A Greek Professor Socializes

John Addington Symonds, Memoirs

“One evening Jowett sat staring at the fire, and would not speak, and did not seem to want me to go. At last he said, ‘When I say nothing, people fancy I am thinking about something. Generally, I am thinking about nothing. Goodnight.’ On another occasion he broke silence with this abrupt remark: ‘Mr. Swinburne is a very singular young man. He used to bring me long and eloquent essays. He had an illimitable command of language; but it was all language; I never could perceive that he was following a train of thought.’ On a third evening, he stopped me before I sat down to read: ‘I cannot listen to your essay tonight. I have just had news that Clough is dead.’ This was the first time, I believe, that I had ever heard of Clough. Jowett went on, ‘He was the only man of genius – whom one felt to be a man of genius – I have known among the younger men of Balliol.’

Jowett’s breakfast parties were even more paralysing than his coaching hours. Nothing is anywhere more depressing than a breakfast at which conversation is expected. In the great tutor’s rooms the young men came together, torpid, stiff, shy, awkward. He sat, sipped tea, ate little, stared vacantly. Few spoke. The toast was heard crunching under the desperate jaws of youths exasperated by their helplessness. Nevertheless, it was a great event to go there – although nobody shone, neither host nor guest.

Jowett had the knack of killing the innocent foundlings of his own or his companion’s brain by some crushing yet inconclusive observation. One after another, topics fell stillborn from our lips. The stock story of the undergraduate who, passing the gate of Balliol, remarked, ‘A fine day, Mr. Jowett,’ and getting no answer relapsed in silence during an hour and a half of peripatetic exercise, to be greeted on re-entering the gate with, ‘A poor remark, that of yours, Mr. Jones’ – this story is hardly a caricature of the truth.”

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3 thoughts on “A Greek Professor Socializes

  1. I have in fact experienced this:

    “Jowett had the knack of killing the innocent foundlings of his own or his companion’s brain by some crushing yet inconclusive observation. ”

    I hope I have not perpetrated it….

    1. Did I ever tell you that I almost abandoned Classics altogether on the basis of one casual remark? Alessi returned my Latin poetry final to me and said, “Quite frankly, I thought that you would have done much better.” In truth, I’m not sure what kept me on, because I remember feeling totally resolved to quit.

      1. You did not tell me that!

        I had a similar experience at the end of undergrad. After taking my comp exams for my BA/MA my professor said, “You passed, but I was disappointed in how well you did. You need to start taking this a lot more seriously.” Congratulations!

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