A HANDY TOOLBOX FOR LATIN BEGINNERS
A separate Table of Contents of the essays referred to with links in the following paper.
Papyrus scrolls, the basic writing material throughout antiquity until the supply of Cyperus Papyrus weakened in the Christian era, were stored in a SCRINIUM. This seems a singularly fitting term to use here for the storage of electronic materials which are also archived to be read in the scroll format. But the ancient scrolls, as well as the last survivor in the Torah of the synagogues, were page-oriented and scrolled sidewise, whereas we scroll vertically and continuous. Moving ahead we seem to have come around.
Since we are discussing Latin and various materials related to the Latin Language and Literature, it might we well to consider the electronic medium which we are now using, the Web itself, before talking about Literature in general terms. We are so accustomed to thinking about the Humanities as the core of a Liberal Education, that we sometime overlook dangers immanent in the humanistic tradition .
During this last quarter century new ways of thinking have come into being, partly as a result of rapid social change and partly as a result of the Computer Revolution. Some of the new ways of thought are essentially different and often opposed to older trends in education, so a brief look as the new electronic world-scape may be in order here as a separate chapter in the literary textbook.
But Classics as an ancient and respectable discipline has some new turns to face. It tends to be conservative by tradition and nature, yet must go through some serious revisions if it is to occupy a serious place in the current literary and educational scene. A few new thoughts.
How is a Classic Made? There has been much discussion over the centuries about what a Classic is and how it is made. I believe it is entirely made by the reader through a continuous process of polish and appreciation, and refer you to a short essay on this, which can also be found at the end of this webpage.
Since we are dealing with Latin, a primary question will be exactly HOW you are going to read it. Will it be with plain unadorned Latin text and a dictionary (the way you might approach French or Spanish), or with the help of detailed literary and linguistic commentaries? I have explored this in a long paper The Romulus Project which is reviewed in brief at Romulus Revisited. This goes into the matter in some detail, encouraging Classicists to consider writing new and up-to-date commentaries to all the major Latin authors. Unfortunately this would entail much work, and there has been no response from a tenured and self- satisfied upper crust of the discipline. So it may be plain text and dictionary after all!
Speaking of advanced studied in Classics, there has been for some two centuries now a well-developed academic study of the language and inner-structuring of the Classics, which is generally called Classical Philology or simply Philology. Much of this painstaking research work is scattered in the annals of journals in dozens of languages, most is unavailable and overly formidable to the majority of literary students. Yet there is much value in philological research, both for details and facts, and even more for a critical and word- oriented analysis of literary texts. In recent years Philology has been disappearing from graduate studies in the Classics, for which reason I point to an essay which I title a Requiem somewhat sadly.
In learning Latin and getting a reading knowledge sufficient to read authentic Latin texts, even slowly, with some enjoyment, you will of course think of a School and Teachers to speed you on your way. As Ivan Illich said long ago in his remarkable book "De-schooling Society", we in this country especially, believe implicitly in Institutions for all our needs. If sick, go to a Hospital, if troubled go to a Church or a Counselor, and if you want to learn something, of course go to a School. Many years ago I heard a lecture by Isador Rabi, the famous atomic physicist, who told an audience of students point-blank not to trust the teachers, but to go it alone. My colleagues seemed shocked, but Later Rabi explained that the learning curve of students is very fast, while that of their professors sweeps over a thirty year teaching career. Generally teachers can be helpful, they know factual materials well and can unravel problems for us, although it might be better to do the unraveling ourselves.
Studying Literature, one must be very careful to let the writing put its own mark on your mind. That is what you want, not the stamp of the teacher's impressions. So I want to stress this point: The things you learn for yourself are better understood that those which an educational system confers on you, and in this case of the very arch and conservative Classics I must repeat: GO IT ALONE so far as you can.
To lighten this heavy duty argument, take a look at a snapshot of The Old Professor, and then have a look at what one Vice President of the United States, one Calvin Coolidge , had to say about the message of the Classics in l921. Much of his essay is outdated, but there is something about moral examples from the past which we cannot completely write off, even now. Coolidge was clearly not a man of few words, as the popular image goes, at least in print on paper. (The essay is reprinted from the l921 original off print in my possession.)
