Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Latin for Pleasure

The University of Illinois, Urbana campus, where Dr. Oliver obtained his doctorate and was a professor until his retirement in the late 1970s.

by Revilo P. Oliver
University of Illinois (1949)

CURRENT ARTICLES on the problems of Latin teaching have had much to say about various qualities requisite or desired in the teacher, but little about capacity to enjoy Latin as a language and as a literature — presumably the value of this most precious of pedagogic endowments is too obvious for discussion. Its efficacy, certainly, is beyond question, for the adolescent mind (provided that it is at all educable) is most of all impressed by perception that the subject taught is a source of personal pleasure to the teacher.

For genuine pleasure there is, unfortunately, no substitute in all the artifices of pedagogic technique.

Intelligent adolescents usually possess a sensitivity to insincerity so acute that it defeats all adult cunning; factitious enthusiasm will do well enough in a kindergarten, but it is dangerously apt to be worse than none at all in a high school.

I am well aware how difficult it is to enjoy teaching anything in many high schools; how effective are the most modern administrative devices for harrassing teachers; and how much of the teacher’s scanty ‘leisure’ is devoted to feeding and watering the numerous extra-curricular camels that now occupy the educational tent. It is with all humility, therefore, that I here labour the obvious and insist on the importance of personal pleasure as a source of professional improvement.

While the teacher’s ability to feel and communicate pleasure in her subject is fundamental to all good pedagogy, it is particularly important in the teaching of Latin, which now suffers from the reputation of being a gloomy, as well as a difficult, subject. In the competitive context of most secondary schools, a failure to convey by example some conception of the sheer satisfaction to be obtained from reading Latin may be the final and fatal addition to the many disadvantages from which Latin suffers vis-à-vis the modern tongues. Latin is intrinsically a much more difficult language; the time that must be spent before a reading knowledge of it can be obtained is, therefore, much greater, and seems almost interminable to the impatient mind of adolescence. It is generally taught as a literary subject, so that the pupil is introduced as soon as possible to literary texts which require some maturity of understanding, while his contemporaries in the modern languages are increasing their linguistic fluency by reading detective stories, newspaper articles, light fiction, and other products of unreflective journalism. Few Latin classes can offer the immediate appeal of conversational use of the language studied.

Modern languages may rely on the superficial attractions of the contemporaneously exotic, while Latin must rest its claims on universal values that are not immediately apparent to immature minds. Finally, some modern languages are thought to be ‘practical ‘ — although the chances that any given high school student will ever have a serious need to ask ‘¿Donde esta el correo?’ are only slightly greater than the chances that he will need to ask ‘Ubi est aedes tabellariorum?’ If, in addition to these ineluctable handicaps, Latin is sterilely presented as something that has been grimly learned only to be grimly taught, or as an unpleasant concomitant of English essays on Roman private life, it will scarcely be able to compete with languages taught by teachers whose feeling for linguistic values is constantly renewed and enhanced by reading for their own pleasure — who may this week have in their hands at home a novel by Junger, an essay by Ortega y Gasset, or an issue of the admirable Revue de la pensee française.1 Such reading, to be sure, deals with subjects which have no direct relation to the teacher’s daily tasks, except in so far as any enrichment of the mind is an augmentation of humanity and hence of pedagogic ability, but from such reading the more alert teachers of modern languages derive a sense of the living quality of the language as a means of communication which would speedily be lost if their reading were confined to a small number of familiar texts used as corpora vilia in class.

There is only one way to enjoy Latin, and that is to read it — and read it constantly. True pleasure of the mind will come only from ever fresh experience, from a continually renewed sense of the beauties of Latin as a language and of the richness, the grace, the wit, and the profundity of what has been written in that language.

