Martin West, RIP.

A good obit, by Gregory Hutchinson, of a remarkable scholar:

Martin West’s achievements stagger every classicist – but he himself was not staggered. He worked on, matter-of-factly, producing endless illuminating books. […]

West’s work concentrated especially on the archaic and early-classical periods of Greek. He edited the two vast narratives of Homer, and the two characterful poems of Hesiod, which he also wrote lengthy commentaries on. Other editing work included the personal (or seemingly personal) poetry of authors like Archilochus and Theognis, and the tragedies of Aeschylus.

But his work went further, in various directions. He deployed his intimate knowledge of ancient Greek poetry in books which surveyed particular areas, such as metre or music, in all their knotty detail, and depicted their historical development. Importantly, he did not see Greek poetry as springing from nothing: it was shaped by cultures outside of itself – by Indo-European traditions, and still more by the literature of the Near East.

Although these perceptions were not new in themselves, West amassed material (deliberately not confined to the most striking cases) to link Greek literature to the East. With severe criteria, he pursued poetic and religious elements in Greek and Vedic literature and more,back to earlier cultures and languages, such as “Mature” Indo-European. A huge range of knowledge underlay these explorations; they made the home territory of ordinary classicists look small.

Two contrasting tendencies appear in West’s work: on the one hand, his ambitious reconstruction; on the other, his precise fidelity to what is known. […]

It’s that “precise fidelity to what is known” that I particularly value in a scholar, but he added to it a nice touch of humor (“The ‘mean sun’ is a notional body which moves at a uniform pace, with the real sun generally a few minutes behind or ahead of it like a dog off the lead”), and he seems to have been a genuinely good person (“When his daughter was young, he once had to leave home early on her birthday; but first he mowed ‘Happy Birthday’ into the lawn”); the whole obit is worth reading. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David D. says:

    Armand D’Angour had an excellent obituary on his blog the other day as well. And the Telegraph’s obit from last month.

    In this obit Hutchinson implies that West did manage to finish one more last great work before he died, namely his new Teubner edition of the Odyssey: “edited the two vast narratives of Homer” and “he was … finishing another work.” I hope it’s true — Hutchinson would be in a position to know.

  2. Thanks for the links, and I hope so too.

  3. I note that the Telegraph obit contains the word unclubbable. I thought that word was confined to Sam: Johnson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Has it broken out into the general vocabulary?

  4. West’s books on the origins of the Homeric poems–particularly the one on the Iliad–are somewhat controversial, as are certain aspects of his Teubner Iliad text. His Iliad is based on his belief that the Iliad as we have it today has existed in more or less the same form (minus Book 10) since the seventh century BCE, and he touched up the spellings to reflect 7th century Ionian inscriptions. I think most scholars would be uncomfortable with that level of certainty: it seems clear that the current version of the text was in circulation by sometime during the Hellenistic era, but what the text was like before then is not clear.

    But West certainly knew ancient Greek as well as or rather better than anyone alive today or during his lifetime. And he was usually right. His Hesiod texts with commentary are superb, and his contributions to so many areas of ancient Greek scholarship were immense.

  5. Paul (other Paul) says:

    John C: unclubbable is perhaps somewhat dated in the UK now in the strict original sense, as gentlemen’s clubs are not as important to a certain strata as they once were, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I heard it, perhaps in a broader sense now.

  6. Google Books turned up this:

    On the contrary, if he “had not that supreme repose,” &c. — and he certainly had not, for though his manners were perfect his habits were wild — yet he was distinctly of a very reserved and haughty disposition. This was the more remarkable, because he joined our circle, being then a kitten, as a self-invited guest. I need not say that as he was a cat, and a black cat to boot, he was not repulsed. On the other hand he was not pressed to stay, because he seemed unclubbable, and the other cats showed jealousy of him. But stay he did, and very glad we were in the end.

  7. Why was M.L. West unclubbable? I’d rather be West than clubbable.

  8. I misremembered it slightly. The text is “Although he was not a clubbable man, West could nevertheless reveal unexpected humanity and generosity.” So I take it to mean that he was one of those kind and generous but rather asocial people who pop up from time to time. (So am I.)

    Sir John Hawkins, indeed, was very close with Johnson, close enough that Johnson appointed him executor, and he was the obvious immediate choice for Johnson’s biographer, though he was hammered both before and after publication by members of Boswell’s circle as well as in Boswell’s Life itself.

  9. I’m asocial but neither kind nor generous. Does that make me clubbable?

  10. Any more lip and I’ll club the both of yez!

    *fingers blackjack menacingly*

  11. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, how did you manage to put that image in your post (An Unclubbable Cat)?

  12. Bathrobe says:

    Like this?

  13. Bathrobe says:

    Obviously not.

  14. Bathrobe says:

  15. Bathrobe says:

    Hmmm. So it’s obviously only the blogmaster can do. You can scrub those unsuccessful attempts if you like.

  16. As far as I know, anyone can do it. If you click on the first link in that comment, you’ll go to a Google Books page for an out-of-copyright text, which means you can clip the text with the tool that looks like a pair of scissors above the page. If you box in a section of text with it, you’ll see a box with the options “Selection text,” “Image,” and “Embed.” Copy the last of them, insert it in your comment, and you get an “img src” chunk of HTML you can paste into your comment and voila, an image.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    I tried to insert a different image from somewhere else using but it didn’t show up.

  18. Bathrobe says:

    I tried to insert a different image from somewhere else using “img src” but it didn’t show up.

  19. Weird. Maybe John Cowan can explain it; I have no clue about these things.

  20. WordPress has a whitelist of HTML tags that it allows in comments, and “img” is evidently not one of them, but seemingly that’s not applied to comments written by the owner.

    Here’s a test of something that’s supposed to work:

  21. Nope, it doesn’t.

  22. Ah well, I guess it’s one of my special privileges, then. If you want an image embedded in a comment, let me know and I’ll be glad to put it there.

  23. “Clubbable” is not an old-fashioned word; it is a name for an old-fashioned idea. It has not replaced by synonyms; there is just little call for it these days. I have only seen it used of men rather than women, usually in their obituaries. But the 2095 biographer of an 1895 gentleman will still want to say whether he was “clubbable” or “unclubbable”.

Speak Your Mind