Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dover's Theocritus a review (reprint: Bolchazy-Carducci)

As I make my (not so) triumphant return to the field of Mawr's I feel myself compelled to do something I ought to have done a long time ago. The good folks at Bolchazy-Carducci once thought well-enough of this blog to send along a review copy of my choice with the note, "Be honest about the book, because an honest review will be of more use to your readers. While we at Bolchazy-Carducci are hoping for a good review, a useful review would be better for everyone."

Good advice, which I will now follow.

Dover, K.J., ed. Theocritus: Select Poems. Wauconda IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1994. (Pages: lxxii + 323) $46.00. isbn: 978-0-86516-204-2

As an eager undergraduate (after the turn of the century) disheartened at the lack of advanced Greek offerings, I cooked up a plan with two friends to hit up a young professor for an independent study in one of his pet areas: Hellenistic Greek poetry. It happened that the subject was heating up at the time, and good commentaries were easily attainable. We purchased our own copies of a handful of Cambridge green and yellows: (1) Argonautica: Book III, (2) Theocritus: A Selection (both edited by R.L. Hunter), and (3) A Hellenistic Anthology (edited by Neil Hopkinson). We had recourse to other texts from the library, relying on Pfeiffer for much of our Callimachus, with the aid of the brilliant commentaries that have surfaced on various of the hymns, and used sources ranging from Hutchinson's (somewhat disappointing) Hellenistic Poetry to Peter Bing's (somewhat brilliant) The Well-Read Muse.

To this day it remains one of the most rewarding courses I've taken, and thinking back I'm reminded of a sense of awe for learning and scholarship that has never quite been matched.

I'm also reminded of my professor's recommendation of K.J. Dover's Theocritus: Select Poems (a classic red Macmillan), and his disappointment that the book was no longer in print.

If only he had known of Bolchazy-Carducci's reprint, available since 1994. Since neither he nor I knew that we could buy it, I purchased the Hunter and settled for a library copy of Dover. I have distinct memories of the book's excellence, and while I appreciated Hunter, Dover I loved.

Both editors followed Gow, whose edition has been a holy grail--unattainable yet a source of hope--for me and others like me for some time, and thus stands without compare. It is difficult, however, to not compare Dover and Hunter, and one of the simplest and most significant comparisons for the general reader (if there is a general reader of Greek bucolic) is bang for the buck.

Hunter (the more recent of the two) printed just eight Idylls (1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, & 13). By way of comparison, Dover printed eighteen, inclusive of Hunter's eight (1-7, 10, 11, 13-16, 18, 22, 24, 26, & 28). Both teacher and student benefit from the greater variety of texts.

As a struggling student I found Dover's notes more readable, less discursive, and on the whole more useful. Hunter, of course, had the advantage of being more 'current', and his references are a boon to graduate students dealing with an ever-growing bibliography. But to a reader making his way through the poems, Hunter is cumbersome. His rewards come later, to a smaller audience. Dover, by contrast, reaches more broadly and achieves his aims with great elegance.

One need look no further than the first note of the book to see just how effective Dover's style is:
ἁδύ...μελίσδεται:Lit., 'something pleasant the whispering that pine-tree...makes music', i.e. 'sweet is the whispered music which that pine-tree makes'. καί...καί is superimposed on ἁδύ...ἁδὺ δέ, thus:
ἁδύ τι ... καὶ ἁ πίτυς ... μελισδεται
ἁδὺ δὲ ... καὶ τὺ ... συρίσδες
At once and concisely Dover shows us the music of the line (which transcends the simple position-to-position correspondence that students too often adhere to), and waves his magic wand of the mist that would cloud many a student's mind: the literal rendering tells the student that he does in fact know his forms. The 'id est' that follows is a lesson in adjusting one's thinking, encouraging the student to read intelligently and to make the leap from translation to meaning. While the literal translation sounds like stilted nonsense, the paraphrase helps us to bridge the gap between Translationese and English.

Add to this the undeniable link in meaning and sound that would, without Dover's note, have escaped most students, and you catch a glimpse of the sort of useful and encouraging information that is to be had throughout, and how skillfully it is presented.

By contrast, the reader loses himself in Hunter's pages wherein such things as the linguistic and sound connections (visually displayed by Dover) are buried in explicit prose. Hunter gives a page to a general note on lines 1-11, then another paragraph to lines 1-3, then more than a page to line 1 alone. By the time we've reached συρίσδες, which Dover has in a few lines of text, Hunter has written nearly three pages of notes.

Some might say that this brevity has its price. When Dover tells us, for example, that Apollonius and earlier poets 'represented Herakles as never reaching Kolchis at all' (Idyll 13.75), some will want to know more about the sources. Dover is unconcerned, but Hunter discusses the scholia on Apollonius, the fragments of Dionysius Scytobrachion and Demaretus, as well as Antoninus Liberalis (who would have gotten his version from Nicander). On the one hand this clarifies an indistinct reference, yet on the other bears little on the poem.

It seems necessary here to stop and ask myself which commentary I use when I want to read Theocritus, and the answer is Dover.

And when I want to study Theocritus? Dover with Hunter. And yet I find myself more likely to read than to study Theocritus, and so it is my Dover whose spine is cracked more often.

A final note on the introductory matter: like much else in the books, Hunter is more current, more discursive, and more laden with references. This again makes Dover more readable, and, though it may seem counter-intuitive, more timeless.

With all sincerity I extend my deepest appreciation to Bolchazy-Carducci for keeping this commentary in print (in a clean, durable paperback) and would love to see more reprints like it. Imagine reprints of Stanford's Odyssey, or Marchant's Thucydides, just to name two personal favorites.

Call me old-fashioned.

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