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  • The Harvard School(s) and Latin Poetry, 1977–91:A Bildungserinnerung

I first encountered the phrase Harvard School not long after Ralph Johnson coined it, at a formative moment, during my initial semester of graduate school in fall 1977. In all candor, I've never before asked myself [End Page 62] what impact the phrase, or whatever reality lies behind it, may have had on me at the time. In doing so now, however, strikes me as a useful catalyst for organizing memories of the many influences that I was then absorbing, some of which have proven to be decisive.

The immediate context was a graduate seminar on the Aeneid taught by Agnes Michels, who would soon after become my dissertation director. It was probably the best course I ever took, mainly because Mrs. Michels (as all students called her, at least in the vocative; generally, she was "Nan") was such a wonderful teacher. But there were other factors. First, Vergil was (and is) my favorite writer, and the Aeneid was (and is) my favorite poem. Second, I already knew the Aeneid pretty well, having studied all of it as a junior in high school and having reread parts of it repeatedly throughout college. But third, I knew almost nothing of Vergilian scholarship, having spent my undergraduate years at Bowdoin College (1973–77) getting acquainted with other Greek and Latin authors in a program that emphasized precisely that, to the exclusion of almost anything else. And fourth, my other important project as an undergraduate was to teach myself about poetry as something other than, and more than, decorated prose, as a medium that makes meaning in ways different from the ways of prose. In those days, to be frank, the classics major at Bowdoin didn't contribute much to this project. It offered an excellent opportunity to go further and deeper into the languages themselves, but that was almost its entire focus. Learning a systematic method of literary interpretation didn't really enter into it.1 For such things, I took several English courses, picked up quite a bit from friends who were studying modern literature, and read whatever works on literary theory and interpretive method happened to come my way. One result was that I arrived at graduate school in Chapel Hill with a good bit of Latin and Greek under my belt; some very eclectic ideas [End Page 63] about how to interpret poetry; and virtually no experience in combining these two interests, despite a strong desire to do so.

Nan's Aeneid seminar was where everything started coming together. The influence of her own example was immense, and here it's useful to remember that she was not a specialist in Vergil, or poetry, or even literature. Her main publication is a still-authoritative book on The Calendar of the Roman Republic (1967). The next course I took with her was on "Roman Religious Institutions," the area in which she was a particular expert. But Nan had spent the previous forty years at Bryn Mawr teaching just about everything in Roman studies. She knew all the poets practically by heart, and she knew the Vergilian bibliography very well, partly because she adored Vergil, and partly because of Vergil's prominence in Latin literary studies, especially in those days. I've already characterized my own thinking (such as it was) about poetry in 1977 as eclectic; and I believe one of the reasons Nan's teaching spoke to me so powerfully was that she was also rather eclectic. But, of course, Nan was an immeasurably better informed eclectic who had spent a scholarly lifetime putting together what might have remained a random collection of disordered factoids into a distinctively personal but effectively totalizing perspective on the ancient Roman world. So she brought to the reading of the Aeneid, quite apart from her sheer enjoyment of the poem and of reading it with students, an inexhaustible supply of tales from Livy, often related with a dollop of Macaulay on the side, a lot of antiquarian lore from countless sources, boundless memories and sayings of Lily Ross Taylor, and much else that made every minute of that seminar both a pleasure and a revelation. Which is to say that Nan's pedagogy was not at all about inculcating an interpretive method or a reading strategy—unless her implicit advice, that we read and remember everything and cherish every moment spent with our most beloved authors and teachers, amounts to an interpretive method or a reading strategy. In a way it does, and in any case it's excellent counsel.

