9 September 2020

Departed Worlds??? (2)

In the matter of composing Latin, Frederic Charles Geary, 1886-1974, Fellow of Corpus Christi College in this University 1928-1952 (see my post of July 6), definitely had Form and Previous. He was one of an active group of Oxford dons who gathered fortnightly to share and discuss their versions and compositions in Latin and Greek. In 1940 he had published Pelican [remember: he was a Corpus Christi don] Pie: Verses and Versions. The group was to publish in 1949 Some Oxford Compositions, and in 1964 More Oxford Compositions. In writing prose and verse in the Classical languages, these men were  using skills they had acquired at their English public schools and continued to use all their lives. (A generation before, Mgr Ronald Knox had printed Signa Severa in 1906 while still at Eton; he composed Latin, and Greek, and English prose and verse for five more deades, most notably in publishing the Fifth Book of Horace's Odes in 1920. [By contrast ... a modern Old Etonian recently said: "People would appreciate he and I coming together."])

Pelican Pie and Euchologium Anglicanum were, I think, the only volumes (both slender!) which Geary published. The German/American PhD and two-papers-a-year culture had not yet forced an ugly bridgehead upon the muddy banks of the Isis. In those days, dons had better things to do ... such as gastronomy and oenology (see Sunday's post), and honing their hendecasyllables. (One of Geary's Corpus colleagues, William Phelps, when asked by a German visitor why as a man of vast erudition he had 'produced' nothing, replied that he wished to keep his amateur status ... this was still the cricketing age of Gentlemen and Players!). Pelican Pie contained poems in some of the less easy metres of Horace; the politics of the previous decade led Geary to incorporate the names of the Foreign Secretary (Halifax, you will be relieved to hear, is an anapaest) and of foreign tyrants (Mussolini? You're right: a double trochee). I like to think that, if Hitler's invasion had ever happened, there would have been enough friendly former Rhodes Scholars in the German Administration to ensure the protection of Geary and his associates, whatever snide remarks they had concealed in lyric metres ... such is the international respublica litterarum. (You know the Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte story? But ... to drop the frivolity for a moment ... Eduard Fraenkel would have thought otherwise.)

But what ... what on earth ... is the point of composing prose and verse in dead languages? Surely, such wasted time and effort can be no more than the irrelevant playground of a decadent governing elite? One member of Geary's group, T F Higham (Trinity), mounted a spirited and revealingly Utilitarian defence against this suspicion. He explained that verse composition does indeed "make possible the reading of classical texts with ease and correct understanding". As an example, he took the play Dyscolus of Menander, long lost, but a single tattered copy of which had recently been recovered from the sands of Egypt. This papyrus codex was rather the worse for wear; some parts were difficult to read; there were some worm holes; there were scribal errors. Out of the hundreds of emendations or supplements needed, the great majority was supplied by British academics, who,  Higham reminds us, "had practised verse-composition"!!

Such skills are not entirely dead in this city of Dreams and Lost Causes. But ... well, consider this: one day when Geary had missed a seminar on Aeschylus as the result of having a tummy bug, he promptly sent an apology written in Aeschylean iambics which were described by a more recent Oxford academic as "such as few if any of us could compose now" (I most certainly couldn't). Like the world of Wallis's Lichfield Close, the Oxford of More Oxford Compositions and of Pelican Pie is, must we not concede, very nearly a Departed World???


PM said...

As for composition's being the irrelevant playground if a decaying elite, I was interested to read recently an obituary of Donald (DAFM, to use his initials) Russell of St John's, who taught composition. His parents were council school teachers in South London; his father was a pupil teacher in front of a class at fifteen, who later took a London degree as an evening student. So much for social elitism.

Banshee said...

Some kids put out a bardcore Classical Latin version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and a fair amount of bardcore is in medieval languages.

Albrecht von Brandenburg said...

Classicists would be better off honing their prose (and verse) composition skills than publishing for the sake of publishing (Tolkien was dead-set against it). I speak as one who, not so very long ago in the scheme of things, even though it was actually decades ago, had to pass Greek compulsory Greek composition with a paper of three hours length requiring a lengthy passage of one of Cicero's philosophical works (Tusculan disputations?) into a Platonic style. There is nothing like composition to assist in the mastery of Latin and Greek, and ecclesiastics have every reason to accomplish a basic facility in Latin. How, otherwise, will an ecumenical council be able to be held correcting the disasters from (at least) 1962 onwards??