Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Book Reviews

Language for Life

Revisiting the role of poetry in literacy.

Joseph M. Keegin

“Pindaric Ode” (detail), 1797, illustration by William Blake (1757–1827) for Poems by Mr. Gray; © British Library Board/Leemage, all rights reserved/Bridgeman Images.

Something was in the water in Austin. In the 1960s, a gang of classics scholars and philosophy professors had rolled into town like bandits, the University of Texas their saloon: William Arrowsmith, chair of the Classics Department, who scandalized the academic humanities with a Harper’s Magazine essay titled “The Shame of the Graduate Schools,” arguing that “the humanists have betrayed the humanities” and that “an alarmingly high proportion of what is published in classics—and in other fields—is simply rubbish or trivia”; John Silber, promoted to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences just ten years after graduating from Yale, who promptly replaced twenty-two department heads, much to the ire of the university’s board; and a third, an unassuming former radio broadcaster from the United Kingdom with a knack for classical languages and only a master’s degree to his name.

The latter’s name was Donald Carne-Ross, better known by the initials “D.S.,” and he would soon become one of the country’s most sensitive interpreters of classical literature and a passionate defender of the translation of Greek and Latin classics into English. In his preacademic career as part of the BBC Third Programme’s production team, Carne-Ross had commissioned a series on translations of Homer, the greatest fruit of which was an audacious modern rendition of the Iliad by the English poet Christopher Logue—who, at Carne-Ross’s behest and without knowing a lick of ancient Greek, produced a stunning and vital reinterpretation of Homer’s original he called War Music. At Austin, Carne-Ross helped Arrowsmith found Arion, a “journal of imaginative criticism of the classics” that, according to the manifesto-like editorial letter introducing the first issue, sought to reinspire in classical studies “not only sound scholarship but also tact, liveliness, respect for truth and imagination and complete indifference to academic prestige and current practice.” And at Boston University, where Silber brought him and Arrowsmith after becoming president, Carne-Ross established himself as one of the world’s great readers and teachers of classical, Renaissance, and modern poetry, with an emphasis on translation as the means by which those who live in the present reappropriate and reinterpret the insights of the past. Guided by this conviction, he spent the next thirty years working to subvert the hegemony of scholarship in academic classics and to restore the urgent, vital force of poetry to the study of the old texts.

By the time of his death in 2010, Carne-Ross had published dozens of essays and articles, but only two books: a groundbreaking study of Pindar (written for an academic press, but “addressed to the general reader”) and Instaurations, an essay collection published in 1979 by the University of California Press. Pindar is kept in print by Yale University Press, and remains a touchstone interpretive work for readers of classical poetry. But despite George Steiner’s praise of Instaurations as a “remarkable book” in the pages of the London Review, it was largely ignored and quietly fell out of circulation. However, thanks to the University of California Press’s “Voices Revived” series, in which the press reissues old titles from its back catalogue as print-on-demand paperbacks (however unattractive and overpriced), Carne-Ross’s long-lost essay collection has finally been rescued from oblivion.

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