Tuesday, November 19, 2019


Latin Class

Desmond MacCarthy (1877-1952), "Eton," Experience (London: Putnam, 1935), pp. 149-156 (at 155-156):
I am again in a large, half-panelled room. At a raised desk sits a man in a university gown, and in front of him sprawl between thirty and forty little hoys: the air hums with innumerable subdued noises. One of the boys is suddenly called upon to construe. After a hurried consultation with his neighbour he stands up with an air of apparent alacrity:

"O Venus—oh, Venus—regina—queen—Cnidi Paphique—of Cnidus and Paphus."

"Os, os," interrupts the master mildly.

"Sperne—spurn—dilectam Cypron—delectable Cyprus—et—and ..."

"Well, go on, go on."

"I can't find the verb," says the small boy—then, suddenly, as though it had been dodging about, "I've got it! Transfer! transfer—te—thyself—decoram in aedem—to" (his voice quavers interrogatively) "to the ... decorated house?"

"Come, come. You know better than that. You know what dulce et decorum est pro patria mori means: It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."

"The well-fitted house?" the small boy suggests, smiling to make up for a possible blunder. The master smiles too: "No, no. The word suggests reverence, something almost sacred. The adjective together with the noun, the phrase decoram in aedem really means a 'shrine,' or, if you like, 'gracious house' would do here. Go on." The small boy's eyes meanwhile have been fixed in ahsent-minded wonder on his face.

"Vocantis Glycerae" (should he risk it?)—"of shouting Glycerine." (General titters.)

"If you play the fool you'll sit down and write out the lesson. Sit down."

"But, sir!"

"Sit down!"

"But, sir, vocantis does mean shouting or calling."

"Sit down! I'll go on construing. Follow carefully and bring me a translation to-morrow. This is poetry: 'Of Glycera who invokes thee, multo ture—with much—or perhaps better—with a wealth of incense. Fervidus tecum puer—with thee may thy glowing boy.' Who was her glowing boy?" (General mild astonishment.)

“ Yes, who was the son of Venus?"

"Oh, Cupid," another boy, lolling on hip and elbow, answers contemptuously.

"Cupid, of course. 'With thee may thy glowing boy and the Graces and the Nymphs with unloosened zones'—are you following?—'hasten hither, and Youth, who lacking thee is not charming.'" Here the master coughs, and ends rather lamely with "And Mercury."

"Quite a party," says the small boy who has been made to sit down. (Laughter.)

"You will write out the lesson twice."

"But, sir!"

"If you speak again you will write it out four times. Come up for a Yellow Ticket afterwards."

Such were our frontal mass-attacks day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, upon the barrier of that ancient language. How few of us won through to the scholar's ilex-grove and the placid fields of asphodel!

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