Tuesday, March 18, 2014


William Turpin, Ovid: Amores Book 1. Dickinson College Commentaries. Dickinson College Commentaries, 2012.

Reviewed by Patricia J. Johnson, Boston University (pjjclass@bu.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

DCC Ovid Amores I

William Turpin's commentary on Book I of the Amores is the latest installment in the online Dickinson College Commentaries series, whose admirable mission is the publication of user-friendly college student commentaries that take advantage of the benefits of a digital location to supplement the textual notes with a wealth of material available on the web.

It was only in April 2013 that the first Digital Classics Association conference was held at SUNY Buffalo, and as it happens, the issue of peer review of digital material was addressed. As Neil Coffee blogged on August 27, 2013 on the Dickinson Commentaries site, a proposal to revive the free-standing Bryn Mawr Electronic Resources Review, published from 1998 to 2002, was met with skepticism that reviewers could be found.

I agree that publishing separate technical reviews of digital scholarship would be misguided, but for a different reason. Technical reviews of digital materials for teaching and research belong in outlets whose audience is interested in the technical. Content reviews of digital materials belong in BMCR, where they will be widely read by teachers and researchers in the classics fields.

This is by way of prefatory caveat for the following review of Turpin's commentary, if such a narrow word can describe such an expansive project. I am unqualified to evaluate the website's construction and architecture from a technical point of view. But I am enthusiastic, as an educator and an Ovidian, about evaluating its quality and usefulness as a commentary designed for an intermediate college student audience – and intrigued by the idea that, counter to traditional book review experience, constructive suggestions may have an immediate impact on the reviewed text (typos will be directed to Francese as requested on the site). DCC's own mission statement on October 13, 2013 declares its approach "readerly;" in fact, I could do worse than quote their general description to introduce this review: "Texts are presented in a clean, readable format, with custom-authored notes, specially selected images and maps, and original audio and video content. Core vocabulary lists of the most common Latin and Greek words are provided, and all words not in the core lists are fully and accurately defined in running vocabulary lists that accompany each section of text."

Navigating from the DCC home page, which provides access to all of the texts currently available, the reader may choose to proceed directly to the Latin text of Amores I ("Read", which omits the Epigram), or to Turpin's "Introduction."


The introduction is divided into a number of useful sections listed on the left side of the window. The credits establish the basis of the text (close to Kenney 1994) and the notes (Barsby 1973 and McKeown 1989), the impressive array of contributing faculty and students, and the limits of the vocabulary (glosses in the notes do not include DCC Core Latin Vocabulary entries). The life of Ovid is a very brief sketch, with content and genre of all of Ovid's poems characterized save the exile epistles, which deserve the same treatment for the sake of completeness. Turpin's overall introduction to the poems ("The Amores") provides an undergraduate-appropriate survey of pre-Ovidian Roman elegy; three key features of the Amores are briefly drawn to the reader's attention (tone, poetic structure, and book structure). The suggestion that Tibullus' association with Messalla might have but did not prevent friendship with Ovid needs explanation/clarification.

Individual essays on the poems, available here ("Essays") and also at the head of the notes for each poem, are mini-lectures, describing the elegies in detail and including the sorts of interpretations one might introduce during class. The coverage of scholarly debate and further reading is somewhat haphazard (e.g., scarcely any for 1.1, so important for establishing the ironic distance of the narrator of the Amores, or 1.7, where an understanding of Ovid's clear-eyed engagement with issues of gender, power and violence is essential, but more substantial for 1.4, 1.6, 1.8). In these essays Turpin exchanges the detachment typical of the commentary genre for a voice both more personal and editorial, similar to Barsby's. In his essay on Amores 1.1, for example, Turpin foregrounds readerly satisfaction as a primary mission of Ovid's poetics, perhaps not first on my list, and omits any discussion of the poem's parodic distancing from love elegy's romanticism. He argues in fact that a new lover is the real reason for Ovid's "change" of meter to elegiac couplets; we don't come away with a sense of the availability of more nuanced literary interpretations. Poetic persona is a difficult concept for modern students who often haven't read much poetry, but it is elided here (there are even frequent considerations of the "sincerity" of expression by the poet, for example). So the essays have a heavier interpretive footprint than we might expect from commentaries at this level. Turpin provides rich food for interpretive thought and discussion, as long as students don't accept the author's views as gospel; but many educators might prefer a lighter touch. Students and educators alike will appreciate the illustrative examples and comparisons scattered throughout the essays, from the HBO series "Rome" to George Bernard Shaw to "Lady Chatterley's Lover," as well as the attractive photos of relevant artworks.

More frequent and detailed reference to Latin literary predecessors of the major poem varieties (e.g., paraklausithyron, recusatio, sphragis), to his most obvious allusions to earlier poets, and to examples of foreshadowing of his own later poetry would all have the advantage of more surely locating Ovid's poetic practice within, and against, the Latin tradition – he was an outlier, but an outlier of a particularly engaged kind. For example, the full presentation of Nicolas Gross' outline of the speech of Dipsas in 1.8 is a handy rhetorical primer, but why no mention of the speech's didactic foreshadowing of the Ars Amatoria?

