Two from Laudator.

1) Beastly (from John Burnet, Ignorance [OUP, 1923]):

When I was at school we certainly thought it ‘beastly’, as we called it, that we should have to learn such things as irregular verbs by heart. On the other hand, it was not particularly laborious for us at that age, and we could more or less see the use of it. It was clearly the way to get the power of reading Homer and Virgil without constant interruption, and I honestly believe that most of us enjoyed that. Of course we should not have dreamed of confessing it to one another, and still less of admitting it to ‘old so-and-so’, our master, who was doing the best he could for us with scant hope of reward and no expectation of gratitude. To do so would have violated that mysterious schoolboy code, which is not only a beneficent provision of nature to protect society from juvenile prigs, but springs from a native instinct of the young Soul to preserve the solitude so needful for the growth of its inner life. Of course the time came later when we were ready to admit, very shyly at first, to one another that we did like Homer and Virgil, but at first we were quite content to learn our irregular verbs. There is no great mystery in that. Mere memorizing comes natural to the young, and it does not matter at all whether they understand what they memorize or not. Children have always invented things—counting-out rhymes and the like—the main purpose of which is to be memorized. Think of the undying popularity of The House that Jack Built. We may say, indeed, that they have a passion for rigmarole, and small boys retain a great deal of this. One would think that our educational system would take advantage of that, and so it does in matters of absolute necessity like the multiplication table.


For the grown man, of course, grammar may be one of the most dangerously fascinating studies, but for the boy it is just what I have called the sediment of dead knowledge, to be acquired as speedily as may be for the sake of its results and not for itself. This is quite understood in many other branches of training. It is really a good deal easier to read Homer than it is to play the piano, and yet the proportion of people who learn to play the piano, at least to their own satisfaction, is far greater than that of those who learn to read Homer. In this case every one can see that the first thing to be done is to acquire the necessary automatism, and the methods of acquiring it have been more or less systematized. If you had to think of every chord, you would never play anything. On the other hand, no one imagines that the traditional scales and exercises are music. They are simply practice, directed to the acquisition of automatic power, and that is how grammar should be treated at school. It is an historical fact that, when this method was followed, a large number of people did acquire the power of reading Homer, and that a very considerable number continued to read him all their days.

2) How Long Does it Take to Make a Mummy? (from W. Jackson Bate, “The Crisis in English Studies,” Harvard Magazine 85.1 [1982]:

If you took a Ph.D. here in English as late as the 1930s, you were suddenly shoved — with grammars written in German — into Anglo-Saxon, and Middle Scots, plus Old Norse (Icelandic), Gothic, Old French, and so on. I used to sympathize with the Japanese and Chinese students who had come here to study literature struggling with a German grammar to translate Gothic into English! William Allan Neilson, the famous president of Smith College, had been a professor of English here for years. Forgiveably, he stated that the Egyptians took only five weeks to make a mummy, but the Harvard English Department took five years.

And for lagniappe: Hats off!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    How long does it take to make a mummy?

    Nine months, or thereabouts.

  2. The tall man fourth from the left in your lagniappe, Henry Tonks, was a surgeon who became more interested in drawing and was later a very influential head of the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL (he taught Paul Nash, Bomberg and a slew of others from that generation including the godawful Percy Wyndham Lewis). Tonks was also a war artist on the Western Front, where he made extraordinary studies of the wounded from the unusual position of being both an accomplished artist and a surgeon. One day in August 1918, Tonks & John Singer Sargent witnessed the line of blinded troops that caused Sargent to paint Gassed. It’s perhaps in some way parallel to Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est – at any rate gassing was apparently enough to shock even the war artists and poets of 1918. There are lots of precedents claimed for Gassed, they’re on the Wiki page, but what struck me enough to ramble on with this explanation is the similarity of Sargent’s Gassed to Orpen’s pencil sketch of the English Art Club of 1904.

    – Oh, and I meant to say that much as I love him I find these & Nash’s WW1 works far more eloquent and shocking than any antiwar image by Picasso.

  3. I always wondered about the use of “beastly” at the start of Ulysses ( “O, it’s only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead. … It’s a beastly thing and nothing else.” )

    … the first use always seemed weirdly out of place to me, with “beastly” sort of being used as an adverb? But I suppose that was just my own perception of it because it ends in “-ly”, and it’s probably just being used as a general purpose swear word, like “bloody”.

  4. PlasticPaddy says

    Beastly here is more of a boarding school or varsity usage, which Joyce is shoehorning into phrases which in Irish and Hiberno-English use exaggeration “I’m starving”/ Tá mé ag fáil bás leis an ocras. The word used analogously to beastly in Irish is uafásach, which means dreadful/ly.

  5. Children have always invented things—counting-out rhymes and the like—the main purpose of which is to be memorized.

    Some Australian aboriginal languages apparently have games that involve testing the use of the correct kinship terms.

  6. Mere memorizing comes natural to the young, and it does not matter at all whether they understand what they memorize or not.

    The Chinese always realised this. Rote memorisation was the cornerstone of Chinese education. In ESL there is a dreary procession of new approaches to the teaching of English to supersede old ones. They all sound much the same and “communicative” is the only one that sticks in my mind. “Audio lingual” went out decades ago. Sometimes I wonder whether the Chinese approach is as bad as it’s made out to be.

  7. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    Mere memorizing comes natural to the young, and it does not matter at all whether they understand what they memorize or not.

    Humble self-report an exception to this, including my youth, which may be one of the reasons I never read Virgil with any semblance of delight. I could never even learn my times tables, and if I later specialized in the mathematical arts it was because you don’t actually have to learn those or any of the other formulas, although with the benefit of senescence I can now see some value in having them at your cognitive fingertips, which I still don’t.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    But you remember not being able to memorize, which is a not inconsiderable feat of memorial recycling. Senescence allows one to gather up the empties at a more leisurely pace than youth will tolerate.

  9. squiffy-marie von bladet says

    At this point I can barely remember the number I first thought of, it is refreshingly beginner’s-mind-y up there

  10. Embrace the void!

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