Colin Leach looks back sixty years to his student days in a very different world.
Eduard Fraenkel was holding his (packed) weekly class on Greek lyric metres in early 1952, and was taking us through the first chorus of the Agamemnon. On a whim, he asked a student in the front row to read a few lines. All went well until αἴλινον αἴλινον εἰπέ, τὸ δ᾽ εὖ νικάτω, when the last word came out, decisively, as an anapaest. The class burst into a howl of derision. This says much more about the class than about the student (who went on to get Firsts in Mods and Greats), for at that time almost everyone there would have been writing Greek iambics for several years; Fraenkel’s eye had landed on one of the few exceptions. Indeed, I shall argue that much of the syllabus for Honour Moderations was a continuation of schooldays—at least, public schools; and many classicists did indeed come, often with open scholarships, from leading schools, with men of necessity far outnumbering women. To summarise, the 14 papers consisted of translations of Homer and Virgil (all Homer, all Virgil); Latin and Greek prose composition; the same in verse (optional); translation (10 pieces in all) from Latin and Greek prepared ‘general books’ (a wide choice, but difficult to avoid Demosthenes De Corona or Cicero’s De Officiis), and Latin and Greek unseen translations.
This left just four more papers where schooldays were left aside (there was no overlap of any kind with Greats). The two (important) papers on Latin and Greek ‘special books’ concentrated almost exclusively on textual (not literary) matters: we had to understand our chosen authors’ textual traditions, examine corrupt passages, and pronounce on their proposed remedies. The shadow of A.E. Housman was a lurking presence, especially for someone who chose (as I did) Juvenal, where the set text was Housman’s notorious editorum in usum. The literary quality of the authors was wholly irrelevant—as it had been for Housman, an attitude which Hugh Lloyd-Jones would later deplore. The central importance of textual criticism was slow to wane: my ‘Green-and-Yellow’ edition of Philoctetes by T.B.L. Webster (1970) devotes 10 pages to the transmission of the text and the relevant MSS (by Pat Easterling); my much larger edition in the same series by S.L. Schein (2013) dismisses the subject in under a page. (There are reasons for this, perhaps to be explored elsewhere). Equally important was the special subject (out of a wide range of options, Virgil was believed to be easily the most popular, but surely ill-advised, choice). I mention my own choice—Greek Lyric and Elegiac Poetry—for a reason: the pitiful inadequacy of the pabulum available. I had a ‘Red’ Macmillan by Weir Smyth, nearly 50 years old; a book on Theognis by Hudson-Williams, and Maurice Bowra’s Greek Lyric Poetry from the 1930s. There was neither Oxford Classical text nor Loeb, and our set text therefore consisted of extracts from the Oxford Book of Greek Verse (nor, as it happens, was there a lecturer). Darkness was lightened by the merciful arrival, before I took Mods, of D.L. Page’s Alcman: The Partheneion, but we had had to scratch around in the journals for any further help. Finally, there was a general paper, which gave candidates their first, and only real, opportunity to write essays: I never wrote an essay for my tutor.
Running parallel with Mods were the specialist scholarships, for the Ireland and Craven scholarships (10 papers, Latin and Greek), and the Hertford and De Paravicini scholarships (6 papers, Latin), for which one had to be entered by one’s tutor. I do not recall that there were ever more than a dozen candidates, and in the case of the Ireland and Cravens, ‘weaker’ vessels were told not to return after the weekend. Competition was truly fierce, and these were horribly difficult papers; first class schooling was a necessary, though far from sufficient, condition. In the two-year window before Greats, a total of ten scholarships could be won. At my time, nine of them were shared between alumni of Shrewsbury and Eton—with Bradford Grammar School also scoring one success. Rightly or wrongly, success in these could help to lead to speedy academic preferment. Finally, the composition prizes, prose and verse, were also keenly competed for, with Shrewsbury and Harrow sweeping the board in my time.
