Declining and Falling: Commodious, Polly Beeious, and the Rooshans

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, Bk.1 Chp.5:

‘Hem!’ began Wegg, ‘This, Mr Boffin and Lady, is the first chapter of the first wollume of the Decline and Fall off — ‘ here he looked hard at the book, and stopped.

‘What’s the matter, Wegg?’

‘Why, it comes into my mind, do you know, sir,’ said Wegg with an air of insinuating frankness (having first again looked hard at the book), ‘that you made a little mistake this morning, which I had meant to set you right in, only something put it out of my head. I think you said Rooshan Empire, sir?’

‘It is Rooshan; ain’t it, Wegg?’

‘No, sir. Roman. Roman.’

‘What’s the difference, Wegg?’

‘The difference, sir?’ Mr Wegg was faltering and in danger of breaking down, when a bright thought flashed upon him. ‘The difference, sir? There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs Boffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it.’

Mr Wegg thus came out of his disadvantage with quite a chivalrous air, and not only that, but by dint of repeating with a manly delicacy, ‘In Mrs Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it!’ turned the disadvantage on Boffin, who felt that he had committed himself in a very painful manner.

Then, Mr Wegg, in a dry unflinching way, entered on his task; going straight across country at everything that came before him; taking all the hard words, biographical and geographical; getting rather shaken by Hadrian, Trajan, and the Antonines; stumbling at Polybius (pronounced Polly Beeious, and supposed by Mr Boffin to be a Roman virgin, and by Mrs Boffin to be responsible for that necessity of dropping it); heavily unseated by Titus Antoninus Pius; up again and galloping smoothly with Augustus; finally, getting over the ground well with Commodus: who, under the appellation of Commodious, was held by Mr Boffin to have been quite unworthy of his English origin, and ‘not to have acted up to his name’ in his government of the Roman people. With the death of this personage, Mr Wegg terminated his first reading; long before which consummation several total eclipses of Mrs Boffin’s candle behind her black velvet disc, would have been very alarming, but for being regularly accompanied by a potent smell of burnt pens when her feathers took fire, which acted as a restorative and woke her. Mr Wegg, having read on by rote and attached as few ideas as possible to the text, came out of the encounter fresh; but, Mr Boffin, who had soon laid down his unfinished pipe, and had ever since sat intently staring with his eyes and mind at the confounding enormities of the Romans, was so severely punished that he could hardly wish his literary friend Good-night, and articulate ‘Tomorrow.’

‘Commodious,’ gasped Mr Boffin, staring at the moon, after letting Wegg out at the gate and fastening it: ‘Commodious fights in that wild-beast-show, seven hundred and thirty-five times, in one character only! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, a hundred lions is turned into the same wild-beast-show all at once! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Commodious, in another character, kills ’em all off in a hundred goes! As if that wasn’t stunning enough, Vittle-us (and well named too) eats six millions’ worth, English money, in seven months! Wegg takes it easy, but upon-my-soul to a old bird like myself these are scarers. And even now that Commodious is strangled, I don’t see a way to our bettering ourselves.’ Mr Boffin added as he turned his pensive steps towards the Bower and shook his head, ‘I didn’t think this morning there was half so many Scarers in Print. But I’m in for it now!’

Pedagogical Pains and Pitfalls: Translation

Alston Hurd Chase, Time Remembered 2.1:

“In all the years after the first, a great deal of emphasis was placed upon sight translation since we all felt that that is the only true test of one’s knowledge of a language — as Macaulay put it, ‘An educated man is one who can read Plato in the original with his feet on the fender.’ I gave weekly tests in sight and a large portion of all the regular examinations was made up of sight passages. One special advantage of sight as a means of testing knowledge is that it minimizes the part played by the use of translations which may work to the aid of the lazy in prepared work.

