|Henry Nettleship and the beginning of
modern Latin studies at Oxford
This paper looks at the career and scholarship of Henry Nettleship (1839-93), the third holder of the Corpus Christi Chair of Latin at Oxford, and argues that he was a reformer and far-sighted scholar who did much to establish the basis for modern Latin studies. Nettleship came from a typical Victorian academic elite background : 1 his younger brother was the Oxford Platonic scholar Richard Lewis Nettleship, Fellow of Balliol (1846-92) and he attended the public school Charterhouse as a scholar in 1854-7, where he was a contemporary of the great Hellenist R.C. (later Sir Richard ) Jebb (1841-1905). A distinguished university career followed : as an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1857-61) he held a College scholarship, gaining a first class in Classical Moderations and a second class in Literae Humaniores (Greats), and winning the Hertford Scholarship in Latin and the Gaisford Greek Prose Prize in 1859, followed by the Craven Scholarship in 1861. In 1862-71 he was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, acting as tutor and librarian in 1862-8; in 1868-73 he was an assistant master at Harrow School, a move driven by economic considerations, married in 1870, and vacated his Oxford fellowship in 1871. In 1873 he returned to Corpus as a Fellow, and in 1878 he was elected Corpus Christi Professor of Latin, a post which he held until his death in 1893.
A strong influence on Nettleship’s academic career was clearly John Conington (1825-69), who was already Corpus Professor when Nettleship arrived at Corpus as an undergraduate, with whom he developed a close friendship, and whom he ultimately succeeded as professor.2 After Conington’s early death in 1869, Nettleship completed the third volume of Conington’s commentary on the works of Virgil, in which he had already been enlisted as a collaborator with primary responsibility for books 10 and 12 of the Aeneid, and revised the first two volumes in an edition of 1871 (several times further revised subsequently), 3 and also edited Conington’s commentary on Persius (1872, second edition 1874; third edition 1893). These were works of pietas just as much as his 1887 obituary of Conington for the Dictionary of National Biography, which carefully avoids mentioning its author’s contribution to its subject’s books; they contained much original work by Nettleship, showing his typical meticulous attention to detail and command of Latin idiom and classical literature in general. These initial publications clearly provided a platform for his return to Oxford from schoolteaching in 1873.
Over the next few years Nettleship’s main publications were several pamphlets from the Oxford University Press which further explored the fields into which his editing of Conington’s work had led him. In 1875 he published Suggestions Introductory to a Study of the Aeneid, in 1878 The Original Form of the Roman Satura, and in 1879
Ancient Lives of Virgil, with an Essay on the Poems of Virgil in Connection with his Life and Times. In the first and third of these studies, Nettleship, taking off from Conington’s 1863 introduction to the Aeneid in his commentary, mounts an effective defence of the Aeneid against the kind of Romantic criticism levelled at it by the majority of Victorians who preferred Homer, namely that the Virgilian epic was artificial, unoriginal and bloodless compared to the originality, vigour and ‘primitive’ power of its Homeric models. 4
In his 1875 essay, Nettleship defends Virgil on the issue of originality, both stressing the poet’s creative power (97) and arguing that the poem belongs to 'derivative' literature and is no worse for that (120), though also acknowledging that it has some defects (101). 5 In particular, Nettleship argues that the Aeneid gives a good index of its historical context (100), and that it is concerned with religious and providential celebration of Roman civilization and empire (101); Aeneas is defended as the civiliser (103) and subjugator of inferior races (108), natural in the context of growing British imperialism in the last third of the nineteenth century. Aeneas' departure from Dido, a sticking point for many commentators, is justified as pietas (104-5,128,129) in ancient terms, though culpable by modern moral standards (130); Dido herself is seen as tragically attractive (126), grand and touching, but fallible and over-passionate. In his 1879 essay these points are reinforced, and Nettleship here confronts the frequent nineteenth-century accusation that the Aeneid was the propagandistic product of imperial tyranny and pressure. He talks of ‘a fallacy implied in a great deal of current criticism, that the Augustan literature was the artificial product of a despotic constitution, fostered by the patronage of an imperial court’ (28). In general, Nettleship supports and extends Conington’s arguments that the Aeneid constitutes a learned and creative manipulation of literary models, a view which was also emerging in France in the work of Sainte-Beuve 6 and which was clearly opposed to the view of such contemporary critics as Gladstone, who in defending Homer stated that the Aeneid was 'more like the performance of a trained athlete, between trick and strength, than the grandeur of free and simple Nature’ and that Virgil ‘does not sing from the heart, nor to the heart'. 7 This deconstruction of the romantic cult of originality and valuing of learned literary texture and imitation looks forward presciently to modern analysis of Virgilian intertextuality, and is at the beginning of the turn of the tide in the last third of the nineteenth century towards a more positive evaluation of the Aeneid and its poet.
