin within hearing distance of those of us who used the reading room of the Old Library, and to us he seemed to play extremely well.

There was George Mooney, who had just changed from being University Professor of Latin to the Regius Professor of Greek. Being Mooney, his main contributions during his Latin professorship were two uniquely valuable editions of Apollonius and of the Alexandra of Lycophron, two late Greek poets; and he celebrated his elevation to the chair of Greek (the senior of the two professorships) by editing Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars, an especially important Latin text. As a human being everything marked him as inaccessible. Extremely reserved and shy, his physical features were unusually off-putting. He had only one eye—the other had been lost in his early days out hunting—and the missing eye was unabashedly just what it was, without a shade or anything else. He had a husky, sepulchral voice which he used very little. His clothes were always in rags. He was a very severe examiner on texts, being notorious for setting as "unseens" (that is, sections which were not on the prescribed parts of the author studied) passages which were themselves extremely hard even with commentaries and lexicon. In such an exam paper the difficulty was obvious and his markings niggardly. But all that was clear and straightforward; however, he also administered vivas (orals) in particular texts prescribed. On Scholarship he had two vivas, one on the Iliad and the Odyssey and the other on Thucydides, book 7. He apparently assessed us by some private standard of his own which had little to do with the questions he asked and we answered. He examined in Scholarship every year for a number of years, and for some extraordinary reason always asked the same questions on his viva. These questions were always quite particular, and as Scholarship was a very difficult exam it was often taken by the same candidate two or three times before getting it—or giving up taking it. Consequently many students knew exactly the questions he was going to ask them. But seemingly Mooney quickly decided either that you had read the books thoroughly when you answered or you had merely been told what his questions were. If the latter, he gave you three or four marks out of ten automatically. I remember sitting alongside him at a desk as he glanced at me with his good eye and said, "Lad, do you know the description of Olympus in the Odyssey?" I did know that this was one of Mooney’s pet questions and had learned it by heart. Then there was an uncomfortable silence which he broke by asking, "Do you know what word Homer uses for a worm?" (He made the keyword a double syllable—wor-um.") This one I had not heard about, but fortunately remembered that indeed there were two: one, the worms that might have but hadn’t eaten Odysseus’s bow; the other, the "gleaming worms" that had been kept from eating Hector’s body by the gods’ intervention. Mooney made a very slight movement, and I knew that something had happened. He then asked me a number of detailed questions on readings, etc., and then quite unexpectedly made me talk about what I thought was the role of Laertes in the Odyssey, a discussion in which he joined with evident pleasure. "That will do, lad," he said, and it was over. He gave me eight marks out of a possible ten. I lost the other two, I think, for knowing the description of Olympus by heart, palpably by having been told of it beforehand.

I have not forgotten a most unexpected bit of kindness from Mooney. I was taking the exam for the Vice Chancellor’s Medals. For that, in the year I took it, the text was the entire body of Terence’s plays, all six of them, with three papers of passages for translation into English, a mass of exegetical questions, and finally a verse composition in the style and meter of Terence based on a given scene of Shakespeare. Mine was one of the Nurse’s exhortations to Juliet. It was great fun doing this, no matter how absurd it is now made to look by more serious scholars.

The exam was always held in the Examination Hall, in those days without central heating or electricity. The month was November. I had six hours of writing the first day and six the second. I wore my overcoat with my gown on top and thin gloves on my hands. On the second morning of the exam Mooney entered with his printed exam paper in his hand—the College Press always printed the exams then, Greek characters and all, with your examiner’s name at the top. The exam was sealed in an envelope which the said examiner broke open before your eyes. Mooney took one look at me and growled out, "Can you think of any reason why you should take this exam in this ghastly place?" I couldn’t, so he beckoned me to follow him and put me in his rooms with a blazing fire and a cup of tea. It may not seem like much now, but then it was very different. He so rarely spoke to any of us at all and did not seem to notice much. The unexpected kindness was quite overwhelming, all the more so because the other two examiners, who always gave the impression of noticing students more, had passed by several times on the previous day in that chilly hall without passing any comment.

Then there was Sir Robert Tate, knighted for his services as an interpreter to the forces during World War I. He also had a Distinguished Service Order, so I assume he had done some fighting, too. He apparently knew ten to fifteen languages as well as his Greek, Latin and Hebrew. I have been told by his well-wishers, as well as their opposites, that he spoke all the modern languages with perfect correctness and an impeccable Anglo-Irish accent. He used to teach us how to write Greek and Latin prose and verse. He would, for instance, on Tuesday give us a passage of any author from Milton to Wordsworth, and on the following Tuesday take up our versions of them, done into whatever meter you deemed appropriate—hexameters for Milton, Ovidian or Tibullan elegiacs for Wordsworth. No one was compelled to send in versions. I secretly believe that the very harsh criticism to which we were subjected by Sir Robert was partly designed to diminish the number of copies given him to read. On the Thursday following he would enter the classroom, sit down with his face ostentatiously away from us and toward the window and lawn in the Square. He would then catalogue our infelicities or downright blunders without attributing any of them by name to the unhappy listening faces which would begin to redden. He would then comment with something like this: "I say nothing about the poetry of this; it is too much to expect that you have enough feeling for English poetry to have any notion of how to render it in Latin or Greek—but at least you ought to know the simple rules of Latin and Greek meter." I remember how I once glowed with delight when he read my version through, saying nothing at first. He then remarked, "I don’t say this is good—but it’s not at all bad; but I don’t like the last couplet. It has the wrong ring to it for Ovid." About three weeks later I was at a college dance and there was Sir Robert—who was a deservedly well-known dancer. During an intermission he walked over to me and quoted two lines from Ovid and said, "You see what I mean, my dear fellow; that’s why your lines seemed wrong."

These three were, as I have said, a breed that has grown very scarce. Some time ago I had a conversation with a professor of the College whom I had known since childhood days. He said that it had taken him a long time to realize that these eccentrics had been made so by suffering and frustration, and that was good for nobody. I don’t know; but I do know that each of these men made very notable written contributions to the exegetical and stylistic values of classical literature. What is more, there is something special in being taught classics by men whom you cannot possibly imagine as being really like yourself when they were young. They come before you as a part of the mystery that lies in their complete mastery of those long-dead languages, and in their eerie power to jolt your imagination beyond almost anything that you can read of criticism in the more modern and apparently commonsensical fashion. It is true of course that they were dealing with works that inflame the imagination, so that it is hard to think it possible that you would not be engaged, with Homer and Herodotus, with Thucydides and the tragedies, with Lucretius, Vergil, and Tacitus. But it is better, I believe, if those who teach you do so from the heart of their own perhaps twisted personality, rather than with the standardized presentation of new historical evidence or current theories of psychology or anthropology. At any rate, there was some sort of inner harmony between the isolation and complexity of their personalities and their nearly magical way of understanding the texts and rendering them alive again in living linguistic detail.

Excerpted from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir by David Grene.

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