Two Scholars

MAGICAL powers like those imputed to the flesh of mummies abide in the languages we call dead. They have the mystery of death, — of resurrection, too, — of a perpetual life in death, not due to the disentombing of antiquaries, but to the loyalty of one distinguished class. This class of scholars truly is magnificently repaid. “ Vitae lampada tradunt.” Without them the lamp Avould have fallen and expired. They, like vestals, dwell apart, keep ever burning the holy fire, and claim their immunities. The glories of the languages haunt also their husbandmen.

Nothing so troubled the old Roman, troubled him even in his grave, as a thought that the rites of the hearth might be neglected, and offerings to dead ancestors left unbrought. Therefore a sanctity awaited the heir that fulfilled these duties ; and even such a sanctity clothes the scholar that cherishes their ancient speech. Yet the glory about him is like the glory of fire in a lampless room, — that “ counterfeits a shade.” For it is pathetic that the language in which

“ Saintly Camillas lived and firm Atilius died,” that the language of those who fought at Marathon, should, if they have not perished, no longer be transmitted with the mother’s milk to her son. Their posterity, it may be, cannot read their epitaphs. Montaigne was nursed by one who spoke Latin, and he heard nothing save that tongue around his cradle ; but it was not in his blood ; he records, in fact, that his Latin gradually degenerated, until he lost the use of it. In this way, the handling of Greek and Latin gives a solemnity, a touch of pathos, to the scholar. But he is often poor. The words that would lay open the gates of heaven are impotent at the tradesman’s door. The world calls Greek, —

“ Greek in a hut, with water and a crust,
— Learning, forgive us ! — cinders, ashes, dust.”

Still, learning is not ill paid. If it were, so also would the martyr be, and mighty poets that have died before their fame was born. He that soweth roses must not look for apples, or even poppies. “ Aristotle is more known than Alexander,” says Democritus Junior, “ yet I stand not upon this ; the delight is what I aim at; so great pleasure, such sweet content, there is in study.” It is much to speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke, but more perhaps to speak the tongue of Greece that gave light, and Rome that gave fire, to the world. The scholar has upon his lips imperial accents. When I speak a line of Greek I seem to taste nectar and ambrosia. As in Heine’s fable the eagle of Jupiter was with him, antiquated and mournful though it might be, in his exile on a northern island; so the eagle accompanies the scholar.

There is ever something ideal in the “ dead languages.” They cannot be invaded, but remain crystallized immortally. Cæsar semper Augustus were words of incantatory effect on mediaeval ears ; and the sound of Greek falls freshly upon the mind, with a surprise, still as great as to the scholars of the Renaissance when Learning returned from her Babylonish captivity. So much so that we often praise the classic for a thought which in a modern would perhaps draw little attention. For the medium is as divine as marble ; and we might say with Michelangelo, of certain modern works, “ If this were to become marble, alas for the antiques.” De Quincey forgets his assumed contempt for the classical world when he remembers the sound of ἐπομπεúε, or Consul Romanus. . . .

I remember once, traveling in a southern county of England, coming across a servant who, even without his melancholy, seemed no ordinary man, and spoke with a kind of splendor that was new to me. He was tall, and had been straight, but now walked with a majestic stoop, though like Vulcan he limped. He was past middle age, his woes were of the kind that invite expressions of sympathy. On my inquiring what might be his misfortune, he answered in tones so carefully modulated as to appear half satiric, “ Eheu ! mater mea obiit hodie. O causa mese vivendi sola senectæ.” The words, however, seemed to carry their own balm ; his face glowed continually, as we talked for several minutes together, without a word that would have made Quintilian stare and gasp. His thoughts moved gracefully in a pomp of altisonant syllables. Sometimes he spoke English, but returned happily to Latin in the flashes of humor with which he referred to the university,— when, for example, he spoke of a languishing literary society (that had expelled him for a freak of classicism) as equaling the number of the good, and no more, —

“ vix numero sunt totidem, quot
Thebas portarum vel divitis Ostia Nili.”

He felt like a swallow kept among the starlings of a cold clime, while his fellows had flown eastward. . . . When I last heard of him, he was earning his bread by the composition of advertisements for a firm of merchants, and thus at last he found a subject matter adaptable to his peculiarly florid but melodious eloquence. I recognized with a sigh more than one of his favorite mighty words thus fallen.

