BMCR 2023.11.16

Scholarship and controversy: centenary essays on the life and work of Sir Kenneth Dover

, , Scholarship and controversy: centenary essays on the life and work of Sir Kenneth Dover. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 384. ISBN 9781350333451.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


This is a good book, but I am not at all certain that it needed to be compiled or published. It is divided between discussions of Dover’s life and of his scholarship. The treatments of his major publications are mostly thoughtful and appreciative while critical. I learned from them. However, I thought most of them would have had more value incorporated into broader reviews of how scholarship on the topic has changed, though some give good advice about questions for which one is likely to find Dover helpful and when to look elsewhere (Pelling is a good guide for Dover’s Thucydides). The biographical essays will be useful for future histories of classical teaching in the UK, or of Oxford and St. Andrews, but much of it seemed to assume that Dover and his administrative positions were more significant and interesting than they are to me—having few ties to the institutions with which Dover was involved or a strong interest in Dover himself, I often did not care very much. I believe that I met him once, around 1980, but it is surely significant that I am not certain.

I doubt that these essays would have been written without the uproar caused by Marginal Comment, and particularly without Dover’s account of the Trevor Aston affair, which receives due attention from Bowie. When I initially agreed to write this review, I remembered reading reviews of Marginal Comment and knew how controversial it had been, but I had not read the book and had not followed the controversy very closely. After reading Marginal Comment, I am certainly convinced that Dover was a very odd man, but I do not think that is possible to know how much that book reveals what the man was actually like and how much what he wanted to be like or to appear to be like. The personal reminiscences at the end of this volume confirm the paradox that he was at once very forthright and very unrevealing of his inner life. I can imagine being tempted to speculate on the perplexities of his character but see no benefit in succumbing to this temptation.

To be sure, some of the characteristics of the character in the autobiography are manifest in the scholarship, particularly the aggressive “common sense” empiricism, which he seems never to have questioned at all, the high value he placed on his personal experience, and the dismissive attitude towards theory, ambiguity, and what he called “literary criticism.” Marginal Comment also presents examples of a narrow, legalistic moral reasoning that I have not noticed in the scholarship, though it is surely related to his preference for clarity and crisp explanations over ambiguities: for example, he believed that because the British Academy has scholarship as its purpose, whether an individual is “fit and proper” to be a fellow depends only on that person’s scholarship. Hence, in his view, the only real argument for expelling Antony Blunt because he was a Soviet spy would be that the Soviet Union did not permit honest inquiry, as if there would be no issue about the status of a fellow who was discovered to have been a child molester or a murderer. Robin Osborne’s discussion of this episode is especially worth reading, because it is not difficult to treat Dover here as an exemplary case of a certain kind of administrative/legal reasoning that is worth thinking about.

What is most striking to me, however, is a point nobody in the book makes: how the conventionality of most of Dover’s life gave more power to his provocative autobiography and to the reception of Greek Homosexuality. His choice not to accept the Regius chair at Oxford was the most unusual thing he ever did outside these publications. Similarly, most of his scholarship was excellent philology or history that was often methodologically original (starting from documents in Greek Word Order and using statistics before this was common practice) but not radical. Dover was unusually systematic within the field, but while he profitably used comparative evidence, he does not seem to have been systematic in looking for it. He was exceptionally skilled where philology and history were needed simultaneously, which helps explain the excellence of his commentaries on Aristophanes and Thucydides. These are authors where the kinds of question Dover asked and could answer briefly but acutely are questions to which many readers seek answers.

Greek Homosexuality, however, was radical, and it is surely Dover’s most important work, because it made it possible to talk directly about topics that had been almost taboo, and it was extremely influential both in itself and through Foucault. While Carol Atack provides a critical appreciation of the book and its reception, Jaś Elsner offers a damning appraisal that goes beyond earlier critiques, arguing, among other points, that Dover was a very bad art historian who worked entirely from photographs, did not consider how it mattered that the paintings showed spectators along with the erotically engaged couple, and that they were found in Etruria. Elsner convinced me that intercrural sex is probably a fantasy.