So it was in that intellectual atmosphere that I started to make my way into Vergilian scholarship. The foundational work of scholars like Heinze and Norden was well represented, but what was then the contemporary controversy between "optimists" and "pessimists" naturally attracted a lot of our attention as well. I remember that, in my naïveté, I was rather taken in by the rhetoric of those who represented the optimist position as if it were the only one that had ever existed until the beginning of the protest movement in the 1960s, when all hell broke [End Page 64] loose. Nowadays, I think, most reasonable people would admit that the reception of Vergil, or of any classical author, whether in scholarship or in other areas of culture, has always reflected contemporary concerns. Viktor Pöschl's effort to repair the great tear in the fabric of Western Civilization by celebrating the Aeneid in the years that followed World War II is a perfect example of this (Pöschl 1950). But the optimists wrote as if readings like Pöschl's were not products of their own times, but simply reiterations of eternal verities that had been temporarily forgotten, especially perhaps in Germany during the years of National Socialism. Understandably, they paid no attention to the appropriation of Vergil, Augustus, and Roman history as a whole by the Fascist regime in Italy during the same period. In fact, it is strange to find optimists citing Ronald Syme's classic chapter on "The Organization of Opinion" to support their own beliefs, when Syme's hard-to-miss subtext is that Augustus himself was not so different from modern authoritarian rulers, and that those who supported him, including the poets, were essentially collaborators in subverting the social order (1939: 459–75). But I was young and, as I say, naïve, and certainly very new to the sorts of issues involved; and I tended to accept the idea that pessimistic readings of poems like the Aeneid were revisionist to the point of being revolutionary. And I positively reveled in this understanding.

The reason I did so was that, as I hinted above, my main objectives in those days were to learn to read Latin and Greek as if by second nature, and to learn to read poetry on its own terms. And for someone with my particular interests, it was easy to see the quarrel between optimists and pessimists in terms of the New Criticism, which had for some time been probably the most influential approach to poetry in the American academy. Two aspects were decisive. First was the New Critical rejection of historical and biographical criticism as logically prior to the analysis of poetic discourse itself; second was the concept that a poem makes meaning by developing a number of themes within a definite structural pattern, and that both these components are expressed through the careful deployment and repetition of words and the images that they represent. The New Critics maintained that traditional criticism tended to misinterpret poetry by ignoring internal discursive factors in favor of external, historical, and biographical ones. And it was almost impossible not to understand the quarrel between the optimists and the pessimists in just these terms. The optimists claimed that the pessimists were "unhistorical," while the pessimists based their interpretations not [End Page 65] on external factors, but on "the text itself." And just as the New Criticism had been successful in offering much more sympathetic readings of British and American literature that had previously been undervalued, so it seemed to me that the pessimists, by adopting what looked like New Critical reading strategies, had redeemed the Latin poetry that I particularly loved from the (ex hypothesi) distorted interpretations of the past.

Again, though, Nan's influence by example was enormously important. It was obvious that she herself had either picked up some New Critical reading techniques, or else had long been in the habit of reading poetry in ways compatible with those techniques. I suspect that she did feel the influence of the New Criticism, but I would not discount the latter explanation. A third course that I took with Nan was a seminar on Lucretius, and among the secondary works she recommended to us were Paul Friedländer's article on the "Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius" (1941) and the dissertation by Rosamund E. Deutsch from which Friedländer's article almost entirely derives (Deutsch 1939). Lucretius of course is rather extreme in his repetition of word and image to create discursive structures, but this only makes him all the more suitable for an essentially New Critical interpretive approach. Nan loved Lucretius as much as any author, and she was both a friend of Deutsch and an admirer of her work. I can't be sure, but I could easily believe that Deutsch's dissertation had an important influence on how Nan later read Latin poetry in general.

