On the passing of my teacher, Dr. Neil Hopkinson
Today I was sad to learn of the death of one of my teachers, Dr. Neil Hopkinson, earlier this year, and wanted to write a few words as my own small tribute to him.
My first term at Cambridge was one of the most exciting times of my life. Leaving home from the first time, I was thrown into the wonderful intellectual and crazy world of King’s College.
King’s had a reputation for being a cool and left-wing college, “Red King’s”, more radical than other parts of the University, and our Classics department was no exception. We learnt Greek with Professor Simon Goldhill, known for his dashing lectures and sexy approach to ancient texts. Latin was taught by Professor John Henderson, a generation older but no less pioneering, and his close collaboration with Professor Mary Beard - now famous amongst the wider public, but then someone who almost reduced me to tears at my own ignorance - who taught us Classical Art, ensured that King’s classicists were not afraid to tackle topics through the latest theories and modern lenses.
As a small boat daring to bob in this tumultuous sea of Classical culture, I nevertheless had my own ideas about the directions in which I wanted to learn. Armed with a Latin A-level and Greek GCSE from my schooldays, I had long wished to compose poetry in Latin. While distinctly unsexy and un-Kingsy (although eccentric enough in its own way to be perfectly King’s), the Cambridge Classics faculty did offer optional additional exams in both Latin and Greek for verse and prose composition. And those who did well in these papers would have the right to write a big “G” and a big “L” after their name upon gaining their Bachelor of Arts degree.
At the end of the first term, I dared to ask John whether I could learn to write Latin poetry. He was always kindly towards my idiosyncrasies and I loved him for it. And rather than offering to teach me this himself, he arranged that I would go each week down the road to Trinity College, to see Dr. Neil Hopkinson, who was renowned for being the expert teacher of verse composition, both in Latin and Greek.
King’s and Trinity were a short walk from one another, but worlds apart in their reputations and atmospheres. Where King’s had the most state-school students, Trinity was known for its public school ethos. At Trinity one had to wear an academic gown at meal-times, at King’s you never wore a gown until you rented one for graduation. Whereas our classics fellows were trendy, theirs were known to be stuffy and exact, and this perforated down to their undergraduate students, who seemed far more rigorous than we were in their approach to their studies. It was with some trepidation that I visited there for my first supervision, knowing that my Latin was far from fluent, and my Classical knowledge rather sketchy.
I remember that Neil’s rooms in Trinity were in the Great Court exactly beneath the Trinity clock, which used to strike loudly every fifteen minutes. On the first visit one of the top-hatted Trinity Porters escorted me directly to his door. And there I was greeted by this young-ish, gruff Yorkshireman, with a shock of white hair. He was down to earth, without airs and graces, and we quickly settled down to work. Each week he would supply me with a single, yellowing piece of paper, on which was written a faded photocopy of a short English poem of around 12-16 verses. My task was to return with it translated into Latin elegiac couplets (one hexameter and one pentameter), being sure not to confuse short and long syllables, to obey all the Latin grammatical and syntactical rules without exception, and to exhibit this act of linguistic acrobatics in the style of the Roman author, Ovid.
This esoteric task quickly became the highlight of my week. Despite cramming in the academic demands of my weekly essays and translations into whatever time was left after my busy social, political and sporting engagements, I was able to find the extra hours to pore over these poems, and to produce my own meagre Latin verse compositions. These I would offer to Neil each week, and we would spend a happy half-hour, punctuated by the Trinity clock, with his red pen bleeding over my scrawny hand-written Latin elegiacs, as he corrected all my basic mistakes. I had nowhere to hide amongst the dactyls and spondees. There was no one else I knew that was learning to write Latin poetry with whom to confer, and no short-cuts in producing these compositions. Google was in its infancy but there was nothing to google. Neil was an absolutely brilliant scholar and linguist, and I was not, but I was in awe of his abilities and strove to produce even a rare, single line that did not need improvement from the nib of his pen. There were few social niceties as I watched the master at work. But behind his bluff demeanour I could tell he was warm and kind, supportive of his students and somehow on my side as I persevered each week, plodding along, even if I still made the grossest of errors. The odd word of praise that I did receive stayed with me for a very long time.
The composition examination was held alongside the other Part 1 Classical Tripos exams at the end of the second year. The night before was the one night of my three-year Cambridge career when I just could not fall asleep, and lay awake in my bed composing Latin couplets in my head. It’s a skill akin to crossword puzzles, although it’s been twenty years now and I’m not sure I’ve ever done it since. I was tired going into the exam the following morning and I have no recollection of the poem that was set. But I spent three happy hours focussed on the joyful if desperate production of twelve lines of Ovidian elegiac couplets. When the Tripos results come out, overall I was clearly not a scholar. But somehow, remarkably, I gained a first-class mark on the composition paper, and with it my big "L"! And so it is thanks to Neil - may his memory be a blessing - and his deep care for and nurturing of all of his students - that I have the right to write my name as BA L (Hons). Requiesce in pace, my teacher. You were loved and appreciated.
Other tributes to Dr Neil Hopkinson can be found here:
"He was one of the stars at the then Oxford Regius Professor of Greek’s seminar on the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, on one of whose Hymns Neil was writing a commentary. This was later published as his first book, a masterpiece of deep and judicious scholarship. Never showy, Neil simply knew more Greek than most Hellenists.
His Latin was equally impressive, on display in a commentary on a book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series, of which he later became a highly valued series editor, not to mention in a string of elegant and lapidary compositions for memorial brasses to Fellows in the College Chapel. Neil was also a master of the now nigh-extinct art of composition in Greek and Latin verse."
- Professor Philip Hardie