Friday Stuff: Why I Love the English Language, no. 2
Second in a very occasional series (first here) on the joy to be taken in this magnificent instrument we call the English language.
I remember long ago reading in Winston Churchill’s memoir of his youth, My Early Life, of his reaction to the familiar curriculum he faced in school. For Latin he had no patience, with its declensions and rote memorization. Ah, but English, and especially the glorious structure of the English sentence!
From memory of a book read more than three decades ago I recall that Churchill reported reveling in his failure to pass out into the upper forms, thus preserving his access to an English master who instilled in him a sense of the music of his language and of the voice that he would come to possess.
Some years later, in my last year of college, I was looking for a text to use in the annual competition for recitation, and I reached for the first volume of my parents’ set of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.* I ended up choosing a different passage than the one I half remembered in Gibbon — a bit of the epilogue of Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That, and I still cringe at the thought of myself as a 22 year old child reaching for the right tone of memory and loss and rejection that it takes years and much loss to earn.
But I’ve not forgot what drew me to the Gibbon passage in the first place, which was the shock of recognition I felt a few months before the competition when I read its first lines and suddenly understood what Churchill had been talking about. Here they are:
In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and after wards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
That’s got rhythm. That’s music.
*Properly History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I like many remember it in the shorthand, and universalizing version of the title
Image: Raphael, “School of Athens,” 1505.