Lane Cooper sitting at a desk, reading a document, via Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections Images

Lane Cooper has long been an important figure in my life, even though I never met this Cornell University English professor, who died in 1959 at the age of 84. Today, if Cooper is remembered at all, it is probably for his amplified English versions of Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric—both still commonly met with in used book stores. But to me he represents the kind of humanistic scholar and teacher that I’ve always admired and once aspired to become.

Most of Cooper’s books are devoted to encouraging students to make the classics a central part of their intellectual lives. To this end, he wrote articles about education, translated Plato and Aristotle, compiled an anthology of essays called Methods and Aims in the Study of Literature, and published the outlines and syllabi for his own college courses on Dante, Chaucer, literary criticism, and the classics in translation. Cooper was the sort of committed educator who could produce a pamphlet entitled Literature for Engineers, yet turn around and eviscerate shoddy scholarship as unsparingly as A. E. Housman in a bad mood. In an excoriating review of Anna Robeson Burr’s book The Autobiography, Cooper concluded with these sentences: “A word must be added on her style, which is generally diffuse, at times muddy, and often pretentious; and on her Index, which is untrustworthy; see, for example, the second, eleventh, and twelfth references to Augustine.” Period. End of review. Having actually read Burr’s book, I know that Cooper’s judgment, though cruel, is just.

There was certainly no nonsense to Lane Cooper. In one of his course descriptions he set down three blunt sentences about student composition that I have never forgotten and that I have tried to live up to in my own professional life. For a long time I kept them pinned above my desk. Cooper told his students:

Careful reading should precede all writing. The object of each paper or report should be thoroughness and truth. Literary finish and individuality of expression are desirable.

I first heard of Cooper when I was a freshman at Oberlin College in the late 1960s. Casting caution to the winds, I had signed up for a course called “Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poetry,” given by Professor Andrew Bongiorno. On the first day of class, Bongiorno—whose gaunt, noble features called to mind an El Greco saint and an especially austere one at that—stressed that it was better to learn a few poems well rather than skim through a hundred. In the weeks following he would sometimes scribble lines of Horace or Catullus on the blackboard and point out how the English poetry we were reading echoed them. I soon learned that Bongiorno’s principles of intensive analysis and comparison derived from his own teacher, Lane Cooper, under whom he had written a dissertation on Lodovico Castelvetro’s sixteenth-century commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics.

Lane Cooper grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where his father taught Greek at Rutgers. Back in the nineteenth century when Jacob Cooper applied to Yale, he was naturally asked how much Greek he knew. The poor farm boy from southern Ohio replied, “About 3,000 pages.” The admissions officer answered, “You mean 3,000 lines.” No, Jacob Cooper meant 3,000 pages—he had read virtually the entire corpus of Greek literature on his own while, as his proud son later said, “wrenching a livelihood for his mother out of a reluctant hilly farm.”

Cooper himself learned Greek and Latin at an early age, and later studied at Yale under Albert S. Cook, still remembered today for his work in Old and Middle English. The young scholar received his Ph.D., however, from the University of Leipzig, where his dissertation focused on the prose of Thomas de Quincey. Upon his return to the United States, Cooper taught briefly at St. James Preparatory School in Hagerstown, Maryland, then joined Cornell in 1902. A member of the English faculty until 1927, he subsequently headed his own department, one called “The Comparative Study of Literature.” His closest Cornell friend was the Shakespeare scholar Joseph Quincy Adams (later appointed director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.). Aside from teaching and reading, Cooper’s chief pastimes were said to have been motoring, collecting Indian artifacts, and fishing and hunting, though in later years he came to hate the idea of killing anything. He was also a deeply committed Christian and a political and cultural conservative.

I have seen a formal photograph of Cooper in his later years. The professor wears a dark three-piece suit, looks healthily well-fed, and is holding an envelope in his hand, perhaps as a sign of how important friendship was to this lifelong bachelor. Each of his books is almost invariably dedicated to a notable scholar, among them E. K. Rand (author of the still valuable Founders of the Middle Ages), Etienne Gilson, and Ernest Hatch Wilkins, the great expert on the Italian Renaissance (who became a president of Oberlin College).

Given his own background, Cooper always urged his best English majors to learn Greek well enough to read it with pleasure. (He expected them to know Latin already.) In his essay “The Teaching of English and the Study of the Classics,” published in 1915, Cooper was nonetheless already worrying about the declining enrollment in programs devoted to ancient languages: “If Greek were ultimately to disappear from the curriculum of all the schools, Latin in no long time probably would make a similar exit, and sooner or later the serious study of modern languages and literatures would be discountenanced too.” We have seen the sad truth of his warning.

