Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Curmudgeons of the 19th Century

Drout has another delightful post about Walter Skeat and his crabby persona -- you wouldn't think posts about a 19th-century scholar's grammar and vocabulary could make me laugh so hard, but they can.

Henry Sweet, too, can be catty. I've always found the preface to the first edition of his Anglo-Saxon Primer (1882) surprising because of how ugly the passive-voice construction of the first sentence is: "The want of an introduction to the study of Old-English has long been felt." Yuck! The ugliness of that sentence has long been felt.

Still, the sentence serves at least one useful purpose: I remember that preface, which has this bit of cattiness:
Meanwhile, however, Professor Earle has brought out his Book for the beginner in Anglo-Saxon. But this work is quite unsuited to serve as an introduction to my Reader, and will be found to differ so totally in plan and execution from the present one as to preclude all idea of rivalry on my part. We work on lines which instead of clashing can only diverge more and more.

Translation: Earle's book sucks so bad that it would insult my book to compare the two. Ouch!

By the way, my favorite opening to any of those old books is from Alfred J. Wyatt's An Anglo-Saxon Reader (from 1922, the next generation). It opens, "The War has left its mark on this book."* Wyatt uses the preface to honor the memory of his friend and early collaborator on the book, Bernard Pitt, who died in the First World War. Pitt too was capable of putting words together well, as in the sentence, "All is naught compared to the war." I sometimes wonder what we would have in terms of collaborative scholarship if Pitt had survived the War and gone on to full life working with Wyatt.

*Thank god Sweet didn't write this, or it would read, "A mark have been left on this book by the War." Not terrible, but nothing quite like the opening we have, which acts as a blunt blow.

1 comment:

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