Concentration on the few texts read in the schools too often produces a tendency to forget that, despite the loss of so many masterpieces, the literature in Latin still exceeds many modern literatures not only in quality, but also in quantity and variety. When we have read and reread every line of Vergil, Horace, Catullus, Lucretius, Ovid, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus, we have seen but the highest peaks of a long sierra of great literature. To speak only of major epics, for example, we have made but a beginning. Lucan is, to be sure, inferior to Vergil by any standard, but it would be very difficult to show that any later epic in any language is superior to Lucan. Whether the next rank should be accorded to the Thebais or the Argonautica may be debated, but there can be no question but that both poems contain beauties that will leave an ineffaceable impression on the mind of any reader who has a taste for poetry.

Statius’s other epic, the Achilleis, of which he completed only the introduction, contains, by the way, the lines which a few years ago came often to my mind as the perfect description of universal mobilization for total war. To turn to a quite different field, we should remember that Latin literature includes the classic of pedagogy; if we may borrow the words of a sagacious critic, ‘it is not too much to say that any one who knows [the first book of Quintilian’s Institutio] thoroughly and can make the necessary slight adjustment to apply its principles to subjects not in the Roman curriculum may safely leave all that has been written on education from Rousseau to the latest pseudo-psychologist to gather dust on library shelves.’2

I do not propose to compile here a catalogue of either names or literary genera, for one may find exciting interest in the pages of even the most minor writers. A good history of Latin literature and a little curiosity are a better guide than any suggestions that might be made here.

But it must be remembered that histories of Latin literature are generally written by classicists who pride themselves on exhibiting the utmost rigour of classicist criticism, with its emphasis on absolute standards, minute analysis, and severe animadversion on every disproportion or imperfection. As a result, the austere judgments of modern critics of Latin literature would shock Sicco Polenton who, in the fifteenth century, when classicistic criticism was in its earliest stage, complained of contemporaries ‘qui sunt adeo delicati ut nihil omni parte non perfectum laudent.’ Our extremely high critical standards are admirable in themselves, but their application in histories of classical literature may mislead readers who do not realize that these are not the standards commonly employed in histories of modern literatures. We should not be deterred from our reading for pleasure by a critic’s severe comments on the vulgarity of Plautus, the sententious rhetoric of the Senecan tragedies, the putative insincerity of Seneca’s ethics, or the exaggerations and obscurities in Statius. If we applied the same standards to English literature, we should have to begin by warning readers against Shakespeare, who is both vulgar and sententious (the old lady who read Hamlet for the first time was disappointed to find it ‘chock full of quotations’), Bacon, whose conduct was a poor exemplification of his ethical professions, and Shelley, whose romantic hyperboles are sometimes far from perspicuous. If our taste is sufficiently catholic to permit us to enjoy modern writers despite their imperfections, we may reasonably expect no less pleasure from a reading of ancient writers who, however far they may have fallen short of the noble and inimitable purity of Homer and Aeschylus, have qualities which have seldom been equalled in modern letters.

Great as are the resources of Roman literature, we should not forget that it is far from coterminous with Latin literature, of which, quantitatively, it is a mere fraction. I shall not venture to discuss the great bulk of mediaeval writings which, aside from the considerable obstacles presented to the reader by their more or less debased Latinity and by the orthographical abnormalities so carefully reproduced in modern editions, are generally so much a product of the era in which they were written that they appeal only to somewhat specialized interests.3 But I cannot fail to allude, however briefly, to what seems to me to be relatively the most neglected literature in the world. The Latin of the Renaissance and modern times, lying outside the province of most scholars of modern languages and beyond the scholarly interests of most classicists, has been so ignored that not even a general history of it has been written. This very neglect,4 however, gives to reading in Neo-Latin literature the zest that comes from exploration of almost virgin territory; it is a kind of forgotten continent in which anyone may make real discoveries for himself if only he is willing to risk a little adventure in wildernesses where the dense undergrowth of superannuated controversy, scholastic dullness, and sterile imitations often hides from view verdant glens and flowered meadows. Only two names in Neo-Latin literature are now generally known outside very limited circles of academic and antiquarian scholarship. Erasmus, the universal mind of the sixteenth century and the finest representative of the only realistic and rational kind of internationalism known to the modern world, must always charm and interest by the catholicity of his taste, the self-revelation of his numerous personal letters, and the genial satire of his Encomium Moriae; only from his pages, perhaps, do we glimpse the magnitude of the disaster that fell upon Europe when plebeian hatreds replaced the enlightened tolerance possible only to an educated minority, and when provincialism became so narrow and arrogant that it took the name of nationalism. Johannes Secundus is rightly numbered among the great lyric poets of all time; his Basia are gems of amatory verse, for the lapidarian perfection of their form serves only to display more clearly the ruby-like fire of their passionate sincerity.

