The Old School of Classics and the New

R.Y. Tyrrell

The work that follows is an unusual and revealing document from the distant world of Late-Victorian Classics. It appeared in The Fortnightly Review for January 1888,[1] and thus was broadcast to the English-reading public in one of the most high-profile periodicals of the day. Its author, Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (1844–1914) was a talented, if relatively low-profile, scholar of Trinity College Dublin, an institution that elected him Professor of Latin (1871–80), and of Greek (1880–98), and of Ancient History (1900–4), as well as Public Orator (1899–1904). Over the half-century he spent at TCD, he taught all manner of influential figures, including the archaeologist William Ridgeway (1853–1926), the poet Oliver St John Gogarty (1878–1957) and the wholly uncategorisable Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). As the last of these later recalled, “I got my love of the Greek ideal, and my intimate knowledge of the language, from [John Pentland] Mahaffy [1839–1919] and Tyrrell… Tyrrell was very kind to me – intensely sympathetic and crammed with knowledge. If he had known less he would have been a poet.”

Set in the Underworld, this satirical dialogue hosts a debate about the state of Classical scholarship in 1880s Britain and Ireland. The “Old School” of literature-focused textual critics – represented by Richard Bentley (1662–1742), Richard Porson (1759–1808) and Johan Nicolai Madvig (1804–86) – laments the rise of the “New School” of archaeologists and comparative historians and anthropologists, who seem to be dragging the subject out of the firm grasp that philology had so long held. And, at first sight, Tyrrell seems to be arguing in terms of the age-old binary – of Team Text versus Team Object – but it soon emerges that his position is rather more nuanced: Tyrrell’s main concern is not the appearance of these new and revealing approaches to the ancient world, but instead the apparent belief that these practices can be conducted holistically without the help of textual and linguistic knowledge. Neither side emerges unscathed from the fray: the textual critics congratulate themselves on emendations that were so “good” as to surprise the poets who never even wrote them, and the archaeologists (professional and amateur) are made to seem divorced from the scholarly traditions that their researches were meant to complement. And there is an anonymous cameo from A.E. Housman (1859–1936), whose complete failure in Oxford Greats earlier in the decade had caused quite a stir as to what on earth went wrong.[2]

If you have the patience for it, there is plenty going on in the shadowy debate that follows; we will steadily add more footnotes to contextualise what is referenced.[3] Although written 135 years ago, the text may lead many readers to reflect on academic tensions and frustrations that show no sign of dying down.


The Old School of the classics and the New

A Dialogue of the Dead


Madvig. Hail, Prince of Critics! Ever since I left the upper air I have been seeking the master-scholar, whose steps in the critic’s art I have essayed in the world above to follow. And indeed I almost despaired of finding you, having been much hindered and impeded in my quest.

Bentley. What? A scholar and so polite! Certes,[4] that was not the manner of scholars toward me above, at least in my own country.

Madvig. True, but I am not of your country. Have not the scholars of the Continent, from Graevius, Spanheim, Ruhnken, and Valckenaer, down to Ritschl and Cobet, ever saluted you as Princeps, Criticorum. Nay, have they not nicknamed one of the greatest of their own critics Bentley’s ape? Lachmann is surely a simia by whom even Bentley may consent to be aped. It was only your con­temporaries and countrymen that reviled you, and only the so-called classical scholars – not the Lockes, Wrens, Newtons, but the Hodys, Boyles, Middletons, whose fear had stiffened into hate-

Conveniunt quibus aut odium crudele tyranni
Aut metus acer erat.[5]

Bentley. Ay, thou speakest truly of the rascals. But I gave them the bludgeon. I did not dress and curl my words in the beauish way.

Madvig. No, indeed you did not. I fear we must agree with the worthy Pepys that your learning wanted a little filing. Would you had sometimes laid down the bludgeon for the rapier.

Bentley. Ugh, the rapier would have only tickled their rhinoceros hides. They were too naked to be ashamed – too ignorant to recognise the features of knowledge. Did not even the ingenious Mr. Pope put me in the wrong? and did not Garth win the plaudits of the coffee-house with some such doggrel as –

So diamonds take a lustre from their foil,
And to a Bentley ’tis we owe a Boyle.[6]

Madvig. True indeed. Strange that the same man should have served as a foil to Boyle and should have a Lachmann for his ape! I always thought that couplet had a unique interest as being the very silliest lines ever written, even in England – except, perhaps, that ignoble utterance of a noble author –


Let Laws and Learning, Arts and Commerce, die,
But leave us still our old Nobility.[7]

Yet these are the most familiar – if not the only familiar – verses of Garth and Manners. Only for these lines we should never have known how silly they were.

Clockwise from top left: Richard Bentley, Richard Porson, Johan Madvig and Karl Lachmann.

Bentley. Was it not a maxim with me that no man was ever written out of reputation but by himself? But, harkye, what did you mean when you said just now that you were much impeded in your quest of me?

Madvig. I will tell you. Hardly had I set foot in the Shades when I was fiercely assailed by Ovid. I was surprised to find that I recognised him at once, and he knew who I was – but you are familiar with the conditions of our existence here. He wanted to have me consigned at once to the depths of Tartarus for having proposed to introduce into one of his poems[8] patetur with the a short. I could not deny the charge, and it would have gone hard with me were it not for the host of prose writers who, headed by Cicero and Livy, came to my aid. Still the poets were against me, I had not a really hearty friend amongst them, and they were getting the best of it when Sophocles stepped forward and took me by the hand. Being very popular, for, as Aristophanes said of him, he is

Genial below as in the world above,

Sophocles at once gained a hearing from his brother poets. He said, “Brother poets, you know how much this critic has done for our fellow-artists in prose. Ovid, no doubt, has a just grievance against him, and perhaps none of you owe him very much. But I am under the deepest obligation to him. Would you believe that, until he told the world what I really wrote, I was supposed to have made Teucer put into the mouth of Agamemnon the absurd allegation that Ajax had never faced a foe in fight,

ὃν οὐδαμοῦ φῂς οὐδὲ συμβῆναι ποδί.[9]
Who ne’er, you say, e’en faced a foe in fight,

as if his bitterest foe could fling such a taunt at the great Telamonian Ajax – as if indeed such words could mean anything at all. What Teucer did say was –

ὃν οὐδαμοῦ φῂς οὗ συ μὴ βῆναι ποδί.
Where went he or where stood but I was there ?

