Sunday, September 08, 2013


A Reason for Studying Latin

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), "A Latin Lesson," The Collected Prose: 1948-1998, ed. Alissa Valles (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), pp. 525-551 (at 550-551):
In my interest in Latin and my admittedly mediocre progress in that sphere there lay an element I might call personal. In the apartment building across the road from us there lived a young person, whose full shape, auburn hair, and dimples stirred my senses and gave me vertigo. She was the daughter of a Latin professor—not from our gymnasium, it is true, but known to us as the author of the book of adapted texts over which we labored; he also published articles in the monthly Philomat, to which Grzesio obliged us to subscribe through him. I used to sit on the balcony with my Auerbach & Dąbrowski Latin grammar and pretend that reading this exceptionally dull tome put me in ecstasy.

It was in fact an act of despair. If the object of my passionate feelings appeared on the balcony, it was not for my sake. She sometimes brushed me with a distracted look, as one glances at clouds moving across the sky. She was waiting for an older colleague of mine from the lyceum, a tall youth with a wavy blond crop, undeniably handsome (he was the standard-bearer of our school and wearing a sash and white gloves at celebrations he really did present well)—but I knew he could never make her happy. Every day around five in the afternoon she would leave the house with my mortal enemy and disappear around the corner into a little street shaded by chestnut trees, where (my feverish imagination told me) terrible things happened: he would take her arm (against the severest injunctions of the middle school rules) and perhaps press a fiery kiss on her silken glove. A storm of contradictory feelings in my tormented heart:
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
What did I think to achieve, holding my Auerbach & Dąbrowski Latin grammar on the balcony so that its cover would be visible from afar? I thought that one day her father—the classical philologist—would notice me and shout across to me: "I have been observing you for a while now, my boy. Your modesty and industry, your love for the Roman tongue are a warranty that you are a proper candidate for my daughter's husband. I therefore grant you her hand." And from then on things would proceed as in a fairy tale.

They didn't. On the other hand, I learned many examples of the use of the more complicated grammatical forms by heart and was able to shine in class, even winning a cordial look from Grzesio.

We labored in the sweat of our brows. The time to reap drew near: the next year we were to proceed to the poetry of Catullus and Horace. But then the barbarians invaded.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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