Thursday, February 05, 2015


Hints from a Pedantic Rusty Scholar

Henry Montagu Butler, letter to his sister Emily (November 6, 1859), quoted in Edward Graham, The Harrow Life of Henry Montagu Butler (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920), pp. 81-82:
Will you suffer a few hints from a pedantic rusty scholar on a language of which he knows nothing? In reading Dante with others, do all agree to be most conscientiously exact in ascertaining the full meaning of every word and phrase. This is all honest labour, and gives a freshness as well as a firmness to all knowledge. Do not be in too great a hurry to luxuriate in the thought or the music. If there is a divinity in them, it will come out by patient plodding at the language, and not otherwise. Never pass a word, the full force of which you have not penetrated or tried 'painfully' to penetrate. This is what I try by every art and cajolery in my power to din into my lecturees here: and I know that all who follow the prosy advice come at last to believe in it. Genius by all means if you have it. There is nothing like or second to it. But whether you have it or not, accuracy, and by all means accuracy. If any man ever deserved this closest anatomy, it is Dante. Anyone who knows the language of Dante well must, I am satisfied, have almost all Italian at command. A little idolatry paid to grammar and dictionary leads to a nobler worship hereafter.

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