Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Classics at Shrewsbury School

Henry W. Nevinson (1856-1941), Between the Acts (London: John Murray, 1904), pp. 18-21:
The others were content to teach what they had learnt, and in the same manner. Most of them were Shrewsbury boys themselves, and because Greek had been taught there for more than three centuries, they taught Greek. Of course, we had Latin too, and up to the sixth form our time was equally divided between the two languages; but Latin, as being easier and rather more connected with modern life, never ranked so high, and we turned to it with the relief which most men feel when the ladies rise from the dinner-table. Latin prose, it is true, was thought more of than Greek prose, and no doubt there was some instinctive reason why. I suspect that in reality it is the more difficult; for it was the unconscious rule of our ancient tradition, that of two subjects the more difficult was the better worth learning, provided always that both were entirely useless.

Of Greek our knowledge was both peculiar and limited. We were allowed no devices to make the language in the least interesting, no designs, or pictures, or explanations. We had no idea what the Greek plays looked like on the stage, or why Demosthenes uttered those longwinded sentences. We knew nothing of the Dantesque pride underlying the tortured prose of Thucydides, and when a sixth-form master told us that the stupendous myth at the end of the Phaedo appeared to him singularly childish, we took no notice of the remark one way or the other. We only knew the passage was easy, just as Homer was easy, and the choruses hard. The greater part of the school believed that Greek literature was written as a graduated series of problems for Shrewsbury boys to solve, and when a sixth-form boy was asked by a new master whether he did not consider the Prometheus a very beautiful play, he replied that he thought it contained too many weak caesuras.

So there was nothing in the least artistic about our knowledge. No one expected to find either beauty or pleasure in what we read, and we found none. Nor were we scientific; we neither knew nor cared how the Greek words arose, or how the aorists grew, and why there were two of them, like Castor and Pollux. After all these things do the Germans seek, but us they never troubled. Our sole duty was to convert, with absolute precision, so much Greek into so much English. No possible shade of meaning or delicate inflection on the page was allowed to slide unnoticed. The phases of every mood with all its accompanying satellites were traced with the exactitude of astronomy. No one cared much about beauty of language provided the definite meaning was secure. Yet beauty sometimes came by accident, just as happiness comes, and I first learnt what style is from the renderings of the head-boy when he mounted the "rostrum." He was himself an antique Roman; his eagle nose, wide mouth, and massive chin, the low, broad brow, with black curls growing close to the square-backed head, were made to rule nations. But not long since he died in the serviceable obscurity of a mastership, for which his knowledge of Greek was his only qualification. It is true he was our captain of football, but he owed that position to his Greek rather than his play.

When as a new boy I was first taken for a walk out of bounds on a Sunday afternoon by one of the upper sixth, who is now an earthly saint, we went to a hillside with a long blue vision of western mountains, and while I had no thought or eyes for anything but them, he continued to talk quietly of Greek—the significance of various forms, the most telling way of turning this meaning or that, especially, I remember, the cunning idioms by which the idea of "self" might be rendered in verse, either with emphasis or modesty. So it was. The school breathed Greek, and through its ancient buildings a Greek wind blew. To enter head-room—a dim, panelled chamber which the upper sixth used as a study —was to become a scholar. I doubt if good Greek verse could be written anywhere else. Winged iambics fluttered through the air; they hung like bats along the shelves, and the dust fell in Greek particles.
Hat tip: Alan Crease.

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