Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Styles and Languages

In a fragment Chateaubriand once meant for the end of Book XIII of his memoirs, and which the editor includes in an appendix of the volume, he writes (approximately)
Two languages dominated the ancient civilized world, two people judged, alone and as court of last resort, the monuments of their genius. Victorious over the Greeks, the Romans had the same respect for the works of the conquered that had been felt at Alexandria and Athens. The glory of Homer and of Virgil was faithfully handed on by the monks, the priests, and the clerks, instructors of the barbarians in the church schools, the monasteries, the seminaries, and the universities. A hereditary admiration descended from race to race to us, by means of the teachers, of whom the faculty, working these fourteen centuries, confirms without ceasing the same verdict.
It is no longer so in the modern civilized world: five languages flourish there; each of these five languages has its own masterpieces, which are not recognized as such in the countries where they speak the other four languages.
No one, in a living literature, is qualified to judge any but the works written in his own language. Only mistakenly do you imagine that you know another language through and through: you lack the milk of your nurse, likewise the first words you heard at her breast and in your cradle: certain accents are only of the homeland. One argues that true beauties belong to all times and all countries, yes, the beauties of feeling and of thought, not the beauties of style. Style is not, like thought, a cosmopolitan, it has a native land, its own sky and sun.
Perhaps--but did the Romans employ Greek wet nurses or the Franks Roman ones?

I should say that criticism and judgment is one thing, creation another. Knowing no language inside and out but English, I wonder how many can write at the highest level a language learned after childhood.

Coleridge says
this style of poetry, which I have characterized above, as translations of prose thoughts into poetic language, had been kept up by, if it did not wholly arise from, the custom of writing Latin verses, and the great importance attached to these exercises, in our public schools. Whatever might have been the case in the fifteenth century, when the use of the Latin tongue was so general among learned men, that Erasmus is said to have forgotten his native language; yet in the present day it is not to be supposed, that a youth can think in Latin, or that he can have any other reliance on the force or fitness of his phrases, but the authority of the writer from whom he has adopted them. Consequently he must first prepare his thoughts, and then pick out, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, or perhaps more compendiously from his Gradus, halves and quarters of lines, in which to embody them.
 (Indeed, in a later portion of his memoirs, Chateaubriand writes of sending out from jail for a Gradus so that he might occupy himself in writing a Latin epitaph for a friend's daughter. But he says that he needed to check the quantity of a word, not to look for phrases.)

John Jay Chapman, in his essay "The Pleasures of Greek" has his doubts:
And yet accurate scholarship and scientific precision are illusions in the case of language, and there is no scholar living who could write a page of Greek without making ludicrous errors--errors of the sort that the Anglo-Indian makes in writing English, which he has learned from books. If even Mr. Mackail or Gilbert Murray or Nauck, that great, horrible, mythic monster--should spend a whole day in dove-tailing phrases which they had fished out of Plato or Thucydides to make an essay of, the chances are that any Athenian would laugh five times to the page over the performance.

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