Thursday, February 16, 2012


Innumerable Dead Vocables

Dear Mike:

Your recent post on Thomas Carlyle made me want to share with you this passage from Sartor Resartus, in which Teufelsdröckh complains of the inadequate instruction in the classical languages which he received at the Hinterschlag Gymnasium (the name Hinterschlag, of course, giving some idea of the preferred pedagogical method). You can add it to your collection of famous authors complaining of the dullness of their Latin teachers:

‘My teachers,’ says [Teufelsdröckh], ‘were hide-bound Pedants, without knowledge of man’s nature, or of boy’s; or of aught save their lexicons and quarterly account-books. Innumerable dead Vocables (no dead Language, for they themselves knew no Language) they crammed into us, and called it fostering the growth of mind. How can an inanimate, mechanical Gerund-grinder, the like of whom will, in a subsequent century, be manufactured at Nürnberg out of wood and leather, foster the growth of anything; much more of Mind, which grows, not like a vegetable (by having its roots littered with etymological compost), but like a spirit, by mysterious contact of Spirit; Thought kindling itself at the fire of living Thought? How shall he give kindling, in whose inward man there is no live coal, but all is burnt-out to a dead grammatical cinder? The Hinterschlag Professors knew syntax enough; and of the human soul thus much: that it had a faculty called Memory, and could be acted-on through the muscular integument by appliance of birch-rods.’ (Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, book II, chapter III: "Pedagogy")

I particularly like the epithet "Gerund-grinder."

Yours truly,
Stephen Wauck

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