BMCR 2004.09.38

Vergil. A Legamus Transitional Reader

, , Vergil : a Legamus transitional reader. Legamus transitional reader series. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2004. xxiv, 134 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm.. ISBN 0865165785. $27.00 (pb).

This extremely useful transitional reader contains, at its core, eleven short passages selected from books one, two, and four of Vergil’s Aeneid. This small number of lines (about 200) is sufficient to accomplish the purposes of the book: as the foreword (by Kenneth Kitchell) explains, the Legamus transitional readers are intended not to teach but to introduce the authors, and to ease the student’s transition from the predictable Latin of grammar courses to the fluid and idiosyncratic Latin of great literature. Sienkewicz and Osborn’s close focus on these aims will make this book an important resource for teachers faced with the task of introducing Vergil.

The book proper begins with a concise preface that explains to the teacher the format and use of the Legamus Vergil reader. After this, an introduction addressed to the student provides basic historical and literary information about Vergil and the Aeneid. The passages from the Aeneid follow.

Each passage contains between 11 and 24 lines and is accompanied with copious help. Concise introductions to the literary context of the particular lines and brief grammar lessons introduce each passage. The grammar lessons, which cover one point of grammar for every passage read, are intended sometimes to review material already covered in the first years of Latin (e.g. participles or the independent subjunctive) and sometimes to introduce grammar unlikely to have been addressed early on (e.g. the middle voice). These grammar lessons are reviewed in the exercises that follow the passages. The presentation of the passages is further supplemented by copious grammatical and lexical aids, remarks on figures of speech, and questions about meaning and interpretation. In support of all of this, the whole book ends with a well-organized grammatical appendix based on Bolchazy-Carducci’s Graphic Latin Grammar (2002), a list of figures of syntax and rhetoric from Pharr’s edition of the Aeneid, and a pullout vocabulary, also from Pharr. An index of grammatical and vocabulary topics is provided for the teacher’s convenience. Teachers will greatly appreciate the economy and thoughtful organization of these pedagogical components. The grammar lessons are straightforward and useful. The presentation of figures of speech over the course of the text seemed particularly good. Questions about the meaning are thoughtful and will be good practice for the essay sections of the National Latin Exam.

But students’ eyes will pass over grammatical and literary explanations to the innovative presentation of the lines themselves. In the initial presentation of the lines a variety of fonts has been carefully deployed to create a visual link between those nouns and modifiers that are difficult to connect with one another. Besides this, syncopations and gapped words are inserted, in round brackets, into the text, so that many difficult conventions and idiosyncrasies unknown to the student are instantly explained. Long marks are also used throughout the textbook. Students instantly understand that these fonts and brackets are visual cues to interpreting the text. Using the comprehensive grammar and vocabulary provided on the facing pages, they can sometimes begin to read right away.

Teachers who, like me, worry that students might come to rely on such aids, should put their minds at ease. The visual aids, which are not overused in the first place, disappear completely after the first eight passages, and the final three passages are introduced without aids other than grammar and vocabulary. More importantly, each passage treated with aids is also presented, in the following pages, without aids, so that the student moves, for the same passage, from reading with aids to reading without aids. This is an important confidence booster: students who use inserted fonts and brackets are aware that they are getting help. They need to know that these devices are helping them to learn the skills necessary for reading the original poem. Once they realize that they are in fact learning to read Vergil, and can see that the process is leading to understanding, they will hopefully develop patience for the laborious but worthwhile task ahead.

Furthermore, this book should inspire not only confidence, but also interest, in the student. The passages of Vergil selected for treatment are both various and substantial. For book one they include the introductory lines (1.1-11), Aeneas’ speech to the Trojans after the storm at sea (1.195-209), Aeneas’ meeting with Venus on the coast of Africa (1.318-334) and the passage in which Aeneas watches the building of Carthage (1.421-440). For book two the passages comprise the attack of the two serpents on Laocoon (2.201-222), the death of Polites (2.526-546), the death of Priam (2.547-566), and Aeneas’ flight from Troy (2.705-729). Passages from book four are Vergil’s descriptions of Dido as she first falls in love with Aeneas (4.65-89), of Aeneas’ departure and her reaction (4.279-303), and of the death of Dido (4.642-666). The book thus contains passages that will be of interest to many students at the same time as it provides examples of an important variety of Vergilian modes.