Nettleship’s publications while he held the Corpus chair give a good idea of the scope of his work. The two volumes of Lectures and Essays (1885, 1895), which incorporate two of the three pamphlets just mentioned (omitting that on the Ancient Lives of Virgil), collect most of his work on Latin literature and show that he was more interested than the average Latinist of his time in the literary quality of ancient works : this was also a feature of his teaching, as an anonymous citation from an 1870’s pupil shows : ‘He made me realise for the first time that Vergil and Horace were literature like Shelley and Byron. One felt he knew ancient literature as a whole, and in its relation with English and all modern literature’. 8 Apart from his work on Virgil, there are pieces in the 1885 volume on Horace, early Roman literature, Cicero and Catullus and in the 1895 volume on satire, ancient literary criticism, and Juvenal. Alongside this more literary-critical aspect (resembling the work of the same period by his older Oxford contemporary W.Y.Sellar (1825-1890) in Glasgow 9 and contrasting with the more austere Cambridge tradition of J.E.B.Mayor, H.A.J.Munro and A.E.Housman) was a strong interest in the history of the Latin language, ancient grammarians, commentators and glossaries : the 1885 volume also contains pieces on Verrius Flaccus, the glosses of Placidus on early Latin, Gellius, Nonius Marcellus and a detailed review of Thilo’s edition of Servius, the 1895 volume essays on the historical development of Latin prose and the study of Latin grammar. Two further strands are evident : there are obituary pieces on two great European Latinists from the preceding generation whom Nettleship especially admired - J.N.Madvig (1804-86), editor of Cicero and Livy and author of an outstanding Latin grammar, and Moritz Haupt (1808-74), to whom we shall return below - and more general lectures on classics and education which point to his reformist interests.
Nettleship’s strong interest in the Latin language and its history made him a natural choice as a Latin lexicographer. In 1875 he was approached by the Oxford University Press to write a dictionary of Latin comparable in scope to the Greek lexicon of Liddell and Scott. Having set a target of twelve years for completion, he seems to have spent much of the next decade or more working on this project, especially after his election to the Corpus chair in 1878 which released him from tutorial duties, 10 but the final result was not a completed dictionary but his Contributions to Latin Lexicography (1889). In the preface to this work, Nettleship explains that he had by 1887 completed almost all of the letter A (10% of the total) but could not progress further without the collaborators he had vainly hoped for when taking on the project; this impasse was also no doubt due to his poor health after 1882. 11
The 600-page Contributions contains nearly 400 pages of discussion of words beginning with A and the rest is scattered entries for other letters, so the scale of the planned work was clearly large. Nettleship’s spirits can not have been lifted when in 1879 the Oxford University Press published the even larger Latin dictionary from the USA by Lewis and Short (which went on to hold the Latin lexicographical field for a century). His Contributions are presented as supplements to that work and indeed add another scholarly level, since unlike Lewis and Short, Nettleship through his continental connections (see below) was able to make use of the material of the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae and its valuable journal Archiv fur Lateinsche Lexicographie, via the fine Latinist Eduard Wöllflin. The Contributions are still important, and in their careful separation of meanings and consistent interest in etymology, which perhaps drew something from the early stages of the English dictionary being produced for the OUP under the direction of James Murray from 1879, 12 point the way forward to more modern and scientific Latin lexicography such as the Oxford Latin Dictionary project (begun 1931, finished 1982). Other publication enterprises from the 1880’s and 1890’s give further indications of Nettleship’s character as a scholar. His Passages for Translation into Latin Prose (1887) seems to have been an attempt to use his status as Oxford professor to enter the extensive and lucrative market for school textbooks, for which his years teaching at Harrow were no doubt a good preparation : it was published not by the OUP but the London house of George Bell, publishers of Conington’s Virgil edition.
