Perhaps I have spent too much time reading books, because on beautiful sun-lit afternoons I often find myself lapsing into fits of wayward sentimentality. The springs of melancholy gurgle forth, and my heart bathes for a while in those sorrowful waters. Usually, the object of this maudlin nostalgia is nothing grand. Today my thoughts bent toward Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition (edited by Sir James Mountford).
To be sure, it is not a title to inspire enthusiasm, but it was thirteen years ago that I made my first forays into this odd little relic of a vanished age, and those youthful days are just as lost to me as the lives of Arnold, or Bradley, or Mountford. Each of those successive editors lives on in the inert product of their labors, and much of its idle curiosity remains lodged in my head. I regularly tell people (friends, family, students) that this is my favorite footnote:
For ‘Gaius and I,’ the Romans, putting ‘I’ first, said Ego et Gaius. When therefore Cardinal Wolsey said, ‘Ego et rex meus,’ he was a good grammarian but a bad courtier.
Please imagine the blank stares with which this is met by a group of teenagers. What is wrong with me? The very phrase “my favorite footnote” is absurd in its own right. But perhaps I am only the type of person who has a favorite footnote because of the psychological alteration subtly inflicted by this book.
As I flipped back through it this afternoon, I recall why it seemed like such an important book when I was young. Here was all of Latin systematized in a much more comprehensive way than even Wheelock had dared, and these guys were so goddamn sure of themselves at every turn. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a textbook today which matched this one for its reckless abandon in the use of phrases such as one must and we must.
Many of the rules were internalized along the way, and I know not why my memory has so tenaciously held to isolated chunks of rules from a tedious volume like this while struggling to retain information of real value. I never forgot the advice that one should avoid rendering metaphorical English idioms like he ascended the throne literally into Latin as solium ascendit, because it literally meant that someone climbed atop the throne. Rather, the book advised direct and concrete expression like regnum cepit (he took power). This was a useful exercise in thinking about idiom.
Of course, the classicist propagandist line holds that studying Latin will refine one’s English by making it more direct and concrete, as Latin tends to be. Since I was, like most youths, a blockhead, I internalized that codswallop, but luckily I had enough sense in later years to recognize the smell of rancid horseshit festering in the stables of my mind. English in its most concrete forms is a drab and depressing affair, and though I enjoy a highly Latinate style (e.g. Milton), all attempts by grammarians to make English adhere to the rules of Latin now strike me as unabashed villainy.
In any event, my professor and I used to regularly joke that the real challenge of completing the exercises was determining what the English even meant. After that act of decipherment, the composition of Latin was comparatively easy. (One is reminded of Porson’s comment that it would be a salutary exercise for the student to attempt to turn a paragraph from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall into English.) Just consider some of this:
He was a man of long-tried honour and rare incorruptibility; yet at that time he was taxed with avarice, suspected of bribery, and prosecuted for extortion. You all know that he was unanimously acquitted of that charge. Who is there of you but remembers that day on which he not only cleared himself of an unjust accusation, but exposed the malice and falsehoods of his accusers?
I seem to recall that there was some rule about “he said” and “said he” being translated with dixit and inquit (or was it the other way around?), and I often thought that it would have been much easier if they had settled on a more natural introduction for indirect discourse. Yet that would have spoiled the ultimate delight of this book: that it could at times be so bewildering and hard to use that its countless rules were sublimated into a generalized anarchy, all tending toward the advice just read some Latin. Once, I defied the book directly, and rendered something about labor as barbarously as possible with the phrase lardum cubiti (“elbow grease”), which possessed the virtue of being so manifestly preposterous that my professor was compelled to love it.
As I went down this nostalgic path, I was vexed by the realization that, as a teacher, I talk in the way that this book was written. Examples are regularly followed by note that or observe how. My students begged me nearly five years ago to stop saying things like “You will note…” while demonstrating some point of grammar. I tried to wean myself off of it, but I suppose that I am just an unregenerate enthusiast for painfully high-handed and professorial modes of speech. Thanks Arnold, or Bradley, or Mountford – whoever it was.
One day, my students were complaining about the relatively simple Latin composition exercise I had assigned, and I lapsed into that last refuge of the bitter old man, the claim that “At least you’re not working through Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition by Sir James Mountford,” followed by what started as a threat that I would make them do it; somehow this threat shifted in tone to a hopeful promise. But I won’t make them, and they will never have the experience I had. Since I was the only one in that class, there is no one with whom I can reminisce about the singular experience of working through the book in those days, in those circumstances. Excepting what I have recounted here, the whole thing will remain an entirely individual memory until the day when I join Arnold, and Bradley, and Mountford, in that land where footnotes are forgotten.