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Ronald Knox as translator

To the Editors:

Paul Dean's essay on Ronald Knox (September 1997) was a most welcome reconsideration of the man and his work. But I must take exception to the suggestion made, in connection with Dean's account of the controversies that arose from Knox's new translation of the Bible, that the man's knowledge of Greek was only superficial and hence inadequate to the task.

People may honestly disagree over the merits of Knox's biblical translations. My own view is that they sometimes strive to be idiomatically modern in a too self-conscious way. An overtly contemporary translation is inappropriate for a sacred text that is still used for devotional and liturgical purposes. But to use such disagreement as a basis for questioning Knox's command of Greek is simply nonsensical. Only some sort of deep fraternal animus (or more likely, sectarian resentment over Knox's conversion to Roman Catholicism) can have prompted Dillwyn Knox to disparage his brother's knowledge of ancient Greek.

Ronald Knox's skill in classical languages is attested to by Sir Shane Leslie, who attended Eton with him at the turn of the century. In 1959, reviewing Evelyn Waugh's biography of Knox in The National Review, Leslie had the following to say on the subject:
 I can remember him at Eton in 1902. The smallest boy in the Fifth Form
 Select. I sat beside him but I never addressed him a word out of snobbery,
 for I was an Oppidan and he was a scholar wearing a gown like a gaberdine!
 But he had his uses when the terrible Headmaster Warre, looking like a
 Cyclops in his glasses, sometimes threw the door open, and forty terrified
 boys in tails rose praying inwardly that they would not be called to
 construe the Greek. The form master, also frightened, always called on
 "Knox minor" who could give a reading of Sophocles with a look of innocent
 assurance, and we all breathed again.

It should be remembered that in 1902 Ronald Knox was all of fourteen years old. Anyone who could construe Sophoclean Greek at that age would be unlikely to have trouble with New Testament koine in his mature years.

Joseph S. Salemi Department of Classical and Oriental Studies Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.

Meter in English

To the Editors:

Since Ronald Wallace isn't the author of the "target" essay in Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, I'm sure he won't mind my responding to Daniel Kunitz's wildly careless, hotshot review in your September issue.

Several of the essay's ten propositions (not: "commandments" as they are explicitly offered for consideration) may be minor, but the one Kunitz singles out as "bafflingly obvious"--"The spondee is a good, and fairly frequent, foot in English"--isn't. Yvor Winters, Donald Hall, and others--including Susanne Woods and Timothy Steele in the book--hold that the spondee does not exist, or it is extremely rare, in English verse. It is odd that Kunitz didn't know this or find it out, since he particularly admired Steele's essay.

Kunitz even messes up the scansion of two lines of Blake's "Tyger" reversing x and /. But his serious error is mistaking wordshape ("Tyger" "burning" "forest") as a primary determinant of meter. Metrical feet, as he should know, cross word-boundaries and even syntactical boundaries (caesuras). "And water'd heaven with their tears" is a line in iambic meter, as are "Within his bending sickle's compass come" "My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground" "Golden lads and girls all must,/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."

My purpose in Meter in English is precisely to address the confusion engendered by such contradictorily divergent but received opinions as Kunitz holds.

Robert Wallace Department of English Case Western Reserve University

Daniel Kunitz replies:

I apologize to Robert Wallace for identifying him as Ronald Wallace, and to Ronald Wallace for erroneously associating him with this book. The reversed scansion marks on Blake's "Tyger" were a printing error.

About Robert Wallace's other assertions I remain unconvinced. I certainly do not believe that the shape of a word determines its meter (words themselves, of course, have no meter), nor did I say so in my review of his book. It is interesting that he chooses a visual metaphor--"wordshape"--to talk about meter, because that, it seems to me, is precisely where he goes astray. He consistently tries to read the meter of a poem instead of hearing it. He attempts to show that "The Tyger" can be read as an iambic poem, but he ignores the fact that it can't be heard as iambic. It has a falling meter, and no rationalization can change that.

What does it mean to say a spondee (or any foot) is "good"? It either exists or it doesn't. Throughout his essays, Mr. Wallace mixes prescription and description, a fundamental fault, which, I felt, confused the very issues he set out to clarify.
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Publication:New Criterion
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Peddler's diary.
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