Particularly entertaining among the essays on Dover’s major works is Richard Hunter’s on the school edition of Theocritus. Dover always looked for evidence of “real life” (although weaving seems not to have counted) in ways that are sometimes very helpful, and sometimes embarrassingly misguided, like his speculations on why Simaetha in Idyll. 2 is not worried about pregnancy. The distance between Dover and a reader today, when the intervening half-century have transformed how we see Hellenistic poetry, is amusing, and so is Hunter’s scrupulous attempt to be fair.

Frisbee Sheffield explained to me how and, at least in part, why Dover wrote a commentary on Plato’s Symposium when he so utterly lacked sympathy with Plato’s thought. (I have used this green-and-yellow in teaching Greek prose style, but still find the introduction offensive.) Constanze Güthenke looks at Dover on Greek drama, which means in large part considering his relative avoidance of tragedy (I would guess that he realized that comedy was much better suited to his gifts and interests). Lucia Prauscello’s discussion of Dover as a historian of the Greek language includes a fine cautionary tale about how careful we should be when we rely in supplements. Christopher Carey’s essay about Greek Popular Morality made me realize that my judgment of this book has been in some ways unfair, because I did not realize, when I first read it as a graduate student, how innovative it was to look at moral attitudes through the comic poets and orators. Although I agreed with Dover that too much reliance on single words can be misleading, the book seemed to me superficial, not only because it tried to do so much, but because Dover, who believed that no consistency should be expected in popular morality, did not push very hard to find underlying principles and tensions among them.

Ben Cartlidge’s chapter on “Style” looks at both The Evolution of Greek Prose Style and at prose composition. I found the treatment of the latter rather sad. It is entirely true that most students now do not have the training that would enable them to avoid basic mistakes, but that does not mean that a course in advanced prose composition cannot address style. (One of my favorite exercises has been a few sentences from a recent editorial in The New York Times to be put into fourth-century Greek prose without abstract nouns as the subjects of transitive verbs. I hope that this exercise has helped my students not only to become better readers of Greek, but to be more lucid writers in their native languages—a virtue that Dover possessed in a very high degree.) The excellence of his prose style sprang from the same source as his scholarship on Greek prose. Cartlidge shows that EGPS has been relatively neglected and expresses the hope that it will be more widely read and cited, but he simultaneously shows how the book partially anticipates more recent work, especially from the Netherlands, and it may be that newer and more theoretically sophisticated studies have largely superseded it.

The entire volume is readable; my lack of enthusiasm as a reviewer (obliged to read the entire volume) mainly reflects the opportunity costs. Since other readers can easily select for themselves what interests them, however, and will not be obligated to read from beginning to end, my reservations will not apply under most circumstances.


Authors and Titles

Part I The Life
Dover at school and university (with an Appendix: Two poems by Kenneth Dover) (Christopher Stray, Swansea University, UK)
Dover, Oxford and the study of classical literature: the making of a professional scholar (Tim Rood, University of Oxford, UK)
Dover and St Andrews (Elizabeth Craik, University of St. Andrews, UK )
Dover and Corpus (with two Appendices) (Ewen Bowie, University of Oxford, UK)
Dover, Blunt and the British Academy (Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge, UK)
Marginal Comment: composition, publication and reception (Christopher Stray, Swansea University, UK)

Part II The Work
Dover on Thucydides (Christopher Pelling, University of Oxford, UK)
Dover and Plato’s Symposium: attraction, aversion and intemperance (Frisbee Sheffield, University of Cambridge, UK)
Dover and Greek popular morality (Chris Carey, University College London, UK)
Dover and drama (Constanze Güthenke, University of Oxford, UK)
After Greek Homosexuality (Carol Atack, University of Cambridge, UK)
Dover’s inch: reflections on the art-historical method in Greek Homosexuality (with an Appendix: Dover’s list of vases collated against Beazley’s corpora by provenance) (Jaś Elsner, University of Oxford, UK)

Dover and Theocritus (Richard Hunter, University of Cambridge, UK)
No stone unturned: Dover as historian of Greek language between epigraphy and literature (Lucia Prauscello, University of Oxford, UK)
Dover on style (Ben Cartlidge, University of Oxford, UK)

Dover and the public face of Classics (with an Appendix: Kenneth Dover, ‘The value of Classics’, an article translated from the Italian original) (Stephen Halliwell, University of St Andrews, UK)
Memories of Kenneth Dover (Rebecca Dover, Sir Brian Harrison, Jay Parini, David Stuttard)