Sunday, January 23, 2011


A Child Prodigy

R.C. Lehmann (1856-1929), To the Master of Trinity: A Congratulatory Ode on the Birth of his Son (1889), from Anni Fugaces: A Book of Verse with Cambridge Interludes (London: John Lane, 1901), pp. 94-99:
Dr. Butler, may I venture without seeming too officious
To congratulate you warmly on a birthday so auspicious?
The event is surely worthy that I too should raise my voice at it,
And proclaim as best I may that like all others I rejoice at it.
I am late—I own it humbly—but from censure crave immunity;
I should have wished you joy before, but lacked the opportunity.
And you too, fair young mistress of our ancient Lodge at Trinity,*
Though to the usual natal ode my rhymes have small affinity,
Though good wishes from an unknown friend may savour of temerity,
Yet accept both them and my excuse for wishing them—sincerity.

And the son! with two such parents this small member of our college
Must be, unlike the ruck of us, a paragon of knowledge;
Armed cap-à-pie with wisdom like the goddess in the stories;
A human sort of letters which we term humaniores;
A kind of tiny scholiast who'll startle his relations
With his luminous suggestions and his subtle emendations;
A lexicon in arms, with all the syntax grafted in on him;
A Gradus ad Parnassum, full of epithet and synonym;
A Corpus Poetarum, such as classics love to edit, he
Will furnish, let me hope, a bright example of heredity.
Though no doubt he'll be a stoic or a modern Pocahontas
(This allusion is τι βάρβαρον) when cutting his ὀδόντας;
Yet if he when his teething time approaches should to cry elect,
He will cry, I am persuaded, in the purest Attic dialect.
If a keen desire for nourishment his baby face should mottle,
He will think "nunc est bibendum"—not, like others, "pass the bottle."

Before he doffs his long-clothes, and while scarcely fit to wean, he
Will be game to tackle Schliemann on the treasures of Mycenae;
And although his conversation must be chiefly esoteric,
Yet I warrant, if the truth were known, he often talks Homeric;
Then, whilst others merely babble, he will whet his infant senses
On a new and striking theory of Greek and Latin tenses.
He'll eschew his india-rubber ring, vote picture-books immoral,
And prefer an hour with Tacitus to rattle or to coral.
He will subjugate hexameters and conquer elegiacs,
As easily as Rajah Brooke made mincemeat of the Dyaks;
And in struggles with alcaics and iambics, and the rest of it,
I will lay a thousand drachmae Master Butler gets the best of it.
And whatever Dr. Jebb may think, he'll look a small potato
Should he dare to take this infant on in Aeschylus or Plato.
Then (forgive me if I mention but a few amongst his many tricks)
He will call his father "genitor," his mother "alma genetrix,"
At an age when other babies stutter "Pa" or "Ma" or "Gra'ma";
He will solve—oh, joy!—the mystery and sense of the digamma;
He'll discover by an instinct, though the point is somewhat knotty,
That in certain cases πρός is used, in other cases ποτί.
He will know the proper case for every little preposition,
Will correctly state a certainty or hint at a condition.

Latin prose will be a game to him; at two he'll take a prize in it,
With no end of Ciceronian turns and lots of quippe qui-s in it.
With the ablatives so absolute they awe you into silence,
And such indirect narrations that they wind away a mile hence;
With the sentences so polished that they shine like housemaid's faces,
All the words both big and little fixed like features in their places;
With the moods all strictly accurate, the tenses in their sequences,
And a taste so truly classical it shudders at infrequencies;
With some cunning bits of tam-s and quam-s, and all the little wily sets
Of donec-s and of quamvis-es, of dum-s and quin-s and scilicet-s.
All the imperfections rubbed away, the roughness nicely levelled off,
Like a sheet of burnished copper with the edges neatly bevelled off.
In short, go search all Europe through, you'll find that in Latinity
Not a soul can hold a candle to our Master's son in Trinity.

Then he'll write Greek plays by dozens—not such models of insipid ease
(Robert Browning, grant me pardon) as the dramas of Euripides;
But lines that roll like thunder, Aeschylean and Titanic,
With a saving touch of Sophocles, a dash Aristophanic.
Not an accent will be wanting, no false quantity will kill a line;
There'll be no superfluous particles popped in like γε to fill a line.
Then if asked to choose a story-book this prodigy will nod at us,
And demand the Polyhymnia or the Clio of Herodotus.
At three he'll take a tripos class in Aryan mythology,
And at four confute all Germany in Roman archaeology;
And if his Teuton rivals print huge quartos to suppress him, oh!
I'll back this cyclopaedic child, this English duodecimo.
And, bless me! how his cheeks will glow with infantine elation,
Should he catch his parents tripping in a classical quotation!
He'll be, in fact, before he's done with pap-boat and with ladle,
The critic's last variety—the critic in the cradle.

So a health to you, good Master; may the day that brought this boy to you
Be through the years a constant source of happiness and joy to you.
May he have his father's eloquence, be charming as his mother,
And when he grows to wield a bat play cricket like his brother.
I looks towards you, Dr. B., and Mrs. Butler too, sir;
The infant prodigy as well,—let's drink it in a "brew," sir.
Take of champagne a magnum, drop some Borage (that's the stuff) in it,
With a dash of Cognac, lots of ice and seltzer, quantum suff., in it;
And we'll drain this simple mixture ("simple mixture" sounds Hibernian),
And in honour of the classic babe we'll fancy it's Falernian.

• Mrs. Butler (then Miss Agneta Ramsay) was Senior Classic in 1887. Dr. Butler, the Master of Trinity, was Senior Classic in 1855.
Dr. Butler was Henry Montagu Butler (1833-1918). He married Agnata (not Agneta) Frances Ramsay (1867-1931), and their first son was James Ramsay Montagu Butler (1889-1975). The child's supposed choice of Herodotus' Polyhymnia (Book 7) as a story book perhaps recalls Mrs. Butler's school edition of that book (London: Macmillan, 1891).

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