d.m. Kenneth Dover (obituary)

From the Telegraph:

Sir Kenneth Dover, who died on March 7 aged 89, was considered the finest Greek scholar of his generation and seemed to have led a life of almost oppressive decorum, crowned in 1978 by his election as President of the British Academy.

But in 1994 he published an autobiography, Marginal Comment, which deliberately shattered the image. The book portrayed a spikily intelligent man who was slave to an urge to demonstrate his emancipation from bourgeois constraints. The reader is not spared the least detail of Dover’s sex life, right down to the culminating horror that at 64 he and his wife enjoyed “some of the best —– of our life”.

But the issue which caught the headlines was his account of his attitude to Trevor Aston, a History fellow at Corpus Christi, Oxford, where Dover had been President between 1976 and 1986. Aston’s disintegration into paranoia and alcoholism had proved a serious embarrassment to the college; Dover confessed to having thought long and hard about how to murder him.

“It was clear to me,” wrote Dover, “that Trevor and the College must somehow be separated, and my problem was one which I feel compelled to define with brutal candour: how to kill him without getting into trouble.”

In fact, as the text reveals, Dover acted impeccably towards Aston, who was bent on self-destruction and eventually committed suicide. What was less clear is why the author should have been the victim of an adolescent desire to shock.

But that was to misunderstand Dover’s almost brutal passion for honesty. When he was interviewed on radio by the psychiatrist Anthony Clare shortly after the book’s publication, it became obvious that Clare had never met anyone with such a commitment to telling the truth about himself, however discreditable; indeed, so disoriented was Clare by the encounter that towards the end it seemed as if Dover was the one doing the interviewing.

This passion for honesty, especially on sexual matters, was to inform Dover’s whole career and cause him considerable trouble. Because his commentary on Aristophanes’ Clouds (1968) was the first to go into detail about the physiology and psychology of the play’s sexual jokes, it was greeted frostily in many quarters, as if it demonstrated Dover were some kind of pervert.

He realised the sensitivities of his subject and carefully prefaced his epoch-making Greek Homosexuality (1978), the first and best scholarly study of the subject, with the words: “No argument which purports to show that homosexuality in general is natural or unnatural, healthy or morbid, legal or illegal, in conformity with God’s will or contrary to it, tells me whether any particular homosexual act is morally right or morally wrong. No act is sanctified, and none is debased, simply by having a genital dimension.”

It made no difference. Some parts of the gay community immediately assumed that, because he showed the Greeks were hostile to sex between bearded males, Dover was somehow attacking contemporary homosexual practice. A Californian gay magazine, meanwhile, began its review of the book with the words “The well-known British homosexual Sir Kenneth Dover … ” Dover considered suing, but was advised against.

Kenneth James Dover was born on March 11 1920. His father had a safe job in the lower echelons of the Civil Service, from which he was invalided out in 1946; his mother, a teacher’s daughter, submitted with rational good humour to her husband’s uncertain temper. Dover despised his father, but his mother’s reason and honesty was to have a profound influence on him.

The infant Kenneth was precocious and could read at three; his first passion was for insects. At St Paul’s he became competent in Latin and fell in love with Greek. He also consciously cultivated, as he explained, a stoicism impermeable to his own and other people’s emotions, a project in which he regretfully admitted to being “a little too successful”. Dover’s cold rationalism could certainly make him seem a forbidding figure and occasionally a risible one.

He went up to Balliol in 1938 where he took a first in Mods and won the Gaisford Prize for Greek verse in his first year. Soon after starting Greats he was commissioned and in March 1941 joined the Eighth Army in the desert war. After landing at Salerno in September 1943, Dover remained in Italy for the rest of the war, taking part in the final battle at Cassino. Though mentioned in despatches, he never rose above the rank of lieutenant.

Back in Oxford, Dover took a First, won a Harmsworth Senior Fellowship at Merton and in 1948 was elected to a Balliol fellowship and lectureship at Wadham. This was the start of a career that was to take him to the chair of Greek at St Andrews (1955-76), the Presidency of Corpus Christi, Oxford (1976-86), and would light up the classical world.

For Dover, problems about the Greek world could be solved only by being a perfectionist in matters of language and willing to make use of the experiences of other cultures. It was the application of these principles to a vast range of scholarly problems under the guidance of his diamond-hard intellect that made him unmatched in the world of Greek scholarship.

Prose and poetry, history and literature, detailed textual commentaries and wide-ranging social analyses were all part and parcel of an intellectual existence that he found constantly gripping and which he was only too willing to share with others – scholars, sixth-formers and beginners at Greek summer schools alike (Dover wrote a beginners’ Greek course for use at St Andrews). He once admitted that he had never been bored for more than five seconds in the whole of his life.

Of the eight Greek literary genres, Dover produced definitive work in articles and books on seven (only missing out the epic). He wrote commentaries on the historian Thucydides (from 1965-81), the comic poet Aristophanes (Clouds, 1968, Frogs, 1993, and Aristophanic Comedy in 1972), the pastoral poet Theocritus (1971) and the philosopher Plato (Symposium, 1980). This last was not well received, since Dover regarded arguments about metaphysics as a waste of precious time.

Greek Word Order was published in 1960, followed by his Sather lectures on the rhetorician Lysias in 1968. There were general books on The Greeks, arising from a television series; Ancient Greek Literature (with others) in 1980; and The Evolution of Greek Prose Style in 1997.

The book that pleased Dover most was his Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (1974), a brilliant analysis of what the Greek man on the Sunium omnibus thought about, inter alia, human nature, the environment (a topic close to Dover’s heart), heredity, age, sex, status, moral responsibility, death, money, the gods, inequality, the state, and so on, full of characteristically sharp Doverian asides on the modern world’s response to the same issues. His collected papers – Greek and the Greeks and The Greeks and Their Legacy – appeared in 1987-88.

In 1976 Dover was lured back to Oxford as President of Corpus Christi. Never one to duck administrative responsibilities, he had already been President of the Hellenic Society (1971-4) and of the Classical Association (1975) and chairman and co-editor of various classical journals and their boards. In 1983 he chaired the committee on undergraduate admissions at Oxford.

Dover had been elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1966 and was President (1978-81) when Sir Anthony Blunt was exposed as a traitor and the question arose as to whether he should be expelled. Dover tried with only partial success to hold the ring between competing factions within the Academy but the problem solved itself when Blunt resigned. For Dover, who privately thought expulsion could be justified on the grounds that Blunt had transferred his allegiance to a government hostile to the pursuit of scholarship, the whole affair was “absorbingly interesting and therefore intensely enjoyable”.

In 1981, while still President of Corpus, Dover was appointed to the ceremonial position of Chancellor of St Andrews, where he returned to the family home after retiring from Corpus in 1986. Always an eager academic traveller, Dover was welcomed all over the scholarly world. During a sabbatical in 1982 he lectured in Princeton, Toronto, Melbourne, Tokyo and Beijing, and later held posts as “Professor at Large” at Cornell (1984-9) and Professor of Classics (Winter Quarter) at Stanford (1988-92). He was much impressed by the intelligence and liveliness of American classical postgraduates.

Kenneth Dover was knighted in 1977. He married, in 1947, Audrey Latimer; they had a son and a daughter.

See also:

Beckham’s Latest ‘Classical’ Ink

From the Mirror:

from the Mirror

If you don’t recognize it, that’s a sort of ‘cleaned up’ version of Francesco Francia’s version of Cupid and Psyche … (photo of the original also at the Mirror article). I guess he liked the ‘victorious’ pose of Cupid, otherwise he might have just used the other (possibly more well-known) , ‘already sanitized’, Bouguereau version …