Friday, November 02, 2018


That Weedy Growth of Repulsive Particles

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement, and Other Posthumous Papers on Literature, Religion and Language (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963; rpt. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006), pp. 182-183:
As soon as I took up residence in Oxford, I was sent to a warrior called Mr. Herbert May, with instructions that I was to be crammed through Smalls. Mr. May lived in a narrow, semi-detached house in the gloomier purlieus of Oxford, in a perpetual atmosphere of snuff. With this he refreshed himself all through his coachings; and I would not grudge him a single pinch of it, for his life must have been a hard one. So far as I know, he spent all his time with people like me. He was the indefatigable seagull, forever winging his way through the clashing rocks of Latin Prose and Greek Unseens with a fleet of dismal and inexperienced Argonauts thrashing the seas at his tail. A kindlier and more imperturbable man I never met. In two terms he accomplished what my school-teachers had not ventured to undertake in four years. We pounded our way through the Hecuba and the Alcestis; we coped with the Aorist; we mowed down under our feet that weedy growth of repulsive particles with which the Greek language is infested. Oddly enough, I cannot recall what the Latin set books were, if any; but from the fact that I still remember a few lines of the Sixth Aeneid, I am inclined to think that we may have had to tackle it. My only distinct recollection is of making my way through a series of Latin Proses, and of Mr. May, choking with laughter and snuff over some more than usually proposterous howler, recovering himself to say encouragingly: "Well, Miss Sayers, you do make the most elementary errors, but I will say for you that what you write is Latin." By which I took him to mean that I did instinctively frame the sentence after the high Roman fashion, collecting everything into a vast articulated complex of clauses and sub-clauses before proceeding to adorn the structure with passive deponents and the non-existent parts of defective verbs. And I conclude from this that it was not my linguistic sense that was at fault, but that with more imaginative teaching I might have made as good a job of Latin as of German or French.

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