Monday, October 5, 2009

"A Grammarian's Funeral"

"To the great, the fashionable, the gay, and the busy," Mark Pattison writes in his 1875 biography of the sixteenth-century classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, "the grammarian is a poor pedant, and no famous man."

In Rhoda Broughton's Belinda, Belinda is first drawn to Professor Forth, the character modeled after Pattison, after she hears him read Robert Browning's famous poem "A Grammarian's Funeral." The poem, written in 1855, is a mock heroic dirge sung by the students of a scholar as they bear his corpse to its final resting place on a mountain top. It shifts between the dignified style of the opening exhortation—"Let us begin.."—and humorously contrived Byronic rhymes. For example:

Image the whole, then execute the parts—
Fancy the fabric
Quite, ere you build, ere steel strike fire from quartz,
Ere mortar dab brick.

The scholar in the poem has devoted his life to learning, but has never gotten around to living. His patient studies are a preparation for life—the fully examined life of the wise man—but life slips away from him while he's involved in minute grammatical investigations. There's something heroic about the scholar's goal of comprehensive knowledge, but something pathetic about the execution.

In the last year of his life, Professor Pattison, who understood well the disappointments of a scholarly life, read Browning's poem and wondered "that such doggerel should in these days pass for poetry."

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