Forget English, Get Some Greek!

Virginia Woolf, Letter to a Young Poet:

The other day I went to call upon a friend of mine who earns her living as a publisher’s reader. The room was a little dark, it seemed to me, when I went in. Yet, as the window was open and it was a fine spring day, the darkness must have been spiritual–the effect of some private sorrow I feared. Her first words as I came in confirmed my fears: “Alas, poor boy!” she exclaimed, tossing the manuscript she was reading to the ground with a gesture of despair. Had some accident happened to one of her relations, I asked, motoring or climbing?

“If you call three hundred pages on the evolution of the Elizabethan sonnet an accident.” she said.

“Is that all?” I replied with relief.

“All?” she retaliated, “Isn’t it enough?” And, beginning to pace up and down the room she exclaimed: “Once he was a clever boy; once he was worth talking to; once he cared about English literature. But now—-” She threw out her hands as if words failed her–but not at all. There followed such a flood of lamentation and vituperation–but reflecting how hard her life was, reading manuscripts day in, day out, I excused her–that I could not follow the argument. All I could gather was that this lecturing about English literature–“if you want to teach them to read English,” she threw in, “teach them to read Greek”–this passing of examinations in English literature, which led to all this writing about English literature, was bound in the end to be the death and burial of English literature. “The tombstone,” she was proceeding, “will be a bound volume of—-” when I stopped her and told her not to talk such nonsense. “Then tell me,” she said, standing over me with her fists clenched, “do they write any better for it? Is poetry better, is fiction better, is criticism better now that they have been taught how to read English literature?” As if to answer her own question she read a passage from the manuscript on the floor. “And each the spit and image of the other!” she groaned, lifting it wearily to its place with the manuscripts on the shelf.

“But think of all they must know,” I tried to argue.

“Know?” she echoed me. “Know? What d’you mean by ‘know’?” As that was a difficult question to answer off-hand, I passed it over by saying: “Well, at any rate they’ll be able to make their livings and teach other people.” Whereupon she lost her temper and, seizing the unfortunate work upon the Elizabethan sonnet, whizzed it across the room. The rest of the visit passed in picking up the fragments of a teapot that had belonged to her grandmother.

Now of course a dozen other questions clamour to be asked about churches and parliaments and public houses and shops and loudspeakers and men and women; but mercifully time is up; silence falls.

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