When we look at teachers, we often think of their attractive positions, lifelong commitments from their employers, long summers off, vacations here and there throughout the year, and loose office hours. But think a bit further about Tenure and what it is really there for, and also consider academic salaries and their payscale before appraising their easy job. Teachers have a serious business to do, one which few will undertake at high educational preparation with mediocre financial rewards. But it is not the teachers, but the Institution of schools and schooling which I take aim at. Is there nothing important which a person can learn for himself? There is, and Latin, or any language which embraces a valid cultural and literary tradition, might be one of the good areas for experimenting.
From the outside the Halls of Academe might seems peaceful and somnolent, a place for deep thought and meditation. But like every social institution in the modern world, Academe has its internecine warfare, its inveterate problems, even to the point of sometimes verging on thoughts of murder. The Hallowed Halls may not be so different from the competitive worlds of business or politics as we like to believe.
Speaking of the Teaching Profession, why is it that with compulsory education for all young people, and hundreds of thousands of teachers all over the country......that we are faced with a growing English Language Illiteracy? Many people cannot functionally read a book, a majority cannot write a decent paragraph at all. We still don't know why this is happening, but the New Illiteracy is growing and we don't have the answers.
I believe this is the result of a general "de-focusing" of mind on words, the results of the over-advertising and skim-viewing world of commercial TV, which has leaked over into political haranguery. If this seems too quick a reply to a big problem, take a look at my paper on FOCUS and see if it answers a few of the questions.
Nowadays a student in college must read pages on pages of tough academic text-book writing, examining each word and phrase, and remembering all the details for the test..... without gagging. Many have felt that the detailed study of a hard language like Latin does make you focus on words and their exact use and meaning, and this should help the student faced with the volumes which college reading entails. But many teachers point out the sad fact that students read without any sense of structure or "grammar", hence gloss over exact meanings with an intuitive glance. I have proposed in a brief paper a new approach to structure of English, as an example of grammar in English or Latin or any inflected language, as a sub-area of Linguistics. This is commonsense linguistics, nothing more, and a good preview for anyone starting learning or relearning Latin. And remember that there are now dozens of pertinent computer-aided language learning programs available, although the best are naturally in the Modern Languages which are widely studied and taught. Still consider pure reading-speed aids like the Yale project of a generation ago, as worth computerizing at long last.
Lest we become too heavy with these serious concerns about writing and student papers, take a look at A Manual of College Writing to restore a bit of our sense of (biting) humor.
At times we like to draw parallels between the ancient world and our times, more as a starting point for discussion and comparison of widely different cultures, than as a factual study. The world does not seem to learn much from past history, the chronicles of warfare and inhumanity persist through the ages but seem to take different forms in the course of time. But there is such a remarkable parallel between the persecution of the Christians in the time of Trajan, and the persecution of supposed-Communists in our MacCarthy era, that I put together a small "classroom drama" on the subject to point out a striking historical parallel. This may be useful to provoke thought and discussion, but it also sketches out something about the way we academics tend to approach a topic in our idiosyncratic classroom manner. But if you want to see the Latin text, a remarkable and authentic document with the Emperor's official answer (Responsum), that is also available here.
You might think as you perused a shelf of college Catalogs that the Classics are now being taught perfectly well in English. Actually hundreds of students sit in awe before the treasures of Antiquity, while two or three labor over the Greek of Plato or the Latin of Petronius. In fact the Classics as a field saved itself from oblivion in a time of rising costs, by going for Translation, which brings up question about what translation can and more important, what it simply cannot do. "Poetry is what is lost in translation...." is a well known linguistic fact. But since translation is here to stay, and doing really fine translation is a difficult and artistic occupation, we should do some serious thinking about the Art of Translation and how translation can deal with structure, sound and effect beyond bare dictionary word-for-word equivalation. Translation involves Art and Craft of great subtlety, as this study will demonstrate.