However that may be, Nan's way of encouraging us to read poetry attentively and analytically was characteristically devoid of fanfare and emphasized not "theory" but a "commonsensical" approach. "I'm so pleased," she declared one day, "that you people notice words." This was in response to some statement or question from one of the students, which I don't remember and which I suspect wasn't very remarkable. But, like the good teacher she was, Nan took the opportunity to give us all credit for already doing instinctively the thing that she wanted us to do. To "notice words," as she made clear, was to notice repetitions and the ways in which these created the thematic and structural patterns that became the meaning of a poem. It's perfectly possible to regard this as just an exoteric form of the New Criticism, which by the late 1970s had been around for a long time. But while we occasionally referred to New Criticism by name in that Aeneid seminar, Nan put no special emphasis on it, and it's easy to understand why. That movement's hostility to historical and biographical criticism, in its orthodox form, must have been [End Page 66] one factor. Nan knew the sources, knew a lot about source criticism, and knew how to evaluate and use evidence. She also knew that most kinds of evidence in classics are scarce, and she was simply not willing to reject any possible evidence on a priori theoretical grounds. And, as I noted above, the essential aspects of Nan's approach may well have originally derived from other sources. In any case, the ease with which any reading strategy based on carefully chosen and repeated diction fit into habits of thought that are familiar to all classicists made it plain to me even then that the critical techniques largely identified with the pessimists need not be "unhistorical," and certainly not alien to classics at all.

It is also important to note that it was difficult then, and would be difficult now, to say just where Nan fell on the spectrum of optimists and pessimists. I am sure that she did not see Vergil as a subversive, but neither did she regard him as a simple panegyrist. Perhaps there have never been many who would personally endorse either label, though a few have found one or the other perfectly appropriate, and still more have ascribed these sentiments to those from the other side of the debate. What I am sure of is that Nan did not think in such terms. In 1977, I was very attracted to the pessimistic perspective, no doubt in a somewhat exaggerated form. But I think that even then I had begun to understand Vergil as a poet in whose work the meaning of the subtext did not simply trump more overt meanings. What I dimly apprehended then, and what I prize now, is the way in which Vergil's poetry, like the best tragedies, expresses the ineluctability of complex human realities, often framed as inviting dichotomies that seem to offer the possibility of choice, but seldom allowing the reader to feel that the choice made, however inevitable, was entirely the right one, or that a world in which a different choice was possible would not have been better than the one we inhabit.

I have got to this point without mentioning the Harvard School since my opening sentence, perhaps testing some readers' patience; if so, I apologize. But I wanted to convey something of the context in which I first encountered the phrase and the concept, and to explain why I was rather bemused by it at the time. In the first place, Johnson's purpose was to address the very real dichotomy in Vergilian studies between optimists and pessimists, which he correlated with what he called a "European school" and the "Harvard School." But, as I've tried to explained above, even if I was myself very much drawn at that time to pessimist interpretations, I tended to identify that perspective not with a particular university or a group of its scholars, but with a movement, the New [End Page 67] Criticism, that had become almost ubiquitous in the American academy and that had certain natural affinities, as well as some important differences, with a few of the most characteristic methods of studying classical texts. Above all, I tended to identify these interpretations not with a particular ethical perspective, whether optimistic or pessimistic, but with a hermeneutic technique, one that privileged poetics over history and biography. It's obvious that these relationships are not absolute: a foundational New Critical reading such as Bernard Knox's 1950 paper on Aeneid 2 is just as "optimistic," and in that sense just as "European," as Pöschl's book of the same year (and Pöschl's book, in turn, is to a large extent compatible with the New Criticism while directly owing that movement, so far as I am aware, absolutely nothing). For that matter, some of the participants in the quarrel had to ignore certain areas of common ground in order to magnify the importance of their differences. Again, as I have been trying to explain, even for a young man attracted to one side of the quarrel, thanks in great part to the broad perspective of the seminar in which I first encountered many of these ideas, the stark terms in which the debate was described seemed exaggerated. By the same token, the idea that one side of the quarrel—or perhaps we can now call it a discussion—came into being rather suddenly in any single institution at a particular point in time seemed exaggerated as well. In particular, this perspective seems to me to obscure the fact that there have been important Vergilians, such as William S. Anderson, Kenneth Quinn, and Ralph Johnson himself, who were never associated with Harvard and who contributed in important ways to the pessimist side of the discussion.