But why was ancient Greek so important to Cooper? His views now strike us as belonging to a lost world. “Literature,” he maintained, “represents human life at its best.” He argued that “the Homeric age transmitted to that of Pericles ideals of human conduct—bravery and endurance in time of war, good counsel and fidelity in time of peace; at all times courage for individual achievement, coupled with reverence and an instinctive feeling that communal interests are supreme.” The age of Pericles represented for him both the beginning and the perfecting of philosophy, eloquence, drama, and much else. “In this period,” he wrote, “Athenian life was characterized by the dominance of a regulated imagination in every sphere of activity, and by a complete interpenetration of theory and practice.”

Cooper’s picture of a regulated imagination and a harmonious culture, however idealized, contained an ethical as well as an esthetic dimension. More important than what the Greeks wrought were “the men themselves” and “their unlimited capacity for contemplation and construction, for the highest kind of action, the orderly life of the spirit.” Little wonder that Cooper frequently recommended an essay by his own Yale teacher, Albert Cook, entitled “The Artistic Ordering of Life.”

In those days it still seemed obvious that the Homeric poems, the tragedies of Sophocles, the dialogues of Plato, and the Old and New Testament should stand at the center of an educated person’s interior life. Cooper blamed their neglect on the elective system, the notion that “one subject is just about as good as another.” As he complained, “the main principle in a general education no longer is ‘Let a man deny himself, and take up his cross daily,’ but ‘let every man follow his bent.’ ” Study, he believed, should actually be hard work, while familiarity with the classics obviously provided a foundation for every sort of humanistic learning. As he wrote:

To an age that is eager for almost any short cut to the intelligent reading of our English poets, we might say that a hundred hours devoted to Ovid and Virgil, even read in translations, would be worth thousands of hours spent upon most of the books in the lists that have been adopted for “entrance English.”

In that pamphlet Literature for Engineers, Cooper stressed the power and confidence that derive from knowledge of great books. For those whose time is limited, he urged a grounding in just a half dozen works. “The best-read man is the one who has oftenest read the best things; who goes through Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, once a year.” (He calculated that it would take just ten pages a day.) Ideally, one should own these books, so that their sentences can be underlined, margins scribbled in, endpapers covered with comments and reflections. Serious reading, after all, should be active, focused, engaged—and Cooper suggested some ways to make it so.

First, read aloud—at least some of the time. “Every line of Shakespeare, every line of Milton, is meant to be pronounced, cannot be duly appreciated until it is pronounced.” Second, read slowly. “Take ample time. Pause where the punctuation bids one pause; note each and every comma; wait a moment between a period and the next capital letter. And pause when common sense bids you pause, that is, when you have not understood.” This led to the third dictum: “Read suspiciously. Reread. What a busy man has time to read at all, he has time to read more than once.” Elsewhere, he added another piece of advice: Learn by heart at least a few poems and passages of prose.

In the classroom Lane Cooper was all business. Students were prodded to buy and keep their books, to consult reference works regularly to gain biographical and historical information about the authors studied, to hang a map of the eastern Mediterranean near their desk, and to take the whole year’s course, not just one semester. Besides writing short weekly papers, each member of the class was required to keep a notebook or portfolio preserving the assignments as well as various handouts, lists, and class notes. This might be called for at any time and would be turned in at the end of term. Cooper sternly insisted that “punctuality in work and attendance is imperative. Under ordinary circumstances work that is behindhand will not be accepted. By an unexcused absence the student indicates his willingness to fail in the course.”

Obviously, Cooper viewed himself as a teacher of young people, not their slightly balding buddy. Besides the intrinsic merits of older classics, he argued that they provided keys to unlocking later works of art and culture. For instance, in his edition of the Rhetoric, Cooper used Aristotle’s terminology and insights to analyze Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (The running head at this section reads “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” and I have often wondered if Garry Wills’s award-winning book of that name, and Wills’s own analysis of Lincoln’s speech, got their start from Cooper. Wills, after all, holds a Ph.D. in classics.) Similarly, Cooper’s work on the Poetics demonstrated how its observations about tragic flaws, false inferences, sudden recognitions, and unexpected reversals could be used to analyze the story of Joseph from the Old Testament, as well as later narratives.

To my mind, Cooper’s most charming publication was Louis Agassiz as a Teacher. This slender book consists almost entirely of brief memoirs by pupils of the once famous naturalist. Their experiences with Agassiz are all roughly the same. Professor Samuel H. Scudder, for example, recalled his first day in Agassiz’s lab, when his new professor reached up to a shelf and handed him a bottled specimen: “Take this fish,” said Agassiz, “and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”

In ten minutes, Scudder writes, he had seen “all that could be seen in that fish.” But Agassiz had left the lab, so he decided to spend some more time studying this “ghastly” specimen:

I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows . . . At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.

