Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's Greek to Him

In the essay "The Greek Conquest of England", collected in Essays Ancient and Modern, Bernard Knox writes
Ben Jonson, who sneered at Shakespeare's "less Greek," had none too much himself and Samuel Johnson [said] of the young Alexander Pope that "it was not very likely he overflowed with Greek" . . .
Here Knox is writing of how Greek displaced Latin as the most esteemed language of antiquity, something that occurred with the Romantic generation Still, it brought to mind other instances of writers being happy to say hard things about one another's mastery of Greek.

In his biography Thomas More, R.W. Chambers cites and argues against
the gibe, to which Gibbon gave currency, that Erasmus learned at Oxford the Greek which he subsequently taught at Cambridge.
(Though in context this appears to me to be a gibe aimed at Cambridge, not at Erasmus.)

In Eothen William Alexander Kinglake reports Lady Hester Stanhope's remarks on Byron:
The first whom she crucified in my presence was poor Lord Byron; she had seen him, I know not where, soon after his arrival in the East, and was vastly amused at his little affectations; he had picked up a few sentences of the Romaic, and with these he affected to give orders to his servant in a sort of ton d'apameibomenos style ...
And Stendahl reports the remarks of a Milanese professor on Byron to the same effect.

Macaulay is happy to demolish the learning of John Wilson Croker at some length, including
 Johnson was not a first-rate Greek scholar; but he knew more Greek than most boys when
they leave school; and no schoolboy could venture to use the word thnetoi in the sense which Mr. Croker ascribes to it without imminent danger of a flogging.
(To be sure, he is as hard on Croker's Latin and command of facts and dates.)

Knowing better was Macaulay's and Gibbon's stock in trade, of course.  Johnson, evaluating Pope's versions of Homer, had good reason to judge Pope's knowledge. Byron, I suppose, had only himself to blame for unkind attentions.

The amusement of maligning someone else's mastery of Greek must by now be purely a specialist's treat, to be carried out in academic journals, rather than in widely circulated magazines or in books with the print run of Johnson's Lives of the Poets or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I sat through the commencement of a large college of arts and sciences last year, where the students came up by department; there was one classics major. The attempted coup against the University of Virginia's president came in part because some on the Board of Visitors thought her too reluctant to shut down dwindling departments, one of them, of course, being Classics.


  1. I wonder what would be a modern equivalent amusement? By what body of knowledge are we now recognised as educated - or not? I can't think, offhand, but there must be something (probably showing myself to be definitely in the 'or not' camp, by not knowing).

    1. By now I think that there are many tribes rather than one public. I am acquainted with some of the sub-tribes of the tribe "programmer". I catch sight in the newspapers of tribes that would damn me as an ignoramus and bigot for smirking when I read about the construction of gender or at discourse talk in general. And I could go on ...

  2. Just saw this:

    1. Does Oxford fear that displaying this in clear fonts would bring such a horde of classicists as to crash their servers? And what is Boris Johnson waving?