I wrote a paper recently about the substitution of the Original with a translated Ersatz of sorts, in the case of Homer. Homer is taught in every liberal arts college, but it is the Englished Homer which survives while the original Greek Homer is becoming obsolete. The papers concern Homer, not the Latin authors, but the problem is the same. I urge you to peruse at least the second half of that long historical article........ since that part pertains to the usurping of Classical Originals by Copies. The way the situation is shaping up, soon nobody will read Vergil, the one serious Latin Master, in the original any more........ very sad!
Enough talk about the problems of translating, let's look at a few which I turned out and see what we can get out of them. The ones of Catullus are frankly experimental, I was trying to catch the sense of the spirit of a few of his most spirited poems, and went around the barn to come at them from the other side. If you say these are not Roman poems any more, you are right, but the straight translations are simply awful, so I thought to try something new. When you read the Latin you will have a clearer idea of what I was up against.
The translations of Horace were done a long time ago in my less experimental years, and are pretty close to the original spirit if not the words. Horace is terribly hard to work with, read or translate, since his wonderful polish disappears as soon as you touch one word. It is like looking at a grand Rembrandt period portrait in a 3 x 4 inch black and white textbook illustration, when you try to translate and transmute Horace. The meaning comes through, but not the poetry.
Another kind of situation is seen with Persius , the insanely difficult satiric poet whom Classicists rejected for years because of his mixed slang-to-stagy locutions embedded in his cryptic hexameters. But at last he is being read carefully, and this translation of mine is a close one. If you read it out loud line by line with winks and gestures and asides, you may get something near the impression of the original. But if you want punishment, just try the Latin!
But there are many new things which can be done with translation. As an example, I point to A RADIO DRAMA: Dido and Aeneas. This paper has a dual purpose: First it lays out a complex scenario for the first half of Aeneid Book I with directions for actors, for musical score and a background sound ambiance, all to be incorporated into an assembled, accurately edited and taped recording. Put on a CD, it becomes available for radio transmission at any broadcast station worldwide. But this page also contains my new translation of both Aeneid I and IV, Dido book, in a version which is specifically designed for reading out loud. It differs from many translations in following the 15-17 syllable average of Vergil's hexameters, and can be used by Latin readers along with a text, or simply for reading in English. But my plan is to can work with a Radio-Drama production group to provide a lively media production, which should go a long way to making Vergil an exciting poet to be heard, rather than a part of a course syllabus.
Another example of a life-art use of a Classical text is my scenario with translation, with the Latin text as a reference for the sounds, which you can find under the title CYBELE. This is a scenario for Ballet and Orchestral Music score, based on Catullus' remarkable poem #63, a frightening evocation of the ancient Cult of Cybele, the Magna Mater goddess who was served by willfully castrated men who became her priests. The poem contains multiple hints as to production, it is loaded with sung sounds, horns and cymbals, furious dance rituals, and the pervasive off-beat metrical cadence of the ecstatic dance. My purpose in writing this scenario was to reach a Ballet Company interested in doing a production in the vein of Stravinsky' Rite of Spring, a fitting tribute to his work early in the century as the age now draws to its close. But it can be read as a translation (with Latin text for further suggestions), coupled with a detailed evocation of the nuances, which a casual reading of a prose version would certainly miss.
Now we can at long last turn with a serious eye to our subject at hand, which is the authentic study of Latin writing in the original format. Perhaps start with a few general thoughts to outline aims in doing this specialized language study, and proceed to some more detailed information about the starting phases of Beginning Latin
Latin is clearly a traditional European inflected-type language, but there are some things which are peculiar to its history and structure. Latin writing cover the period from about 400 BC right on through the Roman Empire and beyond, in a long series of literary "Periods" . But Latin was used as lingua franca though the Middle Ages and was the common communication vehicle for scholars and scientists until about 1800.
No student of Latin or European literature should be unaware of the Indo-European background which antedates all of the older languages of Europe (except for Basque, Hungarian, Turkish and Finnish). A great deal of historical research work was done before l900 on this IE linguistic archaeology, much of it involved with sound-laws and etymologies, as well as migrations and social changes throughout Europe. A second level of dispersal of language-stems from Latin is seen in the Romanic Languages which were in evidence after the 7th c. AD, the models for the non-Germanic tongues of Europe.
