Tales of St. Austin's/Chapter 14
Of all forms of lettered effusiveness, that which exploits the original work of others and professes to supply us with right opinions thereanent is the least wanted.
It has always seemed to me one of the worst flaws in our mistaken social system, that absolutely no distinction is made between the master who forces the human boy to take down notes from dictation and the rest of mankind. I mean that, if in a moment of righteous indignation you rend such a one limb from limb, you will almost certainly be subjected to the utmost rigour of the law, and you will be lucky if you escape a heavy fine of five or ten shillings, exclusive of the costs of the case. Now, this is not right on the face of it. It is even wrong. The law should take into account the extreme provocation which led to the action. Punish if you will the man who travels second-class with a third-class ticket, or who borrows a pencil and forgets to return it; but there are occasions when justice should be tempered with mercy, and this murdering of pedagogues is undoubtedly such an occasion.
It should be remembered, however, that there are two varieties of notes. The printed notes at the end of your Thucydides or Homer are distinctly useful when they aim at acting up to their true vocation, namely, the translating of difficult passages or words. Sometimes, however, the author will insist on airing his scholarship, and instead of translations he supplies parallel passages, which neither interest, elevate, nor amuse the reader. This, of course, is mere vanity. The author, sitting in his comfortable chair with something short within easy reach, recks nothing of the misery he is inflicting on hundreds of people who have done him no harm at all. He turns over the pages of his book of Familiar Quotations with brutal callousness, and for every tricky passage in the work which he is editing, finds and makes a note of three or four even trickier ones from other works. Who has not in his time been brought face to face with a word which defies translation? There are two courses open to you on such an occasion, to look the word up in the lexicon, or in the notes. You, of course, turn up the notes, and find: 'See line 80.' You look up line 80, hoping to see a translation, and there you are told that a rather similar construction occurs in Xenophades' Lyrics from a Padded Cell. On this, the craven of spirit will resort to the lexicon, but the man of mettle will close his book with an emphatic bang, and refuse to have anything more to do with it. Of a different sort are the notes which simply translate the difficulty and subside. These are a boon to the scholar. Without them it would be almost impossible to prepare one's work during school, and we should be reduced to the prosaic expedient of working in prep. time. What we want is the commentator who translates mensa as 'a table' without giving a page and a half of notes on the uses of the table in ancient Greece, with an excursus on the habit common in those times of retiring underneath it after dinner, and a list of the passages in Apollonius Rhodius where the word 'table' is mentioned.
These voluminous notes are apt to prove a nuisance in more ways than one. Your average master is generally inordinately fond of them, and will frequently ask some member of the form to read his note on so-and-so out to his fellows. This sometimes leads to curious results, as it is hardly to be expected that the youth called upon will be attending, even if he is awake, which is unlikely. On one occasion an acquaintance of mine, 'whose name I am not at liberty to divulge', was suddenly aware that he was being addressed, and, on giving the matter his attention, found that it was the form-master asking him to read out his note on Balbus murum aedificavit. My friend is a kind-hearted youth and of an obliging disposition, and would willingly have done what was asked of him, but there were obstacles, first and foremost of which ranked the fact that, taking advantage of his position on the back desk (whither he thought the basilisk eye of Authority could not reach), he had substituted Bab Ballads for the words of Virgil, and was engrossed in the contents of that modern classic. The subsequent explanations lasted several hours. In fact, it is probable that the master does not understand the facts of the case thoroughly even now. It is true that he called him a 'loathsome, slimy, repulsive toad', but even this seems to fall short of the grandeur of the situation.
Those notes, also, which are, alas! only too common nowadays, that deal with peculiarities of grammar, how supremely repulsive they are! It is impossible to glean any sense from them, as the Editor mixes up Nipperwick's view with Sidgeley's reasoning and Spreckendzedeutscheim's surmise with Donnerundblitzendorf's conjecture in a way that seems to argue a thorough unsoundness of mind and morals, a cynical insanity combined with a blatant indecency. He occasionally starts in a reasonable manner by giving one view as (1) and the next as (2). So far everyone is happy and satisfied. The trouble commences when he has occasion to refer back to some former view, when he will say: 'Thus we see (1) and (14) that,' etc. The unlucky student puts a finger on the page to keep the place, and hunts up view one. Having found this, and marked the spot with another finger, he proceeds to look up view fourteen. He places another finger on this, and reads on, as follows: 'Zmpe, however, maintains that Schrumpff (see 3) is practically insane, that Spleckzh (see 34) is only a little better, and that Rswkg (see 97 a (b) C3) is so far from being right that his views may be dismissed as readily as those of Xkryt (see 5x).' At this point brain-fever sets in, the victim's last coherent thought being a passionate wish for more fingers. A friend of mine who was the wonder of all who knew him, in that he was known to have scored ten per cent in one of these papers on questions like the above, once divulged to an interviewer the fact that he owed his success to his methods of learning rather than to his ability. On the night before an exam, he would retire to some secret, solitary place, such as the boot-room, and commence learning these notes by heart. This, though a formidable task, was not so bad as the other alternative. The result was that, although in the majority of cases he would put down for one question an answer that would have been right for another, yet occasionally, luck being with him, he would hit the mark. Hence his ten per cent.
