Grammar, the Driest and Deathliest of All Disciplines

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia

“According to the conditions of the Foundation, the lecturer is to speak of that which lies within the range of his special studies, and it is a sad fact that most of those who know me at all, know me, first, as the author of a Latin Grammar, and next, as a professor of Greek — Greek, which they tell me is doomed, and grammar which is damned already. Some years ago I had a new shudder, as Victor Hugo calls it, when I found that in some schools there are classes in Gildersleeve as there are classes in Conic Sections. ‘Grammar,’ says an eminent academic authority, himself a Hellenist, ‘is to the average healthy human being the driest and deathliest of all the disciplines;’ and grammarians have not been looked on with much favor in either ancient or modern times, at best as a higher type of hedge schoolmaster. Such a hedge schoolmaster figures in the Greek Anthology. His name has an aristocratic ring and recalls the great Arcadian seeress who taught Socrates the secret of true love. But Diotimus had come down in the world, and the mocking anthologist sings :

Αἰάζω Διότιμον ὃς ἐν πέτραισι κάθηται
Γαργαρέων παισὶν βῆτα καὶ ἄλφα λέγων

or, if he had lived to-day, and been utterly desperate, would perhaps have sung :

Diotimus, poor grammarian!
If my heart hath pitied e’er a one,
It is he.
Who, an almost centenarian,
Perched upon a ‘peak in Darien,’
Teaches little Jack and Mary Ann
ABC

In the same anthology, a grammarian of a somewhat better class is ridiculed, a university
professor, who is supposed to say:

Χαίρετ’ Ἀριστείδου τοῦ ῥήτορος ἑπτὰ μαθηταί
τέσσαρες οἱ τοῖχοι καὶ τρία συψέλια

which is being interpreted:

I’m a success, sir, I’m a success, sir,
Seven steady students are at each lecture.
Count if you please, sir, four walls and three desks, sir.

Now if these things were done in the green wood of antiquity, what is to be expected of the dry wood of modern times ? All literature is full of absurd grammarians, Dominie Sampsons, and Doctor Panglosses, and Doctor Syntaxes; and though I am a great stickler for the honor of the guild to which I belong, still I must say again that I should not like to have my individuality merged in my Latin Grammar, and this sensible warm motion to become the kneaded clod of a crabbed textbook. To be sure, in Browning’s Grammarian’s Funeral, the poet has done something to redeem the craft, and I welcome the vindication; for whilst Browning and his commentators do not fail to tell us that the technical grammarian of the present day was not meant so much as the grammarian of the Renascence — the student of antique literature — still the man who ‘properly based oun, dead from the waist down,’ belongs to our guild. He belongs to the ‘corner-hummers’ and ‘monosyllablers’ of the old epigram.

 

 

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