It will have been obvious from the foregoing that competent knowledge of the classical languages—grammar, syntax, vocabulary—was taken as a given in the case of all classicists from the day of their arrival: there was a huge terrain, often monitored by weekly ‘Collections’, to cover in four and a half terms. That did not mean that Eduard Fraenkel was anything other than scornful of Oxford’s standards, both at the level of undergraduate and ‘don’, and his difficulties with Gilbert Murray over the revised Aeschylus O.C.T. were widely known. But Oxford was slowly benefiting from the diaspora of scholars from Nazi Germany: besides Fraenkel, we had Pfeiffer (Callimachi Fragmenta, 1949), Jacoby (Fragments of the Greek Historians), Paul Maas (we did not yet know his famous textual comment ‘Against contamination there is no remedy’), and Jacobsthal. Of British classical scholars, at that time only Sir John Beazley, (the late), J.D. Denniston (Greek Particles), and perhaps Lobel, Bowra and Dodds (The Greeks and the Irrational, 1951) had a more than local reputation. These were the days when the Oxford Composition Club (Platnauer, Wells, Bryan-Brown, Geary, Higham, Bowra) was still going strongly, meeting weekly, and publishing Some Oxford Compositions. My tutor often called on these for the compositions which I was set every week and were then discussed at the weekly tutorial (perhaps with an unseen if time allowed). Wilamowitz had long ago approved the English practice of composition in Latin and Greek—but was this going too far?
I return to Fraenkel. In addition to his weekly lecture on Virgil, his Greek metre class, and a small class on Ernout’s Recueil (of pre-classical Latin authors), there was also his justly famous weekly 2-hour seminar in Corpus, which others have described—most memorably in Stephanie West’s description of those attending as ‘rabbits caught in the eye of a stoat’. It was indeed fearsome, and dons were among those as scared as the graduates or undergraduates. By great good fortune, I sat next to Hilda Lorimer (Homer and the Monuments), and she quietly passed to me the names and spellings of German scholars of whom I had never heard, but who came like a torrent from Fraenkel’s lips (Otto Jahn! Leo! Wilamowitz! Lachmann! Usener! Ritschl! K.O. Mueller! Wackernagel!). I have some painful memories, but we were being introduced to what scholarship really meant (read Fraenkel’s reviews, in successive volumes of JRS, of the first volume of the Harvard Servius  to see what I mean by way of scholarship at its most elevated level). Later, he told me not to aim for a D.Phil. (‘we want you to broaden your knowledge, not narrow it’—more sensible and helpful than Dodds’s grudging acceptance of my suggestion to work on the language of Aristophanes). The influence of Fraenkel, I believe, was of the first importance in moving Oxford classics upwards; but he was not alone, for Kenneth Dover was at Balliol, and before long Martin West, Nigel Wilson, and Jasper Griffin would come on the scene.
There is, however, a postscript. It must have been 30 years later in one of the years when I was myself examining for the Ireland and Craven Scholarships that I asked the candidates (only six out of the announced eight had turned up), after the Greek prose paper, ‘What is the perfect tense of λαμβάνω?’. Not one of them knew it. Their intelligence was at worst no less than that of my pupils in the 1950s, but their knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the Greek language was incomparably poorer. My generation could have answered that question at the age of 13, at the latest. In the intervening period, much doubtless has been gained: the rise of classics in translation has opened up the ancient world to every school child, while the welcome realisation that grammar is a means to a far more stimulating end than merely translation has itself had a beneficial effect on the learning of the languages. Nevertheless, there is no doubt something too has been lost.
But we were too sleepy and complacent when I arrived at Oxford in 1951. Of the many classical tutors, too few had ventured into print (my own tutor a worthy exception). Perhaps in the end we needed the declining influence of classical studies in schools to lead to gradual change at Oxford – where, be it remembered, classical tutors at colleges with permanent tenure were still in a great majority. Change, if it were to come, could not be speedy—but then, at Oxford, when was change ever anything but slow?
Colin Leach won the Ireland and Craven scholarship while an undergraduate and went on to tutor from 1955-1957 and again from 1980-2002, spending the rest of his busy career in the city. He published (with the poet James Michie) an acclaimed translation of Euripides Helen in 1992 (OUP) and has more recently been commissioned to translate into Greek iambics all ten stanzas of the ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ from Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno. He is one of the more prolific reviewers of books on the Classics for All ‘Reading Room’ pages.