- 'Byron the Latinist' University of Oxford 12 December 2017
Any reader of this journal will have noticed the huge increase in Byron conferences in recent years. It would be easy enough to be depressed by this. Academic talk does not elicit much positive press. Some attendance at conferences is motivated by academic career ambition and anxiety. But despite the settled convictions of the general public and, often enough, barely literate politicians, universities as such, and Oxford is a prime example, began in the eleventh century through scholars coming together to listen and learn from one another and to attend particularly to distinguished minds. Teaching is a natural consequence of this coming together but the coming together is primary and it is not ordained by governments, administrators, or public utility. The word 'university' derives from the Latin phrase: universitas magistrorum et scholarium (university of masters and scholars). Everything flows from this and, without this, we stagnate intellectually.
The good news is that this is not entirely a matter of history. The Oxford conference held in December last year is a case in point. The conference theme—Byron the Latinist—would not have raised eyebrows a century ago but it smacks of the esoteric nowadays. How marvellous then to find a splendid conference initiated by enthusiasts at one of the world's greatest universities (Byron preferred Oxford to Cambridge after all) which was booked by some 60 people, though not everyone could come because of the snow. There was a mix of familiar and unfamiliar faces including some very distinguished ones from the Faculty of Classics.
The event was at the Ioannou Centre but it was initiated and co-organised by Karen Caines (Trinity, Oxford) and Professor Fiona Macintosh (St Hilda's, Oxford) and supported by the University's Faculty of Classics and Trinity College. I will mention the content of papers but it was the cumulative effect of a sustained enquiry and conversation based on papers which were unpretentious, well-informed and often exhilarating that was so pleasing.
Things were set in motion by Fiona Mackintosh's welcoming address which posed the question as to whether Byron was primarily a Hellenist or a Latinist and suggested that Byron's relation to Classical aesthetics is crucial to placing his relationship with the other 'Romantics' and then Sir Drummond Bone (Balliol, Oxford) contended that Byron's synthesis of the urbane and mundane was closer to Horace than to Pope. Jonathan Sachs (Concordia) followed with a brilliant lecture on 'Byron and the Literary [End Page 76] Lower Empire' where he demonstrated that Byron's opinion that his age was culturally and poetically degenerate was much more widely credited than we think. Karen Caines gave a lucid and convincing account of Byron's acquaintance with Latin from his earliest schooling. She showed that, if Byron's Greek was rudimentary, his knowledge of Latin was real but imperfect. Picking up Fiona Mackintosh's point, she noted that when Byron was in Athens, he did not devote himself to Greek but Latin. William St Clair (Cambridge and Harvard) gave a magnificently breezy and authoritative account of Byron's relation with Francis Hodgson and, especially, the latter's translation of Juvenal. Later, Anna Camilleri (Christ Church, Oxford) talked with an appealing and intelligent modesty of the way that Byron used Juvenal creatively.
The two lectures together with that of Karen Caines began to build up a coherent picture of Byron's creative relationship with Latin texts. He used them as a poet rather than as a scholar much as (this was Professor Stephen Harrison's interjection at one stage) Ovid bounced ideas and literary forms off Virgil. The next lecture, Timothy Webb's (Bristol) 'Byron's binoculars: Horace Revisioned' expanded exactly this idea—arguing that there is a sense in which Byron influenced Horace and Juvenal as much as the other way round. The key word here is that we should think of Byron 'responding' to Latin texts rather than simply imitating or being influenced by them. The last lecture, a beautifully articulated tour de force, was Mirka Horova's (Charles University Prague) 'Byron's Lucretian Clinamen'. She both carefully established the similarities and distinctions between...