North American Scholar

SMYTH, Herbert Weir

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1857-08-08
  • Born City: Wilmington
  • Born State/Country: DE
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1937-07-16
  • Death City: Bar Harbor
  • Death State/Country: ME
  • Married: Eleanor Adt, 20 Dec. 1887.
  • Education:

    A.B. Swarthmore, 1876; A.B. Harvard, 1878; study at Leipzig, 1879-81; Göttingen, 1881-3; Ph.D. Göttingen, 1884.

  • Professional Experience:

    Tchr. private sch. Newport, RI, 1878-9; instr. class., Germ., & Sansk. Williams, 1883-5; lctr. & reader Johns Hopkins, 1885-8; asso. to prof. Gk. & Lat. Bryn Mawr, 1888-1901; ann. prof. ASCSA, 1899-1900; prof. Gk. Harvard, 1901-2; Eliot prof. Gk. Lit., 1902-25; mem. APhS; fell. AAAS; sec.-treas. APA, 1884-1904; pres. 1904-5.

  • Dissertation:

    "Der Diphthong EI im Griechischen unter Berücksichtigung seiner Entsprechungen in verwandten Sprachen" (Göttingen, 1884); printed (Göttingen, 1885).

  • Publications:

    "The Reduction of ει to ι in Homer," AJP 6 (1885) 419-50; "The Dialects of Northern Greece," AJP 7 (1886) 421-45; "On Poetical Words in Cyprian Prose," AJP 8 (1887) 467-71; "The Arcado-Cyprian Dialect," TAPA 18 (1887) 59-133; "Weber's Sacred Literature of the Jains" (trans.), The Indian Antiquary 17 (1888) 279-92, 333-45; 18 (1889) 181-4, 369-78; 19 (1890) 62-70; 20 (1891) 18-29, 170-82, 365-76; 21 (1892) 14-23, 106-13, 117-85, 210-5, 293-311, 327-41, 369-73; "The Vowel System of the Ionic Dialect," TAPA 20 (1889) 5-138; "On the Digamma in Post-Homeric Ionic," AJP 12 (1891) 211-20; The Sounds and Inflections of the Greek Dialects: Ionic (Oxford, 1894); "Notes on the Anapests of Aeschylus," HSCP 7 (1896) 139-65; "Mute and Liquid in Greek Melic Poetry," TAPA 18 (1897) 111-43; 29 (1898) 86-96; Greek Melic Poets (New York, 1900); "The Greek Language in its Relation to the Psychology of the Ancient Greeks," Congress of Arts and Science, Universal Exposition (St. Louis, 1904) 3:131-61; "Aspects of Greek Conservatism" (Presidential Address), PAPA 36 (1905) xx-xxiv, printed in full HSCP 17 (1906) 49-73; "Graecia Capta," Educ. Rev. 41 (1911) 116-26 = CW 4 (1910-1) 154-8; Harvard Essays on Classical Subjects (ed.) (Boston & New York, 1912); "Greek Conceptions of Immortality from Homer to Plato," ibid., 239-84; "William Watson Goodwin," Harvard Graduates' Magazine 21 (1912) 22-30; "Epic Poetry in Greek Literature," Greek Literature: A Series of Lectures Delivered at Columbia University (New York, 1912), 34-52; A Greek Grammar for Schools and Colleges (New York, 1916); "Samuel Henry Butcher (1850-1910)," PAAAS 51 (1916) 858-61; "William Watson Goodwin (1831-1912)," PAAAS 53 (1918) 806-16; A Greek Grammar for Colleges (New York, 1920); "Unlisted Fragments of Aeschylus," A/P 41 (1920) 101-14; "The Commentary on Aeschylus' Prometheus in the Codex Neapolitanus," HSCP 32 (1921) 1-98; Aeschylus (trans.), LCL, 2 vols. (New York & London, 1922-6); Aeschylean Tragedy, Sather Lectures 2 (Berkeley, 1924); "The Classics, 1867-1929" in The Development of Harvard University, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (Cambridge, 1930), 33-63; "Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Aeschylus," HSCP 44 (1933) 1-62.

  • Notes:

    Smyth was the leading American Greek grammarian of his day, the heir to Gildersleeve and Goodwin, and one of our greatest classicists. He was a colleague of the former and student of the latter. His German Ph.D. and his early interest in Greek grammar helped continue American eminence in the field of grammatical studies in the "second generation" that included Scott, Seymour, Shorey, and Oldfather. Though he was not ultimately of the caliber of Gildersleeve or Shorey in breadth of learning, he made lasting and important contributions that are among the finest productions of American classics. His Harvard necrologer noted that his career fell into two parts, "the reverse of Boccaccio or Plato, from science to poetry." His early book on the Ionic dialect was so carefully written and deeply researched that even Gildersleeve felt himself incompetent to review it. It was, he said, to be placed next to Goodwin's Moods and Tenses in importance. This period of his life culminated in his paper at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, "The Greek Language in Its Relation to the Psychology of the Ancient Greeks." From this point Smyth widened his gaze to lyric poetry and published Greek Melic Poets, still a standard text. From the Melic poets, he naturally gravitated to Homer and in the essays "Aspects of Greek Conservatism," "Graecia Capta," and "Epic Poetry in Greek Literature," he explored the nature of epic poetry and the European Nachleben of Homer. Finally, he turned to Aeschylus, to whom he would devote the remainder of his career and "whose sublimity of feeling and nobility of style," said his necrologer, "had become his own." As always, Smyth prepared his critical work by first studying minutely the poet's manuscripts and diction. This effort led directly to his masterly Loeb edition, noted for his treatment of the text and edition of the fragments (later updated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones) as well as for the accuracy of his translation. His great study of Greek poetry finally cast so wide a net in its attempt to define the nature of poetry itself that even a person of Smyth's gifts could not complete it. In the meantime he produced his great college grammar, still in print and widely used. The study of grammar and the greater questions of poetic beauty finally merged at the end of his career. It was said of Smyth, "To him, grammar was beauty, beauty—something more than grammar." His Sather Lectures show this same exquisite sensitivity to the nuance of language and majesty of theme that made Aeschylus the subject of his mature study. Smyth was also able to give great service to his profession, serving as secretary-treasurer of the APA (which also included the editorship of TAPA) for an amazing 20 years, after which he was elected president. He edited the "Smyth series," otherwise known as the "Greek Series for Colleges and Schools," which ran to over 20 vols., from 1902 to 1920. As a teacher he was somewhat remote and awe-inspiring, but was called by the Harvard University Gazette "among the best, if not the best, teacher of the classics that Harvard had ever seen."

  • Sources:

    Harvard University Gazette (19 Feb. 1938) 97-8; C. N. Jackson, HSCP 49 (1938) 1-21; A. S. Pease, DAB Suppl. 2:620-1.

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.