Proust had his madeleine, Charles Ryder had the whole of a stately home, I have a battered and jacketless green cloth-bound copy of Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary, the 1963 printing, purchased by me second-hand in 1968 for the princely sum of 3/6d. – 17.5p to you young things. From the same wondrous second-hand bookshop in Chichester came Lewis & Short for £2.10s., the abridged (for carting in satchels) Liddell & Scott for 19s., and the big Liddell & Scott (eighth edition, 1901 printing, previously owned by one A.P. Whitehead) for £3. (This, you must remember, was in the days when £3 really was £3 … and, by the way, Liddell was of course the father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.)
Autenrieth instantly evokes the store cupboard at the end of the corridor on the third floor of my school when the classical sixth form (all two of us) did Greek, first for A-level, and then, for a term after all my friends were tasting the various joys of a school-free existence, for Oxbridge entrance. It really was a store cupboard, piled high with stacks of chairs, one wall clad in bookshelves which held stocks of ancient textbooks, including the dreaded French primer which must have put more 11-year-olds of my generation off France for life than even Johnny Hallyday – anyone out there remember the ghastly French enfant Toto, sa famille et ses petites aventures?
The store cupboard was also the access to the fire escape, and thus had a door to the outside which happily was glassed, so that we did have daylight, but we perched at a double desk in unnerving proximity to our teacher: a wonderful lady, but so shy and self-conscious that even teaching two keen and committed people, let alone 32 disaffected 13-year-olds who didn’t want to do Latin in the first place (more fool them), was obvious torture to her. I remember vividly the pit of embarrassment into which we sank in Herodotus Book II, where in our textbook the passage about the way the Egyptians pass water was censored, and for the purposes of the curriculum, she had to both give us the Greek and make sure we understood what it meant.
After Xenophon, Thucydides, and a dipping of the toes into Sophocles, we were feeling quite cocky when presented with Odyssey, Book IX. The unparalleled horror when we couldn’t make sense of it:
ἔνθεν δὲ προτέρω πλέομεν ἀκαχήμενοι ἦτορ, / ἄσμενοι ἐκ θανάτοιο, φίλους ὀλέσαντες ἑταίρους.
What on earth was this stuff? Why were so few of the words in Liddell & Scott? Hundreds of lines, and only two terms to A-level … Autenrieth entered this scene of doom and panic like a demigod in winged sandals, disentangling the unfamiliar forms, flagging the hapax legomena (which we could hardly be expected to know, after all), and providing jolly little line drawings of the more impenetrable Homeric objects, such as the aphlaston (ornamental knob on stern of ship, figure-head), a hapax at Il. XV, 717; or pessoisin (at draughts), another hapax at Od. I, 107.
It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder who this great benefactor to classical personkind was. Nor how (assuming from his name that he was German) his work was translated into English, nor when. It was enough that Autenrieth saved me (and thousands of others, I imagine) from complete bafflement in the face of the Homeric dialect, providing a master key, or a crib, which enabled us to get to grips with the narrative sweep – the grotesque horror of Polyphemos, the pitiless and cannibal Laestrygonians, who destroyed eleven of Odysseus’s twelve ships, and their crews – without having to plod through, consulting the 1776 pages of Liddell & Scott on a word-by-word basis.
In fact, I could have found out a lot about him, and the book, by reading the preface, written by the translator, Robert Porter Keep (1844–1904), of Williston Seminary, Easthampton, Mass., in 1876. Georg Autenrieth (1833–1900), Rector of the Gymnasium at Zweibrücken in Germany, was approached by Teubner & Co. in 1868 to produce a Homeric dictionary for schools. The German Wörterbuch zu den Homerischen Gedichten was published in 1873. ‘It was the test of actual use which suggested to the editor the idea of translating this book’, and after reading the Odyssey and Iliad with the dictionary in his hand, Keep wrote to Autenrieth and suggested an English translation.
Keep defends the ‘crib’ aspect of the work: he ‘is aware of the feeling of dislike with which many teachers regard all special lexicons … These objections, however, have little force as respects … the Homeric Poems. … Not only do their forms differ so widely from those of Attic usage as to constitute a separate dialect, but their vocabulary is an extremely copious one [about 9,000 different words], and contains a great multitude of words that are used only once, or but a very few times.’ Moreover, the student’s time is increasingly restricted by other demands, and, ‘It may be, indeed, that Greek and Latin will only be able to hold their place in our courses of higher education by welcoming and encouraging every legitimate help by which the labor necessary for acquiring a knowledge of the two … languages.’
Prophetic words: and all praise and thanks to Autenrieth and Keep for their part in facilitating the path of the toiling student towards the Realms of Gold…