It is true, of course, that certain influential pessimists were associated at one time or another with Harvard, whether as undergraduates, graduate students, postgraduate fellows, or members of the faculty, some in several of these roles. But one occasionally finds confusion regarding lines of influence. Johnson himself does not seem responsible for this. His list of Harvard School members begins with R. A. Brooks, who left Harvard to work for the Smithsonian, eventually rising to serve as its Undersecretary from 1973 until his death in 1976, the year when the phrase Harvard School was first used in print.2 His career as administrator [End Page 68] of a cultural institution run by the federal government casts an interesting light on the question of how his personal political beliefs may have informed his subtle and beautiful interpretation of the Aeneid. By all accounts he was an inspiring teacher, but the same is said of others who were at Harvard during that time, like J. P. Elder and Zeph Stewart, whose scholarly record contains little that would associate them with a "school" of "pessimistic" interpretation. Further, to the extent that connections between or among scholars like Brooks, Adam Parry, Michael Putnam, and others who were at Harvard in the 1950s (Charles Segal and Kenneth Reckford are names that come immediately to mind) amount to a shared perspective on the Aeneid,3 I would call that perspective tragic, in the sense described above, rather than merely pessimistic. In recent years, of course, the tragic element in the Aeneid has come to be identified with intertextual influence, or with generic enrichment, and such an emphasis is hardly inappropriate. If it prevents us from appreciating a fundamental aspect of the poem's distinctive sensibility, however—one that has been apparent not only during the past fifty years or so, but also to Milton and Dante, not to mention Vergil's ancient successors—well, anything that does that skews one's understanding, or so it seems to me.

It would be hard for me to say whether Wendell Clausen shared a perspective on the Aeneid that would accurately be described as tragic. In later comments on his "Interpretation" article, Clausen traces the highly ambivalent perspective of that paper not to the incipient protest culture of the 1960s, but to the tense atmosphere of the Cold War build-up during the 1950s, when he says the ideas that inform the paper were taking shape.4 Although written earlier for delivery in lecture form, the essay was published a year after Parry's "Two Voices" and a year before Putnam's enormously influential book, so perhaps the same is true of these works as well. But Clausen stresses that he had no connection to any group of like-minded critics at Harvard who were promoting a distinctively tragic or pessimistic approach to the Aeneid. Having studied at the University of Washington and the University of Chicago, Clausen [End Page 69] taught at Amherst for almost ten years before he ever went to Harvard, in 1959, by which time the earliest and most influential members of the Harvard School had gone elsewhere. (He does mention frequent conversations with Parry, who was his colleague at Amherst, as accounting for a degree of similarity between their papers.)

Clausen's subsequent influence on a group of disciples who all shared certain assumptions about the history of Latin poetry was real enough, but that influence seems much more clearly identifiable in another form. If there was a Harvard School that took shape under his leadership—and I realize that this proposition is as open to discussion as any other Harvard School hypothesis—it would include scholars like David Ross and Ross's pupil, Richard Thomas, who later became Clausen's colleague at Harvard, and Peter Knox, a student of both Clausen and Thomas, along with several others, like James O'Hara (never at Harvard, but a student of Ross at the University of Michigan and the author of a classically pessimistic reading of the Aeneid [1990] that focuses, ironically, on the motif of optimistic prophecy). Most if not all of these scholars would seem to be at home on the pessimist end of the spectrum, but the same would also be true of many more scholars of the same academic generations, but with no connection to Harvard, who worked or still work on Latin poetry. By the time Clausen arrived at Harvard, it seems that whatever forces eventually led Johnson to promulgate the notion of a "pessimistic Harvard School" in Vergilian studies had already done their essential work.