But great as they are, these two names should not obscure all others. The number of Neo-Latiin writers of real literary distinction is legion. It is impossible to set forth here even the most summary outlines of a literature which encompasses such richly varied works as Barclay’s picaresque novel, Euphormion; the mordant epigrams of John Owen; the Lucianesque dialogues of Pontano; the brilliant satire, Nicolai Klimii iter subterranneum, by Voltaire’s versatile contemporary, Ludvig Holberg; the facetious tales of Morlini; De Thou’s Historia sui temporis (1545-1607) the political idealism of More’s Utopia and Campanella’s Civitas Solis; Macropedius’s realistic sketches of contemporary peasant life; Nicholas Chorier’s ne plus ultra of vivid eroticism, the Satira Sotadica; Thomas Legge’s interesting anticipation of Shakespeare, Richardus III; Rouillet’s grimly realistic tragedy, Philanira; the pictures of contemporary manners in the dialogues which Vives wrote to train schoolboys in colloquial Latin; the pathetic confessions of Pacificus Maximus, which vie, at least in frankness, with Rousseau’s; the tender melancholy of Politian’s elegies; the poems to Faustina written by Du Bellay when, turning from relatively frigid imitations of Petrarch in French verse, he chose Latin for the expression of what seems to have been the most sincere attachment of his life; the vernal paganism of Bembo’s Pastorum chorus; the melodramatic tragedies of George Buchanan, the learned Scotchman whom Dr. Samuel Johnson described as ‘the only man of genius his country ever produced’; Bacon’s Essays, which are sometimes clearer in the Latin than in the English version; and Aeneas Sylvius’s sprightly eomedy, Chrysis, which was twice printed in recent years (Brussels, 1939; Florence, 1941).

The volume of writing done in Latin has steadily declined since the eighteenth century, but it would even now be premature to pronounce Latin entirely dead as a literary language. Giovainni Pascoli, a truly great poet, died in 1912. Alfredo Bartoli, whose Latin verses bear witness to the ease and naturalness with which the language may be employed for poetic expression even in this century, is now in his seventies. I do not know whether the younger poet, R. Delbiausse, survived the storm [World War 2 — Ed.] whose lowering approach he described in his Silvarum libri (Lille, 1937):

Namque iterum sese demens effundere toto
barbarus orbe parat, totum rapuisse videtur
umbra polum populique pavent dubitantque paventes
emergantne novi quondam caligine soles.

[Once again, mad, pouring down everywhere, the barbarian is preparing the world; he seems to have stolen it all. And from the shadow of the sky, new suns now emerge in the fog.]

The European catastrophe, however, has not abolished Holland’s famous yearly contest for Latin poets; twenty-nine competitors submitted original compositions in the Certamen Hoeufftianum this year, and rules for next year’s contest may be found in Museum, LIII (1948), col. 92.

For strictly contemporary Latin prose there is, unfortunately, almost nothing to be suggested.

