Saturday, January 22, 2005


An Introduction to Latin

Edmund Gosse, Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (1907), chapter VII:
My Father grudged the time, but he felt it a duty to do something to fill up these deficiencies, and we now started Latin, in a little eighteenth-century reading-book, out of which my Grandfather had been taught. It consisted of strings of words, and of grim arrangements of conjunction and declension, presented in a manner appallingly unattractive. I used to be set down in the study, under my Father's eye, to learn a solid page of this compilation, while he wrote or painted. The window would be open in summer, and my seat was close to it. Outside, a bee was shaking the clematis-blossom, or a red-admiral butterfly was opening and shutting his wings on the hot concrete of the verandah, or a blackbird was racing across the lawn. It was almost more than human nature could bear to have to sit holding up to my face the dreary little Latin book, with its sheepskin cover that smelt of mildewed paste.

But out of this strength there came an unexpected sudden sweetness. The exercise of hearing me repeat my strings of nouns and verbs had revived in my Father his memories of the classics. In the old solitary years, a long time ago, by the shores of Canadian rapids, on the edge of West Indian swamps, his Virgil had been an inestimable solace to him. To extremely devout persons, there is something objectionable in most of the great writers of antiquity. Horace, Lucretius, Terence, Catullus, Juvenal, -- in each there is one quality or another definitely repulsive to a reader who is determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. From time immemorial, however, it has been recognized in the Christian church that this objection does not apply to Virgil. He is the most evangelical of the classics; he is the one who can be enjoyed with least to explain away and least to excuse. One evening my Father took down his Virgil from an upper shelf, and his thoughts wandered away from surrounding things; he travelled in the past again. The book was a Delphin edition of 1798, which had followed him in all his wanderings; there was a great scratch on the sheep-skin cover that a thorn had made in a forest of Alabama. And then, in the twilight, as he shut the volume at last, oblivious of my presence, he began to murmur and to chant the adorable verses by memory.

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi,

he warbled; and I stopped my play, and listened as if to a nightingale, until he reached

                        tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.

'Oh Papa, what is that?' I could not prevent myself from asking. He translated the verses, he explained their meaning, but his exposition gave me little interest. What to me was beautiful Amaryllis? She and her love-sick Tityrus awakened no image whatever in my mind. But a miracle had been revealed to me, the incalculable, the amazing beauty which could exist in the sound of verses. My prosodical instinct was awakened quite suddenly that dim evening, as my Father and I sat alone in the breakfast-room after tea, serenely accepting the hour, for once, with no idea of exhortation or profit. Verse, 'a breeze mid blossoms playing', as Coleridge says, descended from the roses as a moth might have done, and the magic of it took hold of my heart forever. I persuaded my Father, who was a little astonished at my insistence, to repeat the lines over and over again. At last my brain caught them, and as I walked in Benny's garden, or as I hung over the tidal pools at the edge of the sea, all my inner being used to ring out with the sound of

Formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas.
The verses come from the beginning of Vergil's first Eclogue.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?