At the same time, all of the scholars just named, including Clausen himself and his students and students of students, seem to me to share a different characteristic, which is a strong interest in exploring the influence of Hellenistic poetry on the Latin poets of the late-republican, triumviral, and Augustan periods. Again, this interest did not develop in a vacuum, nor are they the only scholars who share it. But in the 1950s, appreciation of Hellenistic poetry was not well represented in American or indeed Anglophone scholarship. At Harvard in particular, while those who preceded Clausen were hardly unaware that there were important lines of influence between Theocritus, Aratus, and Apollonius on the one hand and between Catullus, Vergil, Horace, the elegists, and Ovid on the other, it would be difficult to maintain that this was the focus of their work, or that the influence of Hellenistic poetry on Vergil and his immediate predecessors and contemporaries had much to do with the formation of the Harvard School as Johnson defines it. But it seems pretty [End Page 70] clear that, under Clausen, this aspect received much greater emphasis than before. If one compares the work of Stewart (1959) or Elder (1961) on the Sixth Eclogue, for instance, with that of Clausen (1964a), Ross (1975: 18–38), Thomas (for example, 1979: 337–39 and 1998: 669–76), Knox (1990: 183–202), and others, there is a very substantial difference in the way in which the latter group conceives of the relationships involved. Clausen's paper on "Callimachus and Latin Poetry"—published, coincidentally, the same year as his "Interpretation"—serves, in effect, as a kind of manifesto, minimizing the extent to which earlier Latin poets had even understood the major masterpieces of the Hellenistic period, and greatly emphasizing the presumed impact of Greek intellectuals of the first century bc, particularly Parthenius of Nicaea, in opening this world to the poets of Catullus' generation, to Cornelius Gallus, and to the Augustans. I have no idea whether Clausen himself would have preferred to be remembered for "An Interpretation of the Aeneid" or for "Callimachus and Latin Poetry," but in my own judgment, it's the latter paper that better defines his distinctive influence. Personal and professional connections between two Cologne Hellenists with strong interests in papyrology and in Hellenistic literature, Albert Henrichs and Ludwig Koenen, who respectively moved to Harvard in 1973 and to Ann Arbor in 1975, will have played a role in fostering this scholarship.5

This is not to say that adherents of Clausen's approach to Latin poetry as a development of the Alexandrian sensibility have not also tended to be quite pessimistic in their assessment of the political stance that these poets typically represent. In fact, on my reading, they tend to be rather more pessimistic than Harvardians and others of the preceding generation, and more so than Clausen himself in his published work. I think one can account for this to some extent simply in terms of the continued and growing alienation of liberal intellectuals throughout the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and also with reference to the general tendency of younger scholars to carry further the novel insights of their predecessors. If one considers the work of Brooks, Parry, and especially Putnam, it seems to me that the tragic quality that I mentioned previously, along with a finely judged attunement not to optimism or pessimism, but to ambivalence and unrealized [End Page 71] possibilities, are very much in evidence, while in the next generation of scholars pessimism takes on a much darker and more definite character.

In view of the emphasis that Clausen and his followers place upon the Hellenistic (and, more specifically, the Alexandrian and Callimachean) character of Latin poetry, a pessimistic perspective, to the extent that pessimism is equivalent to reservations about power—whether the nature of power in general or the power of the Augustan regime—is not without irony. Callimachus and the other Alexandrian poets had little difficulty writing to please the powerful. Their reluctance to write this or that kind of verse, be it epic or any long-form poetry, never entailed a reluctance to produce panegyric. To say the same about Roman poets, whose relations to their patron figures are much more complex, is not possible. In recent decades, it is true, a turn from predominantly formalist modes of interpretation to more historicized approaches has brought the perception of Roman patronage into somewhat closer alignment with the situation faced by Callimachus, Theocritus, and other poets of the Hellenistic period. But in any case, I think it is quite likely that the interest taken by students of the most prestigious Latin poets in the once underappreciated Hellenistic poets has played a role in producing the much greater interest that now exists in Hellenistic poetry, and not just as predecessors of Vergil and the rest.

