Latin Is No Good

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (Chp. III):

Tom thought he should rather like to show Philip that he had better not try his spiteful tricks on him. He suddenly walked across the hearth and looked over Philip’s paper.

“Why, that’s a donkey with panniers, and a spaniel, and partridges in the corn!” he exclaimed, his tongue being completely loosed by surprise and admiration. “Oh my buttons! I wish I could draw like that. I’m to learn drawing this half; I wonder if I shall learn to make dogs and donkeys!”

“Oh, you can do them without learning,” said Philip; “I never learned drawing.”

“Never learned?” said Tom, in amazement. “Why, when I make dogs and horses, and those things, the heads and the legs won’t come right; though I can see how they ought to be very well. I can make houses, and all sorts of chimneys,—chimneys going all down the wall,—and windows in the roof, and all that. But I dare say I could do dogs and horses if I was to try more,” he added, reflecting that Philip might falsely suppose that he was going to “knock under,” if he were too frank about the imperfection of his accomplishments.

“Oh, yes,” said Philip, “it’s very easy. You’ve only to look well at things, and draw them over and over again. What you do wrong once, you can alter the next time.”

“But haven’t you been taught anything?” said Tom, beginning to have a puzzled suspicion that Philip’s crooked back might be the source of remarkable faculties. “I thought you’d been to school a long while.”

“Yes,” said Philip, smiling; “I’ve been taught Latin and Greek and mathematics, and writing and such things.”

“Oh, but I say, you don’t like Latin, though, do you?” said Tom, lowering his voice confidentially.

“Pretty well; I don’t care much about it,” said Philip.

“Ah, but perhaps you haven’t got into the Propria quæ maribus,” said Tom, nodding his head sideways, as much as to say, “that was the test; it was easy talking till you came to that.”

Philip felt some bitter complacency in the promising stupidity of this well-made, active-looking boy; but made polite by his own extreme sensitiveness, as well as by his desire to conciliate, he checked his inclination to laugh, and said quietly,—

“I’ve done with the grammar; I don’t learn that any more.”

“Then you won’t have the same lessons as I shall?” said Tom, with a sense of disappointment.

“No; but I dare say I can help you. I shall be very glad to help you if I can.”

Tom did not say “Thank you,” for he was quite absorbed in the thought that Wakem’s son did not seem so spiteful a fellow as might have been expected.

“I say,” he said presently, “do you love your father?”

“Yes,” said Philip, colouring deeply; “don’t you love yours?”

“Oh yes—I only wanted to know,” said Tom, rather ashamed of himself, now he saw Philip colouring and looking uncomfortable. He found much difficulty in adjusting his attitude of mind toward the son of Lawyer Wakem, and it had occurred to him that if Philip disliked his father, that fact might go some way toward clearing up his perplexity.

“Shall you learn drawing now?” he said, by way of changing the subject.

“No,” said Philip. “My father wishes me to give all my time to other things now.”

“What! Latin and Euclid, and those things?” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Philip, who had left off using his pencil, and was resting his head on one hand, while Tom was learning forward on both elbows, and looking with increasing admiration at the dog and the donkey.

“And you don’t mind that?” said Tom, with strong curiosity.

“No; I like to know what everybody else knows. I can study what I like by-and-by.”

“I can’t think why anybody should learn Latin,” said Tom. “It’s no good.”

“It’s part of the education of a gentleman,” said Philip. “All gentlemen learn the same things.”

“What! do you think Sir John Crake, the master of the harriers, knows Latin?” said Tom, who had often thought he should like to resemble Sir John Crake.

“He learned it when he was a boy, of course,” said Philip. “But I dare say he’s forgotten it.”

“Oh, well, I can do that, then,” said Tom, not with any epigrammatic intention, but with serious satisfaction at the idea that, as far as Latin was concerned, there was no hindrance to his resembling Sir John Crake. “Only you’re obliged to remember it while you’re at school, else you’ve got to learn ever so many lines of ‘Speaker.’ Mr Stelling’s very particular—did you know? He’ll have you up ten times if you say ‘nam’ for ‘jam,’—he won’t let you go a letter wrong, I can tell you.”

“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Philip, unable to choke a laugh; “I can remember things easily. And there are some lessons I’m very fond of. I’m very fond of Greek history, and everything about the Greeks. I should like to have been a Greek and fought the Persians, and then have come home and have written tragedies, or else have been listened to by everybody for my wisdom, like Socrates, and have died a grand death.” (Philip, you perceive, was not without a wish to impress the well-made barbarian with a sense of his mental superiority.)

“Why, were the Greeks great fighters?” said Tom, who saw a vista in this direction. “Is there anything like David and Goliath and Samson in the Greek history? Those are the only bits I like in the history of the Jews.”

“Oh, there are very fine stories of that sort about the Greeks,—about the heroes of early times who killed the wild beasts, as Samson did. And in the Odyssey—that’s a beautiful poem—there’s a more wonderful giant than Goliath,—Polypheme, who had only one eye in the middle of his forehead; and Ulysses, a little fellow, but very wise and cunning, got a red-hot pine-tree and stuck it into this one eye, and made him roar like a thousand bulls.”

“Oh, what fun!” said Tom, jumping away from the table, and stamping first with one leg and then the other. “I say, can you tell me all about those stories? Because I sha’n’t learn Greek, you know. Shall I?” he added, pausing in his stamping with a sudden alarm, lest the contrary might be possible. “Does every gentleman learn Greek? Will Mr Stelling make me begin with it, do you think?”

“No, I should think not, very likely not,” said Philip. “But you may read those stories without knowing Greek. I’ve got them in English.”

“Oh, but I don’t like reading; I’d sooner have you tell them me. But only the fighting ones, you know. My sister Maggie is always wanting to tell me stories, but they’re stupid things. Girls’ stories always are. Can you tell a good many fighting stories?”

“Oh yes,” said Philip; “lots of them, besides the Greek stories. I can tell you about Richard Cœur-de-Lion and Saladin, and about William Wallace and Robert Bruce and James Douglas,—I know no end.”

“You’re older than I am, aren’t you?” said Tom.

“Why, how old are you? I’m fifteen.”

“I’m only going in fourteen,” said Tom. “But I thrashed all the fellows at Jacob’s—that’s where I was before I came here. And I beat ’em all at bandy and climbing. And I wish Mr Stelling would let us go fishing. I could show you how to fish. You could fish, couldn’t you? It’s only standing, and sitting still, you know.”

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