Aesop revives a lapsed Latinist
HOW many times, since my last Latin class, have I resolved to recapture the ``strict joy'' of reading Latin poetry and prose? After a disastrous freshman year in high school, I began Caesar the following fall in an independent school. There an excited teacher saved me from permanent exile from the classics. Under her expert guidance I advanced to the ``Aeneid'' in time to celebrate Virgil's bimillenium by writing and acting in a play in his honor. Thereafter as a college undergraduate I majored both in classics and in English literature. A dearth of Latin positions in secondary schools during the post-depression years resulted in my becoming an English teacher. I like to excuse my prolonged absence from reading Latin to the demands teaching English made upon me.
I did not put classics aside immediately. I would often turn over the ivoried Parnassus Library pages of Virgil and Horace to reread favorite passages. Remembrance of Virgilian cadences, especially, continued to haunt and comfort me during the human crises that everyone's life presents. I even pursued classical studies at a graduate level in summer school for several years.
One steaming fifth of July morning I tiptoed into Edward Kennard Rand's Latin classroom on the second floor of Sever Hall overlooking Harvard Yard. The year was 1936, Harvard University's tercentenary, and many distinguished professors ordinarily unavailable during the summer were offering their favorite topics. Professor Rand's was ``Cicero's Letters and the Somnium Scipionis.'' From the moment Professor Rand, cherubic in a faded academic gown, greeted his students in Latin that first morning until he fired at us directions to reach his home for an end-of-term garden party, he spoke only in Ciceronian Latin. To my amazement I not only passed his final examination but even located his house on my own.
After that summer, however, I found a most persuasive pretext for procrastination in reading classics. How could I justify expending energy, time, and money in going further in Latin and Greek when I needed all my resources for learning more about teaching high school English? As I surmounted stacks of essays to be edited, I manufactured numerous excuses for laziness, I put Latin away until recently, when a dedicated Latin teacher mentioned an entirely original presentation of Aesop's fables.
At my friend's suggestion I sent to the Classical League for ``Lessons from Esopus Hodie.'' The handsome book arrived promptly. On its russet cover a stocky farmer in working clothes is dancing near a shining golden egg his goose has just laid. The frontispiece, an early woodcut, shows Aesop emphasizing his moral by tapping his sturdy right index finger against the palm of his left hand. This image of Aesop's hand reinforces the moral in each of the 14 fables the editors have chosen.
Dorothy Hamblem MacLaren and Constance Carrier combined their skills as Latin teachers with appreciation for the wisdom of Aesop in making ``A Reader Workbook for Latin Students.'' They have selected illustrations from facsimiles of Caxton's edition of Aesop (1484) as well as drawings from well-known book illustrators Thomas Bewick, Louis Boutet de Monvel, Richard Heighway, and Arthur Rackham. The table of contents includes a dramatis personae characterizing the personages in each of the 14 fables, for example: The Council of Mice Felix Aesopius Catus, a happy cat who chases mice.
Minimus Aesopius Simplex, a naive mouse who plans to bell Catus.
Maximus Aesopius Prudens, a wise old mouse who is aware of potential problems in belling Catus.
The Preface by Dr. Joseph F. Desmond, head of the Department of Ancient Languages, Boston Latin School, expresses the need ``for the moral lessons of Aesop . . . for our present generation.''
Constance Carrier's poetic version introduces the four pages devoted to each fable. Dorothy MacLaren's Latin text of the fable follows. Every word or form unfamiliar to a first-year student appears on the same page with the Latin text. The third page contains a clear, literal translation. The fourth page lists a vocabulary in alphabetical order with principal parts of verbs and with genders and genitives of nouns as well as translations of idioms. Six to ten questions about the fable require the student to answer in complete Latin sentences. A summary of ``Lessons from Esopus Hodie'' gives a final review at the end of the book.
Had I ever read Aesop before? I asked myself, turning from one beautiful page to the next. As if for the first time, I recognized Anserella Aesopius Auri-fabra, the ill-fated goose. When I read ``Cuniculus et Testudo'' I realized I had never learned the Latin for hare and tortoise. I cherished ``Cicada et Formica'' -- especially appropriate for autumn: Outside, the bitter winds blow on and strip the leaves from the thicket. and now there's a knock at the Palace door -- Laetitia Cantrix, the Cricket! She who had once been beautiful and joyous, now chilled and thin -- to the Queen at the door she begs, ``O give me food and let me in!'' Near the Latin text appear two miniatures of Laetitia Aesopius Cantrix, her instrument at her side, singing the carefree summer away.
I took to heart Constance Carrier's translation of the moral of ``Aurora and Her Pail of Milk'': Dreams are fragile and soon dispatched: don't count your chickens before they're hatched.
I heeded the warning -- but may not a lapsed Latinist dream of reviving her Latin in this treasure of a book?