His edition (1889) of the essays of Mark Pattison (1813-84), like his earlier editing of the works of Conington, shows his capacity for scholarly pietas; Pattison had been Rector of Lincoln when Nettleship had been a young Fellow there in the 1860’s, the two had been close, 13 and the 1885 first volume of Essays and Addresses had been dedicated to Pattison’s memory. Pattison also exercised an important influence on Nettleship’s general conception of scholarship : Pattison’s own views on the function of universities and the central importance of research had been at least partly stimulated by his visits to German universities in the 1850’s, 14 and it was at Pattison’s suggestion that Nettleship himself went to Berlin for a term in the summer of 1865, the first of several visits to German universities. 15 This German connection via Pattison was important for Oxford Latin, for it had not been significant for Nettleship’s other mentor Conington : in Nettleship’s DNB memoir of Conington he records that the latter went to Germany in 1847 and had an interview with the great and aged Hellenist Gottfried Hermann (1772-1848) at Leipzig, but that ‘he did not visit Germany again, nor did his stay there produce any appreciable intellectual result’. The consequence was, as Nettleship saw it, that Conington did not match his Cambridge contemporary H.A.J.Munro in interest in ‘the advances which were being made in Latin scholarship on the continent’.16
The visit to Berlin in 1865 was clearly important for Nettleship’s development as a scholar and for his appreciation of the great engine of German classical scholarship as it was about to move into top gear. His primary contact in Berlin was the epigrapher and Roman historian Emil Hübner (1834-1901), but he was able to hear Mommsen lecture and was impressed by Jacob Bernays (1824-81), then at Breslau but about to move to Bonn where he would be an inspiration to the young Wilamowitz. But the clearest impact was made by the lectures of the Latinist Moritz Haupt (1808-74), a fine scholar one of whose lasting achievements was the universally accepted attribution to Nemesianus of the last four pastoral poems of the eleven previously attributed to Calpurnius Siculus. 17 One of Nettleship’s earliest lectures in his tenure of the Corpus chair (May 1879) was an account of Haupt; this was separately published by OUP in 1879 as a pamphlet, Maurice Haupt, and later prominently reprinted as the first substantive item in Nettleship (1885) 1-22. 18
Here the extent of Haupt’s influence becomes clear. For the young Nettleship, still in his mid-twenties, this was his first real taste of the ‘higher philology’ of modern German scholarship, and Haupt’s lectures on Horace’s Epistles were clearly a revelation to him : ‘these lectures introduced me to a method of teaching which was wholly unknown at the time in Oxford, and perhaps in England. We learned in Oxford to read the classics, to translate them on paper, to think and talk about them, to write essays on them; but of the higher philology, of the principles of textual criticism, in other words, of the way to find out what the classical writers really said, we were taught next to nothing’ (1-2). He then reflects on the contrast of this training in ‘higher philology’ with his own haphazard learning of scholarly method at the time, already facing the demands of his share in Conington’s Virgil : ‘I had to instruct myself, with Conington’s assistance, as it were piecemeal, and was without any general knowledge as to the kind of problems which might be expected to meet an editor in dealing with a classical author’ (2). He professes himself ‘personally much indebted’ to Haupt’s teaching’ (1) ; he even claims that he learnt from Haupt the proper appreciation of Bentley’s work on Horace, thus gaining illumination from Germany on one of the greatest of British classical scholars.
