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.

At first blush, Instaurations seems one with the wave of critiques of the modern research university that started appearing in the 1950s: Marjorie Grene’s translation of Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Age of the World Image” in 1951, Arrowsmith’s Harper’s polemic in 1966, Jacques Barzun’s The American University in 1968, and others, with the arc culminating in Allan Bloom’s 1987 blockbuster The Closing of the American Mind. Indeed, the book’s opening polemic, “Center of Resistance,” begins with a familiar lament: “The academy is agreed to be in poor shape.” What follows is both diagnosis and prescription: At issue in modern education is what Carne-Ross calls “literacy”—that sweep of humane and humanistic disciplines “rang[ing] from instruction to general culture and beyond that to an awakening and redirection of the spirit,” all imperiled by the research paradigm’s hunger for facts and knowledge—and its restoration demands a renewed sensitivity to language, conferred most readily by an encounter with the gnomic yet decipherable literature of ancient Greece.

This way of reading and thinking is imperiled by the university’s turn toward the research sciences and practical education, coupled as it is with the neglect of the humanistic disciplines. Teachers and scholars who wish to preserve the possibility of a life devoted to the careful study of old texts have an institutional, even political, task ahead of them. But instead of working toward the creation of altogether new institutes of study, Carne-Ross proposes a more pragmatic, possibly more pessimistic endeavor: the formation of “enclaves” within the university as it currently exists, composed of collections of scholars and educators sympathetic to the task of restoration. It is a call, similar to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for huddling together in the ruins and sustaining the fire.

But Carne-Ross is more than just a polemicist, and the book aims at more than just critique. The title alone belies this, as explained by a brief etymology on the cover page: “INSTAURATION: ‘1.… Restoration, renovation, renewal. 2. Institution, founding, establishment. Obs.’ OED.” (The inclusion of the Oxford English Dictionary’s finding that the term is obsolete is deployed by Carne-Ross as a gesture toward his foundational belief that much of the wisdom that is needed today is hidden, like a pearl in a rough oyster, within the ostensibly obsolescent detritus of the past.) The opening essay establishes the problem and clears the ground, but the essays that follow are for the sake of construction. They are closely reasoned, erudite, and above all inspired readings of poetry ancient and modern: on how Pindar’s sixth Olympian ode shows us how, in a culture “obsessed with the theme of solitary suffering,” we might “learn a way back to a poetry of celebration”; on how Sophocles’s Trakhiniai unsettles our habitual historicism and invites us to ask anew the question about man’s relation to nature; on how reading Dante after the twilight of Christendom makes visible the narrowness of our (post)modern hermeneutic situation, and beckons us to move beyond it; on Luis de Góngora and the curious loss of Renaissance literature after modernism; on Giacomo Leopardi as a reluctant modern, uncomfortable on the cusp of the new disenchanted age and mourning “the lost holiness of earthly life.”

But perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection is “The Music of a Lost Dynasty: Pound in the Classroom,” a transcript—perhaps fictional, surely embellished—of a seminar on Canto 81, which shows Carne-Ross carefully walking his students through Pound’s forest of symbols and references. Sometimes Carne-Ross elucidates the structure: “Parataxis is more egalitarian…it’s a matter—though Pound may not have seen it at the time—of ceasing to treat things as mere objects to be pushed round by an all-important subject. It means giving things back their autonomy.” Sometimes he pushes back against misdirection: “Sorry to be difficult but that still isn’t right.” But above all, he shows his students how to question: “Don’t ask me, ask the poem. Or rather, let it ask you. If your conversation this afternoon is to lead anywhere, it must be the poem that is guiding us.” The six essays that precede Carne-Ross’s explication of Pound demonstrate his skill as a reader, but here we see his power as a teacher—not as a dazzling lecturer, professional explainer, and reporter of facts, but as a practitioner of what Henry Bugbee called “liberating education”: someone who encourages and inspires students “to learn to read, to write, to listen, to speak, to perceive sensitively and noticingly, to grow beyond the provinciality of one’s immediate circumstance and time, to find one’s way in entertaining possibilities and drawing inferences” through an encounter with a potent and evocative text.

