Saturday, November 02, 2013


What an Enlightenment Was There!

E.F. Benson (1867-1940), As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), pp. 152-154:
I spent three winters as a student in the English school at Athens.

What an enlightenment was there! Those dreary hours devoted at Marlborough and at Cambridge to learning irregular Greek verbs, to racking the brain for crabbed scraps of phrases from Thucydides and Plato for the decoration of Baboo versions of Greek prose (thus earning occasional approving smiles from tutors), were suddenly seen to be exercises, however misbegotten, to acquire the tongue not of a dead folk long perished, but of the wondrous people who had built the Parthenon, and whose spirits, still intensely alive, wandered in its ruinous colonnade, sat on the mellowed marble seats in the theatre, and rode in peerless squadrons up the sacred hill of Acropolis, to do honour to Athene on her birthday. The plane-trees and the agnus castus had perished from the bank of the Ilissus and its stream was dwindled, and the washerwomen scolded and rinsed their linen by its shrunken pools, but it was here in very truth that Socrates had sat and told young Phaedrus of the chariots of the soul, and when his tale was done had prayed 'Beloved Pan, and all ye deities that haunt this place, give me inward beauty of soul, and may the outward and the inward man be at one.' My year of studying archaeology at Cambridge, and, above all, intercourse with Walter Headlam and Professor Middleton, who instead of lecturing gave me Greek gems and fragments of red-figured vases to examine, had begun the vivifying work, and now the dry bones of that arid valley of education began to stir, and they came together, bone to his bone, and were transformed into a host of swift and comely presences. I do not mean to suggest that every boy who is about to be taught Greek should be taken out to Athens, before he learns his first declension, but merely to remark how dismal was the system which, expunging all human interest and beauty from a subject that is instinct with humanity and loveliness, taught a language, and that the most flexible of all human tongues, as if it had been a series of algebraical formulae. How willingly would those dry irregularities have been learned if the imagination had first been kindled by photographs of the temples of the beautiful people and by reproductions of their statues: there would then have been an incitement to know how the poets and historians of the folk who made those things, talked and wrote. But at the time when I was learning Greek, the methods of tutors resembled that of those who, by making their pupils chop up dry faggots of wood, hoped to teach them what was the nature of the trees that once the wind made murmurous on the hillsides of Attica.

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