Teucer reminded Agamemnon of his boast that Ajax never set his foot in any path of peril which he, Agamemnon, was not ready to tread as well, and this is what Agamemnon had just said –


ποῖ βάντος ἢ ποῦ στάντος οὗπερ ουκ ἐγώ,
Where went he or where stood but I was there?

You can easily judge how glad I was to be acquitted after so many centuries of having made such a dramatic blunder.” Upon this there was much applause, and Sophocles himself conducted me to the Elysian Fields.

Perillos being forced into the brazen bull he built for the Sicilian tyrant Phalaris, woodcut by Pierre Woeiriot, mid-16th cent.

Bentley. A right good emendation too, though it was not I who made it. And indeed thy case was mightily like my own. For just in the like way I was set on by Phalaris, who made a great to do, crying out that I was his ruin. For having spent the first thousand years or so after his death in the scurvy quarters reserved for unenlightened despots, it had been suddenly discovered that there had been a miscarriage of justice in his case – that he had really been, not a brutal tyrant, but a literary monarch with highly commendable views on most subjects, though rather extreme on the question of capital punishment and the methods of carrying it out. Accordingly he had been transferred from the penal settlements of Tartarus to the Meads of Asphodel, where he had got into a modish literary set, and would have been quite happy only that he was obliged to hold his tongue as much as possible lest his Dorian dialect should throw doubts on his claim to the authorship of certain elegant Epistles which had a great vogue under his name. “But now,” he cried, I am in the depths of Erebus again. No sooner had Minos got wind of the Dissertation than he insisted on examining me in the Attic dialect. I could not conceal my πλατειασμός,[10] and I was condemned to take my place beside Sisyphus, and spend eternity in log-rolling for the literary impostors who come to Tartarus, and whose number is increasing every year.” With these words he made at me. As in your case the prose authors took my part, but the poets headed by Milton went against me, complaining that it was an ill thing that I would not let them be poets only, but insisted on pain of emendation that they should be historians, geographers, logicians, and naturalists as well. “Am I,” cried Juvenal, “to be not only a poet, but

          “geometres, pictor, aliptes,
Augur, schoenobates”?[11]

Horace especially was indignant because, as he said, I would not let him have a fox in his poem, but must thrust in a fieldmouse, “as if,” said he, “I was thinking of the fox’s teeth or his stomach, and not of his shrewdness only.”[12] In truth it was like to be a hard brush until a friend at a pinch appeared. It was Callimachus, who stood up for me and declared, “On an epigram of mine this Dr. Bentley hath made the best emendation ever made on a classical author. I must give it to you in his behalf. It began thus according to the scholars of his time –


τὴν ἁλίην Εὔδημος ἐφ’ ἧς ἅλα λιτὸν ἐπελθὼν
    χειμῶνας μεγάλους εξέφυγεν δανέων.

What did this mean? My good editors thought the passage was plain enough when they had changed δανέων to Δαναῶν, and they thought what I said was this, ‘Eudemus dedicates his ship, in which after traversing a smooth sea he escaped the great gales of the Danai.’ But what are the gales of the Danai? Who told them ἁλίη was a ship? If the sea was smooth, what storms were there to be escaped? Bentley put to himself all these questions, and found the right answer; δανέων is right and means ‘money borrowed from usurers;’ ἁλίη is not a ship but a salt-cellar; the corrupt word is ἐπελθών, instead of which I had written ἐπεσθών. Eudemus had saved himself from debt by a life of frugality, and at his death he dedicates the salt-cellar which held the frugal grain of salt that was his only relish, and that saved him from the storms of a sea of debt.” Hardly had Callimachus ceased speaking when the whole company with one accord rushed on Phalaris, and drove him back to his place of punishment, from which I know not how he had escaped, and me they conducted with becoming reverence to the Elysian Fields.

Madvig. A palmary conjecture indeed! And one good enough to salve the wounds even of Milton. But here I see close beside us Porson and Shakspeare, who must have overheard what you have been telling me.

Porson. Even so. But, having first felicitated the learned Dane on his accession to the ranks of the majority, let me say – though no one else respects the Prince of Critics more than I – that the minority above would, I think, accord the first place rather to an emendation of mine in the Medea. You all remember my famous,

θάρσει κάτει τοι καὶ σὺ πρὸς τέκνων ἔτι,[13]
Take heart; thy children yet shall bring thee home.

You remember κρατεῖς was the reading, not κάτει, before I showed how aptly κάτει leads up to the κατάξω of the following verse –

ἄλλους κατάξω πρόσθεν ἡ τάλαιν’ ἐγώ,
First others must I send to their long home;

and how admirably – but here comes Euripides himself. What say you, Euripides, is not κάτει what you really wrote?

Euripides. By the goddess Synesis, I would that it had been. But I wrote κρατεῖς, which after all means nearly the same.

Madvig. True: the praesens propheticum, meaning “you are certain to come off victorious.” But κάτει is longe longeque exquisitius.

Euripides. I admit it, best of men; denial is not in me. But alas! not even to me did the very choicest expression always present [p.46] itself. In this case it occurred to the excellent Porson. Would that it had occurred to me!

Shakespeare. I’ faith, and now as I hear you I bethink me of my chagrin that I had not made Dame Quickly say of Falstaff, “and ’a babbled of green fields.”[14] I was like to burst with envy when I heard on’t from good Master Theobald. I should have said it before him. But sith I have small Latin and less Greek, I for my poor part will e’en go and hold converse with such as are more even to me.

Porson. Pray come this way with me, Euripides. I have a large number of parallel passages to show you. They will, I doubt not, convince you that you wrote κάτει, not κρατεῖς, as you say.

Euripides. By all means: I love an argument.