This problem of translations is one of the most ancient facing all teachers of languages, particularly the Classical ones. Some have viewed this as a grave moral issue. Members of my generation may recall from their boyhood reading of Tom Brown’s Schooldays how Little Arthur’s crusade against a parallel practice in metrical composition led to a moral crisis in the life of the hero. Personally I refused to view this as a moral problem, pointing out that the practice carries its own punishment, since one learns words best only by the toil of looking them up in a dictionary. Furthermore, morally speaking, it is hard to make a sound case for the difference between looking up a single word in a dictionary and in a translation. Most modern texts for schools are heavily annotated and translate entire sentences for the students. One well-known edition gave all the crabbed indirect discourse in Book I of the Gallic Wars in a direct form in the notes. The experienced teacher is usually able to detect a translation drawn from a trot by the presence of words quite foreign to the student’s usual vocabulary. When I was teaching at Harvard we used to have infallible proof of the use of a trot in Horace class. The popular translation was an English one which used the word undertaker in the new archaic sense of what we call a contractor. One used to wonder what the student thought undertakers were doing on a construction job.

I explained to my classes that learning vocabulary is often a process of looking up the same word over and over until one remembers it out of sheer irritation. I used to tell of my own frequent frustration in looking up a strange word occurring in the text, finding it in the dictionary or vocabulary, then turning back to the text only to discover that I had already forgotten the meaning. This revelation of preceptorial weakness always brought bright smiles of response from the class.

Moreover, one cannot accept wholesale the translation of a difficult passage without the least understanding of how editor or translator arrived at it. For this reason I objected to the very heavy annotation that is now the practice. In general I agree with Professor A. A. Howard’s contention that notes are merely a device to display the erudition of the editor. To insure that I knew that the student knew what the Greek or Latin actually said, I insisted in the early years, upon literalness at the cost of elegance, explaining that when I was certain that they knew what they were doing they might begin to cultivate freedom of rendition.”

Homer’s Work: A Wild Paradise

Alexander Pope, Preface to the Iliad:

“Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry. It is the invention that, in different degrees, distinguishes all great geniuses: the utmost stretch of human study, learning, and industry, which masters everything besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes art with all her materials, and without it judgment itself can at best but ‘steal wisely:’ for art is only like a prudent steward that lives on managing the riches of nature. Whatever praises may be given to works of judgment, there is not even a single beauty in them to which the invention must not contribute: as in the most regular gardens, art can only reduce beauties of nature to more regularity, and such a figure, which the common eye may better take in, and is, therefore, more entertained with. And, perhaps, the reason why common critics are inclined to prefer a judicious and methodical genius to a great and fruitful one, is, because they find it easier for themselves to pursue their observations through a uniform and bounded walk of art, than to comprehend the vast and various extent of nature.

Our author’s work is a wild paradise, where, if we cannot see all the beauties so distinctly as in an ordered garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater. It is like a copious nursery, which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants, each according to his fancy, to cultivate and beautify. If some things are too luxuriant it is owing to the richness of the soil; and if others are not arrived to perfection or maturity, it is only because they are overrun and oppressed by those of a stronger nature.

It is to the strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him. What he writes is of the most animated nature imaginable; every thing moves, every thing lives, and is put in action. If a council be called, or a battle fought, you are not coldly informed of what was said or done as from a third person; the reader is hurried out of himself by the force of the poet’s imagination, and turns in one place to a hearer, in another to a spectator. The course of his verses resembles that of the army he describes,

