Highet’s Law and a Pirate of the Caribbean

by Arlene Weiner

When I was an undergraduate at Barnard College, we were allowed to take graduate courses at Columbia University. I took a class in, I think, “The Classical Tradition,” with Gilbert Highet. Highet was quite well known. He was on the board of the Book of the Month Club, had written a book called The Art of Teaching, and had written a great doorstop of a softbound book with the same title as the course. Since I was a callow undergraduate, and accustomed to extremely intense classes, I thought his class was not very rigorous. I didn’t yet appreciate that graduate education could take the British form of meetings with a mentor, with the initiative and rigor supplied by the learner/scholar. I do remember that when I had a conference with Highet, he asked if I’d like tea and gave me a cup.

I still have Highet’s enormous book, a very useful reference for centuries of influence of Greek and Roman civilization. And I recall “Highet’s Law:” “First-rate results can have third-rate causes.” He enunciated that law, as I recall, with respect to Shakespeare (first-rate) and Ovid (third-, or perhaps second-). He may specifically have been speaking of Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, which he regarded as a spoof in which Ovid pretended to be taking seriously a subject that was beneath seriousness, the seduction of easy women.

Which is how I get to pirates. It has struck me how many excellent authors, in recounting how they fell in love with writing, say that they read and imitated Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. I took Captain Blood to be an example, of genre fiction, of good story telling, of “low” culture in general. A third-rate cause with first-rate effects. But having just read a Wikipedia article about Captain Blood I think it may be better than I thought: probably swashbuckling but historically accurate and complex, a tale (or, originally, a suite of tales) about Peter Blood, who’s unjustly judged a traitor to King James II, is enslaved and transported, and who becomes a successful buccaneer. And I think I’d better read it.

(My apologies to readers who know all about Captain Blood. I wouldn’t be surprised if that included nearly all the men who read Coal Hill Review and some of the women. Let us know.)

Still—Highet’s Law holds. Poetry nowadays is the resultant of many influences, including pop music, advertisements, comic books, video games. Maybe not only third-rate causes, but many beneath seriousness. How wonderful when it is Shakespearean and transmutes the third-rate and low-rent into the first-rate.

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