Nettleship particularly admired Haupt’s attention to linguistic and stylistic detail and to textual criticism : some of these interests are clearly reflected in his own subsequent work, though it is striking that compared to many scholars of the time (Housman was already publishing during Nettleship’s tenure of the Corpus chair) Nettleship did relatively little in textual emendation (his name does not appear in modern critical apparatuses of Virgil or Persius), 19 and his introductory remarks on the manuscript traditions of Virgil and Persius in the commentaries are very brief. But not everything about Haupt or the German system was equally admirable to Nettleship: himself a modest and polite scholar, he felt Haupt indulged in too much odium philologicum (‘a recklessness and want of consideration in speaking of other scholars … which was inconsistent with fairness, and even with the due observance of literary courtesy’, 3), and as a former Oxford tutor who had been devoted to his undergraduate pupils, that the German system where ‘the professor lectures on important subjects, and gives to his classes the best of his work’ favoured the highly motivated but ‘fails to touch the ordinary undergraduate’ (22). Nevertheless, the lecture ends with a plea for the higher criticism at Oxford, which has the resources to support it alongside the predominant undergraduate culture (22). Here Nettleship takes a middle position in the contemporary debate on education at Oxford and the balance between German-style research and research training and the traditionally student-centered tutorial system (a debate that still continues).20
One consequence of Nettleship’s German contacts seems to have been the first classical seminar on the German model in Oxford. The first ‘Philologisches Seminar’ had been set up by F.A.Wolf in Halle towards the end of the eighteenth century to train classical scholars and schoolteachers, 21 and we have already seen how Nettleship’s experience of Haupt’s Berlin lectures showed him the lack of such arrangements in Oxford. Soon after his taking up the Corpus Chair, Nettleship placed a notice in the Oxford University Gazette in March 1879 : ‘Corpus Professor of Latin : Henry Nettleship MA. The Professor proposes to form a Class in the ensuing Easter and Trinity Terms for the discussion of and the illustration of the principles of textual criticism. He would be obliged if gentlemen desirous of joining these classes would communicate with him not later than March 26’.22 The setting up of a study group focussing on a topic on which Nettleship had admired Haupt’s teaching and which he felt was vital for scholarly training and practice is a clear adaptation of the German model as he had experienced it in Berlin, though the courtesy and low-key approach is typical of Nettleship’s modest English manner. The impact of his University teaching as professor, and the perception that he was in tune with continental advances, is warmly attested by the Oxford scholar J.U.Powell (1865-1935), the later author of the classic Collectanea Alexandrina : ‘He introduced us also to the textual criticism of Virgil, and to what was then a new subject, the study of Glossaries. His lectures on Comparative Philology were particularly fresh and interesting, and he must have been one of the first to bring to Oxford the new knowledge on this subject which had lately made great advances on the Continent under Brugmann and Osthoff and De Saussure’. 23
More of Nettleship’s Germanising, reformist side is shown in an essay published in 1876 in a collection which promoted Mark Pattison’s ideas about the importance of research and in which Pattison himself proposed the abolition of Oxford Colleges in favour of research-oriented Faculties. 24 Nettleship’s contribution was less radical but still progressive : in an essay entitled ‘The present relations between classical research and classical education in England’ 25, he criticised the cult of prose and verse composition amongst Oxbridge scholars (‘A few … win the name of scholars, and keep it mainly on the strength of their skill in Greek and Latin writing … too great a prominence has been given to it in common English opinion’, 175) and once again stressed the lack of German-style training in English universities (‘It cannot be said that the English universities implant in their students either a love of research or a knowledge of its methods…The whole tendency of the system is …towards the communication of results, not the training in method. It cannot be said that classical philology is at all represented as it should be in the Oxford curriculum’ 178-9). He also attacks the centrality of examinations (‘… a well organised system of examination is … the enemy of research’, 180), arguing that preparation for them dominates Oxford education to the exclusion of real scholarly training, for which Germany is essential : ‘No systematic instruction is given at Oxford … in the methods of classical research…| … If a man wishes to make himself a thorough scholar, he must go to Germany and learn method there’ (182-3). In his proposed solutions to these problems, Nettleship shows a liberal and egalitarian outlook : he proposes more good day schools which provide more leisure for staff to do academic work than boarding schools and less social division in education, ‘voluntary classes in which instruction might be given in the rudiments of criticism’ at Oxford (188), and most notably collaborative graduate research (189) : ‘students of philology, after they have completed their university course, should be invited by the professors to co-operate with them in original work, or to undertake original work of their own. Or they should at least be directed how to set about such work, if it be their wish to undertake it’. Though once again influenced by the framework of the Wolfian Seminar, this now seems a far-sighted anticipation of modern academic structures, and looks forward to the period after World War II when such research at last became systematically established in classics at Oxford.26
Nettleship’s progressive and far-sighted engagements with issues of reform at Oxford are well chronicled by the contribution of L.R.Farnell (1856-1934), later Rector of Exeter College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to Mrs Nettleship’s memoir. This chronicles Nettleship’s support for centralising modernisation, 27 academic freedom and the advancement of science as well as humanities and his advocacy of poorer non-collegiate students and of the newly-established women’s colleges; 28 Mrs Nettleship records that in the 1880’s ‘Part of the afternoon was given to lectures for the Women Students’ 29. He was also a leading advocate of the setting up of a degree in Modern Languages, making a speech before Congregation in 1886 which was published in a pamphlet in 1887 (The Study of the Modern European Languages and Literature in the University of Oxford); though the proposal failed then, it was eventually passed after Nettleship’s death and the Honour School of Medieval and Modern Languages was set up in 1903. The equal weighting between languages and literature which has remained a feature of Oxford’s courses in Modern Languages is a key proposal in Nettleship’s pamphlet.