One of the common notions about Latin is that it is the model of intelligent "Logic" and somehow the student of Latin thinks more rigorously than others. This is a bad mistake, languages suit their social and intellectual requirements, none is inherently more logical than another, and this should not be used as an argument for studying Latin. On the other hand Latin and Calculus do demand a reasonable degree of concentration in mastering them. But this work-effect only marks the learner's assiduity and endurance, if the study has no real interest or involvement with the person's later life.
There has always been question and more often strife about the Correct Pronunciation of Latin, whether Church or Modern Scholar's mode of reading the Latin texts aloud. This is less important than the modern practice of reading Latin silently, an un-Roman approach to literature and one which robs Latin of its rich sonorities. Most important is reading aloud which we must discuss here very seriously. Silent reading is an un-musical approach to reading a very musically- oriented literature.
Moving on to the actual work with words and sentences in Latin, I should note that although "grammar" seems to students the primary base and building block in learning Latin, it is going to be Vocabulary which becomes the real difficulty as soon as you begin to read pages rather than sentences. Latin has a rather limited vocabulary, as compared to English or ancient Greek, but there are many sub-meaning of words which are hard to split out from the basic dictionary definition. First you have to learn new words, then learn new sub-meanings, then do some intelligent guesswork. The old way of fingering through the dictionary is sure enemy to a reading knowledge, which is why I compiled the Humanist's Latin Dictionary or HLD with concise definitions of ALL words used in Classical literary Latin, in electronic form. With this tool, reading should go along at a pace perhaps near half that of the way you might hope to read French. Latin is tighter packed than French, but still has to be read by the page to be understood, not parsed by the word and deciphered by the line. For a downloadable demo of this dictionary, check Centaur Systems.
Let me now send you to an index of a dozen articles on the Latin Authors you will be wanting to read sooner or later. These are very short sketches, just enough to give you an outline of what it out there in Latin. For more detailed information there are manuals like H. J. Rose's "Latin Literature", which has plenty of historical and literary detail for any intermediate-to-advanced student, and there are more modern treatments as well.
READING LATIN TEXTS
First I want to point to a paper I mentioned before, which is important as a preface to language study, the Linguistic Prolegomena which sets the stage for an English speaker. Much of the trouble we have learning to read Latin comes from the invisible discontinuity between where we ARE linguistically at the start, and where we want to be later reading another language. This paper goes into these matters in detail, I consider it one of the missing links in language study generally.
If this paper serves as a general base for language study in general, the next stage will be an introduction to the structure of Latin itself. Here we have a huge gap between the "lesson book" approach which combines micro-samples of reading with minimal chunks of grammar, and on the other hand the serious treatises on Latin Grammar like the still standard Allen and Greenough, 3 ed. by D'Ooge, 1888/l903 which has been out of print for years. One the one side we have too little actual grammar, on the other side far too much with 500 pages listing all possible forms, uses and exceptions. Or go one step further to W H Lindsay's book The Latin Language which reflects the research of the Indo-Europeanists up to l900. I should note that Latin has received almost no help from the new researches in Linguistics, other than Sweet's Introduction which appeared in l950 and was promptly ignored by the hide-bound Traditionalists. Linguistically Latin Grammar is in the Dark Ages!
In an effort to clarify the jungle of Latin Grammar, which has been overgrown with confusing terminology, much of which was devised by Roman grammarians in ancient times or borrowed wholesale from Greek academicians, I put togther The Intelligent Person's Guide to the Latin Language. This is a long text, if you have trouble downloading, use the version in two linked parts.
This is in effect a grammaire raisonne' which explains the hard parts of Latin grammar in the simplest and most sensible linguistic terms I could find. This little treatise has been of use to intermediate students at HS and college level, it can serve as a useful review grammar with a different approach, and is ideal for someone "coming home" to Latin some years later.
