Campus & Community

Classicist, philologist ‘with a literary sensibility’ Clausen dies at 83

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Clausen (Courtesy of the Clausen family)

Wendell Vernon Clausen, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature Emeritus at Harvard University, died on Oct. 12, 2006, in Belmont, Mass. He was 83 years old, and had been in declining health after suffering a stroke in August 2005.

Clausen was born in Coquille, Ore., on April 2, 1923. He received his B.A. from the University of Washington in 1945, majoring in both classics and English. He enrolled for graduate study in classics at the University of Chicago, obtaining his Ph.D. in just three years. His thesis was on an edition of a ninth century treatise on the grammar of Donatus that showed him already in full command of the disciplines of paleography and textual criticism.

Clausen’s first appointment was at Amherst College, where he taught from 1948 to 1959. At Harvard he was professor of Greek and Latin from 1959 to 1982, then Victor S. Thomas Professor of Greek and Latin from 1982 to 1988 and Pope Professor from 1988 to 1993; he also held an appointment as professor of comparative literature from 1984 to 1993. He served as chairman of the Department of the Classics from 1966 to 1971 and as editor of Harvard Studies in Classical Philology a number of times over the years.

Clausen’s first major publication, in 1956, was an edition of the satirist Persius, a notoriously difficult writer. Clausen’s was the first satisfactory critical edition, and its combination of deep erudition and refined taste – traits that would mark all his scholarship – brought him to international attention.

Alongside this editorial work, Clausen also produced a series of articles that attested to his interest in the poetry of the late Republic and the Augustan period – the poetry of Catullus and Horace, of Propertius and Ovid, and, above all, of Virgil. In later years, literary-critical work came to occupy the center of his scholarly efforts, and it is arguably as an interpreter of Latin poetry that he made his most distinctive contribution to classical studies.

He was one of the first English-speaking classicists to explore the relationship between Latin poets and Hellenistic Greek poetry, with which he had a rare familiarity, and his subtle analyses revealed a new dimension of artistry in poems that had been studied for centuries. Clausen disclaimed theoretical labels, but he can be counted as a pioneer in what is now known as the intertextual reading of classical texts.

One of Clausen’s great strengths as an interpreter was his ability to integrate the most exacting philological scholarship with a finely tuned literary sensibility. The two skills did not merely coexist, but were mutually reinforcing, the lungo studio informing and illuminating the grande amore. To speak of love in this context is no exaggeration, because for Clausen poetry was far more than the object of his professional study: It was a lifelong passion and a source of delight and sustenance. To hear him recite from one of his favorite Latin or English poets, with great feeling and often from memory, was a deeply moving experience. The qualities he admired in the poets he interpreted – learning, concision, exquisite craft – were also to be found in his own writing. He took to heart Callimachus’ dictum “a big book is a big nuisance,” and strove to convey much in a small compass. Two of his most influential articles run to only 10 pages each.

As a teacher, Clausen had a profound impact on two generations of Harvard classics students, both undergraduate and graduate. Many of the graduate students he trained have gone on to distinguished careers as classicists. But his relationship with his students went beyond that of a typical teacher and mentor. He nurtured them with care and supported them staunchly, and they reciprocated with a deep and steadfast devotion. In the words of one of those students, David Kubiak, “Wendell was to me everything I ever admired or ever hoped to be in my life as a classicist.”

Only a few of the many awards and honors he received can be mentioned here. In 1952-53 he was a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and in 1963 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (in a cohort that also included James Ackerman, Morton Bloomfield, and Noam Chomsky). In 1982 he held the Sather Lectureship at Berkeley, and in 1994 his contribution to Virgilian studies was recognized with the award of the Premio Internazionale Virgilio by the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana di Mantova and the Provincia di Mantova. This last distinction gave him particular pleasure, since his affection for Italy was almost as great as his love of Virgil. In 1998, to commemorate his 75th birthday, he was presented with a volume of essays by friends and former students. Appropriately, this Festschrift is, by the gargantuan standards too often typical of the genre, a conspicuously lean volume, 20 papers making up a mere 300 pages.

He is survived by his wife Margaret; by his sister Ilene Hull; by three sons from his first marriage, John, Raymond, and Thomas; by a stepson, Edward Woodman; a stepdaughter, Jane Woodman; and by five grandchildren.

In his first year at Harvard, Clausen and Steele Commager taught a course in Catullus and Horace. A student taking the course was asked by a friend what Clausen was teaching, and he replied: “Elegance.” Elegance was indeed at the heart of everything he taught, and it is a lesson that his work continues to teach, to all those who care about the poetry of Rome.

A memorial service will take place on Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. in the Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Mass. A reception will follow.

-Richard Tarrant,

Department of the Classics