Memory of a Scholar

(W.A.O. 1880-1945)

by Richmond Lattimore


I set this down. Magister, can it be?

How shall I shape the wind that once was you?

Fancies seduce the memories in me.

This must be true, though nothing else were true.

I dared not praise you when you were alive.

Not I. You would have blown me off my feet

with stormy courtesy, the roar of wit

hiding the old Greek dread of godlike praise

for living men.  But how shall verse contrive

your presence? Wave, my wand. So I recall

a Wilamowitz seen as Buffalo Bill,

Boeckh on a bicycle, and with it all

a better bibliographer by far

than any of your German idols. Now I see

the calligraphic hand, the blacksmith's bust,

the Civil War commander's brusque imperial,

the cavalry moustache, the chin upthrust,

the big bold pipe, the bolder black cigar,

the paleographer's fastidious eye.

You my professor, you before my face

unrolled the script of scholars, put in place

Traube and Vahlen, Leo, Reitzenstein,

and set the stars for all our lives to steer them by.

Your force was schooled to skills, the leonine

turned lapidary; syntax and the line

at fault and needing surgery brought to bear

the steely grammar shaped in pain and care.

You mounted on minutiae to aspire

with Plato up the staircase of ideas

and ranged, a ruler, all his cloudy sky,

and came down to his deep cave with light and heat

in world where men see dust and you saw fire,

to blow your edicts from your chair at ease,

Jupiter of the seminar benign

with poets nuns and Baptists sitting at your feet.


It was the river. Far away and late

I heard the story of the overturned canoe,

your call, "go help the others," and the great heart stayed

in death.  Think of that country that we knew

so well, land of black woods and trailing vines

and inland muddy streams that held your fate,

the Pollywogs, the flooded Danville mines,

Sangamon and Vermilion and Salt Fork,

our professorial playground.  How we played

beside the crawfish-catfish-haunted Lethe stream

through overall-and-gallus groves of Academe.

Sulphured for chiggers, through the green opaque

fills of the scoops we swam, and dried in air,

played softball in cow-pastures, fried our steak,

stood by the fire and rocked the night with corny song

and shone the moon with outlaw rye and legal beer.

And now you are gone out of a world gone wrong.

Spirit in storm.  You can not catch and keep it near.

Verse will not hold you fixed.  The river took

you, and your spirit on the plains

will shout with the old laughter over all my pains

to put a man alive inside a book.

End from an epitaph you turned me to:

the tribute to a Roman Spanish charioteer:

Now pour the wine.  Your friends and flowers are here.

Never forget. For there was none like you.