We spoke before of Vocabulary as the serious besetting problem in language learning, actually a far more tedious and persistent problem than Grammar. I wrote my computerized Latin Dictionary as a tool which would obviate the time-waste and tedium of dictionary thumbing. The Humanists Latin Dictionary finds a word in a couple of seconds, and contains all of the 15,000 words used in Classical literary Latin. It serves its aim best if used as a tool which enables you to read faster, and get your reading speed up to ten pages an hour of prose like Livy's Histories. This is a different world from the parsing and auto-translating and puzzling which traditional Latin teaching has always favored. We need a clean break (after the manner of the modern languages) and the HLD is indeed a basic tool. At the time of writing we did not have access to a font with the macron for long vowels, but in a new edition the longs will all be marked. However in all cases where a phonematic (meaningful) distinction exists between two words, a note is marks the difference. For more information: The Humanists Latin Dictionary .
Then there is the question of how you will be doing your reading. Will it be with dictionary and an Oxford or Teubner plain text, just the Latin with no comment or student-aids? Or do you want a commentary to lean on, with the assumption that Latin is inscrutable without a leader on the path, a rocky road where you need a cane? I have put together a proposal to the professional academic Classicists, the ROMULUS report, which outlines the need for a new series of modern and newly conceived Commentaries to the Roman authors. But this is a large task, and nobody at the University graduate program level has picked up the ball. So you may have to do your Latin with a printed Plain Text and dictionary, which I believe should really be enough.
There are detailed printed commentaries to most Latin authors in any large public or university library. But why get tangled in the involved academic argumentations of Classics Professionals who are projecting the results of their own arcane researching? Just dip into a library copy of a full commentary, but after you have isolated problems which you could not solve on your own. Here as everywhere, it is your own effort and perception which are the essential tools at hand.
But as an example of what a detailed and perceptive commentary can add to a text which might easily be read through and overlooked, take a look at my essay on Cinema and Poetry. I am convinced that the Greek and Romans used their poetry much the way we perceive our Cinema, and I wrote a new kind of comment on two minor poems which scholars seem to have overlooked or misunderstood. Use this paper as a sketch for the possibility of devising new ways of approaching Latin poems. There are new commentaries to be written, old data can be used but we badly need new modes of perception!
Let me jump ahead a few centuries to a remarkable poem written in accentual meter in the middle Empire, the Eve of St. Venus as it might well be called. This beautiful poem comes as a breath of fresh air in a world staled by over-reading its classics, or fouled by the tasteless epics of Statius and Silius. In the spirit of the Midsummer Night's Dream with Mendelsohn's music, this poem stands alone in Latin literature, so I stress getting it read early as an indicator of some of the spirit which is missing in Latin writing elsewhere. Alas!
For a little library of passages of Latin poetry, furnished with new comment and discussion, try The Intelligent Reader's Latin Chrestomathy, a sampling of fine poems with short comment. There is a wide variety of style in this project, enough to start off with a good dose of sympathetic reading, after which each person can work up a new, personal commentary out of the process of reading the text. If a text is too hard to crack, stay with it, those are the ones which are worth doing, while the easy sentences in your Ecce Romani won't do you any good linguistically or intellectually.
Now we will want a good chunk of Latin to do some extended reading, and there is nothing I can recommend better than Catullus . Here Latin is vibrant, alive, passionate and even shocking by turns, the work of a brilliant young man who died early leaving a very slim volume for the ages. I have included a wide variety of his poetry, but rearranged them in a new way so they make sense when read in this order. (There is no sense of order in the MSS based editions, despite scholarly attempts to find some tracery.) Here is enough to keep a reader reading for a long while, and smiling at each new discovery. If one read only Catullus and Vergil in Latin and disregarded all the very interesting remainder, that would by itself amply repay one for the effort of learning to read Latin.
And so we come to the great Master, the one world-class poet of Roman Literature, one of those rare minds in the annals of Literature as Writing, which stands out as Literature as Art. And that is of course Vergil. But before embarking on what could easily become a lifelong reading obsession, as it has been to many, there are things about Vergil's life and personality which should be known from the start. In the ancient Vitae there are curious details about Vergil , his private life and character and the way he did his composing. Since this material derives from the time when Latin was a live language and his poetry was a part of the Roman cultural tradition, I believe we can see some inner personal traits which Romans knew once, but would not be apparent from the reading of his poetry. Every scrap from the table of a Master must be gathered up with care.
