Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Biography, Classics

Learning Greek and Latin in Dublin Schools

jacket imageDavid Grene (1913–2002) taught classics for many years at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of the Committee on Social Thought and coedited The Complete Greek Tragedies. Six months of every year, though, he worked his farm in Ireland. This is an excerpt about his early education from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir.

The school my parents chose for me was St. Stephen’s Green and was essentially one of these small private Protestant schools. It was not a boarding school, but otherwise the atmosphere was very like that described by George Orwell in Such, Such Were the Joys. The fees in the bigger private schools like High School or St. Andrew’s (where I went toward the end of my schooldays) were certainly rather less than in a place like St. Stephen’s Green, and both varieties cost far more than what my parents should have sensibly entertained as possible for them. I believe that the smaller schools were associated with a more explicit version of gentlemanliness. In the larger private schools quite a few of the pupils came from what was very nearly working class. Anyway, my parents decided that the small and exclusive Stephen’s Green was absolutely best for me, and by scraping and saving they sent me to it.

So during my schooldays—from about eight to seventeen (kindergarten occupied the years from six to eight)—I attended two Dublin private schools. I was in Stephen’s Green for about seven years and St. Andrew’s for two—the years directly before entrance to Trinity College. I certainly learned a great deal of languages in St. Andrew’s and was well taught. But I still do not think that much which formed my mind or my intellectual interests would have happened but for one master in the first school, Dicky Wood. I can still see him, old (though not quite so old as I am now) with a red, round face and one slightly crossed eye, wearing very respectable grey suits. He had been retired from a provincial school, bigger than ours, some years before, and when he came to Dublin had been taken on as a cheap staff member at Stephen’s Green. He was so excessively tenderhearted and so irresolute that he found it very hard to keep order in his class. When the boys made a row, or were talking and inattentive, he was quick to put the offenders’ names in the Detention Book, but almost always succumbed to their pleas before the end of his hour and rubbed the names out again. But give him a small number of impressionable boys, and he was a different being—and his passion was for Greek literature.

I remember he started us out on a book of elementary Greek readings which featured passages in genuine ancient Greek authors, a little modified and reduced in difficulty. I should not even say "started," for he began conscientiously with the grammar, and we declined the declensions and recited the conjugations in a sort of chant. But this lasted something less than two months, and we were then confronted with the book of readings. The grammar was still drilled into us coordinately with the readings to make sure that we did not forget it. This was an entirely different way of instruction from what I had had in Latin, where the teachers kept us writing "sentences" in Latin, examined strictly for grammar and nothing else, for nearly two years before reading anything in the original language. I have no doubt about the superiority of the Dicky Wood system over my Latin learning. I suppose I am about as competent in the one language as the other now, but from those beginning years my instinctive response to the drift of the Greek periods and their meaning was much better than my rather wooden translation of the Latin. Dicky also started us reading the New Testament in Greek. We all knew lots of the English New Testament (Authorized Version) by heart, and we were absurdly proud of our ability to read the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel in Greek, with a not quite mistaken belief that we understood it miraculously clearly, and as we had never known it before.

In the second year Dicky had us read the Alcestis of Euripides. (There were five of us in Greek; the others in our regular class, the Fourth, had chosen one of the two alternatives to Greek: German or drawing.) We were all made to take parts and read the lines dramatically, first in Greek and then in English; Dicky himself insisted on playing Alcestis. Our classroom for Greek was an unoccupied room in the huge old eighteenth-century house on St. Stephen’s Green (now demolished), unswept and usually unheated. I remember Dicky dying magnificently as Alcestis, flopping very naturally on the dusty floor, declaiming her dying speech. He knew Browning exceedingly well, and Browning’s version of Alcestis nearly by heart. It was Browning he usually recited when he came to give us the English version. We, of course, stumbled through with whatever simple translation we could manage. The bracketing of the strangely attractive and secret Greek with the excitement of the comprehensible and elegant Browning transported us—and we also in an elementary way were penetrated by what we were doing in our clumsy efforts to render the Greek.

At this point Dicky also used to teach us English literature. He discussed all of his favorite books with his pupils, and especially with me when I would walk part of the way home with him along Leeson Street. He had vivid and often unusual preferences in fiction. For instance, he was a great devotee of Walter Scott, and surprisingly both he and I chose The Antiquary before the others. After that I listed The Heart of Midlothian, and he Old Mortality. He was always deep in nineteenth-century novels; I hardly ever heard him speak of Fielding or Smollett or Sterne—I suppose because in those twisted Puritanical days they would have been looked upon as undesirably coarse for the young. He knew and loved Dickens and Thackeray, and especially Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, and was strong on the connections of Charlotte’s parson father with his stories of Ireland and, in particular, between those stories and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. He passionately loved nineteenth-century poetry, especially Browning and Tennyson, but he stopped short of modernity in Yeats. One must remember that in the mid-1920s Yeats had not yet written what seem to me his greatest poems. I also remember once being brought up short by Dicky over a disagreement with me. I was about eleven years old and given to pretending to understand what I did not. In 1924 I saw Saint Joan and afterward Othello. I ventured to say how both had moved me and how extraordinary the experience of Othello had been. Dicky said, rather hesitantly, "Don’t you think it is a somewhat sordid story?"

I find it surprising, looking back, that even with Dicky’s interest and influence as strong as it was in both classical and modern literature, I stuck resolutely to Greek rather than English as my area of concentration; for within a couple of years, from thirteen to fifteen, those of us who expected to go on to university were already setting ourselves up to specialize in those subjects that suited us best. (This very early specialization has been, and still is, one of the major differences between the English and the American systems of education.) After all, English was my native language; Greek and Latin I knew only imperfectly. Even the fragments of the two languages I had mastered were hard won and doubtfully grasped. The appreciation of literature in its elementary form, the passionate response to story or rhythm, with half-understood glimpses of "meaning" conveyed in them, were only partially present in my head in two foreign languages that were no longer evolving or in use and, therefore, in some sense dead. Yet I think my choice, if one could call such a slight inclination a choice, was not wrong. There is something in the process of learning Greek and Latin which baffles an immediate comprehension, which slows the response but does not finally diminish the eventual depth of reception; often this becomes associated with some vaguely deeper taste for literature, especially poetry, and leaves the curious being so disposed a classicist rather than a scholar in English or, indeed, in the other more accessible modern languages. I know that I owe more to Dicky for my love and knowledge of Greek and Latin than to anyone who ever taught me afterward. Which would mean, if true—and I believe it is true—that the experience of a boy of ten to fifteen of a schoolteacher settled things for me in a way which could not be disturbed by far more qualified teachers later.

This was perhaps due somewhat to the nature of teacher and pupil. I was by nature very given to admire and follow someone idiosyncratic in authority, possessed by intense, observable enthusiasm, but also vulnerable. Dicky, in turn, was hardly capable of sensibly discriminating between the enthusiasm of a child for a subject he himself cared for so deeply, and the intelligent appreciation of someone much older. Many years later I heard that Dicky had been retired, a little prematurely, from his former schoolmastership because of a suspicion of pederasty. I certainly know that he never gave any overt, much less harassing, sign of it in relation to me or his other pupils at St. Stephen’s Green school. I think it is possible that he felt, and awakened in his students, a depth of emotional attachment which may have originated in the side of his character that had caused him trouble in the past.

Excerpted from Of Farming and Classics: A Memoir by David Grene. See another excerpt: "Honors Classics at Trinity College"