Bentley. Pereant qui post nos nostra dixerunt.[15] But, Madvig, thou hast come most recent of us to the Shades. Tell us how fares learning now in the upper world. Much have I heard from the learned of my own country and beyond seas, who have come hither to us, about the long line of scholars that have in the past adorned England and the Continent since my time. But the present, as Aristotle hath taught, though it reaches us somewhat, yet reaches us through a veil, and things are deadened to us that are dead. Do the runners now hand on, one to another, the torch of learning even as the torch of life? Above all, how fares it with pure scholarship and criticism? How fares it with the art of emendation, of which we have been discoursing, and to which you and I owe our places in the Meads of Asphodel? Are its triumphs still looked on as the flower and crown of the scholar’s art, and do the champions of England and Germany still lead the van?

The title-page of Otto Ribbeck’s controversial search for interpolation in Juvenal’s Satires (Berlin, 1865).

Madvig. The study of classics has undergone a good many changes in England since your time. It has now reached a phase which would be startling if it were generally recognised. But it is not recognised. The English school has been drifting away from the old course, but it has never deliberately put about and steered in the opposite direction. On the Continent, too, a change may be observed in the point of view of the classical scholar, in the ends which he proposes to himself, and the achievements on which he prides himself; but the change is not so organic as that which is threatening scholarship in England. In Germany the art of emending is no longer the chief art of the scholar. A brilliant and certain conjecture is no longer the blue ribbon of his career. The discovery of a spurious passage, the detection of the fusion of separate pieces into one, the disintegration of organic wholes – these are held by New Germany to be the highest feats of scholarship. The hunt after the Unecht is in full cry. The method of Wolf’s Prolegomena has a fatal fascination for his countrymen. It is now, for instance, applied to Thucydides, to show that his work is not the result of one consistent [p.47] plan, but that he had actually composed the first four books and part of the fifth on the theory that the Peace of Nicias was the end of the war, and that when he found he had to continue his task he began again (v.26) with a new proëm. Plato has been largely dealt with in the same way, and the tract of Xenophon on the Athenian Constitution has been declared to be a piece of unskilful patchwork. But the chase of the Unecht never waxed really fast and furious till Kirchhoff, not satisfied with dissecting the Odyssey with a knife borrowed from Wolf, actually cut in two the De Corona, pronouncing it an awkward fusion of two different speeches written on two inconsistent plans – one sketched at first when the trial seemed imminent, the other actually delivered six years after. “That which the palmerworm hath left hath the locust eaten; and that which the locust hath left hath the cankerworm eaten.” A German savant will smile if you mention Homer or Plato, and looks on Thu­cydides and Xenophon as generic terms. Those Greek masterpieces which Horace told us to thumb so assiduously are now ascertained to be the work or a committee with power to add to their number. The savants all sing the same song –

This is unecht and that’s unecht,
And everything is incorrect.[16]

One begins to wonder how this thing of shreds and patches ever won its way to be the model and despair of all subsequent literature, and how it is that the committee still rule us from their urns.

Bentley. Indeed, they would almost seem to accept the paradox of Lucilius in Cicero,[17] and to believe that the letters of the alphabet shaken in a bag might form themselves into the Annals of Ennius. But what of the English school?

Madvig. In the English universities the tendency of late has been to break away from the lines of scholarship as we understood it. Even those who profess to walk in the old paths of criticism walk with uncertain footsteps. “Why alter the text,” we often hear, “if any meaning can be got out of it?” We go to the text and we find that the reading of which we are bidden to be so tenacious is itself a conjecture – a bad conjecture which we must not replace by a good one, because the bad conjecture has become naturalised, as it were. The love of the old mumpsimus still lives. Then another school – and one with some very brilliant disciples – declares that we must practi­cally rewrite the Greek tragic poets to bring them into absolute conformity with an inflexible standard of grammatical usage.

Bentley. Were it not vastly better done to rewrite our grammars, since the grammars should be but the registers of the usus loquendi?

Madvig. Certainly. But why rewrite either? Grammar, like the Sabbath, was made for man, not man for grammar. Our grammars adequately register the broad rules of the language, but [p.48] when we apply them to the poets we must make allowances for a certain easiness, which, however, never degenerates into licence or caprice. But grammar, indeed, bids fair to lose her place altogether among the subjects of study; and I must be pardoned as a grammarian if I speak with some asperity of such a consummation. She is invaded on every side by archaeology, anthropology, epigraphy, and dilettantism. It is more blessed to gush than to construe. To study the works, for instance, of the Greek dramatists is no longer a road to success as a scholar or as a student. No: you must be ready to liken Aeschylus to an Alpine crevasse, Sophocles to a fair avenue of elms, and Euripides to an amber-weeping Phaethontid, or a town pump in need of repairing, according to the divined pro­clivity of the examiner or reader. When the student has secured his Fellowship or First Class he will not endeavour to restore or explain the classical masterpieces. He will not even read them. But he will read and write a great deal about them. To do this last, he will fuse together the brilliant but inaccurate French étude and the exhaustive but unreadable German Programm, and the result will be an inorganic congeries of incompatible theories, the one having been forgotten before the other has been – shall I say annexed? A not untried plan is to appropriate the labours of some German specialist, and then throw suspicion off the scent by differing with him on some petty detail, and warning the English reader of so misleading a path. Perhaps the aspirant will best secure the fame of a scholar by taking up some writer of venerable antiquity and pelting him with flouts and jibes. “Flagrant prevarication,” “deliberate and gratuitous falsehood,” together with a constant ten­dency to “pilfering” and an incurable “obtuseness” are the chief characteristics of the Father of History according to a recent editor of the first three books of Herodotus.[18]

Bentley. But could he have read the history, and write in so putid a way of Herodotus?

Archibald Henry “the Ace” Sayce, whose translation of Herodotus Histories 1-3 (Macmillan, London, 1883) met a rather mixed reception.

Madvig. To speak candidly I don’t think he could read it in the original tongue. Like Merlin, he could not read the text of the book in his hand. It would have been well for him if he could have added with Merlin,

And none could read the comment but himself.