The promotion and even commission of research was also a Nettleship cause. In a submission in 1877 to the Royal Commission examining Oxford, he made a prescient proposal for research funding in the humanities : ‘What is required is a permanent scientific committee with special departments, whose business it should be to keep an eye on the work to be done, and to look out for men to do it. Has a MS. to be collated for an new edition, an inscription or unpublished document to be edited, an obscure piece of history or usage to be elucidated ? It should be in the power of those engaged in philological research to recommend to the committee a fit person to do the work at a certain sum’. 30 Here we have the makings of a modern system of research funding : the sponsoring of suitable and worthy academic projects looks to the work of the British Academy (founded within a decade of Nettleship’s death), while the permanent scientific committee sounds not unlike the Arts and Humanities Research Board (founded 1998) and its successor the Arts and Humanities Research Council (founded 2003).
In sum, Henry Nettleship was an impressively modern and outward-looking professor in a Victorian Oxford which was still often parochial and conservative, though he was perhaps fortunate to operate mainly in the decades of the 1870’s and 1880’s when reform was realistic. 31 In Latin studies, his insistence on the literary value and texture of Latin texts as well as on the highest standards of philological and linguistic scholarship, his advocacy of Virgil in a period where Homer was generally preferred, his complete command of the Latin language and its grammatical traditions make him an important figure. In theUniversity of Oxford, his strong awareness of and sympathy with the ‘higher’ continental scholarship and his determination to replicate it in an Oxford context, together with his espousing of a range of liberal academic causes from female education to modern languages and the sponsoring of research, show him as an imaginative and far-sighted reformer. Finally, his academic modesty and his attentive pietas to his friends and mentors in editing their work make him personally admirable and attractive as well as academically significant figure.
A : Works of Henry Nettleship (for a full list see Nettleship (1895) 255-69)
H.Nettleship, Suggestions Introductory to a Study of the Aeneid (Oxford, 1875)
H.Nettleship, The Original Form of the Roman Satura (Oxford, 1878)
H.Nettleship, Ancient Lives of Virgil, with an Essay on the Poems of Virgil in Connection with his Life and Times (Oxford, 1879) [1879a]
H.Nettleship, Maurice Haupt (Oxford, 1879) [1879b]
H.Nettleship, Lectures and Essays On Subjects Connected with Latin Literature and Scholarship (Oxford, 1885)
H.Nettleship, ‘Coniectanea’, American Journal of Philology 7 (1886) 496-99
H.Nettleship, Passages for Translation into Latin Prose (London, 1887)
H.Nettleship, ‘Coniectanea’, Journal of Philology 17(1888) 117-19
H.Nettleship, ‘Conington, John’, Dictionary of National Biography (1889). [1889a]
H.Nettleship, Contributions to Latin Lexicography (Oxford, 1889) [1889b]
H.Nettleship (ed.) Essays of Mark Pattison (Oxford, 1889)
H.Nettleship, Lectures and Essays [Second Series], ed. F.Haverfield (Oxford, 1895)
[includes important prefatory memoir by Mrs Nettleship, pp.ix-xliii]
B : Other works
C. Appleton (ed.), Essays on the Endowment of Research (London, 1876)
I.Bywater and R.T.Stearn, ‘Nettleship, Henry’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
W.E.Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (London, 1858).
M.Haupt, De carminibus bucolicis Calpurnii et Nemesiani (Berlin, 1854)
M.Haupt, Opuscula 1 (Leipzig, 1876)
A.Lang and M.C.Curthoys, ‘Sellar, William Young’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
L.Lehnus, ‘ “Some Oxford Scholars”. Una conferenza inedita di J.U.Powell’, Eikasmos 8 (1997) 245-82.
H.A.J.Munro and E.Palmer, Syllabus of Latin Pronunciation (Cambridge, 1872)
K.J.Elisabeth Murray, Caught in the Web of Words. James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary (New Haven, 1977).
D.Palfreyman (ed.), The Oxford Tutorial (Oxford, 2001)
C-A.Sainte-Beuve, Essai sur Virgile (Paris, 1857).
J.Sparrow, Mark Pattison and the Idea of a University (Cambridge, 1967)
F.M.Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (Cambridge 1993).
N.Vance, The Victorians and Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1997).