North American Scholar

HUMPHRIES, George Rolfe

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1894-11-20
  • Born City: Philadelphia
  • Born State/Country: PA
  • Parents: John Henry, supt. schs. & Lat. tchr Towanda, PA, & Florence Yost H., Eng. tchr.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1969-04-22
  • Death City: Redwood City
  • Death State/Country: CA
  • Married: Helen Ward Spencer, 26 June 1925.
  • Education:

    Study at Stanford, 1912-3; A.B. Amherst, 1915; M.A. (hon.), 1950.

  • Professional Experience:

    Tchr. & ath. coach Potter Sch. for Boys (San Francisco), 1914-7, 1918-23; Lat. tchr. Woodmere Academy (NY), 1925-57; instr. Lat. Hunter Coll., 1957; lctr. Eng. Amherst, 1957-65; vis. Walker-Ames prof. Eng. U. Washington, 1966; Guggenheim fell, (creative writing), 1938-9; Shelley Mem. Award Poetry, 1946; Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, Acad. Am. Poets fell., 1955; member, NIAL, 1953-69.

  • Publications:

    A Little Anthology of Very Short Poems from the Magazines of 1921 (ed.) (Chicago, 1922); Europa and Other Poems and Sonnets (New York, 1929); Out of the Jewel (New York, 1942); That Summer Landscape (New York, 1945); Strange To Tell, ed. with Marjorie Fischer (New York, 1946); Pause to Wonder, ed. with Marjorie Fischer (Garden City, NY, 1947); Forbid Thy Ravens (New York, 1947); The Wind of Time (New York, 1949); New Poems by American Poets (ed.) (New York, 1953; repr. Freeport, NY, 1970); Poems Collected and New (New York, 1954); Green Armor on Green Ground (New York, 1956); Coat on a Stick (Bloomington, 1969); Collected Poems (Bloomington, 1965). Translations: . . . And Spain Sings; Fifty Loyalist Ballads Adapted by American Poets, ed. with M. J. Benardete (New York, 1937); Garcia Lorca, A Poet in New York (New York, 1940); Aragon, Poet of the French Resistance, ed. Hannah Josephson & Malcolm Cowley (New York, 1945); The Aeneid of Virgil (New York, 1951); Garcia Lorca, Gypsy Ballads (New York, 1953); Ovid's Metamorphoses (Bloomington, 1955); The Loves, the Art of Beauty, The Remedies for Love, and the Art of Love (Bloomington, 1957); The Satires of Juvenal (Bloomington, 1958); Selected Epigrams of Martial, intro. & notes by S. P. Bovie (Bloomington, 1963); Lucretius. The Way Things Are (London & Bloomington, 1968); Nine Thorny Thickets (Kent, OH, 1969).

  • Notes:

    Rolfe Humphries was taught Latin by his father before he could read English. He also inherited a love of baseball from his father, who in 1883-1884 played outfield for the New York Gothams (two years before they changed their name to the Giants) and Washington Nationals. Humphries enjoyed a 50-year career as teacher, translator, and poet at the center of American literary community. A child of small towns who worked his way through his student days occasionally as a manual laborer, Humphries never lost touch with the language of the common man (he particularly loved the slang of the racing tout), and brought to his translations as well as his teaching a sense of the artist's immediacy as only a practicing poet could: “No classical writer ever thought of himself as a classic ... He writes, always, always, as a living man. He holds a pen, or a stylus, in a human hand at the end of a human arm; a bust does not write, nor does one of a series of bearded figures portrayed under fly-specked glass in the eighth-grade classroom. He is much more concerned with his own time than he is with other men's past or his own future.” (All quotations from Gilman & Novak.)

    Though he translated French, Spanish, and Welsh works, it was the Latin authors he was closest to. He enjoyed Catullus (“No modern poet spits as effectively”), while of the Aeneid he said “It is mostly a bore, stuffed shirt and New Republic poetry ... I find my own language much more easily in Ovid.” He translated the three major poems of Latin, his Ovid being the most successful. His unique translation of Lucretius' title “is meant to sound almost passionate in its directness; look, Memmius, this is the way things are.” The translations move swiftly and clearly through their works and gained both authors and translator wide popularity.

    After moving to California as a boy, Humphries and his father picked apricots to pay the freight costs of shipping their books from Pennsylvania. In his teaching Humphries similarly taught students that the higher rewards of great books came only after hard labor. Seniors at Woodmere read the entire Aeneid, at a pace of 150 lines a day. At the end of the year they were assigned not a “silly 'term paper' . . ., where all they do is copy articles out of the Britannica,” but rather “a dirty nose-to-the-grindstone problem: list all the animals, flowers, or trees in Virgil; who killed whom, etc.?” Generations of students learned much about joy from Humphries, the joy found in the rewards of work, the beauties of poetry, the symmetry of the baseball field, the joy passed on from teacher to student as from father to son.

  • Sources:

    Newsweek (5 May 1969) 78; NYTimes (24 Apr. 1969) 47; Poets, Poetics, and Politics: America's Literary Community Viewed from the Letters of Rolfe Humphries, 1910-1969, ed. Richard Gillman & Michael Paul Novak (Lawrence, KS, 1991); Time (8 July 1979) 80; WhAm 5:357

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.