Sunday, June 30, 2013


A Form of Sacred Incantation

Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait (London: John Murray, 1974; rpt. 1976), pp. 34-35:
I was happy at Wixenford. But the almost total lack of instruction was a drawback that has troubled me all my life. Certain subjects a child can learn on his own, but Latin is not one of them. It must be ground into him at a time when his mind is malleable. Although I learned Latin at Winchester, I never acquired that innate familiarity with it which any reputable scholar must possess. But then, Wixenford was not intended for future scholars. Every boy in the school went automatically to Eton. I was the only one who ever went to Winchester. All that I can remember of the school curriculum is the gender rhymes and Euclid. As Latin is no longer taught in schools, I should explain that the old Latin primers contained a rhyming aide-mémoire to the genders of Latin nouns. That things or qualities should have genders at all was sufficiently odd, and this was made even more mysterious by the verses in which this irrational and very complex situation was supposed to be made memorable. I say 'supposed' but in fact it was made memorable and any English school boy of my generation will have no difficulty in completing such a quotation as this:
To nouns that cannot be declined
The Neuter gender is assigned
Examples Fas and Nefas give
And the Verb Noun Infinitive
Est summum nefas fallere
Deceit is gross impiety.
The gender rhymes also contain lists of words that no one with a feeling for the magic of language can resist. James Joyce would have loved them: but then he had the Latin Missal.
Masculine are fons and mons
Chalybs, hydrops, gryps and pons
Rudens, torrens, clems [sic, read dens] and cliens
Fractions of the 'as', as triens.
The gender of a gryphon (gryps) may seem to be a very curious feature of a child's education. But I fancy that the secondary or accidental value of the gender rhymes as a form of sacred incantation, was considerable, especially in a protestant country. The very words they contained—opifex and artifex—were suggestive of arcane practices. All over the world children learn magic rhymes which they are told to take seriously and like the Latin Mass they should be largely incomprehensible. Finally, the gender rhymes contained one distich which any writer should take to heart:
Masculine will always be
Things that you can touch and see.
Perhaps these lines were the foundation of my distaste for the stellar nebulae of literature—Shelley, and St John Perse.

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