To conclude, my own early, pessimistic leanings have largely survived the forty years since Johnson coined the phrase Harvard School, although by the time I left graduate school they had already begun aligning themselves with the tragic perspective rather than with the more insistent and sometimes monochromatic pessimism of the 1970s and 1980s; and they have continued to do so. In formulating a dissertation topic, I chose to work on the Georgics, a poem that seemed to me then, and still seems today, the most finely balanced of Vergil's works, and of all Latin poetry, specifically between optimistic and pessimistic world views. The particular topic I chose to study was Vergil's strategic and complex positioning of his own poem vis-à-vis the work of his greatest and most immediate predecessor, Lucretius (Farrell 1983). The topic had been addressed several times before, but almost always, it seemed to me, in a reductive and ultimately superficial way. It certainly involves the theme of optimistic and pessimistic worldviews, but those were not the main focus of the thesis, or of the book for which the thesis prepared the way. It did not seem to me that I would accomplish much by choosing sides in that debate, and I still think that was the right decision. I also continue to think that Christine Perkell, whose book on the Georgics (1989) appeared a couple of [End Page 72] years before mine, has done the best job of capturing the poem's delicate equilibrium between these opposite perspectives, and that several years later Monica Gale (2000) made an excellent contribution by considering the topic in terms pretty closely aligned with my own, but more explicitly attuned to the optimist versus pessimist debate. I did not go in that direction, but instead tried to apply intertextual analysis to a certain number of literary-historical problems that seemed to me to converge on the Georgics more powerfully than on any other Latin poem. What I knew at that time about intertextual poetics I had learned, not exclusively but in large part, from the writings of Clausen and, especially, of those he influenced, Ross above all, as I tried to spell out in the introduction to that book (1991: 3–25).1 I did not use the phrase Harvard School to identify these scholars. Whether I have used it since, I do not know—frankly, it did not seem worth the time to check—and in light of the recollections that the very welcome invitation to reflect upon the Harvard School and its influence has provoked, I suspect that I will use it in the future, if indeed I ever do, in the same rather ambivalent way that I have used it here.

Joseph Farrell
University of Pennsylvania


1. I would not want this statement to be misconstrued. The program was very specifically focused on developing reading facility, but the professors who did almost all of the teaching, John W. Ambrose, Jr. in Greek and Nathan Dane II in Latin, were superb in that respect and in communicating a genuine love for classical literature and for classics as a way of life. I have always been grateful for the instruction that I received from Nate and John, and I believe that all of their students who did choose to go to graduate school in classics or related fields—a group that includes, from my own years at Bowdoin, Ralph Rosen (Penn; Ralph started at Bowdoin, but finished at his native Swarthmore), Peter Bing (Toronto), Mark Fullerton (Ohio State), and Claire Lyons (Getty Museum)—found that they had been well prepared to do so.

2. An annual award was established in his memory (

3. Reckford in particular, who was another teacher of mine at Chapel Hill, has cited Brooks (viva voce) as an important influence on students of his generation. Most of Reckford's own early work focused on Horace, but his paper on "Latent Tragedy in Aeneid VII, 1–285" (1961) is cut from the same cloth as Brooks's "Discolor aura."

4. See Clausen 1995, supplemented by reminiscences that he shared publicly at a conference, "Virgil and the Greeks: Influences and Counterinfluences," at Florida State University on December 2–3, 1992.

5. The traffic in students and faculty between the two universities in the 1970s and 1980s was substantial.


1. In particular, as I note in the preface to that book (ix), Richard Thomas generously read the book in manuscript form and offered a number of very helpful comments, for which I remain grateful. I am also happy to acknowledge how much that book owed to the work of G. N. Knauer (1964), who remains at age 90 as much an optimist as it is possible to be, though (I believe) his method can be applied in a variety of ways. In view of these very different sources of inspiration (and I have made no effort to make a complete list), I suppose I would have to admit that my youthful eclecticism has never left me.

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