Via dirk at Pepys Diary, this delightful excerpt from George Borrow’s Lavengro:

The very first person to whose care I was intrusted for the acquisition of Latin was an old friend of my fathers, a clergyman who kept a seminary at a town the very next we visited after our departure from ‘the Cross.’ Under his instruction, however, I continued only a few weeks, as we speedily left the place. ‘Captain,’ said this divine, when my father came to take leave of him on the eve of our departure, ‘I have a friendship for you, and therefore wish to give you a piece of advice concerning this son of yours. You are now removing him from my care; you do wrong, but we will let that pass. Listen to me: there is but one good school-book in the world – the one I use in my seminary – Lilly’s Latin grammar, in which your son has already made some progress. If you are anxious for the success of your son in life, for the correctness of his conduct and the soundness of his principles, keep him to Lilly’s grammar. If you can by any means, either fair or foul, induce him to get by heart Lilly’s Latin grammar, you may set your heart at rest with respect to him; I, myself, will be his warrant. I never yet knew a boy that was induced, either by fair means or foul, to learn Lilly’s Latin grammar by heart, who did not turn out a man, provided he lived long enough.’
My father, who did not understand the classical languages, received with respect the advice of his old friend, and from that moment conceived the highest opinion of Lilly’s Latin grammar. During three years I studied Lilly’s Latin grammar under the tuition of various schoolmasters, for I travelled with the regiment, and in every town in which we were stationary I was invariably (God bless my father!) sent to the classical academy of the place. It chanced, by good fortune, that in the generality of these schools the grammar of Lilly was in use; when, however, that was not the case, it made no difference in my educational course, my father always stipulating with the masters that I should be daily examined in Lilly. At the end of the three years I had the whole by heart; you had only to repeat the first two or three words of any sentence in any part of the book, and forthwith I would open cry, commencing without blundering and hesitation, and continue till you were glad to beg me to leave off, with many expressions of admiration at my proficiency in the Latin language. Sometimes, however, to convince you how well I merited these encomiums, I would follow you to the bottom of the stair, and even into the street, repeating in a kind of sing-song measure the sonorous lines of the golden schoolmaster. If I am here asked whether I understood anything of what I had got by heart, I reply – ‘Never mind, I understand it all now, and believe that no one ever yet got Lilly’s Latin grammar by heart when young, who repented of the feat at a mature age.’

If you wish to perfect your own education by memorizing Lily (the more usual spelling), here‘s an edition on Google Books.


  1. rootlesscosmo says

    The repetition of “fair means or foul” is sort of alarming.

  2. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed being a student back in those days.

  3. ‘Lavengro’ is a book your readers would love, if they haven’t already read it.

  4. parvomagnus says

    “Genders of Nouns be seven: The Masculine, The Feminine, the Neuter, Commune of the two, the Commune of the three, the Doubtful, and the Epicene.”
    Our modern grammars might well follow Lily in this elegant reduction of the Latin gender system into its basic components. It’s not so wrong, just rather bewildering…
    And I can understand reciting it; it does have a certain sing-song quality to it.
    “So is Noster declined, and tuus, suus, vester, saving that these three last do lack the Vocative case.”
    Odd that ‘do lack’ bit. Such freer use of do-periphrasis in the past interests me. I’ve read dismissive stuff about poets then using such periphrasis only to make the meter (‘lazy fellows, poets’ the reasoning seems), but you can’t make that argument here. Does give it a nice hexameter-y flow though.

  5. O, it is a thing of beauty! Thanks.

  6. Odd that ‘do lack’ bit. Such freer use of do-periphrasis in the past interests me.
    It was completely standard in the 17th century, as I’ve learned by reading Pepys. The OED puts it well and concisely: “Found in OE., frequent in ME., very frequent 1500-1700, dying out in normal prose in 18th c.; but still [i.e., late 19th c.] retained in s.w. dialects; also as an archaism in liturgical and legal use, and as a metrical resource in verse.”
    So yes, after it died out in normal usage, lazy poets did use it “only to make the meter.”

  7. Reading A Short History of Linguistics be R.H. Robins, I came across the following paragraph:

    In England W. Lily’s Latin grammar enjoyed the distinction of being officially prescribed for school use by King Henry VIII in 1540 (the official version, in fact, contained contributions from other contemporary grammarians as well). Lily’s grammar in the main follows the Priscianic system, with eight word classes or parts of speech. It is severely practical and didactic, and does not engage in linguistic or philosophical theory or speculation. A century later Basset Jones published his Essay on the rationality of the art of speaking, expressly as a supplement to Lily’s grammar. He laid claim to the support both of Aristotle and of Francis Bacon, but his allegedly rational explanations are mostly either unoriginal or absurdly fanciful.

  8. David Marjanović says

    He laid claim to the support both of Aristotle and of Francis Bacon, but his allegedly rational explanations are mostly either unoriginal or absurdly fanciful.

    So it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good aren’t original, and the parts that are original aren’t good?

  9. I forget who it was who was asked to listen to a piano piece, composed and performed by an unknown, on the death of the 19C American composer Edward McDowell. After hearing it through, he said, “Well, it’s very nice — but don’t you think it would have been better if you had died and McDowell had composed the elegy?”

  10. PlasticPaddy says


    Samuel Taylor Coleridge … quipped ironically:

    Swans sing before they die— ‘t were no bad thing
    Should certain persons die before they sing.

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