Saturday, January 30, 2016

Who Said That?

In The Last Puritan, a letter of Mario Van de Weyer's reports a conversation with a friend, Lord Basil Kilcoole:
"If you never write down your inspirations, Cooly, aren't you afraid of forgetting them, or of getting them mixed up and spoilt?"
"Yes," he replied wistfully. "I often don't knopw whether something that's running through my head is a line of Shakespeare's or an early line of me own. For instance, at this moment I am inwardly hearing the words: Perpetual liars that deceive us never. Is that line somebody's, I wonder?"
"Oh, yes: you've cribbed it from La Fontaine."
"Why question who said it first? It's a chameleon. Perhaps it was French once. Now it is English. Perhaps it only meant that too much lying defeats itself: a copy-book platitude. Yet it has some to mean that our inspirations themselves, in the guise of endless illusion, may lead us mystically to the heart of truth."
 I can't say that I've every mistaken anything of my own for Shakespeare's, or vice-versa.  However, now and then I pick up a book read decades ago, and upon reading it again suspect that I have been unconsciously quoting it for many years. This time it was The Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot.

I have complained, now and then, the English Departments of the 1970s tended to give their students a pound of theory for an ounce of reading, and that some of those so trained went on to apply to the lyrics of rock and roll the tools made for a better understanding of Shakespeare or Donne. In the essay "Modern Education and the Classics", Eliot writes that
There are two kinds of subject, which at an early stage, provide but poor training for the mind. One is the subject which is concerned more with theories, and the history of theories, than with the storing of the mind with such information and knowledge as theories are built upon ...
Eliot is speaking of economics; however, a third subject "equally bad for training" is the study of the literature of one's own native language. The essay also touches on the universities as managing themselves as if for indefinite expansion. And it hints at the American superstition that if one keeps the young in a classroom for long enough, then some instruction will occur. On all these points I may have quoted Eliot without knowing I did so.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose it depends what you mean by 'study' but I think the study of poetry in one's own language is useful at any age