Friday, November 20, 2015


Love, Not War

Northrop Frye, notebook (October 12, 1932), from Northrop Frye's Uncollected Prose, ed. Robert D. Denham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), pp. 51-52 (endnotes omitted; bracketed reference in book):
I shall not attempt to solve the difficult problem of classical education in the public schools. But why not give Latin and Greek a fair trial, if willing to grant that they are magnificent languages. "All the Latin I construe is amo, I love," says Lippo Lippi [Browning, Fra Lippo Lippi, ll. 111-12]. Well, I too started with amo, a very good verb, I thought obviously only a decoy. The next one I learned was neco, I kill, and all the time I spent on Latin grammar from that time forth was spent in laboriously acquiring a language which talked about nothing else in the world but fighting. Every sentence I wrote in Latin or translated, concerned war, and every word I learned had some military context. It does not take a very fanatical pacifist to see that this method deliberately aims at encouraging the idea that Latin is a very dead language, there being few things deader about a language than those words which deal with violent death. If Latin really was a dead language, therefore, it would be of no use. The excuse is, of course, that we read Caesar first in Latin, Xenophon in Greek, but the excuse is a pitifully inadequate one. The method is obviously that of a crabbed pedant bent on killing the language and stamping on the corpse. Catullus and Horace are eternal. Caesar is not only dead but always was, falling stillborn upon publication like any other journal. The next step is Livy, Cicero, Thucydides. Like learning English by starting with the Duke of Marlborough's memoirs, if he wrote any, and proceeding through Pater or Burke or Gibbon. We do not make such an approach to any modern language. We do not start German by learning all about their weapons, their armies, the histories of their wars, even if we still think of them as a race of barbarian Huns, intent on conquering the world by force of arms. If I could respond to them fluently, which I regret to say I cannot, I should regard it as one of my primary accomplishments, but I should see the entire Teutonic race in hell before, etc. I would wade through a barrage of military terminology in order to read the war correspondence of Blücher, Moltke, Gneisenau, or von Kluck. There is a good deal of truth in the famous remark that Caesar was a very inferior writer who wrote for the public schools.
I would delete ", etc." in "I should see the entire Teutonic race in hell before, etc. I would wade through...," so that it reads "I should see the entire Teutonic race in hell before I would wade through..."

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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