reading the first chapter of John Stuart Mill’s autobiography leads one to take stock of that ancient branch of education, “Classics”, which still sucks into its grip a good many clever pupils, whether among university-college students in West Africa or boys and girls in a British grammar school. Among the Latin and Greek texts which Mill was put through by his inflexible, utterly serious-minded father between the ages of three and twelve were Caesar, Livy, Cicero, the Aeneid and Georgics of Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Lucretius, and Terence; and Homer (Iliad and Odessey), Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Thucydides, Demosthenes, Lysias, and Aristotle. These authors made up the greater part of young Mill’s Classical curriculum, and they were all studied (though not as exhaustively) by the five or six of us who specialised in Greek and Latin at a Scottish grammar school between 1944 and 1950, which makes me think that our course must have been quite gruelling, quite close (though mercifully not in method) to the models of the Classical heyday.

Our principal teacher over the years was a man whose face swelled and went scarlet and whose thick, chalky hand came down hard if boys made mistakes. He was said to have been dismissed from a school when a young man for disseminating communism, and he had worked on the Scots language with Hugh MacDiarmid when they were both in Montrose, Angus. The Greek and Latin declensions and conjugations, the rules of syntax, the plan of “the Homeric house” and the map of Italy in the time of Sulla and Pompey were so embedded in his mental bedrock that error seemed to him a moral atrocity, incomprehensible and inexcusable. We had other teachers too, young men with a modern outlook and way of speaking and their own literary tastes; but none stamped the Classics on us as lastingly as that principal.

In me the Classics are now a residue. One’s reading and subjects of thought nowadays are not such that the history or reasoning or style of the Classics find much scope for application. But I can sift out well enough the deposit each author was able to leave with me as a result of the impression he could make on a boy. The mixture of authors was of course extraordinary and incoherent (as was that of the British “classics”—Old Mortality, Pickwick Papers, Under the Greenwood Tree). We did not read chronologically, because Homer was too difficult to start on. We did not read literature as literature, because we were being drilled in a language. History was fitted only incidentally into any interpreted sequence in the story of civilisation—there was, for example, no co-operation with the History department. What we got was The Classics, in such quantities and degrees of intelligibility as pupils of our age were supposed to be capable of.

The simpler historians—Caesar, Xenophon, even Thucydides—have now run together in a maze of advances and retreats, flanks and ramparts, hoplites, havelin-throwers, and tributes to the military virtues such as went out with the 1919 war memorials. Thucydides, however, was full and thoughtful enough in his accounts of why, politically and strategically, wars started, to give some first inklings of how societies struggle forwards; he was not wholly congealed in a remote past. Livy I found too difficult to read for illumination; but his Italy seemed to have little blood of social life flowing through it, and the constant stern condemnation of the dreadful failings which sapped whole peoples—otium, libido, and the rest—were too abstract to mean anything: more details would have appealed to us (aged fourteen) and also sharpened our sense of life. The orators—Lysias, Demosthenes, and above all Cicero—seemed mere elephantine fabrics of syntax and turns of phrase, piled up for their own sakes, which we were forced to puzzle through as so much gymnastics for the developing of our Classical muscles. I see now that it might have been worth comparing Cicero—his extravagant, blatantly concocted puffs for the contemporary Establishment—with examples of modern public speaking, as a sardonic warning. By contrast, Plato’s Apology brought fully home the actual man Socrates, with his Christ-like fearless independence and challenging of old beliefs.

The creative authors had a good chance of appealing to me, as literature was my great passion. But how few of them were felt, or taught, as delicately-formed, intensely alive organisms of words born of the deeply-felt experiences of a person who had lived! Vergil could not be taken so, at least by me, because so elaborate a crust of language overlay the life presented. The life was, anyway, bizarre—nymphs wailing, harpies swarming, real people knocking on the gates of an underworld which we were too old to take actually and could not yet interpret as symbolism. To be sure the Aeneid seemed more a serious real-life matter, especially the dangers and efforts of the ship’s crews, than anything in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid’s farfetched tales gave nothing we hadn’t got as little children from the Tanglewood Tales or any simplified selection of “gods and heroes”. Ovid was readable, less gruelling than the epic poets, but on a par with the Arabian Nights—a superior pastime, which lodged nothing in one’s mind that could go to form one’s outlook. Homer became too much an obstacle race through difficult vocabulary for us to get at all deep into him, and he was made unreal by the illustrations —culled by Victorian clergymen from bits of vases in the British Museum. Yet he was so much less ornate than Vergil—like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde compared with The Faerie Queene—that certain strong things, Ulysees’ heroic practicality. Hector’s parting from Andromache, showed me life and were planted permanently in my awareness, through the simple human rightness of their description, as happened too with the Scottish ballads. Lucretius was solemn and intellectually involved—formidable reading for boys, even in their middle ’teens—yet he perhaps gave a glimpse of the older science, permeated with religious awe yet with some observation in it too, and much more admirable than the pedantic superstitions of the Middle Ages. Euripides touched no chord, as it happened, and we were annoyed at being kept off the choral odes, which were nearer, in their verbal richness to familiar ideas of poetry. But Sophocles, like Homer, was plainly serious, grappling with life at the level of Shakespear. Unfortunately the Greek tragedians seemed (as I think they do equally to adults) to draw on a sense of the universe just beyond the imaginative reach of any modern.

The lyrical poets we read so late that they had a chance of catching our growing taste for literature. Mine at that time was “decadent”—shortly after I was admiring Pater and Wilde and despising the colloquial poets of the 1930’s. Horace was difficult to grasp: tones and syntax both seemed compressed and elliptical, and we used Connington’s wooden crib. But Catullus was simple, immediately emotional, frank in his passion in a way that allured us, and I found his language near enough to some of Tennyson to make deliberately pretty translations of him into English verse. In our last years at school we gradually took our cribs out from under the desk and were allowed to read the Classics as literature, using whatever aids were practical. This was a goodly step forward to educational maturity; texts were no longer treated as dour tests of homework and snares for carelessness. Two of us used old-fashioned copies of Pope’s Homer with a rather voulu relish for “the couplet”, never admitting its monotony.

We could take away, then, from our Classics, in a degree anything like commensurate with the wear and tear of brain that they demanded, only a glimmering of Homer and of Sophocles; some pretty lyrics; the talk and death of Socrates; an inkling, from Thucydides, of realpolitik; and an otherwise baffling headful of Classical lumber—what Pope calls “statues, dirty gods, and coins”.;