While I was discussing poetry with someone today, it occurred to me to wonder why they wrote so much more of the stuff and were generally so much better at it 200 years ago than we are today?
Given everything that we think we know about the paucity of education back then.
One thinks of Austen’s rather acerbic commentary on the subject of good company in Persuasion: “Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well…”
And yet, I think that may be unjust and/or inaccurate. Probably both.
Though their idea of education was certainly different from ours today, a late 18th/early 19th century education may well account for the number of fine poets Britain produced over the years.
Because a gentleman’s education at Eton, for example, (or Winchester or Harrow) was composed chiefly if not entirely in the study of the classics. And yes, that means Latin and Greek.
And the boys who went to school there would have not just learned their Latin and classical Greek, by the time they emerged, they would have been fluent in those languages. (Though, yes, they would also be thoroughly versed in betting on horses and drinking too…)
There was then no set age of admission, as there is now, at Eton. Boys as young as seven or eight might be admitted. And remain there until about age sixteen, seventeen, or even eighteen.
They were expected to know some Latin upon arrival. And the first two years of their education was entirely a study of Latin–memorising, reciting, reading, and answering set questions in that language, so pronunciation too.
Thereafter, the syllabus was split between Latin and Greek to a point where their lessons were all in these languages, construing, repeating, reciting twenty or more verses of the Greek New Testament, studying Cicero, Tully’s Offices, all of Ovid’s work.
Essentially, they read everything of the Classical Greek and Latin poets, playwrights and philosophers. The sort of stuff we today relegate to post-graduate degree study…
They also were expected to learn Milton, Pope, (though curiously no Shakespeare) and both Roman and Greek history.
They read Marcus Aurelius…and that’s without a dictionary (which had only just been invented a few years earlier in English, after all. Such a thing didn’t yet exist in Latin.)
So yes, they would have been fluent in these classical languages to the extent that they could and did converse or write in them as freely as they could in English…imagine that.
By the time they were nearing the end of their years at Eton, they were studying and performing Greek plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus Coloneus, Antigone…and several plays by Euripedes, such as Hecuba and Orestes.
Thus they learned to be confident public speakers, first in Latin, then in classical Greek and finally in English.
Equally, as their education consisted almost solely of the study of these kinds of work, so too, their own compositions reflect this education–they wrote and performed plays for themselves, composed classical odes (lots of them) and became masters of the epigram. Beau Brummell, for example, composed classical verse well into old age.
If one wished for further tuition for one’s son, one paid for tutoring of course. And such things as French, fencing and dancing lessons were available.
So, by the time they left the school–aged somewhere in their late-ish teens–these were young men thoroughly versed, and I mean thoroughly, in the classics.
If they went on to Oxford or Cambridge, it would have been to further their study of the Greats (as the classics were then called), or to study for the church or the law.
All of which starts to make a great deal of sense then when one looks at the poetry of Byron for example. (He was a Harrovian, for those who don’t know.)
It also explains why the young men of the age migrated in large numbers to Italy for the Grand Tour. Because the Grand Tour, when you read about it, doesn’t necessarily take in places like Spain or Portugal, does it?
No, they’re always skipping off to Italy and Greece–well, since they had a foundation in the local languages, this too suddenly makes perfect sense. And all those ruins would have meant a great deal to them.
But given how difficult it is to learn Latin, not to mention Greek, for an English speaker, ten years of lessons in those languages, the prizes won by so many, their writings, the endless recitation of memorised verses (which do stay with one unto old age) the lists which give an indication that many of those who later would claim to have learned nothing were rather more devoted to their studies than not…all of this tells a rather different story, don’t you think?
And possibly explains too why the poets of the Romantic age were read so voraciously by their contemporaries. Because, it wasn’t just that they had no telly and no football to watch, it’s that this kind of education engenders a passion for poetry, for verse, for a clever construction of words, for plays…
So, well-educated? I think so. Don’t you?