Saturday, November 16, 2013
I Read Nothing but Greek
T.J. Hogg (1792-1862), Life of Shelley
, chapter XXVIII:
On the intervening days of rest I read Chaucer's ponderous, black-letter tome. It occupied much of my time, yet I did not altogether neglect the Greek Classics. On the contrary, I found leisure to read carefully, and with unspeakable delight, nine of the eleven comedies of Aristophanes; the other two plays I had read before. For that purpose I borrowed a nice, readable edition in octavo of a friend, who had devoted himself exclusively to Greek literature.
The very obliging lender of Brunck's Aristophanes was formerly a member, not without distinction, of a college of high repute in Oxford.
'I rise early; I always did; and I take one mouthful of air before breakfast—no more. I begin to read immediately after breakfast, that I may get a walk and appetite before dinner, which is essential.'
He spoke modestly of his dinner, but we will hope that he invariably made such a meal, as, in a wealthy establishment, a clerk in holy orders ought to make.
'I have my tea pretty soon after dinner; it freshens me up. I cannot read again until I have had my tea. When I have finished my book, in the summer—in the winter it would be ridiculous—I take a turn round the garden, when I am at home; when I am by the sea-side, on the sands close to the sea. I am not much of a supper-man; I never was; but I love just to play with a crab before going to bed; or with something of the kind, and to swallow a spoonful or two of warm negus.
'I read nothing but Greek. I have a three-years' course of Greek authors, which I go over every three years'.
He promised to give me a list of the authors, with dates showing the time which he gave to each. I reproach myself for letting the opportunity slip; for never having procured what I might then have obtained at any time.
'I read a few pages of Virgil and of Cicero two or three times in the year, just to satisfy myself that although they are very clever, very good in their way certainly, they are not to be compared with the Greek writers, but are immeasurably inferior in all respects; that it is a waste of time for a man who can read Greek to read their writings.
'On Sunday it is different. I do not read the classical authors; it would not be proper. I look over the newspaper very lightly; once a-week is enough. I read the Septuagint, the New Testament, and perhaps a homily or two of Chrysostom; in the original, of course.
'A newspaper once a-week, and very little of it, is sufficient surely. I will not say absolutely, that since the age of Pericles nothing has happened in the world, that a man of sense ought to care about. But since the publication of the last Greek author of acknowledged merit—I will not say the last classic, for I would not be illiberal or too restrictive—there has been no event that we need trouble ourselves much about. Of course, I except our blessed religion—that is a thing quite apart; I say nothing about that now; I speak only of profane matters—of secular affairs. When two or three scholars get together, we talk, you know, like heathens.
'Homer is an exception to my three-years' course—the only one. I read him every year.
'I reside in a country town; and I go every year to the sea-side in the summer, during the long days, for a month. I read a book of the Iliad every day before dinner, and a book of the Odyssey daily after dinner. In a month there are twenty-four week-days; there being twenty-four books in each poem, it just does it.
'The sea-side is the proper place to read Homer; he speaks so much of the sea. I throw in the Hymns—there are commonly two or three rainy days in the four weeks, when I cannot take a walk; so I always contrive to throw in the Hymns and the Frogs and Mice.
'I always use the Oxford Homer, as it is called. The Greek text, in four volumes octavo; without the Latin interpretation, but with the Greek scholia of Didymus, or whoever he was. I make use of common editions,' he showed me several of them, 'without many notes; for if I had to read many notes I should never get through. I use no other lexicon than Scapula; I find it quite sufficient'.
He produced a folio edition of Scapula, in which by long use he had worn a hole that would have contained a pair of stockings. He continued his triennial course of reading without interruption for thirty years, and consequently read Homer through thirty times; the other Greek classics ten times.
'I have looked into the translations of Homer; they are very poor affairs. I have heard much of a German translation, by Voss, but I do not understand German; I am quite content with the original. I have looked into Cowper's: I like his translation of Homer as little as I like his religion! I never published anything; I never wrote a line for publication. I have always been most unwilling to increase the sum of human errors: it is large enough already, to say the least'.
To have written a good book on the Tranquillity of Life, as the Scotchman, Volusenus Wilson, did, is something, but it is far more to have actually and so admirably practised it. I repeat my regret that I did not get from him his Itinerary of three years' journey and progress through the principal Greek authors; it would have been a literary curiosity, and interesting to many students, as the regular orbit of an ordinary mind, although of a very high order, to whom the erratic course of a transcendent genius—of a comet that blazes across the zenith once in a century, would be perplexing and incomprehensible.
This excellent scholar and clergyman had no family; his clerical duties were none, or trifling; he was not a man to neglect any duty, of superior, or inferior, obligation; and he had a competent, a moderate income derived from private sources, and independent of ecclesiastical stipends and benefices.