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  • Present at the Founding
  • Clifford Weber

It must be that, as an undergraduate at Harvard College in the early 1960s, I was present at the founding of the Harvard School. At the time, though, I was quite unaware of any such thing coming into being. Indeed, the label itself I first encountered only many years later. If the putative founders of the Harvard School had in common anything beyond, in most cases, their connection with Harvard University, the bond that [End Page 120] united them may have been above all a shared sympathy with the New Criticism. If the Harvard School broke new ground, privileging the text as the New Criticism enjoined, that is likely to have been the critical point of view that led to a more positive assessment of Virgil as a poet, and to a different evaluation of the Aeneid in particular.

Fifty years on, it is easy to forget how wrongheaded opinions of Virgil's poetry could be in the 1950s and early 1960s. Ronald Syme's big book (1939), widely read and influential, made of Virgil a cheerleader for Augustus. Writing in 1970, Allen Mandelbaum lamented that some years had to pass before he could break free from the "tenacious resonance" of Mark Van Doren's "tag line," as Mandelbaum called it, that "Homer is a world; Virgil, a style" (1981: v). In 1952, concerning the final episode in the Aeneid, a colleague of Van Doren's at Columbia could write, "all bitterness and all passion was [sic] now laid at rest, and all could now join hands as comrades and together walk to meet the shining future" (Hadas 1952: 159). If such declarations are no longer taken seriously, the Harvard School deserves much of the credit. As Willem de Kooning said of Jackson Pollock, the Harvard School "broke the ice," though Pöschl's book, appearing in America in 1962, surely played its part as well.

Arriving in Cambridge in 1961, I had already read the first half of the Aeneid under a notorious martinet at Phillips Exeter Academy. Years later, astonished, Wendell Clausen would exclaim, "You studied with him?" Terror though that teacher was, he taught us a lot. My senior paper on intratextual repetitions in the Aeneid now seems, fifty-five years on, simply too sophisticated to be the work of a senior in high school. That is entirely to the credit of Exeter, where many of today's luminaries, classical and entrepreneurial, also read Virgil for the first time.

Nevertheless, well trained though I was, nothing could have adequately prepared me for reading Horace with Steele Commager and, later, the Aeneid with Wendell Clausen. Clausen's lectures on the Aeneid were nothing less than revelatory, even for someone so naïvely self-confident as I was then. Their philological rigor combined with consummate aesthetic tact has remained a potent influence ever since. I have been asked, though, to write about Virgil, not about Clausen, whose extraordinary qualities as scholar and pedagogue others have documented with insight and eloquence. At the same time, it can be said that Professor Clausen would have had little patience with an analysis of the Aeneid as narrowly pro- or anti-Augustan, or with the equation that this entails between Aeneas and Augustus. "It is this perception of Roman history," he wrote, "as a long Pyrrhic victory of the human spirit that makes Virgil [End Page 121] his country's truest historian" (1964:146). This well-known formulation has little to do with the Rome of Augustus in particular. In the same paper, Clausen writes that "Aeneas is always aware of the fate that draws him irresistibly on towards Italy, but rarely happy about it" (141), and he details what he calls "the sorrows of Aeneas" that pervade the poem (143). In such assessments of the hero of the Aeneid, it is hard to find anything that could be deemed pro- or anti-Augustan.

Hoping to provoke a reaction (though rarely with success), I used to tell my students that what a poet says interests me less than how he says it. In retrospect, this could be only a more tendentious version of Clausen's insisting to...


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