But it is easy to write in this strain without being at all able to construe the Greek. In fact, the absence of the trammels of grammar lightens the burden of the editor’s erudition, and enables him more easily to find or overlook in the text whatever suitshis purpose. But he speaks as one who knows all about grammar, and sees that there is nothing in it. It has been tried by him in the balance and found wanting. He is a little amused when convicted [p.49] of an error in elementary accidence or syntax, perhaps just in the slightest degree annoyed, not more than an acrostic solver would be if he had missed an easy light. “The errors of a scientific explorer,” he writes, “are often as instructive as his facts, and he who is afraid of making mistakes may be a good reproducer of other men’s labours, but will never increase the sum of human knowledge.” If scholars of this type have their way, the study of classics will soon be held in England to be about as dignified an occupation as the solving of acros­tics. Such mere minutiae as the difference between a present participle and a past, between τά the article, and τά the relative, between πλεῖστα “several” and τὰ πλεῖστα “the most part of,” are quite beneath the notice of the New School. Indeed the neglect of the last-men­tioned distinction enabled our editor of Herodotus to draw from his text a proof of the fondness for silver prevalent among the Hittites, by translating ἀργύρου ἀναθήματα ἔστι οἱ πλεῖστα ἐν Δελφοῖσι, “most of the silver offerings at Delphi were his.”[19] When such dis­tinctions are pointed out the editor ignores the correction in quite a superior way: “It is with Herodotos as a historian, rather than as the subject for the dissecting knife of the grammarian, that I have had to do.” Yet there is a real difference in meaning between “very many of the silver offerings” and “most of the silver offerings.”

Bentley. ’Tis as if one should say of his friend, “He has most of the money in the Bank of England,” if he had a very large balance in the bank. This is to gash Herodotus, not to dissect him.

Madvig. Just so. Again, to give one more instance κεφαλῇ ἀναμάσσειν (“to lay on one’s own head,” a metaphor for assuming responsibility), is explained as meaning “to work up with the head instead of with the hands,” and so “to think of.”[20] An Oxford first-class man supposes that κεφαλή can mean “the thinking organ,” “the brain”! Yet this is but another trivial distinction.

Bentley. Why then ’twere good Greek to write ἀγαθὴν κεφαλὴν ἔχει πρὸς ψήφους for “he has a good head for figures,” or good Latin to say bonum caput habet ad calculos. Was he ignorant that κεφαλή, like caput, is only the top of a thing? Methinks your tale has an old ring about it, “a certain Hittite went down from Oxford to Canaan and fell among” – grammarians.

Madvig. Yes, and thieves too, according to the editor. For when­ever two different reviewers gave the same obvious correction of a palpable blunder, he and his champions assumed that one stole from the other.

Bentley. By thine account the book was but a fardel of blunders.

Madvig. But it is not the blunders themselves which are of sinister omen. Indeed I believe the portion of the edition which deals directly with the text and its interpretation has been withdrawn – [p.50] not, observe, frankly withdrawn as unsound and misleading, but on some allegation about the American issue of the work. It appears that the Americans preferred to read the essays on the Ancient Empires of the East without the text and the comments thereon. For my part I regretted the withdrawal of the text and notes.

Bentley. Naturally, as a source of innocent amusement.

The world, according to Herodotus.

Madvig. Far from it; but because the notes were a kind of anti­dote to the bane of the essays. Most readers of Herodotus could have detected the erroneous doctrine of the notes, and so would have been led to question the doctrine of the essays, which teem with erroneous inferences from a mistranslated text. No, it is not the blunders themselves which are to be regretted. It is the indifference with which they were regarded by the editor and his champions, some of whom at least ought to have been concerned for the re­putation of the classical school of England, and of the university in which the editor had obtained high distinctions and occupied a high place. And of still more sinister import is the special pleading by which the editor endeavoured to explain away errors which would have been readily pardoned if they had been frankly owned as inadvertencies. Here is an example of his polemical method:- Herodotus gives in a well-known passage (ii.73) an account or description of the phoenix, for the accuracy of which he makes himself responsible, being careful to premise that he had only seen a picture of it, and adding “such is its size and appearance if it is like its picture.” Then follows the amusing tale about the phoenix burying its dead father. For the tale Herodotus disclaims responsibility in the plainest terms conceivable. On the description of the phoenix Professor Wiedemann founded an argument which was accepted by the editor, but was carelessly represented as founded on the tale of Herodotus about the bird. These were his words: “The tale of the phoenix, which he plagiarised from Hekataeos, is a convincing proof how little he really cared for first-hand evidence, and how ready he was to insert any legend which pleased his fancy, and to make himself responsible for its truth.” When asked in what language could Herodotus have repudiated more emphatically all responsibility for the tale of the phoenix, what does the editor? He cleverly substitutes account for tale in the passage arraigned, and then proves triumphantly what no one ever denied, or could think of denying, that Herodotus makes himself responsible for the account or description. And he it is who ascribes “a kind of verbal legerde­main” to a historian of the most noble, touching, and childlike sincerity.

