Thursday, February 13, 2020


The Old School of Classics and the New

Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (1844-1914), "The Old School of Classics and the New. A Dialogue of the Dead," Fortnightly Review, n.s. Vol. XLIII, No. CCLIII (January 1, 1888), pp. 42-59 (at 47-49):
Madvig. In the English universities the tendency of late has been to break away from the lines of scholarship as we understood it. Even those who profess to walk in the old paths of criticism walk with uncertain footsteps. "Why alter the text," we often hear, "if any meaning can be got out of it?" We go to the text and we find that the reading of which we are bidden to be so tenacious is itself a conjecture—a bad conjecture which we must not replace by a good one, because the bad conjecture has become naturalised, as it were. The love of the old mumpsimus still lives. Then another school—and one with some very brilliant disciples—declares that we must practically rewrite the Greek tragic poets to bring them into absolute conformity with an inflexible standard of grammatical usage.

Bentley. Were it not vastly better done to rewrite our grammars, since the grammars should be but the registers of the usus loquendi?

Madvig. Certainly. But why rewrite either? Grammar, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for grammar. Our grammars adequately register the broad rules of the language, but when we apply them to the poets we must make allowances for a certain easiness, which, however, never degenerates into licence or caprice. But grammar, indeed, bids fair to lose her place altogether among the subjects of study; and I must be pardoned as a grammarian if I speak with some asperity of such a consummation. She is invaded on every side by archaeology, anthropology, epigraphy, and dilettantism. It is more blessed to gush than to construe. To study the works, for instance, of the Greek dramatists is no longer a road to success as a scholar or as a student. No: you must be ready to liken Aeschylus to an Alpine crevasse, Sophocles to a fair avenue of elms, and Euripides to an amber-weeping Phaethontid, or a town pump in need of repairing, according to the divined proclivity of the examiner or reader. When the student has secured his Fellowship or First Class he will not endeavour to restore or explain the classical masterpieces. He will not even read them. But he will read and write a great deal about them. To do this last, he will fuse together the brilliant but inaccurate French étude and the exhaustive but unreadable German Programm, and the result will be an inorganic congeries of incompatible theories, the one having been forgotten before the other has been—shall I say annexed? A not untried plan is to appropriate the labours of some German specialist, and then throw suspicion off the scent by differing with him on some petty detail, and warning the English reader off so misleading a path. Perhaps the aspirant will best secure the fame of a scholar by taking up some writer of venerable antiquity and pelting him with flouts and jibes. "Flagrant prevarication," "deliberate and gratuitous falsehood," together with a constant tendency to "pilfering" and an incurable "obtuseness" are the chief characteristics of the Father of History according to a recent editor of the first three books of Herodotus.

Bentley. But could he have read the history, and write in so putid a way of Herodotus?

Madvig. To speak candidly I don't think he could read it in the original tongue. Like Merlin, he could not read the text of the book in his hand. It would have been well for him if he could have added with Merlin,
And none could read the comment but himself.
But it is easy to write in this strain without being at all able to construe the Greek. In fact, the absence of the trammels of grammar lightens the burden of the editor's erudition, and enables him more easily to find or overlook in the text whatever suits his purpose. But he speaks as one who knows all about grammar, and sees that there is nothing in it. It has been tried by him in the balance and found wanting. He is a little amused when convicted of an error in elementary accidence or syntax, perhaps just in the slightest degree annoyed, not more than an acrostic solver would be if he had missed an easy light. "The errors of a scientific explorer," he writes, "are often as instructive as his facts, and he who is afraid of making mistakes may be a good reproducer of other men's labours, but will never increase the sum of human knowledge." If scholars of this type have their way, the study of classics will soon be held in England to be about as dignified an occupation as the solving of acrostics. Such mere minutiae as the difference between a present participle and a past, between τά the article, and τά the relative, between πλεῖστα "several" and τὰ πλεῖστα "the most part of," are quite beneath the notice of the New School.
I corrected τά πλεῖστα to τὰ πλεῖστα. The "recent editor of the first three books of Herodotus" was A.H. Sayce. See:

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