In C—shire, I know a hamlet (a mere capful of houses) that lies, dimly seen below the high-perched road, like a cluster of straw beehives, under a great wood. Even these few houses are divided from one another by several tiny streams, that run in and out like gay, live things. Thither I descended one twilight from the hills, to buy honey from a cottager. It was August. Across the road went a stream, a tinkling chain of silver beads, presently buried in trees, on which the uncertain light was mixed with shade. Here and there were sombre alders, noisy still with the delicate southern voices of invisible birds. Here and there were poplars with a sound, not of running water, but of rain (the shower apparently dying away now and then as the wind fluctuated). And in the sunset among those enormous hills a bell was ringing out a melancholy sweet sic transit. . . . There was some light outside, but none in the low room, where the beekeeper was writing. He rose and greeted us with a bow. Then he left us, after lighting a candle for our good, and one for his own use in a loft where the honey was stored. The wooden frame, gray from the touch of his hands, was contrasted with the dewy, amber cells. While we were completing the purchase, and talking, he surprised us by answering in Latin, Omnibus una quies, etc., which Dryden has rendered thus:—

“ Their toil is common, common is their sleep;
They shake their wings when morn begins to peep;
Rush thro’ the city gates without delay;
Nor ends their work but with declining day.”

Pronounced by a mellow elegiac voice, this speech interested us profoundly.

Next day we went again with a freshened memory of the Georgies. He was never once at a loss, though we seldom spoke except in hexameters of Virgil. He had lived a large, roaming life, full of outward adventure, chiefly on the plains of America. Thither he had gone in his youth, accomplished in nothing but books, and those Latin and Greek. Notwithstanding, he had amassed great wealth. Of this a mighty accident—a prairie fire, or some such insurrection of the elements—had all but despoiled him, and he came home at the end of middle life to Wales. There he took to bee farming. Economy and hard work had made his life comfortable, and might have made it luxurious, for he was held rich. He remained unmarried. He had no kinsmen. He made no friends : two aged women of the hamlet were accustomed to tend him in occasional sicknesses. For the rest, he was contented, if not happy, with his bees and a few books, mainly Delphin classics. The bees would answer his call as they answered the smitten brass; and only when thus engaged on a tranquil summer evening did he betray a mellow complacency, except when with his books. He took pleasure in Claudian’s verses on the sirens ; Virgil, however, was his dearest author. Virgil was his oracle in all matters ; he practiced sortes Virgiliance: to him, rhyme was reason. His life was almost perfectly that of a scholar. After adventure, after witnessing the downfall of kings, and great peoples embattled one against another, after shipwreck and scenes of violent death, he concluded that

“ the tears of Imogen
Are things to brood on with more ardency
Than the death-days of Empires.”

He finds a refuge from the shadows of the world among the realities of books.

But, says one, your knowledge is nothing until another has acknowledged it. He contradicts that entirely. He knows that at least intellectual pleasure and the dulcitudes of a sane self-approval are by no means like snowflakes in the river, and that real joy holds within itself the germs of an endless self-reproduction. Electra, Aspasia, Leshia, are sweet friends to him, when Orestes and Pericles and Catullus have been many centuries underground. Caesar is nearer to him than Napoleon, and Thyrsis nearer than either. Experience has not impaired or clogged his imagination. If it has taught him anything, it has taught him the worth of silence. We often found him by the river, “ dazed,” in Virgilian phrase, “ by the mighty motion of the tide.” He told us himself that he was often “ drunk with silence.” In such moments, as we afterwards learned, he had monitions of an after life, — monitions arising merely, it may be, from a thought that from things with which he was in completest sympathy no separation was possible. He was to become part of the viewless winds. No writing of his remains ; and it is improbable that he was ever satisfied with his attempts. But, with what is perhaps the true spirit of the scholar, he laughs at the notion that to expect the approbation of posterity is unconsoling and vain. With a touch of pleasantry, he said, on one of my visits : “ My door is not strong enough to keep out the feeblest person in the hamlet ; yet when I close it, I effectually shut out the whole world; like Heinsius, I bolt the door, excluding ambition, passion, desire, the children of ignorance and nurslings of sloth, and in the very bosom of eternity I sit down with a supreme content in the company of so many famous minds, that I compassionate the mighty who know naught of this my felicity.” Yes! “in the bosom of eternity,” anticipating and making little of death. When we last parted, “ Death,” he said, “ always brings into my mind those closing verses of the last Eclogue,

'Ite domum saturæ — veuit Hesperus — ite capellæ ! ’ ”

Edward Thomas.