Bentley. A sly fetch, surely! Why that must be he of whom I heard a story but yesterday, that diverted me mightily. ’Twas from a young man who came to us from Oxford by the last boat. Indeed, [p.51] there was much in the tale that might have prepared me for what you tell me about the state of learning in England. But I only half believed him. He was a shrewd fellow enough, of parts and wit, but of a prodigious levity, and could not by any means moderate his spirits, for that he had gotten out of a world where he said everything, especially learning, was going to pot, and scholars were beginning to be as shifty as statesmen. He told me he was Griggs of Brazenface,[21] and had been well known to the dons of his college. The tale was this:- An eminent professor, who, by reason of the simi­larity of his method of self-defence, must, I am sure, have been your editor and detractor of Herodotus, was lately chosen, perhaps as a grateful recognition of his assaults on the Father of History, to be President of the Anthropological Section of the British Association. In that capacity he delivered an enthusiastically applauded address, in which he assailed the theory which gives an Asiatic origin to the Aryans. The argument on which he relied strongly for the proof of his own view was, that the birch-tree is known by the same name in Sanscrit and Teutonic; ergo, the birch is a tree with which the primitive Aryans were acquainted; ergo, the primitive Aryans must have lived in a cold climate, because the birch does not grow to the east of a line drawn from Konigsberg to the Crimea. A most punc­tual proof! But, by the malignity of the good president’s unlucky star, abundant evidence at once poured in from every side – tra­vellers, botanists, authorities of every kind – that the statement limit­ing the diffusion of the birch was absolutely contrary to experience and fact. The diffusion of the birch had no such limits – “grew all over the place, by Jove,” said Griggs, “a regular boulevard of them, the whole way from Gettysburg to the Bodega, or wherever the line was.” Apparently the whole argument was based on a commentitious fact – a mere Fantom and Fiction. Then came the time for a little adroitness. Harlequin-President flourished his wand, and the state­ment limiting the growth of the birch reappeared as an averment about the “primitive habitat” of the birch. This, however, was not enough. The allegation that the birch was not indigenous to countries east of a certain European line was stoutly assailed and resolutely denied. But these denials the president loftily put aside. There could be no doubt at all about the matter. The Germans had said it. These German authorities he could not name just then, for he was not among his books; but he vouchsafed to drop a hint that the subject would be found to be thoroughly discussed in a recent work by Professor Penka.[22] Meanwhile a theory was promulgated which seemed to afford a chance of explaining the mystery. A very eminent professor wrote a highly courteous and honorific letter to the papers, pointing out that the limits assigned to the birch by the president were precisely the limits assigned to the beech by certain [p.52] German writers whom he named.[23] Could the president have confounded birch and beech? It turned out that that was just what the president had done. On his return to Oxford, he found that the authority on whom he had been relying was not any German savant, or indeed any authority at all, except himself, in a book published twelve years ago, and that he had misquoted himself, for the tree mentioned in his book was the beech not the birch. Thus the riddle was read. There was nothing that should have caused any surprise. The president had merely been saying one thing and meaning another throughout. When he had spoken about the limits of the growth of the birch, of course he meant its primitive habitat. And because the beech (perhaps) confirms a certain theory about the primitive seat of the Aryans, it is obvious that the president was perfectly justified in asserting and insisting that there was overwhelming authority for a statement, which was denied by his opponents, about the growth of the birch. Everything had ended admirably well, for “the beech is a much more important witness than the birch.”

Beech and birch (or birch and beech?) trees.

Madvig. What a very accommodating science is this anthropology, if when you mean one thing you may with positive advantage say a quite different thing! But observe, the whole camp – excavators, anthropologists, compilers of handbooks about the classics, and producers of diatribes against them – all claim for themselves and give to each other the name of scholar.

Bentley. For my part I would say of such an one what Doll Tearsheet said of captains. “A scholar! God’s light! these villains will make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted; therefore scholars had need look to’t.”[24]

Madvig. Let us not forget, however, that many of the archaeologists, anthropologists, and antiquaries of all kinds have a real and indisputable title to the name of scholar. It is such a one who ought to feel most indignant with the unauthorised claimants of it. And these false claimants not only arrogate the title to themselves, but deny it to all who are tainted with the nefarious quality of linguistic accuracy. Because “correct pedagogues” know what they profess to know, therefore they can know nothing else. They are mere pedants. It is true that a stroke of a spade might upset a theory, however firmly based on the correct interpretation of the Greek writers, because these writers might themselves have been mistaken; but does it therefore follow that archeological hypotheses may safely be based on linguistic blunders – on the neglect, for example, of the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb? Must a writer on archaeology make good his title to be heard by confounding οἰκίζω and οἰκέω? Is this the only way to escape the name of pedant? Must a man of necessity have narrow interests because he [p.53] is accurate? If the smatterer has even blundered into a right path is he the more to be congratulated because he is a smatterer? No. The fundamental position which the champions of classical scholarship have to defend is that a knowledge of the literatures must rest upon a knowledge of the languages. When an accurate knowledge of the language has been obtained as a basis, then the nature of the superstructure has no necessary limitations, except such as are imposed by the bent of the individual. The fact that a man knows the languages well does not disqualify him for a knowledge of history or archaeology. But the assailants of pure scholarship – a term now almost obsolete among scholars, though much used by their foes – talk as if the simple fact of knowing the languages well was the sure sign of a mind closed against all other interests. It would be as reasonable to say that because a man is a bad grammarian he is sure to be a good historian or archaeologist.

Bentley. Ay, sure, for the historical documents are mainly literary, and the archaeological partly. But you spoke of excavators and stroke of a spade, and methinks I heard that of late there have been excavations in the Troad which have excited great interest.

Madvig. Yes, and a good deal of discussion. The excavations have been mainly due to the energy and perseverance of Dr. Schliemann. On the Continent we admired him for his enthusiasm and liberality. Every sensible person congratulated himself that a rich man should employ his wealth so usefully, and every lover of truth welcomed the discoveries which were based on his excavations. But the New School persuade him that he is a scholar, and the young lions of the daily press, when they do lack and suffer hunger for a topic, swell the cry. Dr. Schliemann has little reason to thank his English champions, who have forced him into a position in which he could not help displaying a plentiful lack of scholarship, and, what is far worse, some deficiency in candour. The inaccuracy and truculence of his English supporters have made Schliemannism a synonym for pretentious sciolism and uncandid special pleading. And all because the New School will not allow things to be called by their right names. Every one must be a scholar, even Dr. Schliemann and Captain Conder.[25]

Heinrich Schliemann and his wife Sophia, 1883.

Bentley. Who is Captain Conder?

Madvig. Oh, he has some dispute with an eminent professor about the interpretation of Hittite inscriptions.[26] But all the rising generation of archaeologists, male and female, go with the professor, who has a very assured and reassuring way of —

Bentley. Oh, now I see the meaning of a thing that puzzled me the other day. I was taking a walk in the limbo reserved for those characters in fiction who were so well limned by their creators that they enjoyed a real life in the upper world in the minds and hearts [p.54] of men. You know they inhabit a limbo of their own in the Shades. There I met the delightful child Alice, and she was singing a nursery rhyme, in which she told me that “as usual the words had got altered, and came very queer indeed.”

Madvig. What was it?

Bentley. Why, a silly rhyme enough; but she sung it so prettily. It was –

Clever Captain Conder,
Whither do you wander?
What’s Sayce for the goose is Sayce for the gander.