This Legamus reader therefore constitutes an excellent introduction to the Aeneid, which will be most useful at the high school level. Students between 14 and 16 who are fortunate enough to have reached this level in Latin will find the initial ability to make sense of the lines a tremendous boost to their confidence. This summer I used this reader to help prepare a timorous 14 year-old who had been promoted to an AP Vergil course for this fall (2004). I divided the passages into short sections so as to provide for half hour homework assignments, suitable for the summer, and made no attempt to teach the whole book: we read about four passages. Despite the fact that we were so relaxed, the devices in this book worked very well. She was quite easily able to go from reading with aids to reading without them, and I believe she began the year feeling that she had read some Vergil and would be able to read more. (Initial reports from the classroom are positive.) In other words, for this student, the Legamus reader precisely fulfilled its purpose: it helped her move from the more predictable world of Latin 3 to the unpredictable world of real literature.

The font cues were a welcome relief for this student, and most students this age will not feel any sense of insulted pride at using a variety of fonts to help them make the necessary connections, especially when the aids are as efficient and thoughtful as the ones provided here. Except for very small doses, however, I would be more reluctant to use this kind of text at the college level. I understand that it can be very useful to have a picture of everything that is difficult or missing from the lines of the poem, and to work from this toward a comprehension of the grammatical and poetic conventions of these texts. Some college teachers may wish to use the kind of strategies provided here to facilitate their first presentation of these matters, and all of us should look at this book to see if there are any useful methods we can add to our toolbox. It seems to me, however, that college students of Latin should not use such a textbook. College students reading Vergil who have trouble with declensions should instantly review. They should not use aids such as these font cues even for a short time, since they cannot afford the slower pace granted to the fortunate high school student. The same goes for the practice of adding gapped words and filling in syncopations. College students should be learning the conventions and principles behind these practices, and applying them for themselves from the beginning. It’s laborious, for teacher and student alike, and some students always decide that they’d rather do something else. But any mechanism that interferes with a mature experience of the poem harms the remaining students more than it helps those who might be attracted, for a bit longer, by apparent clarity. This is a wonderful book for younger students, who will have time to review all the grammar and conventions when they enter their Vergil courses. It is a wonderful book for teachers of all levels of Latin to examine, in order to add to their repertoire of teaching tools. It is less appropriate for undergraduate students.

This Legamus reader contains some errors that will no doubt be corrected in subsequent editions. Most egregious is an error on pages 124, 126, and 127 in the grammatical appendix, where all the forms of the Latin verb parare (to prepare) are translated with the forms of the English verb “to praise”. In other words, a translation of the wrong first conjugation verb somehow crept onto these pages. Minor typos and awkwardness are fairly common: on page 4, for instance, a question said to refer to lines 7-8 should refer to lines 6-7; on page 12, in an exercise on alternate and syncopated endings, the words “of sitis” are repeated. Again, on page 24 the authors demonstrate the potential subjunctive with the sentence “Velim te felicem esse.” This is translated as “I should like for you to be favorable.” It seems to me that a less awkward example, and one that demonstrates the point more clearly, might be chosen. On page 33 an exercise on complementary infinitives is introduced with the sentence: “Translate each of the following phrases that contain complementary infinitives.” All of the phrases contain complementary infinitives, so that the relative clause (“that contain complementary infinitives”) is ambiguous and superfluous. And so on: these small faults, results, no doubt, of editing fatigue, do not compromise the generally very high quality of the presentation.

If I were to make one suggestion about the format of this book, it would be to continue, for the passages from book four, for which no altered fonts or other aids are provided, the useful practice of the previous sections, in which the passages of Vergil are reprinted separate from all but the most necessary grammatical and literary help. While the final passages are presented without font cues, they are provided only once and in conjunction with the very copious vocabulary help that marks the first introduction of all the passages in the book. It would be useful if these passages, like the others, were printed twice, so that students could read them without vocabulary.

In terms of its production, this book is excellent. It seems durable, and the 8 1/2 by 11-inch size of the pages suits both the large font presentation of the passages and the capacities of high school binders. In sum, I recommend it to every teacher for its innovative and careful application of teaching aids, its clear explanations of salient aspects of grammar and poetics, and thoughtful comments on the poetry of Vergil.