Lessons of the Ut-most Importance

Osbert Lancaster, With an Eye to the Future (2):

Very different but no less successful was the technique of instruction employed by Mr. Jevons under whom we acquired the rudiments of Latin and made our first acquaintance with English verse. To this wholly admirable man had been given in abundant measure the power of communicating enthusiasm, and if on occasion he failed quite to infect us with his own passionate interest in the correct use of ‘ut’ he had other methods of enforcing attention. One had only to let one’s gaze stray to the window for a very few seconds, or to take the stealthiest glance at the copy of Chums concealed beneath the desk, to experience a sudden agonising pain in the ear occasioned by a piece of chalk thrown with a force and accuracy I have never seen equalled. But it was only in Latin class that I found myself very often in the target area, for in English literature he never needed to fall back on this peculiar skill to maintain my interest. Tennyson was, I think, his favourite poet and I can still thrill to the memory of his rendering of the ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ accompanied by the great thwacks on the desk to emphasize the metre, for he was rightly determined that we should fully appreciate the importance of technique and not be encouraged to think that poetry was just a matter of expressing poetic sentiments. Nor, on the other hand, were we left in any doubt that poetry was sense as well as sound and woe betide the boy who, although word-perfect, recited in a monotonous, uncomprehending sing-song.

“Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row,

So they rowed and there we landed, O venusta Sirmio.”

“Now, Lancaster, what does ‘venusta’ mean? Barty-King, who was the tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago? Wigram, please translate ‘Frater ave atque vale’.” In my case, Jevons’ reward came many years later when, finding myself at San Virgilio gazing out over ‘the Garda lake below’ in the company of Harold and Vita Nicolson, I was able to go through the whole of the first verse while Harold was still scratching his head – the one and only occasion in my life when I have managed to achieve both the appropriate quotation and the appreciative audience at exactly the right moment.

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