CHARLES SEGAL, Walter C. Klein Professor of the Classics at Harvard, was the most distinguished literary scholar of his generation of American classicists. His speciality - or better, his wide range of specialities - was the interpretation of Greek and Latin poetry and plays.
Segal's output was prodigious: 21 books, plus innumerable articles and reviews, on Homer, Pindar and other Greek lyric poets, Sophocles and Euripides, Theocritus, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid and Seneca, and much, much more. If he wrote so extensively - I sometimes complained, after receiving a fresh sheaf of offprints, that he wrote faster than I could read - it was because, as scholar and teacher, he continued constantly and passionately to rethink, revise, and elaborate earlier ideas in the light of new discoveries and new theoretical approaches, circling back again and again to Sophocles' Oedipus plays or Euripides' Hippolytus and Bacchae, and moving on from P, Q, and R to V, W and X when most people were still stuck somewhere around E, F and G. His scholarship, for himself and his readers, was always an adventure.
His main interests were epic and drama, through he began with a 900-page dissertation on Democritus and the Sophists that should, in an ideally just university, have made him a full professor on the spot. His best-known books are Tragedy and Civilization: an interpretation of Sophocles (1981), and Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae (1982); but many scholars have other personal favorites, such as Orpheus: the myth of the poet (1989) or Lucretius on Death and Anxiety (1990). Some books have been translated into French, Italian, and modern Greek.
Segal's literary interpretations are eclectic, accretive, and balanced. He began with New Critical emphasis on patterns of language, imagery and dramatic structure; but, like his gifted Harvard teachers John Finley and Cedric Whitman, he "joined literary criticism to a full grasp of philological and historical issues" (Segal on Whitman, 1982). The inner spirit of his work, like theirs, owed much to the classical humanism of the great scholars of pre- Hitlerian Germany, most notably Werner Jaeger, who came to Harvard in 1937.
In the Seventies he was much influenced by the French structuralists Marcel Detienne, Pierre Vidal-Naquet and, especially, Jean-Pierre Vernant; but he balanced their insights against those of Freud and Lacan ("Pentheus on the Couch and on the Grid"). His readings were always provisional, always …