Thursday, February 16, 2012


The Learned Boy

James Crossley (1800-1883), autobiographical fragment, quoted by S.M. Ellis, "A Great Bibliophile: James Crossley," in Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and Others (London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1931), pp. 223-265 (at 224-225, ellipses in original):
Perhaps some of the most agreeable moments in the mind of a scholar are those spent in the retrospection of early studies, in recalling the hours which first opened upon him the treasures of learning, in tracing back his acquaintance with a book to its first commencement in his youth....
A thousand pleasures do me bless,
And crown my soul with happiness,
as I fly back to that period when, uncramped by the restraint of any particular study, and unrestrained by the fetters of academical regimen, the mind was left to traverse the wide domain of literature, and seek amusement in perpetual variety: With what renewed gusto did I range over the contents of a well-fed library, from Rabelais to the Fathers; and from Coryate's Crudities to the Summa of Aquinas and the theological works of Boëthius! With what keenness of antiquarianism did I turn over the dusty volumes of Holinshed and Stow, or linger over the uncouth cuts and thrilling details of Fox's and Clarke's Martyrology! How I delighted to immerse myself in "all such readings as were never read," and neglect the more common and customary paths of every-day reading for the huge folios and quartos (which the sons of this degenerate age can hardly lift), for the miracles of industry which our forefathers have achieved. How happy was I, when only a boy of fifteen, if I could get into a corner with Hooker's Ecclesiasticall Politie, or Sir Walter Raleigh's History, and pounce upon the contents, as a kite pounces upon a sparrow. The writers of the Augustan Age I left to the perusal of others, for they were read by everybody; solacing myself instead with the poetry of Claudian, Ausonius, Sidonius Apollinaris, and Prudentius; and the prose of Aulus Gellius, Macrobius, and Ammianus Marcellinus. To me, the productions of declining Rome were more valuable than the glories of her zenith. How refreshing to my view were those bulky and endless tomes of commentaries, which the era of the Scaligers and Causabons poured forth. The text of a writer, without its due modicum of annotation, was to me as arid and ungrateful as a plain without a tree. The Fathers were my boon companions; through them I ranged from Hermes to Saxon Bede, passing ever and anon from the pure Latinity of Sulpicius Severus to the sharp and caustic epistles of St. Isidore, and the hard and embrowned quaintness of Tertullian. How light of heart was I, if at some of those dinners which my father used to give to the reverend sons of the church, I could amaze them by edging in some quotation from the Cassandra of Lycophron or the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, and procure the appellation of "The Learned Boy."
Crossley's preference for later Latin literature reminds me of the literary tastes of Des Esseintes in J.-K. Huysmans' novel À Rebours.

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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