In praise of Class Civ

It has pedigree. In the 16th century, the reading of Latin and Greek authors was usual in the schools across England that had been founded in the wake of Colet and Erasmus. But some writers were resolved that people whose brains were not wired for Latin and Greek, or who had left school in early teens, should not be deprived of the classics. So during that century, translations of the classics proliferated: Fleming’s Eclogues and Georgics, Phaer’s Aeneid, North’s Plutarch, Holland’s Livy: the list goes on.

Madeleine Forey says, ‘England, a little later than its European fellows, established its vernacular versions of the texts central to its learning and culture, validating the language as it did so.’ She quotes Richard Mulcaster, Edmund Spenser’s old headmaster: ‘I honour the Latin but I worship the English.’

Shakespeare, according to Ben Jonson, had small Latin and less Greek. But Jonson, after all, had been classically educated at Westminster School and Cambridge. What seems clear is Shakespeare was introduced to Ovid at Stratford Grammar School, and Ovid remained his favourite Latin poet. Then or afterwards he became acquainted with Golding’s translation of the Metamorphoses. The influence of Ovid upon Shakespeare was through Golding.*

John Keats left school at fifteen for an apprenticeship; but he soon read Chapman’s translation of Homer, and apparently knew parts of Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary by heart. Compare the entry under Hyacinthia with the Ode on a Grecian Urn. Keats, like Shakespeare, was skilled at taking other people’s words and making poetry from them.

And so to Class Civ, and its course of classics in translation: I have known some colleagues to be snooty about it. I have also known pupils who have read the Aeneid in English aloud in class and have loved it more than many a Latinist.

*See Professor Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (OUP 1949), and
Madeleine Forey’s introduction to Golding’s Metamorphoses (Penguin 2002).

Next post: poetry and translation.