Madvig. Oh, a folk-song, I suppose. Another characteristic of the New School is that they attach extraordinary importance to the spelling of Greek names. It is the chief article in their creed. Whosoever will be a scholar before all things it is necessary that he write Aiskhulos. Poor Conington restored λέοντος ἶνιν to the poet,[27] but what availed that when he hibitually called him Aeschylus? Were this typographical posturing confined to books of study we might, like Achilles –

Brook with a heavy heart the thing once done;

though, indeed, it is hard to see what end it serves to make one’s pages hideous with forms such as Athenai, Mukenai, Pnux, Thoukudides. But, unfortunately, a great poet has been weak enough to follow in their steps; and, still more unfortunately, that poet has not sufficient familiarity with the Greek forms to apply either correctly or consistently the principles of transliteration. Hence we find the pages of a successor of Milton and Landor, a brother craftsman of Swinburne, Tennyson and Arnold, disfigured with such errors as Peiraios, Mitulené, Aigispotamoi;[28]and while Aristophanes’ Apology[29] invariably presents to us Athenai, Mukenai, Pnux, Thoukudides, we meet on the other hand Rhodes, Diomede, Latona (not Leto), Thrace (not Thraké), and Thebes as often as Thebai. We are confounded by different orthographies in two successive verses, as in –

Perikles, right Olympian, occupied
As yet with getting an Olumpos reared,
Marble and gold above Akropolis.

Nor can it be alleged that Olympian is an adjective with an English termination, and therefore to be treated as an English word, and so spelt, for we find in the same poem the portentous word Stugian.

Beyond Kimmerian, Stugian darkness black.

The River Styx, near Christchurch, New Zealand.

We have Herakles and Heracleian on the same page, and beside [p.55] Hekabé we meet Hupsipule without accent, to be pronounced therefore Hupsipool, if the typography is really to be a guide to English readers. Why, too, Andromedé if not Medeié? And why phorminx instead of phormigx? I am aware that the verse-structure of the poet is – well, quite free from monotony, but I do not see how we can scan these verses without a false quantity,

Bring the poet’s body back,
Bury him in Peiraios: o’er his head
Let Alkamĕnes carve the music-witch.


‘Tis Euthumĕnes, Surakosios, nay
Aighurrhios and Kinesias,

It cannot be urged that in these names the Greek accent justifies the lengthening of the penultimate syllable, for the poet – bless him for that – does not go so far as to quantify according to the Greek accent, though there are – horresco referens[30] – who do not spare us even Aigǐna and Charmīdes. In any case, we could not scan either by accent or quantity

With Arethousian Nicódǐkos’ wife.


Diitrephes who weaves the willow work,
To go round bottles, and Nausikúdes.

And in the face of this puristic adherence to Greek spelling, what are we to say of a deliberate violation, apparently metri gratia, of Greek orthography and quantity? Yet such we have in

Some go to Helikon, to Parnăsos
Some, and the clefts there.

On fiction, too, the New School is beginning to have its effect. The English novelist of the present day does not see why he should not show a little scholarship now and then, like Fielding, Sterne, Thackeray. But Ouida and Hawley Smart are no pedants. Hence we read of the touching incident of Arria-Paeto; and the author of a very recent novel speaks of laudator tempores acti under the impression that he is deftly pluralising an oft-quoted expression of Horace, which, I may observe, is invariably misquoted, for the words have no meaning without the se puero, which is always suppressed; temporis acti only means “time spent,” not “the past.” Quite in accordance with the principles of the New School is the growing habit of quoting unmetrically from the Latin poets. Femina varium et semper mutabile is thought quite good enough for a public who would, however, probably resent such aquotation as He whose life is in the right can’t be wrong.

The death of Alexander Pope, engraved by Charles Grignion the Elder after Francis Hayman, 1747: Diana holds Pope while John Milton, Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Chaucer look on.

Bentley. The ingenious Mr. Pope, at all events, would resent such [p.56] a quotation very much. But in epigraphy I doubt not that there is now much progress. For I remember that in my time epigraphy was never taught me at St. John’s, yet I mind me when Chishull published an inscription from copies made by travellers on the spot, I made some corrections which at the first blush were thought too bold, but when the stone was brought to England it was found that the copies were wrong and I was in the right.

Madvig. I do not know much about the prospects of epigraphy, but I believe there is some hope that this department may be successfully cultivated by English scholars. Meantime, this is not a hopeful specimen:- Some time ago an English friend sent me an account of an inscription in Greek characters on a stone found at Brough-under-Stanmore, in Westmoreland.[31] The account appeared in a London weekly review. The inscription is in hexameter verse, and is of a conventional type, being an epitaph on a boy named Hermes Commagenus, who died before he had completed his sixteenth year. The latter part of it has not been quite satisfactorily deciphered, but the first verses seem certainly to have run somewhat thus (some mistakes probably due to the stonecutter having been corrected):-

Ἑκδεκετῆ τις ἰδὼν τύμβῳ σκεφθένθ’ ὑπὸ μοίρης
Ἑρμῆν Κομμαγηνόν, ἔπος φρασάτω τόδ’ ὁδίτης.

Which may be roughly rendered:-

Pent in the silent tomb by Fate,
When scarce his years had doubled eight,
See Hermes Commagenus lie:
This be thy greeting, passer-by.

On this the comments of the savant who first presented it to the Academy were surprising to me, the more as he has much to write about Hittite and Accadian inscriptions and Greek isncriptions brought home by him from Smyrna. The comments afford us a means of judging how he read the lines, and what in his opinion are the canons and methods which should guide decipherers. These were his words: “Idon must be the name of a month, since on the sixteenth of the Ides would make no sense. It is curious that Ida is said to have been the first Anglian King of Northumbria… τύμβωσκε is an extraordinary word, but the sense is clear; ὀμοιγή evidently stands for οἰμωγή; νέπος is the Latin nepos, which is used in Keltic inscriptions with the meaning of descendant.” Then follows much abstruse philological and ethnological speculation, but there is no dawn of a suspicion that he inscription is in metre.

