Guy Lee

Editor and translator of Ovid
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The Independent Online

Guy Lee was a leading British Latinist of his generation. By gentle guidance he endeared himself to a long succession of pupils at Cambridge, where he was a Fellow of St John's College for 60 years. He was an accomplished pianist, communing with his piano for a stint every day. Especially, however, he was a lover of poetry, contemporary English as well as ancient; and that determined the course of his scholarship.

He was abreast of current critical approaches to English literature at a time when Classics was only just becoming aware of developments in other literary disciplines. This was reflected in his teaching and brought to it a breadth and freshness then uncommon in the Cambridge Classical Faculty, where it must be said that the lectures on offer on Latin literature, with notable exceptions such as those of Patrick Wilkinson, were by and large uninspiring.

A good example of the way in which Lee's wide range of acquaintance with English poetry old and new was made to serve the interpretation of Latin poetry is to be found in a lecture on "Allusion, Parody and Imitation" given at Hull University in 1971. This discussion of a well-worn topic takes an original form, beginning with Dylan Thomas and ending with Ovid. That conclusion was no accident. Of Latin poets Ovid was Lee's first and last love.

In the 1950s Ovid had begun to emerge from a long period of neglect and disparagement fostered by schoolmasters and academics intent on dismissing him as a lightweight libertine. The renaissance that has flowered in today's new "aetas Ovidiana" was just then getting under way, and Lee's first book, a student edition of book one of the Metamorphoses, published in 1953 and still in demand, was a timely contribution to a better understanding of Ovid's true stature as an epic poet entitled to rank alongside Virgil.

That was followed in the same year by an edition of one of Cicero's less familiar works, the Paradoxa Stoicorum, still, it would appear, the only commentary in English. These, and the second revised and enlarged edition of Tibullus (Tibullus: elegies, 1982), were his only editions in the conventional format of introduction, text and documentary. The Tibullus included a translation, and it is significant for the development of Lee's literary interests that the introduction to Metamorphoses I had included a section on English translators of the poem. It was translation that increasingly came to engage him, and the years 1968 to 1998 saw a steady flow of versions of Ovid's Amores, Tibullus, Virgil's Eclogues, Persius (in an edition by William Barr), Catullus, Propertius, and Horace's Odes and Carmen Saeculare.

The Amores version, first published in 1968, was described by Gordon Williams, in a laudatory but not wholly uncritical review, as "a wonderfully enjoyable translation that keeps the reader alert in a way that heroic couplets could not" and as a "work of real, but lightly-carried scholarship".

That comment implicitly recognises the first-rate technical equipment which Lee brought to the work of translating, the product of a school and university training of a kind that is now little more than a memory. In that curriculum the composition of Greek and Latin verses played an important part. After Loretto School, near Edinburgh, Lee went up to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1937. His first class in part one of the Classical Tripos was accompanied by distinctions in both, and he went on later to score an international success with the award of a medal from the Pope for a Latin poem on space travel.

He was a member of the Cambridge Composition Club, a select band on the model of the longer-lived Oxford counterpart; it included another elegant and much-missed Latinist, Alan Ker, and John Morrison of later trireme fame. This practice in the manipulation of the language has much to be said for it as helping to impart an insight into the technical problems of writing poetry in the highly artificial medium of metres that, apart from their other exigencies, were not native to Latin in the first place; Lee's proficiency in this exercise undoubtedly contributed materially to the quality of his scholarly work. To the end of his life he enjoyed composing and comparing Latin verses.

His "output", as it is nowadays apt to be called, of reviews and articles, no doubt in any case slender by the standards of the hated Research Assessment Exercise, tailed off as translation took over, but what he did publish in this kind was always of high technical quality. In particular his pieces on that curious poem the Nux ("The Walnut Tree"), falsely attributed to Ovid, and on the identity of the mysterious "Lygdamus", reputed author of the third book of the Tibullan corpus and with equal falsity identified with him, are still required reading for anyone grappling with these and other similar problems.

For those whose literary interests are less specialised his most rewarding work will be found in his occasional pieces on Ovid. His suggestive and stimulating article on the Amores, "Tenerorum Lusor Amorum", of 1962, was the forerunner of the first edition of his text and translation of those poems, published in 1968. That ends with a brief excursus on the translation. Rejecting the idea of a literal version - "the letter kills" - but respecting the formal couplet structure, Lee rendered line for line in a paraphrastic style aimed at conveying what the poet "meant" and to "catch the spirit" of the poems. Thus, to take an admittedly extreme case, the couplet

et nulli cessura fides, sine crimine mores,

nudaque simplicitas purpureusque pudor,

which A.D. Melville, eliding the couplet structure, was later to render as

and loyalty

That yields to none, and frank sincerity,

A blameless life and blushing modesty,

is reduced in Lee to

fidelity, integrity,

sincerity, sensitivity.

His translation can still be read with pleasure for its pith and wit, but he subsequently came round to the view that this was not a style appropriate to modern needs. It was becoming clear that, though interest in the ancient world was livelier than ever, as the numbers able to read the texts in the original languages declined, the demand for translations would increase. Accordingly in his other translations he abandoned the staccato of the Amores version for a fuller and more literal, though still stylish and elegant, rendering.

He must, however, have had a soft spot for that first essay, for his last publication was a second edition, published in 2000, of the translation alone, illustrated by John Ward with drawings in his most charming and characteristic style. I like to think that this delightful book, Ovid in Love, by which I know he set great store, was the one by which he would have most liked to be remembered. For many of his friends that will surely be so.

E. J. Kenney