"The Greatest Single Defect of My Own Latin Education"

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I got through Responsions, and that was the end of that. The Degree course allowed me to do my Mods. in Modern Languages. The Latin I no longer required began to slip away through the sieve of preoccupation. The Greek lingered only long enough to steer me through a couple of Testaments for the now obsolete Divinity Mods., and then followed the Latin down the drain. Two contacts only remained. I was reading French, and the Old French required for the Language Papers demanded a minimum acquaintance with the Latin roots, morphology and syntax. And as a member of the Bach Choir I learned to sing the Latin Mass and a number of mediaeval hymns and carols.

This added yet another pronunciation to my collection-the ecclesiastical. I had been brought up to say "Pleeni sunt ceeli"; school had commanded me to say "Playnee soont koilee"; I now sang "Playnee soont chaylee". I had never, and I have never, been able to dissociate the written word from the spoken sound; if I cannot pronounce I cannot read. With the fragmentation of the sounds the disintegration of control followed so fast that at this stage in my career I could scarcely have read ten consecutive Latin words aloud in a consistent pronunciation and without false quantities, or construed ten consecutive lines.

Yet I believe that it was about this time that a dim glamour which had haunted me all my childhood, and haunts me to this day, began to shine into my mind like the sun rising through a mist-the shimmering, spell-binding magic of the medieval Latin.

Everybody is, I suppose, either Classic or Gothic by nature. Either you feel in your bones that buildings should be rectangular boxes with lids to them, or you are moved to the marrow by walls that climb and branch, and break into a [sic] inflorescence of pinnacles. And however successfully you educate yourself to a just appreciation of the other kind, it will never have the same power to capture you soul and body in your unguarded moments.

In the same way, you either have the austere taste which delights in the delicate interplay of stress and quantity in the hexameter-only you must remember that nobody had ever once thought of showing me how that worked-or you have the more (if you like) twopence-coloured taste that reacts powerfully to:

Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulchra regionum

Coget omnes ante tronum.

Augustine was moved to tears by the sorrows and death of Dido, and with good reason:

illa, graves oculos conata attollere, rursus

deficit, infixum stridet sub pectore volnus.

ter sese attollens cubitoque adnixa levavit:

ter revoluta toro est, oculisque errantibus alto

quaesivit caelo lucem, ingemuitque reperta.

A more plangent and piercing cry goes up from the foot of the Cross:

Pro peccatis sui gentis

vidit Jesum in tormentis

et flagellis subditum;

vidit suum dulcem natum

moriendo desolatum

dum emisit spiritum.

But I want to come back to this later. For the moment I will only leave on record that my Latin education ended upon this note. It ended, I say, there, leaving me, after close on twenty years' teaching, unable to read a single Latin author with ease or fluency, unable to write a line of Latin without gross error, unfamiliar with the style and scope of any Latin author, except as I had taken refuge in English translations, and stammering of speech because by this time all three pronunciations were equally alien and uncertain. And this was a thing that never ought to have happened to me, because I was born with the gift of tongues.

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⏰ Last updated: Jul 21, 2010 ⏰

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