After Agassiz finally returns, he asks what Scudder has discovered and the young man discusses the fish’s various parts. “When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment,” Agassiz said:

“You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued more earnestly, “you haven’t even seen one of the most conspicuous features of all, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!” and he left me to my misery.

I won’t tell you what Scudder failed to see, but after a restless night the young man figured it out. Nonetheless, for three long days, he says, Agassiz repeatedly “placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. ‘Look, look, look,’ was his repeated injunction.”

On the fourth day, Scudder was given a second fish and asked to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; other fish gradually followed. Eventually the young scientist was allowed to dissect all his specimens and make further observations and comparisons. Professor Scudder concludes his memoir by saying that this was the greatest lesson of his life. He adds that “Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them. ‘Facts are stupid things,’ he would say, ‘until brought into connection with some general law.’ ”

Such ordered learning lies at the heart of true scholarship, and is essential to literary and philological study. To Cooper, philology ultimately aimed at the “reconstructing and reliving, and reloving” of verbal works of the human past. And the way to do this was always to “Observe and compare.” A scholar’s motto, he once said, should be the same as the mongoose family in “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”: “Run and find out.”

From the nineteenth-century German philologist August Boeckh, Cooper learned that textual analysis involves two activities—interpretation and criticism. In interpretation we attempt to understand what is before our eyes, to understand a thing in and for itself; in criticism we evaluate it in relation to other things, and to a standard derived from them. Both approaches can be subdivided into four phases—analyses of the grammatical, historical, individual, and generic elements.

For example, in one of Cooper’s lessons a student was instructed to examine a short passage of great prose or poetry. He or she was asked “to study, first, the diction of the passage with constant use of the Oxford English Dictionary; not necessarily all words even in a sonnet, but enough, intensively regarded. If there is a Concordance of the poet in question, the student makes use of it for a deeper understanding of the words.” After this the student should turn to books of history to understand any historical allusions. This research is followed up by consulting a good biography of the author to better comprehend the work’s place in its creator’s life and career. Not least, the student should consider the work’s genre: “Is it a sonnet? Then find out about the history and nature of this literary species. Is it a Psalm? Of praise or of blame? Or hortatory? See Aristotle’s division of speeches, Forensic, Epideictic, Hortatory, in the Rhetoric.” To this day I can remember Professor Bongiorno asking our class about almost every poem we studied: “What species of utterance is this?”

The first assignment in Lane Cooper’s course on the principles of literary criticism was to “memorize the stanza of Spenser’s Hymn to Earthly Beauty, which begins: ‘So every spirit, as it is most pure.’ ” That course ended with the student submitting a plan for his or her own updated version of Horace’s “Art of Poetry.” Cooper frequently stressed the intellectual benefit of compiling lists and bibliographies, and of copying favorite or important passages into notebooks. He even found the grunt work of making a concordance a deeply rewarding way of entering into a poet’s mind and world-view. Wordsworth, the subject of his own early concordance, he regarded as the greatest English poet since Milton.

Cooper published a lot but the preponderance of his books is practical, often anthologies intended for classroom use. For instance, the 1907 Theories of Style—essentially a guide to composition—is subtitled “Essays, excerpts, and translations, arranged and adapted by Lane Cooper.” The book opens with a brilliant, albeit methodically Germanic, analysis of prose style by Wilhelm Wackernagel. There are, says Wackernagel, three main varieties of style, each with its own characteristic quality: “the style of the intellect, whose characteristic is clearness; the style of the imagination, whose characteristic is vividness; the style of the emotions, whose characteristic is passion.”

The book follows this opening essay with passages from Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, Swift, Buffon, Voltaire, Goethe, Coleridge, De Quincey, Thoreau, Schopenhauer, Herbert Spencer, George Henry Lewes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Pater, Ferdinand Brunetière, and Frederic Harrison. A later edition of the same book, retitled The Art of the Writer, adds some extracts from Ben Jonson’s Timber, or Discoveries. “For a man to write well,” says Jonson, “there are required three necessaries: to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style.” In his preface to both editions, Cooper adds a strong warning to young writers: “The student who cannot be sufficiently interested in his English to plan a composition twice, and to rewrite it thrice, should not, under ordinary circumstances, hope to master even the rudiments of plain exposition.”