The next link on the left takes the reader to a valuable page on scansion, which gives a taste of how suitable these commentaries may eventually be for a distance-learning Latin curriculum. In a series of six, 4 to 10-minute recorded lectures by Christopher Francese, accompanied by virtual whiteboard slides, students can learn the basics of scansion: stress vs. quantity, with English parallels, Latin vowel quantities, and elision. Each lesson includes the scansion of several lines of poetry. The technology here is nifty, as Francese annotates the lines appearing on the virtual whiteboard slides during the course of his presentations. Scrolling to the bottom of the page, one arrives at a textual explication of the elegiac couplet, which could profitably be replaced by one more presentation. I predict that many educators will send their intermediate Latin poetry students to this page for Elegiac Scansion Virtual Bootcamp.

On the Maps and Tools tab resides, at this stage at least, only an interactive Google Earth map of all place names mentioned in Amores I. Depending on the reader's familiarity with the software (perhaps some basic instructions would be helpful here), the current disposition of the software, which can be cranky, and your bandwidth, this is a fun tool with the potential to become a great tool (as is the case with so many digital humanities mapping projects currently underway). A first glance at the map, for example, indicates how utterly Aegean-centric Amores I happens to be; the Sabines and the Symgambri are anomalies and therefore demand the special attention of the reader.

The select bibliography is overly selective and (apart from the reference to the Ryan/Perkins Oklahoma commentary) a bit out of date for a class on the Amores that may conclude with a term paper. Updating a proper (undergraduate-level) bibliography would be a helpful and edifying annual task for an advanced undergraduate. The final section on the manuscript tradition is a very handy undergraduate-level essay by Bart Huelsenbeck and Dan Plekhov on a subject most educators aren't likely to undertake with undergraduates. Whether this essay's coherent diagrams and clear prose will change that reluctance is an open question; while vetustiores are defined, for example, hyperarchetype is not, so the learning curve is still on the steep side.


A complete list of the poems including the introductory epigram can be accessed by clicking on the TEXT/NOTES box (which could be more prominent) on the upper-left of any page of the site. The text of each poem, with long-by-nature-not-position syllables marked by macrons, appears on the left of the window. Notes and other materials, which are abundant, appear on the right under three tabs. "Notes" includes grammatical and interpretive points, and discussion of proper nouns, while "Vocabulary" offers numerous but brief glosses; both provide links to relevant maps and illustrative images in very legible pop-up windows (e.g. Maeonides, lyra, Heliconius) which themselves are hyperlinked to more detailed entries at the Pelagios Pleiades site, an "international cooperative of online ancient world projects." "Media" links directly to relevant images with captions, and to recordings of clear and expressive readings of each poem.

Access to the Latin Core Vocabulary, a list of the 1000 most common words in classical Latin, is not found here, and should be available on every text page, perhaps even in the Text/Notes box; at present, the link can only be found on the left side of the "Resources" page. Students must know the lexicon headword to look up a word, and are rewarded by a very brief definition, its part of speech, its "semantic group" (for arma, "war and peace"), and its frequency ranking, which determines its eligibility to appear on the list. I suspect most educators will continue to require the purchase of a more comprehensive Latin lexicon alongside the DCC commentary. That said, the poem-specific vocabulary is sufficient for most students at this level.

The notes are arranged line by line. Hyperlinks on grammatical points are conveniently provided to the relevant sections of Allen and Greenough on the Perseus website, appearing in a popup window. References to the OLD cannot be hyperlinked, as it is not in the public domain; I might have been tempted to use Lewis and Short as a vocabulary resource instead. A reference page of literary terms (e.g. recusatio, protasis, asyndeton, chiasmus, anaphora, metonymy, hyperbaton) hyperlinked to their frequent appearances in both the essays and the notes would be very useful: all are crucial to an informed reading of the Amores.

In his clearly-written notes Turpin has struck a fine balance between too much and too little information, which will suit students graduating from third or fourth-semester Latin to their first reading course. I found little in his choices to quibble with, and much to praise in their capture of the fine points that make an Ovidian poem exquisite. Undergraduates might appreciate more consistent identification of striking examples of particularly Ovidian word placement, literary and erotic wordplay, and other stylistic effects, but every commentator has to draw the line somewhere. The commentary's grammatical, mythological and geographical notes are especially helpful, and the frequent brief detours on Roman culture, from the composite bow to slavery to Augustan-era law courts, hairstyles and dining rooms, will be welcomed by students making their way through a challenging text.

I had the opportunity to use the commentary in a fifth-semester Ovid seminar this term (many thanks to my CL 351 class for their input). My students unanimously found the commentary helpful, easy to use, and often entertaining. Those with little Latin poetry background found Turpin's introductory essays useful, and the Francese presentations on scansion essential. The "beautiful and dramatic" recorded readings of the poems "brought the poems into focus." The greatest challenge was making the shift from homework to classroom. My students propose a notetaking/highlighting feature, with the ability to save both text and notes to use in class, and/or better printing capability for in-class use of the text. Some envisioned a feature allowing the creation of a unique class forum on the site where grammatical and translation questions can be posted and answered by their professor. My seminarians discovered an unanticipated advantage of the electronic format in class: I could project the text from my iPad onto a white board (in our case, green, so font color options would be useful) for in-class scansion exercises without spending precious class time writing out the Latin on the board.

This commentary represents a commendable digital collaboration among institutions (Dickinson, Swarthmore), faculty, and between faculty and students. Its creation offers a superb model for what can be achieved by individuals and institutions pooling their different strengths: the Google Earth aficionado, the textual scholar, the distinguished commentator, the linguistic statistician, the insightful reader of Latin poetry. The proof is in the pudding, which in this case is a highly useful and instructive Commentary Plus on Ovid's first literary effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment