Latin scholar, teacher, author and poet;
Born: November 22, 1926; Died: May 13, 2013.
Professor David West, who has died aged 86, was an Aberdonian who became one of the world's leading scholars and teachers of Latin and the Classics. As longtime professor of Latin at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the author of many books focusing more on Latin literature than history, he turned the university into a powerhouse of classical learning of international repute and helped create a new interest in the ancient world.
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Whereas Latin was traditionally an obligatory subject at school for anyone seeking a university place, it was increasingly seen in the post-war years as a subject that was somewhat past its sell-by date. More and more school pupils found ways to avoid it. As a Latin lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the 1960s, West slowly began turning that around, initiating something of a Latin renaissance which he would continue at Newcastle and for the rest of his life.
To him, the ancient world was best understood by its poetry – notably the Roman poets Virgil, Horace and Lucretius – rather than through the reading of historical documents or examining archaeological digs. By translating Virgil's Aeneid in 1990, he breathed new life into the epic for the modern generation, using prose rather than verse to give it a wider readership.
He once said of the labour of love: "I know of nobody at the end of our century who reads long narrative poems in English, and I want the Aeneid to be read."
He rejected the traditional footnotes -–"furniture," he called them – which he felt would merely distract the reader and slow down the narrative. In the months before his death, harking back to his Scottish roots, he had almost completed a new 500th anniversary edition of Gavin Douglas's famous 1513 translation of the Aeneid into vernacular Scots.
While still at Newcastle, he collaborated on several books with AJ "Tony" Woodman, professor of Classics at the University of Virginia in the US, texts which became standard reading on Latin courses. These included Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry (1974), Creative Imitation and Latin Literature (1979) and Poetry and Politics in the Age of Augustus (1984). He also served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University from 1976-80 and became loved by students for his informality and readiness to listen to their ideas or problems.
In retirement, Prof West created, over seven years, a three-volume translation of Horace's Odes, complete with imaginative and sometimes controversial commentary. It is now required reading on most Latin courses around the world. His comments focused on the beauty of the language itself – its sounds, rhythm and ability to communicate. As Emeritus Professor, he also continued to teach well into the 21st Century.
Away from Latin, Prof West was an accomplished and imaginative poet in English. He lectured on such subjects as the 17th century poet George Herbert and wrote a telling commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets.
David Alexander West was born in Aberdeen to a carpenter father who had hoped his son would go into a ship-repair business with him. Young David attended Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University. After his national service towards the end of the war, he gained a First Class Honours degree at Cambridge (Sidney Sussex College). His doctoral work was on the Greek comic poet Aristophanes.
While researching Latin manuscripts at the British School in Rome, he began his love affair with all things Roman and met an English girl, Pamela Murray, whom he married in 1953. He became a lecturer at Sheffield University and, during the 1960s, at the University of Edinburgh before he was appointed professor at Newcastle in 1969.
It was during his tenure that the classics department at the university attained its excellent reputation, being described as a powerhouse of classical learning where they still know how to tell it as it is.
In 1969 he published the well-received The Imagery and Poetry of Lucretius, a follow-up to his 1967 work Reading Horace. He would remain at Newcastle until he retired in 1992 and held the title Emeritus Professor until his death. After retirement, he also served as president of the century-old (British) Classical Association, of which he was a tireless supporter.
The organisation was established in 1903 to promote the development and maintain the well-being of classical studies – a mission that was to become harder and harder as the 20th century progressed. Away from work, he focused on his family, his garden and vegetable patch, the countryside, dinner guests plied with down-to-earth Italian red wine, good conversation, music, hockey, tennis and ping pong. The Wests' home was known by their friends for its hospitality.
In January 2005, by then widowed, he was trapped in the upper floor of his home when the River Tyne burst its banks and the area was flooded. Rescue workers arrived to find him welcoming and toasting them from an upper window, a glass in one hand and a bottle of Chianti Classico in the other.
Prof West's wife died in 1995. He is survived by their three sons and two daughters.