Let me close with a brief look at Cooper’s principal books about Aristotle and Plato. The Poetics of Aristotle: Its Meaning and Influence is a volume in that old but distinguished series called “Our Debt to Greece and Rome.” (Other titles include J. W. Mackail on Virgil, A. E. Taylor on Platonism, and Paul Shorey on Roman poetry.) Cooper’s contribution lays out Aristotle’s arguments and observations about epic and tragedy, then traces the reception of the Poetics from antiquity to the present. His most sustained chapter examines the fortunes of Aristotle’s masterwork during the Italian Renaissance, especially the artificial creation of tragedy’s so-called “three unities” of time, place, and action. Castelvetro was, in large part, the culprit. Aristotle only mentioned unity of action.

One brief chapter of this little book naturally refers to Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy (familiar to some readers as the MacGuffin in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose). Scholars have long speculated that a précis of this work might survive in a three-page fragment called the Tractatus Coislinianus. In An Aristotelian Theory of Comedy, with an Adaptation of the Poetics and a Translation of the Tractatus Coislinianus, Cooper shrewdly extrapolates what Aristotle might have said about Aristophanes’ work. The resulting book is ingenious and cogent, though its speculations are obviously debatable.

Cooper’s Aristotelian Papers collects ambitious articles such as “The Fifth Form of ‘Discovery’ in the Poetics of Aristotle,” but also a dozen reviews, several praising other scholars, in particular W. Rhys Roberts and W. D. Ross. Others, however, are impressively damning. Cooper ends his critique of W. Hamilton Fyfe’s Loeb translation of the Poetics with this marvelous example of faint praise: “The text generally represents honest effort.” There is also an extremely captious review of John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, a study of Coleridge’s reading. Cooper’s impressive litany of the book’s errors and misjudgments is, he says, meant to help Lowes in correcting the text for later editions. Perhaps.

The only work by Cooper still reasonably well known today is, as I have already said, Aristotle on the Art of Poetry. In this amplified edition of the Poetics, Cooper doesn’t just translate the text; he includes explanatory notes in brackets, illuminates points with examples from modern literature, and offers other useful helps to understanding the meaning of the treatise. Cooper stresses that Aristotle saw drama as mimetic, and that plot, more than anything else, is of the first importance, followed by ethos, or the moral bent of the play’s protagonist, and dianoia, or his or her characteristic way of thinking and arguing. Diction is fourth in importance, and visual spectacle comes last. One can, after all, experience the power of Sophocles or Racine just by reading the words.

Toward the latter part of his career and during his retirement, Cooper turned his attention to translating Plato, producing two volumes, a fat one built around the Symposium, Phaedrus, and Republic and intended to be of “special interest to students of eloquence and poetry,” and a smaller one focusing on the trial and death of Socrates. Nonetheless, despite his admiration for the dialogues—and he rightly stresses that their effect is “to kindle the mind”—this devout scholar recognizes that the pagan world is still pagan. The Greeks might have tragic heroes, but only Christianity has martyrs and saints: “The death of such a person is an apparent downfall, but a real triumph, and produces in the audience a feeling of exaltation the pagan world could never know.”

After Cooper’s own death, the classicist James Hutton wrote an appreciation of his mentor and colleague for the Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature. There he underscores that Cooper believed that

not everything in the past is equally deserving of revival; emphasis is to be placed on the best; depth is preferable to range; literary judgment is to be quickened; good writing is a constant goal; and above all . . . the training of the student of literature should be artistically patterned so as to produce in him a fullness of humanity and at the same time turn the raw recruit into a disciplined scholar—a good man, or woman, skilled in teaching and research, for these two functions cannot live apart.

It is this ideal of the disciplined scholar that has so long endeared Lane Cooper to me. Like his student Andrew Bongiorno, he championed intellectual rigor and method, clear and orderly thought, and an unshakeable devotion to both high moral principles and great literature. That said, I am myself quite a different sort of person, being a journalist not a scholar, an impressionistic enthusiast rather than a methodical thinker, a lapsed Catholic with some doubtful moral views, and, not least, a Greekless reader with a passion for “low” literature, for adventure stories and fantasy and science fiction and mysteries and romance.

And yet. And yet. Something in me deeply responds to, even if it cannot wholly emulate, such men as Cooper and Bongiorno. I envy their wisdom, their beautiful souls, their serene and noble spirits. Because of them I try to write about books that matter, whatever their genre, and, as often as possible, to urge the rediscovery or renewed appreciation of great works from the past. That I possess any skill in doing this I owe at least partly to Lane Cooper and his one-time pupil Andrew Bongiorno who, long ago, scrawled a D+ on my very first paper in college and said that I could do better.