Roger A. Hornsby (2009)

Roger Allen Hornsby was born in Nye, Wisconsin, on August 8, 1926. After receiving his B.A. from Adelbert College of Western Reserve University in 1949, he received the A.M. (1951) and Ph.D. (1952) from Princeton. After service in the Army, he began his teaching career at the University of Iowa in 1954, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. In 1960 he married a colleague in French, Jessie Lynn Gillespie. He chaired the Classics Department from 1966 to 1981. Remembered by his students as a learned and generous but strict and exacting teacher who made Latin poetry accessible and rewarding, he put much of his classroom technique into Reading Latin Poetry (1967), which is still the best book for teaching students to appreciate the varieties and nuances of Latin verse free from any critical ideology. His second book, Patterns of Action in the Aeneid: An Interpretation of Vergil’s Epic Similes (1970), is a sensitive study of uses to which Virgil puts his epic comparisons. The book is only marred by the absence of any mention of Homer. After retiring he served a term as Whichard Distinguished Professor of Classics at East Carolina University 1997-8. He was President of CAMWS in 1968-69 and a director of the APA 1974-7. He was a trustee of the American Academy in Rome, a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, and a trustee of the Virgilian Society. He died in Iowa City on October 19, 2009.

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  1. When after a long morning’s drive out of Paris, seeing the great Cathedral rise before our eyes mile after mile, we stood at last before the sculptural labyrinth of Chartres, Roger said laconically, “Now begin.” 22 years later, I wonder again how to convey the depth of what he taught us.
    We owe a cock to Aesclepius, and must see that it is paid. More remains of our Socratic teacher than Catullus’ “mute ash” of which Roger once said, “The sense of loss is emphasized by the irony of the final line, aue atque uale. He arrived only to bid farewell.” We feel the pain of elision today as we come to these final “broken sentences.”
    I was a student of Roger’s from 1983-88. He prepared me for that visit to Chartres by seeing to it that I studied French, medieval art, and encountered a bestiary, all in addition to my classics work. What I shall remember most is how he was interested in everything. From Gerda Seligson, his Diotima, he learned the vital link between quest and question. Gerda would say, “The answers are easy, Roger. The questions are hard.” And so the two of them worked on a course in Latin that asked on the first test: “Explain the following and give an example: Intransitive, accusative, coordinating conjunction.” Next to my wrong answers throughout the tests, he wrote comments like “You weren’t applying logic.” “Good, but not good enough” “You are becoming unduly sloppy; now we must correct that, mustn’t we?” In Latin 3 the questions became “comment on the relative length of the tricolon and rewrite the anaphoric clauses with the gaps filled” and the comments became “I would like to agree but it isn’t so”; “trust yourself”; and then “no, no, no.” There is a brilliant simplicity to “define accusative.” He asked us to describe the abstractions of grammar and to examine the gaps in our thinking and in so doing invited us to fall in love with language itself and with the life of the mind.
    His favorite exemplum of classical simplicity was Horace Ode 1.38 on the garland of myrtle. Roger says only, “Explain the rhetorical figures of the first stanza. What purpose do they serve?” The answer, that the chiastic arrangement of nouns and adjectives, as well as of subjective and objective experience suggest the exquisite complexity of the woven garland. Horace said, “I care not that you are anxious to gild the simple myrtle. The myrtle is not beneath you, boy, nor me as I drink beneath the trained vine.” Roger’s teaching invited us to his locus amoenus even as it trained us in subtle ways. He gave us confidence that middle class kids from Iowa could understand the world’s most complex poems written in an ancient newly-learned form of words. He was interested in much more than Vergil: Plato’s first tetralogy, the proskynesis of Tiridates, the iconography of Caravaggio, Jessie’s beloved Proust, Ivor Winters, T.S. Eliot, the perfect system of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and the heroes of Iowa City and the world who rescued scholars and artists and fought the 20th century’s tyrannies and prejudices. But, more marvelous to tell, he was interested in us and everything we did.
    He thought of his role like one of Eliot’s Guardians from “The Cocktail Party” who work unseen to help the young know themselves and learn the difference between self-deception and social grace. It was not until many years later, as we were reading together by telephone that I realized that the origin of his “now, begin” was the last line of that play, in which Edward and Lavinia, without speaking it, acknowledge how much they have learned from their teachers about love and how to be civilized. Now as the doorbell rings, and Roger has come to see what sort of party we will live, he hopes, I am sure, that we understand Lavinia’s last line, “Oh, I’m glad. It’s begun.”

    -- John Stevens, at his memorial in December 2009