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ICS Research Associate Dr. Caroline Spearing shares with us her journey through teaching and researching Classics, and talks about her research into Neo-Latin poetry.


My path to Research Associateship at the ICS has been a long and meandering one. After graduating from Oxford with a BA in Classics more years ago than I am prepared to admit, I spent a couple of years half-heartedly working towards a DPhil in ethnographical writing of the Second Sophistic, with a particular focus on pachyderms, under the endlessly patient tutelage of Ewen Bowie. Financial exigencies drew me into the murky world of A level resit teaching, where, in those far-off innocent days, completely unqualified and inexperienced graduate students were unleashed on the casualties of the British education system in return for rather less than today’s minimum wage. Over the course of a year, I was roundly assured that the Nile was in Britain, asked whether Octavian was ‘top geezer’ in Rome before Augustus came along, and had a student removed from my care when passers-by unaccountably objected to his promenading down the Cornmarket stark naked.

Teaching, I decided, was my passion and my vocation. A fortuitous set of circumstances led to a maternity cover at Abingdon School, where the headmaster declared on my last day, with finely-judged ambiguity, that ‘no one who has been taught by Miss Butler [as I then was] will ever forget the experience.’ I then joined Winchester College as one of a very few female members of staff and the only one under thirty. While the boys bombarded me with cheap innuendo and obscene graffiti, the redoubtable and exacting Stephen Anderson – now Rodewald Lector at New College, Oxford – succeeded in turning me into a plausibly competent classroom practitioner capable of explaining the difference between the gerund and the gerundive without turning a hair and equipped with an impressive repertoire of classics-related jokes.[1]

After eight years, I moved to St Paul’s School as Head of Classics. Here I became accustomed to deflecting intrusive questioning about my personal life by claiming that my lawyer boyfriend – now my husband – ran a whelk stall in the East End, a policy that spectacularly backfired when the High Master’s Secretary attempted to engage him in small talk about the wet fish trade. After six years among the flower of metropolitan youth I decided that it was time for a foray into senior management, and became deputy head of a co-educational school in South-East London. Five years of spreadsheets, lesson observations, detentions, and meetings which felt like detentions, the whole interrupted only by maternity leave, left me in need of a break from an education system which felt increasingly like a treadmill.

My inclination was to spend the foreseeable future baking cupcakes, but Stephen Anderson and the late and greatly missed James Morwood persuaded me to go to see their friend Roland Mayer with a view to studying for an MA in Classics at King’s College London. After an hour of Roland’s urbane charm I was quite happily filling in an application form and, to my relief, was accepted onto the course. A particular draw for me was the opportunity to study Neo-Latin poetry, on a module taught by Victoria Moul and Gesine Manuwald: after all my years teaching canonical classical texts in minute linguistic detail, I thought it would be rather exciting to see how those texts had inspired Latin literature in very different times and places.

Abraham Cowley 1618-1667 (after William Faithorne 1616-1691)

Nor was I wrong. A few weeks into the course we were asked to prepare ‘Violet’ and ‘Water-Lily’ from Abraham Cowley’s Plantarum Libri Sex (1668). I was less than immediately enthusiastic about a text which appeared to be a didactic work on botany. But these expectations were almost instantly overturned. ‘Violet’ is a Horatian ode, in grandiose Sapphics, which references some of Horace’s most elevated political panegyric in order to celebrate the pharmacological powers of a tiny flower. ‘Water-Lily’, by contrast, is Cowley’s attempt at an Ovidian metamorphosis, the story, in elegiac couplets, of a minor goddess who falls in love with Hercules and enjoys a single night with him before he departs on his mission to rid the world of monsters. Tormented by jealous grief, she weeps inconsolably until Juno takes pity and turns her into a water-lily, floating on a pool of her own tears. In a final twist, the flower explains that the antaphrodisiac powers of her root are designed to prevent other women from suffering a similar fate. When Victoria told us that this 7,000-line work had received very little scholarly attention, and was ripe for a PhD, I felt the hand of History on my shoulder.

Charles I and Henrietta Maria, with Charles, Prince of Wales and Princess Mary. Anthony van Dyck 1599-1641 (1633)

I was awarded my PhD in September 2017, and know that I am extremely fortunate to feel no less passionate about the Plantarum than I did at the outset. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) was an immensely successful English poet whose work is very little read today, but which deserves far wider study; he was also a rather less successful spy, working for Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, during the English Civil War. The Plantarum is his longest surviving work in English or Latin, the product of the early Restoration, when the poet, failing to secure an appointment in the brave new world of Charles II’s court, made a very public retirement to the countryside. Often described as a didactic poem, it instead resists classification: among its more remarkable features are a debate between plants as to the purpose of menstruation; a contest between fruit trees of the Old and New Worlds; and a long narrative of the Civil War and Restoration. My thesis aimed to set the work in its Restoration context, looking above all at the ways in which themes and tropes from classical poetry are reworked so as to engage with the social and political issues of mid-seventeenth-century England.

As a Research Associate at the ICS, I am enjoying the opportunity to work up my PhD thesis for publication and to get stuck into a new project, the anthologies of Latin poetry produced by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to mark major state occasions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First of all I want to look at poetry celebrating the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Catholic princess forced to accept her bridegroom’s pregnant mistress as her lady-in-waiting. Last but not least, the hic haec hoc joke still gets an annual airing in my undergraduate Latin language class.

by Caroline Spearing

[1] Three, of which the hic haec hoc joke is a total corker.