     Οἳ δ’ ἄρ’ ἴσαν ὡς εἴ τε πυρὶ χθὼν πᾶσα νέμοιτο·

‘They pour along like a fire that sweeps the whole earth before it.’ It is, however, remarkable, that his fancy, which is everywhere vigorous, is not discovered immediately at the beginning of his poem in its fullest splendour: it grows in the progress both upon himself and others, and becomes on fire, like a chariot-wheel, by its own rapidity. Exact disposition, just thought, correct elocution, polished numbers, may have been found in a thousand; but this poetic fire, this ‘vivida vis animi,’ in a very few. Even in works where all those are imperfect or neglected, this can overpower criticism, and make us admire even while we disapprove. Nay, where this appears, though attended with absurdities, it brightens all the rubbish about it, till we see nothing but its own splendour. This fire is discerned in Virgil, but discerned as through a glass, reflected from Homer, more shining than fierce, but everywhere equal and constant: in Lucan and Statius it bursts out in sudden, short, and interrupted flashes: In Milton it glows like a furnace kept up to an uncommon ardour by the force of art: in Shakspeare it strikes before we are aware, like an accidental fire from heaven: but in Homer, and in him only, it burns everywhere clearly and everywhere irresistibly.”

Pliny’s Advice to a Friend: Retire, Read, and Write!

From Pliny’s Letters, 1.3:

“Why not just entrust the lower and dirtier business to someone else, and apply yourself to your studies in that rich and lofty retreat? Let this be your business, let this be your leisure; let this be both your work and your rest. Let your waking hours and your sleep be spent in your studies. Contrive and fashion something which will be yours forever. All of your other affairs will find one master after another after you are gone, but this will never cease to be yours, if it ever comes into being. I know what spirit, what intellect I am urging on; you should just strive to be worth as much to yourself as you will appear to others if you become so to yourself. Farewell.”

“This could be you!”

3 Quin tu — tempus enim — humiles et sordidas curas aliis mandas, et ipse te in alto isto pinguique secessu studiis asseris? Hoc sit negotium tuum hoc otium; hic labor haec quies; in his vigilia, in his etiam somnus reponatur. 4 Effinge aliquid et excude, quod sit perpetuo tuum. Nam reliqua rerum tuarum post te alium atque alium dominum sortientur, hoc numquam tuum desinet esse si semel coeperit. 5 Scio quem animum, quod horter ingenium; tu modo enitere ut tibi ipse sis tanti, quanti videberis aliis si tibi fueris. Vale.

I Hate Learning Verbs!

Alston Hurd Chase, Time Remembered 2.2:

“Then came a brief quiz on the forms if it was a grammar day. Usually I sent students to the board for these and corrected and graded them immediately. As soon as the class had learned one or two tenses of the verb I began the practice of sending them to the board as soon as class opened to write a tense synopsis, i.e. all the forms of a certain person and number in all moods and voices of a certain verb which they had studied thus far. It fascinated the boys to watch these synopses grow in length from two or three forms until the board could scarcely hold them all. Like all teachers I had pet proverbs, one of which was, ‘A synopsis a day keeps the zeros away.’ This had reference to my much cursed practice of giving a zero for any sentence in which any error of any kind was made with the verb. I explained that the verb was the engine of the sentence, its most important part. This is particularly true in Greek and Latin where the pronoun subject is regularly omitted, the person and number being found in the ending of the verb. Furthermore, each synopsis had to be accompanied by the principal parts, those basic forms from which all other parts of the verb can be derived. Because of the unbelievable variations in the tenses of many Greek verbs a command of the principal parts saves hours of baffling search in the dictionary. (For example, the present of the Greek verb to bear is pher, its future ois, its past definite enengkon. Again, I used to say sententiously, ‘See ye first the principal parts and all other things shall be added unto you.’ Many of my old students who went on with Greek in college rose up and called me blessed for this once hated insistence upon learning the verbs.”

Pliny on the Life of Scholarly Leisure

Pliny (Epistula 1.9) discusses the distress of urban business, and the delight of study in a country retreat:

It is marvelous how on individual days, you can account for your time (or at least, you seem to be able to), but when many days are joined together, the account does not add up. For, if you were to ask someone, ‘What did you do today?’ he would respond, ‘I was there for the ceremony of the toga virilis, I went to an engagement or a wedding, this one guy needed me to sign a document, this other guy needed my legal assistance, and a third man asked for my counsel.’ Now, these things all seem necessary on the day during which you do them, but when you look back and consider that you have done them every day, they seem totally inane, especially once you retire from the city.

