Ach so, Herr Major

Nicholas Horsfall

  • Horace: Odes and Epodes edited by Niall Rudd
    Harvard, 350 pp, £14.50, June 2004, ISBN 0 674 99609 7

At Mrs H.G. Wells’s funeral on 22 October 1927, Virginia Woolf was surprised that HGW’s ‘typewritten sheets’ were read by ‘a shaggy, shabby old scholar’, T.E. Page. In 1981, Niall Rudd wrote a short biography of the scholar and controversialist, who taught classics at Charterhouse, was once seen by Osbert Lancaster accompanying Lady Asquith down Bond St, and died a Companion of Honour and a trustee of the Reform Club. Page was an admirable Latinist, independent, commonsensical, and sharply aware of a world outside books. Even when wrong, he was sensible. This was the man whom James Loeb, a retired banker and huge benefactor of cultural causes and institutions, appointed in 1910 co-editor of his new Classical Library. His aim, Loeb wrote, in his prefatory ‘Word’ in the first 20 volumes, published in 1912, was to remedy the failure of schools to teach the young enough Latin or Greek ‘to enable the student to get that enjoyment out of classical literature that made the lives of our grandfathers so rich’; the ‘average reader’, he said, therefore now needed help. Whether the top-heavy prose (or risible verse, if the translator had ambitions that way) and poor reliability of many of the earlier volumes really helped the good cause is open to doubt. Page’s supervision was in some cases patently slack.

But twenty-five years or so ago, the series began to show signs of a revived vitality and sense of purpose, over and above the joyless phase of Englishing roughly the ‘dirty bits’, previously translated into Anglo-Italian. Odd gaps in the range of authors covered began to be filled, some very distinguished scholars were signed on (e.g. for the Elder Seneca, Valerius Maximus, the early Greek epic fragments, Aelian and Chariton) and the brave but necessary decision was taken to redo completely some of the early volumes, such as Virgil and Horace. Now that 450 words (really, that many?) of Latin are to be required of the GCSE candidate and the complete extinction of Latin in state schools is expected in 12 years because there will be no teachers, the need for good translations is more pressing than ever. Publishers seem to understand this, as witness a new Oxford edition of Horace’s Odes (1997) by David West, and a Penguin Aeneid from the same hand (1990), while A.J. Woodman’s edition of Tacitus’ Annals is eagerly awaited. But a Loeb edition is rather more: some volumes have full introductions and ample annotation, even a new critical text of the Latin or Greek, and a translation of real importance, giving the considered view of a serious scholar on the sense of a difficult text. This is certainly true of George Goold’s Aeneid, which I am careful to consult often and thoughtfully.

Loebs are sometimes useful, too, as providing a text (of sorts) for authors not otherwise easily available, and as giving rapidly the context in, say, some long, sticky passage of Plutarch’s Moralia, before you get down to the hard, precise business of puzzling out what the crucial three lines, or words, really mean. Sadly, though, too many dons in a hurry continue to believe, however frequently the contrary is pointed out, that the Loeb translation is in general good enough to cite. All too often, particularly in the earlier volumes, it is not, and if these versions are cited incautiously as the basis for ‘scholarly’ argument, the results can be pretty horrible. That said, the squarish, cleanly printed Loeb, consistent in format over the decades, remains easy on the eye, and on the pocket; there is something comfortingly familiar about the jacket for Latin, ruddier than the cherry. There are ample grounds for gratitude to James Loeb for his inspiration and generosity. If you are going to Corfu and think you have nearly enough Greek to invite Odysseus and Nausicaa back to share your Phaeacian sand, then it is wonderful to be able to stick the Loeb Homer (unreadable though it is) in your beach bag.

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[*] Oxford, 420 pp., £70, May 2004, 0 19 926314 0.

[†] Oxford, 622 pp., £89, October 2003, 0 19 925324 2.