So why is poetry, particularly poetry in unfamiliar languages, needed for this renewal of literacy? We live in an age, Carne-Ross contends, characterized by “the violence of an unrestrained and desperate technological assault”—a critique not unfamiliar to many thoughtful critics of the late twentieth century, as well as our present one—which warps language into the dull technical jargon of academic scholarship and the airy, insipid platitudes of journalism. And following Nietzsche and Heidegger, Carne-Ross prescribes the renewal of our sensitivity to language through an encounter with the poets. “Poetry cannot save us,” he concedes, “and yet the poets could do a great deal to redirect our minds and senses back to the proper object of their love…eyes schooled by the poets, as they look out on the ravaged landscape of our world, might rediscover there the lineaments of a sacred that man has not made and is not licensed to disfigure or destroy.” Our language is entangled with our living, and the decay of one entails that of the other. The hermeneutical bears immediately upon the moral and political: Learning how to read—in the fullest sense of what literacy entails—means learning how to live, both individually and in community.

However, it’s in elaborating this last point that Instaurations is at its weakest. The concluding essay, “The Scandal of Necessity,” moves from poignant Arendtian pessimism about the modern thirst for infinite progress to an exhortation for the formation of woodland cults—quasi-monastic “communities of resistance,” in Carne-Ross’s wording—built around an abjuration of high-modern technology and a reverence for texts. “I would propose texts,” he writes, “that speak of what is unchanging in earthly existence and the certain inflexible laws that govern it”—a suggestion that, despite Christ’s attention to permanent problems of life and the recurrent pre-Christian inability to distinguish human being from god, apparently excludes the Gospels. It’s a sort of Benedict Option for poetic paganism, a strategic withdrawal by the like-minded, and the last few pages of the book spin out into speculation about the intellectual and procedural nuts and bolts of constructing such a community (Which books to ignore, and which to read? How to divvy up labor? How to understand the Greek term anagke?) such that human life once again admits of finitude within the bounds of necessity. But if you lower your sights a bit from Carne-Ross’s distinctly 1970s eco-utopianism, you can find yourself reminded of real-world communities that give off the kind of light he’s looking for: institutions of serious, existentially intense learning like St. John’s College or Deep Springs College; religious communities that take on the business of life together beyond weekly worship; even groups of thoughtful friends who read books and break bread together, in a spirit of conviviality and mutual learning. One wonders, too, what Carne-Ross would have made of online communities devoted to the study of literature and philosophy, and of the paradox that the most world-changing and intrusive technological development of the last century also allows for forms of intellectually serious togetherness that would have been unthinkable forty years ago.

Despite its utopian missteps, Instaurations shows a thinker, scholar, and teacher at the peak of his interpretive and argumentative powers. And his challenges to the academic study of literature (and the humanities more broadly) are even more poignant now than they were when the book was first published: Your average English professor these days is more likely to be applying Marxian economics or poststructuralist anthropology to literature—from what Mark Edmundson calls “the knowing literary-critical stance,” a way of translating literature into a conceptual language whose practitioners suffer from “the narcissistic illusion that through something called theory, or criticism, they can stand above Milton, or Shakespeare, or Dante”—than treating novels and poems as sources of wisdom in their own right. Classics departments, desperate for relevance in the face of declining enrollments, are increasingly willing to cut language requirements for majors and postgraduates in the name of “inclusivity” and “expanding access”—but they’re seemingly unaware that knowledge of Greek and Latin is access, to a wealth of riches far stranger and more rewarding than the denunciations of time-bound American professional theorists would have you believe. The academy is indeed in poor shape, and the prospects are looking poorer every day.

But the resurrection of Carne-Ross’s book should give a little bit of hope: With its return, the fruits of one of the twentieth century’s most erudite minds are once again available to those teachers and learners quietly tending the flame of literacy from within their respective enclaves. Though it’s unlikely (perhaps for the better) that his more ambitious proposals will be realized, his thoughts on the nature and purpose of education in the modern age remain insightful and provocative. At the very least, those who pick up Instaurations may find in its pages someone who shares their passions, hopes, and fears, and—as I have, since discovering it—walk through the world feeling a little less alone.