Then the thought comes upon you: ‘How many days I have wasted in such cold business!’ This happens to me when I retire to my villa in Laurentum to read, write, or even give a rest to my body, by whose support the spirit is held up. There, I neither hear nor see anything which I would regret hearing or seeing; no one slanders someone else with malicious talk in my presence, and I myself need not reproach anyone, except perhaps myself when I write poorly. I am made anxious by no hopes or fears, and am disquieted by no rumors: I speak only with myself and my books. O, what an upright and pure life! O, sweet, honest leisure, perhaps more beautiful than any business! O sea, o shore, o you true and secluded home of the Muses, how many things you discover, how many things you say! Accordingly you too should abandon that noisy bustle, that vain running-about and those exceptionally unsuitable labors, and as soon as you get the chance, you should give yourself to study or leisure. As our own Atilius said in that most erudite and charming way of his, it is more satisfying to be at leisure than to do nothing. Farewell!

Plinius Minicio Fundano suo s.

Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque non constet. [2] Nam si quem interroges ‘Hodie quid egisti?’, respondeat: ‘Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in consilium rogavit.’ [3] Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: ‘Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!’ [4] Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. [5] Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. [6] O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! [7] Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. [8] Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.

“Read Any Books What Ever Come to Thy Hands”

John Milton, Areopagitica: 

“Not to insist upon the examples of Moses, Daniel, & Paul, who were skilfull in all the learning of the Ægyptians, Caldeans, and Greeks, which could not probably be without reading their Books of all sorts; in Paul especially, who thought it no defilement to insert into holy Scripture the sentences of three Greek Poets, and one of them a Tragedian, the question was, notwithstanding sometimes controverted among the Primitive Doctors, but with great odds on that side which affirm’d it both lawfull and profitable, as was then evidently perceiv’d, when Julian the Apostat, and suttlest enemy to our faith, made a decree forbidding Christians the study of heathen learning: for, said he, they wound us with our own weapons, and with our owne arts and sciences they overcome us. And indeed the Christians were put so to their shifts by this crafty means, and so much in danger to decline into all ignorance, that the two Apollinarii were fain as a man may say, to coin all the seven liberall Sciences out of the Bible, reducing it into divers forms of Orations, Poems, Dialogues, ev’n to the calculating of a new Christian grammar. But, saith the Historian Socrates, The providence of God provided better then the industry of Apollinarius and his son, by taking away that illiterat law with the life of him who devis’d it. So great an injury they then held it to be depriv’d of Hellenick learning; and thought it a persecution more undermining, and secretly decaying the Church, then the open cruelty of Decius or Dioclesian. And perhaps it was the same politick drift that the Divell whipt St. Jerom in a lenten dream, for reading Cicero; or else it was a fantasm bred by the feaver which had then seis’d him. For had an Angel bin his discipliner, unlesse it were for dwelling too much upon Ciceronianisms, & had chastiz’d the reading, not the vanity, it had bin plainly partiall; first to correct him for grave Cicero, and not for scurrill Plautus, whom he confesses to have bin reading not long before; next to correct him only, and let so many more ancient Fathers wax old in those pleasant and florid studies without the lash of such a tutoring apparition; insomuch that Basil teaches how some good use may be made of Margites, a sportfull Poem, not now extant, writ by Homer; and why not then of Morgante, an Italian Romanze much to the same purpose. But if it be agreed we shall be try’d by visions, there is a vision recorded by Eusebius far ancienter then this tale of Jerom to the Nun Eustochium, and besides has nothing of a feavor in it. Dionysius Alexandrinus was about the year 240, a person of great name in the Church for piety and learning, who had wont to avail himself much against hereticks by being conversant in their Books; untill a certain Presbyter laid it scrupulously to his conscience, how he durst venture himselfe among those defiling volumes. The worthy man loath to give offence fell into a new debate with himselfe what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God, it is his own Epistle that so averrs it, confirm’d him in these words: Read any books what ever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter.”