And of course our convenient pocket-size edition of the Aeneid was nothing like the Book which a Roman person read. Romans used for their literature large pages written in almost inch-high capital letters, without spaces between words, and they always read aloud. I have formatted in capital letters a few samples of some lines from the Aeneid to give you an idea of what a Roman Aeneid might have looked like. We can't really read Latin in that format, but it is a good reminder that the Romans always read very slowly, and that they phonated every word clearly, actually listening to the sound for the meaning while absorbing the musicality of the words. This is something which we have largely lost in our speed-read a la McLuhan Print Culture. In reading Latin we can regain some of the lost territory if we stop to take the trouble.
As an aside, I have found that the people who fail to understand and value Joyce's Finnegans Wake, are the visual sight-readers who never suspect that the way into the jungle of the Wake is through its music. Reading and intoning passages of the Wake is the best way to elicit the denoted meaning of the words, and this is equally true of any passage of Vergil. I have laid out a sample paragraph of Joyce as an example of how one might go about reading his Vergil, perhaps take a look . The Dido Episode, which is the whole of Book IV of Vergil's Aeneid, is certainly the finest part of the whole rather long epic, and it is not only an artistic masterpiece in itself, but it is complete as it stands. I have here a complete Latin text of Book IV available to read on screen or better to download and print for your use as you work through this remarkable poetic story- world.
I should also point to a word-for-word Commentary to this book which covers the first half of its 700+ lines in detail. This is quite long, so it might be best read on the screen with the printed text in hand. I have not had time to compact and edit this Commentary which dates form a few years back, but it is quite readable as it stands.
By the bye, I transcribed from an l890 Ginn Publishing Co., schoolbook a set of student-notes to Aeneid IV , changing some of the grammatical wording to match better with modern grammatical terminology. In every bookstore in the country there are copies of old School Texts, from the days a century ago when Latin was a required subject in all schools and colleges. The notes in these books are tight and crabby, often intentionally unhelpful since EFFORT was then the motto for Latin study. But they do explain difficult and odd constructions to some degree, and I suggest searching the shelves for any inexpensive school classics. But if you happen to find a copy of Merrill's Catullus, be sure to grab that one since it is a fine commentary on all but the off-color poems, where it becomes suddenly silent about meaning. Reprinted again and again, Merrill is always valuable but unavailable, a word to the interested.
There is always more to say, just as there is more to read in the world of the Latin Authors. If I were asked for leads on works which might be quite interesting but often ignored, I would say first, read Plautus' play. the Rudens, as a peep into the curious world of Rome about 250 B.C. a time from which we have no other writings. If you want to read Vergil On Farming, that remarkable Gardener's Manual with flashes of purest poetry between the rows, also be sure to look at Cato: De Agricultura for the harsher reality scene of Roman farm life. And then take a look at Columella who outlines a Gentleman's Farm in the post Vergilian era.
Petronius simply must be read both as our only document written in ordinary spoken Latin, and also for its remarkable view of Roman nouveau-riche social life. And there are surprises and possible new interpretations in Petronius too. Never ignore the Church writers, Augustine Book III of De Civitate Dei is a natural starter with lots of life and personal detail. But I suggest a close look at the much earlier Minucius Felix who is still Christianizing within a pagan Roman world and writes in classical pre-Christian Latin. And then there is the time of the real church-men, Tertullian and Lactantius. and the great Augustine.
For a general reference, I have always preferred to somewhat old- fashioned Handbook of Latin Literature by H J Rose (orig., Methuen, London l936 but often reprinted in paperback). For the literary reader this has plenty of information, and the general parameters of scholarship regarding Latin were well set by Rose's time. For texts there are choices: Harvard's Loeb Library Series has Latin text with facing fairly literal translation, and is probably the easiest way into Latin with a dictionary to check up on some words. The OCT Oxford Classics Text series was once cheap, now fairly costly but since it is just text, you get a lot for your money, if you want to read plain text the hard way. The German Teubner Series is like the Oxford, some new re-prints but many old ones going back a century and a half into the times of that brittle yellowed acid paper, to be avoided. For any major Latin author, any old text is good enough, and any Vergil will be virtually letter perfect. Lucretius' text has problems but not enough to bother a literary reader.
