Brunswick's Fated Chieftain
As the head of the English Department of St. Bernard‘s School in New York. I HUMPHREY FRYhas occasionally felt the probing of inquiring young minds, as his account will show. Readers who enjoy his humor are directed to his satirical novel, IF THE CAP FITS,published by John Day a year ago.
IN MY school days, whenever progress bogged down in the classroom, it was the pupil who took the rap. Today it is the teacher. Since Johnny shows such a remarkable interest in baseball statistics and guided missiles, it stands to reason that his enthusiasm could be equally aroused by trigonometric functions and French irregular verbs, if only those subjects were presented in the right way. This pleasing habit of blaming the teacher is even applied retroactively. “I‘ve never cared much for history,” candidly admits a charming ignoramus over a cocktail. “It must be the way I was taught at school. All those dates!”
If the teacher attempts to defend himself, it is pointed out that Russian students show avid curiosity over the most unpromising subjects. Obviously the quality of teaching behind the Iron Curtain is something unknown to the West. Or can it be that the Russian student‘s ardor is so intense that the wettest of academic wet blankets cannot quench it? Whatever the reason, the popular belief that American youngsters value learning not for its own sake but as a means to an end, the college degree being regarded as a kind of key to commercial success or social distinction, is widespread and growing. It is with the object of puncturing this myth that I introduce the reader to Perkins, an American student whose curiosity, differing only in degree from that of the average run of his classmates, is as boundless as it is disinterested.
The scene is my classroom; the subject, English history. Perkins has the floor.
“Did Charles the Second have fourteen children, sir, as the book says?”
“Yes, Perkins. Give or take a child, that is.”
“But that‘s five more than Queen Victoria, sir.”
“How is it that none of them came to the throne? Did they all die first, like Queen Anne’s children?”
“No. Perkins. Most of them survived their father, just as those who were born before 1665 survived the Plague. And, speaking of the Plague, Samuel Pepys, the eminent diarist, has left us a vivid account — what is it, Perkins?”
“You haven’t answered my question, sir. According to the law of primogeniture, the eldest son should succeed to the throne, followed by his heirs, if any, followed by —”
“Yes, yes, of course. But those, er, offspring of Charles were not the children of the Queen.”
“Catherine of Braganza, sir? Not her children?”
“Then, exactly whose children were they?”
“It doesn’t always do to be too exact in these matters. There are more rewarding fields of research for the student who wishes to preserve a sense of historical values. For instance, the decline of the royal power under the Stuarts, foreshadowed by the betrayal of Strafford and Clarendon by the two Charleses respectively. What a wealth of —”
“But, sir. How can you justify inexactitude in any field of historical research?”
There is no sidetracking Perkins when it comes to personalities. He ferrets out the secrets of the most inconsequential characters and stores them in the attic of his mind. When he has you on the historical ropes, you can only hang on in the hope that you will be saved by the bell. In most cases I frankly admit ignorance and refer Perkins to the encyclopedia.
“Let‘s consult ‘the useful book that knows.’ That‘s Browning, by the way. ‘Mr. Sludge the Medium.’ Or is it ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’?”
“I suppose it doesn’t do to be too exact about Browning, sir.”
“On the contrary, Perkins, I think one should be as exact as possible. I therefore suggest that you verify the quotation in your spare time, as well as clear up the little question you raised yesterday about Brunswick‘s fated chieftain.”
This is, of course, hitting below the belt, but in the eyes of the class I have scored a point, and as for Perkins, he is delighted to pursue his favorite pastime with the express approval of authority.
I have to admit that Perkins has done much to extend my acquaintance with the byways of history. Take this Brunswick character. For years I have been as familiar as the next fellow with Byron’s stanzas on “The Eve of Waterloo.” For the benefit of the next fellow but one, let me quote the relevant stanza:
Sate Brunswick’s fated chieftain; he did hear
That sound the first amidst the festival,
And caught its tone with Death’s prophetic ear.
And when they smiled because he deemed it near,
His heart more truly knew that peal too well
Which stretched his father on a bloody bier,
And roused the vengeance blood alone could quell;
He rushed into the held, and, foremost fighting, fell.
Until Perkins came along, my knowledge of the Brunswicks was confined to what these nine lines tell us. I had accepted the epithet “fated” as a kind of label, like “Tiger” Jones or “Slammin’” Sammy Snead, which tell you “all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” of the character labeled. I flattered myself that I had a pretty vivid picture of a romantic young misanthrope brooding over his father’s death in the “windowed niche,” until, goaded into furious action by the supercilious smiles of the young bucks at the ball, he made a mad dash for the battlefield, which he sensed by a sort of prophetic instinct — aided, of course, by the sound of the guns — would turn out to be the little village of Waterloo. (In my day in Flanders, just a hundred years later, we had to report to our units, but in the Napoleonic wars the army men were apparently spared this kind of red tape.) As for the elder Brunswick, I pictured him lying in a bloodstained coffin and let it go at that.
Forestalling, for once, the searching questions of the insatiable Perkins, I had put in a little spadework on the Brunswicks before introducing the class to Byron‘s lines. (This didn’t prevent me from allowing Perkins to do his own digging.) I soon discovered what I had been vaguely aware of throughout, that the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball had taken place on the eve of Quatre Bras, not of Waterloo, and it was into this field, or crossroads, that Brunswick Junior rushed and foremost fighting fell. Blame, by the way. for the inaccuracy must rest with the compilers of popular anthologies of poetry: Byron never headed his stanzas “The Eve of Waterloo.”