Another fruitful source of discomfort is provided by the type of master who lectures on a subject for half an hour, and then, with a bland smile, invites, or rather challenges, his form to write a 'good, long note' on the quintessence of his discourse. For the inexperienced this is an awful moment. They must write something—but what? For the last half hour they have been trying to impress the master with the fact that they belong to the class of people who can always listen best with their eyes closed. Nor poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world can ever medicine them to that sweet sleep that they have just been enjoying. And now they must write a 'good, long note'. It is in such extremities that your veteran shows up well. He does not betray any discomfort. Not he. He rather enjoys the prospect, in fact, of being permitted to place the master's golden eloquence on paper. So he takes up his pen with alacrity. No need to think what to write. He embarks on an essay concerning the master, showing up all his flaws in a pitiless light, and analysing his thorough worthlessness of character. On so congenial a subject he can, of course, write reams, and as the master seldom, if ever, desires to read the 'good, long note', he acquires a well-earned reputation for attending in school and being able to express himself readily with his pen. .
But all these forms of notes are as nothing compared with the notes that youths even in this our boasted land of freedom are forced to take down from dictation. Of the 'good, long note' your French scholar might well remark: 'C'est terrible', but justice would compel him to add, as he thought of the dictation note: ''. For these notes from dictation are, especially on a warm day, indubitably le diable.
Such notes are always dictated so rapidly that it is impossible to do anything towards understanding them as you go. You have to write your hardest to keep up. The beauty of this, from one point of view, is that, if you miss a sentence, you have lost the thread of the whole thing, and it is useless to attempt to take it up again at once. The only plan is to wait for some perceptible break in the flow of words, and dash in like lightning. It is much the same sort of thing as boarding a bus when in motion. And so you can take a long rest, provided you are in an obscure part of the room. In passing, I might add that a very pleasing indoor game can be played by asking the master, 'what came after so-and-so?' mentioning a point of the oration some half-hour back. This always provides a respite of a few minutes while he is thinking of some bitter repartee worthy of the occasion, and if repeated several times during an afternoon may cause much innocent merriment.
Of course, the real venom that lurks hid within notes from dictation does not appear until the time for examination arrives. Then you find yourself face to face with sixty or seventy closely and badly written pages of a note-book, all of which must be learnt by heart if you would aspire to the dizzy heights of half-marks. It is useless to tell your examiner that you had no chance of getting up the subject. 'Why,' he will reply, 'I gave you notes on that very thing myself.' 'You did, sir,' you say, as you advance stealthily upon him, 'but as you dictated those notes at the rate of two hundred words a minute, and as my brain, though large, is not capable of absorbing sixty pages of a note-book in one night, how the suggestively asterisked aposiopesis do you expect me to know them? Ah-h-h!' The last word is a war-cry, as you fling yourself bodily on him, and tear him courteously, but firmly, into minute fragments. Experience, which, as we all know, teaches, will in time lead you into adopting some method by which you may evade this taking of notes. A good plan is to occupy yourself with the composition of a journal, an unofficial magazine not intended for the eyes of the profane, but confined rigidly to your own circle of acquaintances. The chief advantage of such a work is that you will continue to write while the notes are being dictated. To throw your pen down with an air of finality and begin reading some congenial work of fiction would be a gallant action, but impolitic. No, writing of some sort is essential, and as it is out of the question to take down the notes, what better substitute than an unofficial journal could be found? To one whose contributions to the School magazine are constantly being cut down to mere skeletons by the hands of censors, there is a rapture otherwise unattainable in a page of really scurrilous items about those in authority. Try it yourselves, my beamish lads. Think of something really bad about somebody. Write it down and gloat over it. Sometimes, indeed, it is of the utmost use in determining your future career. You will probably remember those Titanic articles that appeared at the beginning of the war in The Weekly Luggage-Train, dealing with all the crimes of the War Office—the generals, the soldiers, the enemy—of everybody, in fact, except the editor, staff and office-boy of The W.L.T. Well, the writer of those epoch-making articles confesses that he owes all his skill to his early training, when, a happy lad at his little desk in school, he used to write trenchantly in his note-book on the subject of the authorities. There is an example for you. Of course we can never be like him, but let, oh! let us be as like him as we're able to be. A final word to those lost ones who dictate the notes. Why are our ears so constantly assailed with unnecessary explanations of, and opinions on, English literature? Prey upon the Classics if you will. It is a revolting habit, but too common to excite overmuch horror. But surely anybody, presupposing a certain bias towards sanity, can understand the Classics of our own language, with the exception, of course, of Browning. Take Tennyson, for example. How often have we been forced to take down from dictation the miserable maunderings of some commentator on the subject of Maud. A person reads Maud, and either likes it or dislikes it. In any case his opinion is not likely to be influenced by writing down at express speed the opinions of somebody else concerning the methods or objectivity and subjectivity of the author when he produced the work.
Somebody told me a short time ago that Shelley was an example of supreme, divine, superhuman genius. It is the sort of thing Mr Gilbert's 'rapturous maidens' might have said: 'How Botticellian! How Fra Angelican! How perceptively intense and consummately utter!' There is really no material difference.