A WORD IN CLOSING....
Someone once said that what makes a Classic is the quality of its genericness or applicability to other ages, other cultures, in short its Universality. Others feel the very antiquity of a Classic is at its core of value, a view I oppose strongly in our era of the infinite Collectibles, and our searching for roots and sources in those presumably less troubled days of yore.
I believe we actually make a Classic ourselves, by imbibing its words and phrases and spirit, fondling them over and over and polishing them in our memory over the course of many years, over the period of a life time. This is not merely a situation driven by reinforced memory patterns, there is something subtler in the almost moire shadings which develop like a transcendental mist around the core object, the ritualized poem, the repeated prayer. Bibles are generated in this way, they have slowly changed from informative documents written down in letters by prophets or acolytes, and have become a special kind of enriched writing, alchemized by lifetimes of use and backed up by centuries of use before that. A Buddhist mantra may be just four words, but it attains a towering profundity by use and continual reuse. A Greek drama which was performed for a specific audience at a specific interlude in a war, becomes a universal symbol of belief in Man's destiny, not by its content but by the context of the last two millennia of reiteration and reinterpretation.
I have a test example which may prove part of my point. As a student and young teacher I relished the infinite detailing and polish of Horace's Odes, and after a decade of teaching these poems to my students, I found them better and richer than I had perceived before. But I remember my Teacher Joshua Whatmough mentioned once that he had some classical poetry put away in a corner of his mind as something to work with after retiring from his Linguistics chair, and this idea of a literary cache of sorts appealed to me even then.
So I kept a few poems of Horace unread. I glanced at the first line which I remembered well enough, but left the rest unread on purpose, thinking of that notion of coming back to them later in a fresh mood, unencumbered by my experiences.
When I did come back and peruse those cached poem many years later, I was in for a great surprise. They really didn't look very good, they were clearly Horatian, they had the marks of the fine poet's touch all over them, wording and metrics and theme. But they seemed flat and in a way ordinary. I compared one of these recently dug up "finds" with " Integer vitae scelerisque purus...." and they stood a world apart. What was the difference, were these inferior poems?
No, it was the lack of handling, repetition in the back corner of the mind, rereading in different moods, different decades, different stages and conditions of life. And I found I could never repair the new poems to become as rich and harmonious to my mind as those which I had lived with. Maybe this is a little like the wearing-in qualities which accompany a long marriage, a long friendship, or bringing up children from babes to middle-aged friends and associates.
I have a special feeling for many poems of Catullus which have accompanied me on my way through life, not least that sad "Miser Catulle desinas ineptire...". And St. Paul's Corinthians I, 13: with its temple gongs and survey of the religions of the East, the final mirroring of your real-self, with LOVE crowning those final Three Things....... this was a passionate hymn from the organized Paul at first, but now a cantata of echoing voices from the remote past vibrating in my ears today. Or the great Vedic hymn to the morning sun, sung by more generations of people in India than any other liturgical text perhaps, enriched by the patina of time into a micro-world of devotion.
So my final observation is this: It is not the writer who makes a Classic at all. He throws together with art and sensitivity ordered wording with the craft he has at hand, but when he is done he has made an object, a word-construct of some sort. But it is the reader who makes it into a Classic, it becomes a special possession by being encoded and recorded and reiterated in his mind over days and years and decades. When we say a work has become a universal Classic, it only means that myriad readers have also gone through this touch and stroke and polish process, and have enriched the original poem or prayer not only for the individual but for the society.
But when a Classic thus generated loses its flavor, like the salt of the earth, then it is only an embalmed Classic, preserved in an academic niche reserved for Collectibles, to be handled gingerly with gloves and smelling strangely of formaldehyde.