Bentley. Oh, the dunce! And was it not from him you quoted a while ago the aphorism that “the errors of a scientific explorer are often as instructive as his facts”? Surely they are often far [p.57] more amusing! In good sooth, I am now disposed to believe what my flippant young friend Griggs, of whom I told you, has lately imparted to me. I had forgotten it, but that your speech put me upon it. Indeed the lad entertained me hugely with his greats and ploughs and proxime accessits and college jargon. He told me of a certain Oxford man who has of late published some conjectures which you or I might own with pride, and who had been “ploughed” at “Greats” in classics – which I gather to mean that he was refused honours in classics, and not allowed to graduate with distinction for his want of proficiency in classics.[32] I had a mind to be informed how it happened that so good a scholar – he told me that he had been proxime accessit for the Ireland – could have been rejected in classics. He answered me, what had in it no doubt some truth, in the main – but spoken in a way dictated by his levity – that he had forgotten the precise reason of his friend’s rejection; but that it must have been either because he betrayed ignorance of a nation which had been invented during the Long Vacation, or because he had compared the wrong man to an Alpine crevasse, or because he had failed to commit to memory an inscription in which an Assyrian King stated that he had ascended the Kinchinjunga followed by 20,000,000 men on bicycles! He added that his friend is about to sell his books and buy a spade, with a view to graduating with honours in Oryctics,[33] which he expects will soon supersede all the present studies.

Inspecting the excavations at Pompeii, 1880.

Madvig. – Ah, but this is not a fit subject for levity. If a great university deliberately discourages high linguistic attainments, and reserves her honours and places for smart but shallow feuilletonists, rash and pretentious theorists, in a word, for utterers of literary false coin, and vendors of literary wares which are chiefly meant to sell, what place is England likely soon to hold in the world of letters and learning? Surely the right attitude for an university is to recognise cordially the value of the studies which may be called collateral to classics, but to insist that they must rest on a sound knowledge of the languages, if they are to be prosecuted in a scientific spirit. Historical and archeological questions are often of such a kind that a man cannot give an opinion of any independent value unless he, for his own part, is independent of “cribs,” and something more: unless he can rely on a certain sense for language and its usages, which is to be acquired by well-directed study; which often is the only help where hard and fast rules of grammar cannot alone decide the question; and which is not believed to exist, or even conceivable as existing, by those who lack it. Very nice points of textual or exegetical criticism may be involved in historical and archaeological inquiries; and scholarship, that is, accurate linguistic information combined with taste and a sense for usage, may be [p.58] absolutely indispensable to deal with them. Again, scholars ought by no means to disparage the collateral studies, or even to suggest that purely linguistic studies possess a higher worth. They will then occupy a position unassailable by any serious antagonist; and they can well afford to neglect the sneers and gibes of those who look on accurate knowledge as a sign of a contracted intelligence, and disparage as “correct pedagogues” all those who endeavour to conform to the laws of accidence and syntax, both in their own writings and in the interpretation of the classics.

Bentley. Why, in interpretation grammatical accuracy is indispensable, nor are any scales too fine wherein to weigh the gold-dust of the Antients’ words. In writing, too, take my word for it, if the grammar is loose the thinking is loose too. Correct grammar is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual clearness.

Madvig. Nay, more. There is an eminently practical reason why a protest should be entered in favour of sound learning, and against the dilettantism and sciolism of its antagonists. To me, at least, it appears that all this inaccurate and untrustworthy information – all this slipshod and uncandid reasoning – all this contempt for the elements of grammar and the commonplace restrictions of veracity in thought and speech – these things, I say, appear to me as symptoms of a mental malady which is epidemic in the present day, and which threatens to produce the most alarming consequences in practical life as well as in literature. Our modern dabbling in anthropological and ethnological hypotheses has been the fertile source of incalculable mischief. What – to go no further afield – is Pan-slavism but an unverified ethnological hypothesis? And to come much nearer to your own country – what is the whole Irish political difficulty but ethnology gone mad? Is the population of Ireland of an assignably different race from that of England and Scotland? Is it not an ethnological proposition which admits of absolutely no dispute, that the three kingdoms are inhabited by races so intermixed that discrimination is impossible? There are certain extreme types prevalent here and others there, but the overwhelming majority everywhere belong to the mixed type, and even the extremes are hardly more than a bare majority in the places where they exist as extremes. The same thing is true of the agrarian policy which has been used by English Liberals as a bribe and by Irish agitators as a stalking horse. The “dual ownership” of land, now a disastrous fact, was originally an academic theory evolved from the consciousness of historians and antiquaries. Far be it from me to disparage the labours of the eminent jurists and economic archaeologists to whom we owe so much. But the sciolist politician must needs treat all this fabric of ingenious and interesting hypothesis as something which he can at will convert into a practical fact. Because he has [p.59] reason to believe that there had been vague tribal rights in land which had in some measure survived the Norman Conquest, he must try his hand at restoring the fabric. It is a perilous undertaking this “restoring,” as many an architect knows to his cost; but nothing is too perilous for a man whose head is turned with a smattering of archaeology. So the work goes merrily on. Political Economy is banished to Jupiter and Saturn, and presently Law and Order themselves disappear in the abyss from which emerges the wraith of Nationality! Now I am far from averring that all this would be set right if men turned to their grammars and dictionaries once more, this I do say, that the worship of the slipshod in literature, in art, in philosophy, and in politics is a symptom of the one disease; that this disease is undermining our practical life, as well as our life intellectual and spiritual; and that even the most practical of practical men has need to look to it.

Bentley. I doubt not, sir, that you speak with justice and discretion. But I have no stomach for the new-fangled politics of the present day. Walker, our hat.[34]

The entrance to Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.


