Tuesday, May 13, 2014


A Gentleman Never Misplaces His Accents

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), "Autumn Journal: XIII," Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1966; rpt. 1979), pp. 125-127:
Which things being so, as we said when we studied
    The classics, I ought to be glad
That I studied the classics at Marlborough and Merton,
    Not everyone here having had
The privilege of learning a language
    That is incontrovertibly dead,
And of carting a toy-box of hall-marked marmoreal phrases
    Around in his head.
We wrote compositions in Greek which they said was a lesson
    In logic and good for the brain;
We marched, counter-marched to the field-marshal'’s blue-pencil baton,
    We dressed by the right and we wrote out the sentence again.
We learned that a gentleman never misplaces his accents,
    That nobody knows how to speak, much less how to write
English who has not hob-nobbed with the great-grandparents of English,
    That the boy on the Modern Side is merely a parasite
But the classical student is bred to the purple, his training in syntax
    Is also a training in thought
And even in morals; if called to the bar or the barracks
    He always will do what he ought.
And knowledge, besides, should be prized for the sake of knowledge:
    Oxford crowded the mantlepiece with gods—
Scaliger, Heinsius, Dindorf, Bentley and Wilamowitz—
    As we learned our genuflexions for Honour Mods.
And then they taught us philosophy, logic and metaphysics,
    The Negative Judgement and the Ding an Sich,
And every single thinker was powerful as Napoleon
    And crafty as Metternich.
And it really was very attractive to be able to talk about tables
    And to ask if the table is,
And to draw the cork out of an old conundrum
    And watch the paradoxes fizz.
And it made one confident to think that nothing
    Really was what it seemed under the sun,
That the actual was not real and the real was not with us
    And all that mattered was the One.
And they said '‘The man in the street is so naïve, he never
    Can see the wood for the trees;
He thinks he knows he sees a thing but cannot
    Tell you how he knows the thing he thinks he sees.'
’And oh how much I liked the Concrete Universal,
    I never thought that I should
Be telling them vice-versa
    That they can'’t see the trees for the wood.
But certainly it was fun while it lasted
    And I got my honours degree
And was stamped as a person of intelligence and culture
    For ever wherever two or three
Persons of intelligence and culture
    Are gathered together in talk
Writing definitions on invisible blackboards
    In non-existent chalk.
But such sacramental occasions
    Are nowadays comparatively rare;
There is always a wife or a boss or a dun or a client
    Disturbing the air.
Barbarians always, life in the particular always,
    Dozens of men in the street,
And the perennial if unimportant problem
    Of getting enough to eat.
So blow the bugles over the metaphysicians,
    Let the pure mind return to the Pure Mind;
I must be content to remain in the world of Appearance
    And sit on the mere appearance of a behind.
But in case you should think my education was wasted
    I hasten to explain
That having once been to the University of Oxford
    You can never really again
Believe anything that anyone says and that of course is an asset
    In a world like ours;
Why bother to water a garden
    That is planted with paper flowers?
O the Freedom of the Press, the Late Night Final,
    To-morrow’s pulp;
One should not gulp one’'s port but as it isn'’t
    Port, I'’ll gulp it if I want to gulp
But probably I'’ll just enjoy the colour
    And pour it down the sink
For I don'’t call advertisement a statement
    Or any quack medicine a drink.
Good-bye now, Plato and Hegel,
    The shop is closing down;
They don'’t want any philosopher-kings in England,
    There ain'’t no universals in this man'’s town.

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