And what about Brunswick Senior and the bloody bier? It turns out that he was wounded mortally — if you can call it that — in 1806 at the battle of Auerstadt but remained with the armies in the field, being carried, apparently, around on a stretcher for a full month before succumbing to the effects of his wounds and the rigors of the campaign. So much for the mental picture I had gleaned from Byron.
Now, it so happens that I have friends who teach on a much higher level than mine, professional historians full of recondite lore, authors of learned treatises designed to bestow prestige on the colleges that employ them, though to the neglect of the students they are paid to teach; the kind who say empathy when they mean sympathy and recondition when they mean repair. There was a time when I used to consult some of these friends on factual history, but they had a way of putting me out of my depth which I found discouraging. The conversation would go something like this:
FRY. “By the way, old boy, would you mind giving me the dope on Brunswick’s fated chieftain? Byron’s account is tantalizingly meager, and I wondered —”
PROFESSIONAL HISTORIAN. “Yes, of course. But the really interesting member of that clan was the man behind the scenes in the early days of the League of Augsburg. Descended from a cadet branch of the family, he has been largely ignored by the Bavarian school.”
FRY. “Sounds fascinating, but at the moment I happen to be more interested in the Eve ol Waterloo man.”
P. H. “Ah, that’s because you’ve never met the League of Augsburg man. There’s scope there for a really penetrating biography. Given the proper empathy, that is. With all the spare time you have, you might —”
FRY. “I’m afraid all my spare time goes in keeping up with Perkins.”
P. H. “Who‘s Perkins?”
FRY, “One of my students. His research quotient is colossal.”
P. H. (glancing at watch). “That reminds me. I have research to do on my comparative study of Zulu and Polynesian eroticism. I must hurry along.”
Sometimes the question would be a scientific one, but my professional friends proved equally evasive. Thus:
FRY. “IS there any truth in the theory that, in order to compensate for the beard they can‘t grow, women have an extra layer of skin which enables them to stand higher degrees of temperature in their baths?”
PROFESSIONAL SCIENTIST. “In their baths?”
FRY. “Yes. I speak from hearsay, of course. But I have noticed that, in peeling eggs that have been boiling for four minutes —”
P. S. “Oh, I see. Well, there‘s more than one school of thought among dermatologists. It would be idle to deny that certain differentials exist, though at present still in the exploratory stage. To me, however, the most significant distinctions between the sexes — ”
FRY. “Yes, I’ve figured those out for myself. Thanks just the same,”
On one occasion I had a little problem about cattle which any farmer should have been able to solve in his sleep. The expert I consulted was not content to call himself an agriculturist, or even agriculturalist; he was a professor of agronomy. After some desultory conversation on crop rotation, I posed my question:
FRY. “IS there anything to the theory that cows lie down when it‘s going to rain and stand up when it’s going to be fine, and vice versa?”
PROFESSOR OF AGRONOMY. “Well, there are at least two schools of thought on that subject,”
FRY (in satirical vein). “So I‘ve observed — among cows as well as experts.”
P. OF A. (ignoring, or possibly unaware of, satirical vein). “Precipitation, you see, takes us back to Thales, whose theory Pindar had in mind when he called water the best of things. Newton, on the other hand, held. . . .”
By recalling an urgent engagement. I was mercifully spared whatever it was that Newton held. Possibly an apple.
It is sometimes hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to the byways of learning, the expert can be as broken a reed as the layman. It would be unworthy to suggest that he does not really know, but he does show a decided preference for discussing some peripheral issue. Even that expert in words, Robert Louis Stevenson, writes: “I still remember that emphyteusis is not a disease, nor stillicide a crime.” Notice the negative attitude. He does not tell us what these words mean; he merely assures us that he knows what they do not mean. It is true we never asked him, so I suppose we cannot accuse him of being really evasive. But what was all right for Stevenson addressing his young men and maidens from the safe distance of the printed page is no good to a man who has to confront Perkins daily in the classroom. Hence the hours of research I have put into brushing up on my byways. I can now answer all but the most searching questionnaire on. inter alia, the following:
1. The Scian and the Teian muse. (Byron again.)
2. The historical authenticity of Shelley’s Ozymandias.
3. The geographical ditto of Coleridge’s sacred river Alph.
4. The Babylonian woe of Milton.
5. Browning’s Colenso. (“And Colenso’s words have weight.”)
6. The identity of Alciphron and Arisbe in this stanza from Swinburne‘s “Dolores”:
There are none such as knew it of old.
Was it Alciphron once or Arisbe,
Male ringlets or feminine gold,
That thy lips met with under the statue,
Whence a look shot out sharp after thieves
From the eyes of the garden-god at you
Across the fig-leaves?
7. Who fished the murex up? (Browning again.)
8. Saxo Grammaticus. (Who fished him up?)
Just the same, you can only brush up on byways; you cannot comb them (unless you happen to be Aldous Huxley). Brunswick‘s fated chieftain and the bloody bier may keep Perkins busy for a time, but there is always a danger that he will stumble onto the cadet branch of the family and the League of Augsburg man — if indeed, the latter exists. Well, I am ready for him. I have written him a letter of introduction to my friend the professional historian. It would do some of these experts good to have a taste of Perkins.