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Ancient Greek in Camden Town

1920

“What proportion of Englishmen who have learnt classics at school feel that Theocritus or Plato or Thucydides signify, above all, English playing fields, English class-rooms, and the scent of English limes? … Could it be reproduced for my little group of tired city clerks, telephone operators, and mechanics in Camden Town? Did one want to reproduce it?”

Meet ‘A.H.S’, a scholar writing in the Oxford Magazine. On March 5, 1920 he  shared his experience of teaching a “little group of tired city clerks, telephone operators and mechanics in Camden Town” at the ‘Working Men’s College’, London. He taught his class Plato’s ‘Republic’ in an English translation, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus also in translation, this time by ‘Professor Murray’.

A.H.S draws an interesting parallel between the experiences of classical texts received by schoolboys in a typical rural British public school and that of  highly literate and intellectually engaged working men in central London. He describes how eagerly his students responded to the classical material. For further details please see the scanned text below.

Shortly before the classes started I was visiting a certain public school, a school set in a typically English country-side, which on the June day of my visit was wonderfully beautiful. The Head Master - no less typical than his school, and his pride came out in the final remark which he made before he left me. He explained that he had a class to take in Theocritus. Then (with buoyant gesture); :can you conceive of anything more delightful than a class in Theocritus, on such a day and in such a place?"

The remark was suggestive of many things, and it left me picturing the progress of the class and thinking of the way in which, for so many succeeding generations, the classics have been steeped with the peculiar atmosphere of the public schools. What proportion of Englishmen who have learnt classics at school feel that Theocritus or Plato or Thucydides signify, above all, English playing fields, English class-rooms, and the scent of English limes? Of course in such an atmosphere much evaporates - the restlessness of the Greek intellect and many other things. There is even absurdity in the way in which some story of perverted passion is pleasantly droned through a drowsy summer afternoon. But the whole

complex, whatever differences it blurs, has its own unique character and value.... Could it be reproduced for my little group of tired city clerks, telephone operators, and mechanics in Camden Town? Did one want to reproduce it?

The text continues:

“I have spoken of the curiosity of the men who came to the classes. I cannot help going back to the contrast with the public-school method. Delightful as may be the process of gradually absorbing classical learning permeated with the most English of English atmospheres, there is something to be said for the value of the sharp contact of comparatively mature minds with an unknown literature and civilisation. The excitement and zest of discovery is something for which it would not always be easy to find a parallel in the classical education of the average public-school boy.”

“In the actual study of the play there were some points of special interest. The reading of Professor Murray’s translation was the basis. But at intervals a few lines would be taken — say a strophe of a chorus — and we gave them what was a rather close examination. First there was the Greek to be read aloud, followed by a very literal translation. Then the class would be shown the actual order of the words in the Greek, and it would be pointed out how words calling up certain images were juxtaposed and so forth. The class obtained in this way some idea of the character of an inflectional language and the uses to which it could be put. Differences in the character of the language would be illustrated by comparison with Professor Murray’s translation…

Such a detailed treatment could not be continued for long stretches, but carried out at intervals, it gave, I think, a sense of contact with the original text which the class could not otherwise have gained. The contact points, so to speak, diffused their influence over the intervening stretches. I did not find that the class was wearied. In fact this was the kind of method which they seemed to desire. The possibilities of conveying really close impressions of the genius of an unknown language on those lines must be considerable, and they at least provide a field of very great interest for the teacher… I can at least reiterate the hope that before long the question of introducing the study of Greek translations in W. E. A. classes may be taken up with the seriousness which it deserves.”

Bibliographical reference: The Oxford Magazine (1920) v. 38 (05.03.1920) British Library shelfmark: P.P.6118.k.

n.b. around 1920

5.00 out of 5

1 comment for Ancient Greek in Camden Town

  1. 5 out of 5

    :

    I’ve come across an inspired suggestion for the identity of ‘A.H.S.’ in conversation with Witold Szczyglowski, librarian at the Working Men’s College: Arthur H. Sidgwick. Among today’s scholars of Greek Sidgwick is probably best known as the author of some apparently austere books on Greek prose composition; in his day he was notorious as a champion of university reform, campaigning for the admission of women to undergraduate degrees (a measure only adopted in Oxford in 1920, the year of his death), and arguing that the university should cater for poor-students and allow applications from students who knew no Latin or Greek. Early on he and his brother resigned their fellowships at Trinity College, Cambridge, in protest against the Anglican religious tests imposed on academics. The most popular tutor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (where he tutored between 1897 and 1902) and later University Reader in Greek Sidgwick’s pupils included the future Regius Professor of Classics, Gilbert Murray.

    The only mystery remaining is the date, since the article was published in March 1920. Sidgwick died in September 1920 but suffered ill health in his later years which caused him to resign from his commission of revising Liddell & Scott’s Greek lexicon in 1911 (a job Henry Stuart Jones then took up); by 1917 a mysterious illness apparently left him ‘remote from all knowledge’. To hazard a guess, perhaps the class and article date to some point in the early 1910s but was dug out and published in the final months of his life.

    I got talking to Witold recently while setting up an interactive workshop on Herodotus’ Histories at the WMC (more info at: http://theherodotusdebate.wordpress.com). I’ll be back to the WMC soon to look at some early documents and I’ll see if I can dig up any more clinching proof on A.H.S.

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