Tuesday, January 31, 2017


The Futility and Pain of Latin Lessons

George Buchanan (1506-1582), Elegies, I (Quam misera sit conditio docentium literas humaniores Lutetiae, i.e., How wretched is the condition of those who teach classics in Paris), lines 29-74, loosely translated by T.D. Robb in George Buchanan: A Memorial, 1506-1906, ed. D.A. Millar (St. Andrews: W.C. Henderson & Son, 1907), pp. 254-256:
What guerdon for it all? Long years and glory?
In no wise does the Muse of song or story
So royally reward. An early death
Is all the comfort that she promiseth.

For sleep's denied. The tired neck may bow,
And on the pillowed elbow droop the brow,
A little sleep may cool your burning sight,
When sudden clamour fills the startled night.
Wildly you wake, unnerved for what dread shock,
And hear the night-watch bellowing "Four o'clock!"
With brazen din he deafens night around,
Warning day's bondmen not to sleep too sound.
Scarce is he silent, scarce your eyelids close,
When "Five o'clock!" shatters your last repose.
Clang goes the bell! The porter—sleepless ass!—
Is ringing scholars to your morning class.

Prompt at the call, and dreadful in the frown
He wears to match his flowing Roman gown,
Behold the master follow forth to school.
He clutches what proclaims a sceptred rule,
And looks as he'd out-tyrannise the Turk;
In the other hand he holds the morning's work,
Virgil perchance,—so great, yet thus so mean.

Now at his desk he eyes the restless scene,
And cracks his cheeks with shouting. Say he wins,
And quiet—most comparative—begins;
He takes his task, unravelling some skein
Of tangled Latin, seeking to make plain
To careless boys the questionable text
That had his midnight vigil so perplext.
He changes this and that, with skill to note
Errors the classic author never wrote,
And vindicates the readings that may be,
From lore long latent in his memory.

He scatters knowledge with a lordly hand;
Things that no former age could understand
Are his attainment; and he casts away
Those treasures of his cornucopia,—
But casts to slothful swine. A steady snore
Comes from the crowd that study on the floor:
And those who seem awake in studious wise
Are knaves that listen only with their eyes.

Some one is truant; another has taken care
To hire some rascal with a specious air
To have him called away. Or, this cold morn,
One has no boots; another's boots are worn
To sandals. In that corner over there,
Some booby blubbers for a mother's care;
Or there is one that lets his fancy roam,
And, 'stead of writing notes, is writing home.

Wherefore the switch is busy, and the sound
Of frequent lamentation floats around;
Tears channel youthful cheeks; and, when 'tis run,
The record of the hour is—Nothing done.

Then comes the call to prayers; after which
Another hour of Latin and the switch.
Then breakfast: but the board is hardly set
When it is borne away. We only whet
Our appetites ere clangs the bell again,
Renewing the futility and pain
Of Latin lessons. When that weird is o'er
Comes dinner, and as breakfast proved before,
'Tis but a snack ere we are called away.
Whither? The tired to sleep, the fresh to play?
No, Latin lends small heed to set of sun,
And we are deep in night ere work is done,—
Such work as 'tis. Why should I court your scorn
Telling the thousand degradations borne
In classes crowded with an adult crew
Too old to birch, yet seeking nothing new,
Nor even come to keep their learning green.
All day the city's nuisance they have been.
Now from the streets dusk-driven, where so well
Ensconce themselves and make a childish hell
As in those rooms where once they suffered woe?
So, foolishly indulged to come and go
At their sweet will, into the class they pour
With clogs that well-nigh clatter through the floor,—
A graceless rabble! Making no pretence
To listen, for their dull indifference
Is God's own blame: they fail in heavenly fire,
As the Phrygian failed when Phoebus charmed his lyre.

Yet they'll complain: "Why are no posters out
To tell us what the lectures are about?"
Or, "This new grammar! Why have you forsook
Old Alexander? Never a better book!
Do you fancy that we bothered with his notes!"
Nay, even neglected Guido has their votes!
So, with a hue and cry for Latin grammar—
The sound old style!—they rush with rowdy clamour
To Montaigu, or whereso they shall find
An atmosphere to suit the idle mind.
The Latin (id., pp. 250-252, line numbers added):
Hinc subitae mortes, et spes praerepta senectae,
   Nec tibi fert Clio, nec tibi Phoebus opem.        30
Si caput in cubitum lassa cervice recumbat,
   Et sopor exiguus lumina fessa premat:
Ecce, vigil subito quartam denuntiat horam,
   Et tonitru horrifico lumina clausa quatit:
Excutit attonito somnos sonus aeris acuti,        35
   Admonet et molli membra levare toro.
Vix siluit, jam quinta sonat; jam janitor urget
   Cymbala, tirones ad sua signa vocans:
Mox sequitur longa metuendus veste magister,
   Ex humero laevo mantica terga premit.        40
Dextera crudeli in pueros armata flagello est:
   Laeva tenet magni forte Maronis opus.
Jam sedet, et longis clamoribus ilia rumpit,
   Excutit implicitos ingenioque locos.
Corrigit, et delet, mutat, vigilata labore        45
   Promit, in obscuro quae latuere diu.
Magna, nec ingeniis aevi explorata prioris,
   Eruit, inventas nec sibi celat opes.
[Ignava incerta stertit plerumque juventus,
   Cogitat aut curae multa priora suae.]        50
Alter abest, petiturque alter, mercede parato
   Qui vocet, et fictos condiat arte dolos.
Ille caret caligis, huic rupta calceus alter
   Pelle hiat: ille dolet, scribit et ille domum.
Hinc virgae, strepitusque sonant, fletuque rigantur        55
   Ora, inter lacrymas transigiturque dies.
Dein nos sacra vocant, dein rursus lectio, rursus
   Verbera: sumendo vix datur hora cibo.
Protinus amota sequitur nova lectio mensa,
   Excipit hanc rursus altera, coena brevis:        60
Surgitur, in seram noctem labor improbus exit,
   Ceu brevis aerumnis hora diurna foret.
Quid memorem interea fastidia mille laborum,
   Quae non ingenua mente ferenda putes?
Ecce tibi erronum plenas ex urbe phalanges,        65
   Terraque ferratis calcibus icta tremit:
Turba ruit, stolidasque legentibus applicat aures,
   Quales Phoebacae Phryx dedit ante lyrae.
Et queritur nullis onerari compita chartis,
   Esse et Alexandrum nullo in honore suum:        70
Nec gravidum pleno turgescere margine librum,
   Neglectumque premi vile Guidonis opus.
Curritur ad montem magno cum murmure acutum,
   Aut alias aedes, sicubi beta sapit.
Other translations include:
Update: For a more literal translation of these lines, by G.E. Davie, see George Buchanan's First Elegy Again.

Related posts:

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?