No periodical, so far as I know, is now published in Latin with articles of general interest for mature readers. Indeed, bizarre as it may seem, there is not even a learned periodical in the field of classical studies in which the majority of articles are in Latin. Many journals still publish from time to time a few contributions in what was once the universal language of educated men, but the number of such articles is steadily decreasing — presumably because modern classical scholars tend more and more to regard Latin as an extremely dead corpus from which to mine nuggets of Realwissenschaft. Whether the accelerated production of Realwissenschaftliche data compensates for the necessarily decreased sensitivity to the language of classical texts is a question which it is customary studiously to ignore. To this generalization there is one significant and recent exception. In an introductory note to an excellent article in the Rheinisches Museum, XCI (1942), 200-226, Andreas Thierfelder explains that he chose to set forth the results of his research in Latin ‘ne utilissimae exercitationis oblatam facultatem temere praetermitterem.’ [‘lest I should rashly pass over the possibility of useful exercises offered’] He adds: ‘Invideo philologis linguarum recentium studiosis, quibus potestas est cum hominibus earumi gentium, quarum linguae ipsi docent, colloquendi ab eisque impetrandi, ut suum loquendi usum emendent. Quorum nemo non fatetur hanc exercitationem summo usui esse etiam ad litteras harum nationum rectius interpretandas. Hoc quoniam nobis, qui litteris veterum studemus, non licet, secundo saltem tamquam gradu exercitationis ut utamur, forsitan admonendi simus: nam tum quoque ad rectius intellegendas aestimandasque eas litteras, quas docendas nobis civitas mandavit, non dubito quin aliquantum proficiamus, si eam, quae antiquis praesto fuerit, et sententiarum et verborum copiam interdum ita experiamur, ut ipsi de eis rebus, quae idoneae sint, aliquid Latine conscribamus.’ [‘I envy the philologists of modern languages, who have the power to speak with the people of those nations whose languages they teach, and to obtain permission from them to amend their use of language. None fail to admit that this exercise is of the utmost importance in interpreting the letters of these nations more accurately. Since this is not possible for us who study ancient literature, to use it even as a second level of practice, perhaps we should be reminded; it was available to the ancients, and we may sometimes experience their abundance of sentences and words in such a way that we ourselves may write something in Latin concerning those things which may be useful.’] Whether this modest and cogent statement will greatly impress contemporary scholars remains to be seen.

But whatever the tendencies of higher scholarship, Latin, if it is to survive in the curriculum, must live in the minds of its teachers. This it can do if they will draw from its vast literary resources the stimulus and pleasure that in this, as in other fields, separates the quick from the dead. Only thus can we vindicate by experience the Ciceronian claim that ‘haec studia adulescentiam alunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ae solacium praebent…’ [‘These pursuits nourish youth, delight old age, and adorn prosperity.’]


1 A periodical, roughly similar in format to the Readers’ Digest, published monthly in New York; a little more than half of each issue is devoted to ‘pages anthologiques’ selected from the whole of French literature, but particularly from the works of minor writers; the remainder of each issue is devoted to current articles.

2 H.J. Rose, Handbook of Latin Literature, New York [1936], 399.

3 There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization, notably many Carolingian lyrics and the rhymed songs of the Goliards; for well selected specimens of mediaeval (and some later), Latin see K.P. Harrington, Mediaeval Latin, Boston, 1942.

4 The title of the History of Later Latin Literature by F.A. Wright and T.A. Sinclair (New York, 1931) is misleading: the bulk of the book is devoted to the Middle Ages, leaving only a slender chapter for the Renaissance and subsequent periods. Leicester Bradner’s Musae Anglicanae (New York, 1940) is an admirable guide to the Latin poetry written in England to 1925. A similar work on Latin prose in England is a great desideratum. Georg Ellinger ‘s Geschichte der neulateinischen Literatur Deutschlands (Berlin and Leipzig, 3 vols., 1929-33) is a remarkably thorough and inclusive treatment of poetry written in Italy, Germany, and Holland through the sixteenth century. For a general view of Renaissance Latin (with some mention of writers as late as the eighteenth century) see Paul van Tieghem, La littérature latine de la Renaissance (Paris, 1944). A most useful anthology of Renaissance writers is Florence Alden Gragg ‘s Latin Writings of the Italian Humanists, New York, 1927.

* * *

Source: Classical Weekly, 7 February 1949

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9 January, 2022 2:20 am

Excellent, thank you.