Poetry in a Language Not Yet Understood

Basil Gildersleeve, Hellas and Hesperia:

“Must everybody learn Greek? Such a conclusion would savor too much of that plea for Greek which I declined to make at the outset of these talks. And yet I should like to say a word in closing by way of reply to those who sneer at a smattering of this language and that. It is astonishing, I have said elsewhere, how much enjoyment one can get from a language one understands imperfectly; and Prince Kropotkin, a linguist as all Russians are, asks, ‘Is there a higher aesthetic delight than to read poetry in a language which one does not yet quite thoroughly understand?’ It is astonishing what a moral effect the sentences of a foreign tongue can exercise. It is astonishing what a feeling of fellowship is engendered by a stock quotation from Latin and Greek. Whether it is worth while to spend so much time on Latin and Greek in order to recall a musical line from Homer or Virgil, to say from the heart some of the untranslatables, such as Sunt lacrimae rerum, such as μετὰ καὶ τόδε τοῖσι γενέσθω, to put one’s self into sympathetic relation with the scholarly past, it is not for me to say, as my testimony may be suspect, and might reveal more of my life than would be fitting. All that the best of us reach in any range of study is a smattering, and I am only thankful for my own smatterings. In crises of life the words that come up to one are not always the words of the mother tongue, but those that had been acquired at school, the words of comfort and counsel that saved the lesson from being an unmitigated bore. Those nails fastened by the masters of assemblies are golden nails.”

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