1 Pp.42–59: the original pagination is preserved within the body of the text.
2 A month before the appearance of the dialogue, Tyrrell had published in the first volume of Classical Review (1887, 313) a textual note on Aeschylus’ Persians that he had received via private correspondence with Housman, then working at the Patent Office in London.
3 If you would like to help, please get in touch! As it stands, footnotes marked with a closing asterisk (*) were originally present in Tyrrell’s article; all the others are our own additions.
4 =”I assure you.”
5 “There assembled those who felt either cruel hatred for the tyrant or keen fear.” Vergil, Aeneid 1.361–2
6 The Dispensary, 1699.
7 Lines attributed to John Manners, 7th Duke of Rutland, in 1846.
8 Tristia, iii.3,21. Adversaria Critica, vol. ii. p.98.*
9 Ajax, 1281.*
10 “Broad (i.e. Dorian/Doric) dialect.”
11 Satires 3.76–7.
12 Epistles 1.7.29.
13 Medea, 1015.
14 Henry V 2.3.17.
15 “May those perish who have spoken our words after us,” a reversal of the comment attributed to the grammarian Donatus, who cursed those scholars who had preceded his own observations.
16 This ditty may echo Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (1885) Act 1 no. 3: “And I am right and you are right / And everything is quite correct.”
17 De natura deorum 1.93.
18 Revd Archibald Henry Sayce (1845–1933), Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford. Tyrrell had reviewed Sayce’s Herodotus (Macmillan, London, 1883) harshly in Hermathena 5 (1884) 11–20, which prompted an angry response from his colleague J.P. Mahaffy (ibid., 98–105) as well as Sayce himself (ibid., 106–18), to which Tyrrell at once responded (ibid., 119–36), in turn provoking Sayce’s redoubled response (ibid., 137–41). The merry exchange can be read here. Tyrrell has rather turned up the heat by bringing the quarrel into the public square four years later…
19 1.14.4.
20 1.155.15.
21 ??? of Brasenose College.
22 Karl Penka’s Die Herkunft der Arie: Neue Beiträge zur historischen Anthropologie der europäischen Völker (Vienna, 1886).
23 Friedrich Max Müller, 14 Oct. 1887, p.7: “Sir, My friend Professor Sayce mistook beech (Buche) for birch (Birke). Such things may happen to all of us. But, unfortunately, the authorities whom he follows, whoever they may have been, mistook birch for beech. Birch is one of those comnmon Aryan words, or, as Professor Sayce says, “words of a similar phonetic form and similar meaning in both the Asiatic and European branches of the Aryan family,” but beech is not. Sanskrit scholars know that there is no word in Sanskrit corresponding to fagus (beech) or φηγός (oak). I have been looking for many years for a word corresponding to beech in the south-eastern branch of the Aryan family, whether in Sanskrit or in Persian, but in vain. These questions aoout birch and beech are not of yesterday. In 1864, when I delivered the second series of my lectures on “the Science of Languages” at the Royal Institution, I said, – “In Persian, too, bûk is said to mean oak. No authority, however, has ever been given for that meaning, and it is left out in the last edition of Johnson’s Dictionary and in Vullers’ “Lexicon Persico-Latinumr.” Though the Persian bûk, in tho sense of oak, would considerably strengthen our argument, it is necessary to wait until the word has been properly authenticated.” Is there no Persian scholar who could settle that point once for all?

The theories which have more recently been based on similar linguistic facts, though not always well authenticated facts, could not be properly discussed without encroaching unfairly on the columns of The Times,and I abstain from inflicting another lengthy letter on your readers all the more readily as I hope soon to treat the whole subject of the original home of the Aryas in my forthcoming volume of “Biographies of Words.” In the meantime, those who wish to gain a trustworthy account of the present state of the Aryan question may consult with great advantage J. Van den Gheyn, “L’Origine Européenne des Aryas,” Anvers, 1885.

If, however, you could grant me a little more space to-day, I should like to use it for correcting one or two more misstatements of factswhich have crept into this controversy and may do mischief.

We are told “that it is more reasonable to assume the original centre of a group of languages to have been in a part of the world where its representatives are the most numerous and the most widely spread than to look for it in a region where they are confined to two members only (the Iranic and the Indic), and to a comparatively limited extent of country.”

If this were really so, then the original home of the English language would be America. But now for facts. Do India and Persia really represent a comparatively limited extent of country ? It may look so on some maps, but India alone is as large as Europe, minus Russia. And as to the number of people who speak or spoke dialects of Sanskrit and Persian, they need not fear comparison, I believe, with the inhabitants of the whole of Europe, even in the 19th century.

Professor Sayce states that Sanskrit is no longer regarded as the elder sister among the Aryan languages. Here he has evidently misunderstood me. I objected to the metaphor of elder sister, which, like all metaphors, is apt to be misleading. But the fact that Sanskrit is by far the most primitive among the Aryan languages remains as true to-day as it was 50 years ago.  “In one most important point,”we are told, ” the retention of the primitive short vowels, the European languages have remained truest to the original type.” Suppose it were so, what is one most important point compared with a hundred ? But Professor Sayce has misapprehended the true meaning of the retention of ă, ĕ, ŏ in some,not in all,of the European languages. These three short vowels are nothing but differentiations of one primitive vowel, and the problem which at present occupies comparative philologists is what was the vera causa of that differentiation. Lastly, Professor Sayce tells us that ayas in the Veda means iron. I should give a great deal if he would point out one single passage in the Rig-Veda where ayas must mean iron. Ayas means the third ancient metal, neither gold nor silver, and in several passages scholars would say that it may mean iron. But a passage in which it must mean iron would be worth its weight in gold.

So much for the facts which after all have some importance in theories. As to Professor Sayce’s prophecy that Sauskrit will never sit again as queen among her sister languages, let us wait and see. I claim for Sanskrit as a language no more than the place of prima inter pares ; whether the same place will be given in future as in the past to Sanskrit scholars also among comparative philologists I gladly leave to others to prophesy.”

24 Henry IV Pt II 2.4.130ff.
25 Claude Reignier Conder (1848–1910).
26 William Robertson Smith (1846–94).
27 Agamemnon, 720.
28 The forms should be, on the principles of the school which the poet has joined, Peiraious, Mutiliné, Aigospotamoi.*
29 The poem by Robert Browning, 1875, from which the following quotations are drawn.
30 Vergil Aeneid 2.704: “I shrink at reporting it.”
31 Henry Bradley (1845–1923).
32 The reference is to A.E. Housman, who entered St John’s in 1877 but failed to obtain Honours in Greats in 1881; the following year he took the standard pass degree, having filled the time in between with some teaching at his old school, Bromsgrove.
33 “Dig-ology.”
34 A reference to Richard “Frog” Walker, Vice-Master of Trinity College and lackey to Bentley. See Pope Dunciad 4.237.