My old friend was no walker. Yet the picture which recollection chiefly invokes is of a spare figure, much swamped and muffled in greatcoats and a soft hat, stepping delicately down the High Street of Oxford, and pausing to regard the windows of booksellers and antiquarians with a chill glance of recognition and dispraise. There was an unconscious fastidium in that walk, and in the aquiline cast of his old face in repose, which expressed the innocent arrogance of his mind. A natural aristocracy spoke in his bearing, to the exclusion of any mark of occupation. He was no more like a great scholar than anybody else; but he might have been an ambassador, or the head of a great banking house. He might have been a duke of the premier line.
He was in fact a very great scholar. Many who knew him by his recensions of the text of Aristotle and by his casual conversation–his copious memory was stored with the lapses of lesser scholars–thought of him as profoundly versed in the diction of Greek philosophers and the principles of textual criticism, and by the same token preoccupied to excess with minutiae of idiom, inordinately solaced by professional scandal. The travesty is risible, but it is fostered by a vulgar error. There is no humaner science than grammar, and few more exciting pursuits than textual criticism; but the dry bones of both studies attract the spade of unenlightened industry, and the fair name of classical scholarship suffers from the multitude of its drudges.
The subject of my portrait was a great scholar, as only those few can be who laboriously cultivate a rare natural gift. The penetralia of the ancient world are not to be reached save through the long and dusty corridors of modern learning; and only by a saving grace of genius will the student reach the farther end with senses unimpaired. Our scholar knew the history of classical learning as it is unlikely it will ever be known again, and read ancient literature with a taste and feeling undimmed by a cobweb. He told me once, he had read the Choephoroe in the train that morning: ‘You know, it’s monstrously good.’ The quotation does feeble justice to my vivid sense of his being as intimate with Aeschylus as he was with Browning, and as intimate with Politian as with either. He was so profoundly versed in the literature and the manners of many ages, that he would speak of Sir Thomas More, or of Burke, very much as he spoke of Swinburne; as if he had known them.
Few even of his friends, I imagine, suspected the prodigious range of his attainments. He did not suspect it himself. He had no vulgar avidity of information or conceit of versatility, and of many branches of modern scientific and mechanical knowledge was content to remain as ignorant as a gentleman need be. He acquired his knowledge with an easy deliberation, and kept it by mere tenacity and a sure instinct for selection. In conversation his native courtesy chose subjects with which he knew his interlocutor to be familiar; and the Renaissance scholar who knew that he lived on terms of close intimacy with Erasmus and the Scaligers might well remain in ignorance of his equal familiarity with Diogenes Laertius, or the Elizabethan dramatists, or the historians of the Peninsular War. Till he warmed to a subject his knowledge was always shy; he was not to be drawn; and it was felt that the attempt would be indecent. The loftiness of his own standard was more surely betrayed by the alarm he evinced at the rare discovery of a gap in his knowledge. At a meeting of a learned society over which he presided, a member, while reading a commentator’s note, boggled at a word and applied to the president for its meaning. Sicilicus–sicilicus! There was a silence as he made his way to the dictionary. Sicilicus. It means the forty-eighth part of an as, and, by metonymy, it means a comma. Then, replacing the book and turning to his audience, in accents of unfeigned dismay–I didn’t know that!
Circumstances allowed me to spread my net wide. My relations with him were in part professional, and it was often my business to seek from , him information or counsel on various projects of learning. This required a degree of tact, and even the most careful application was not always successful. He would sometimes profess nescience, or preoccupation, or even indifference. But when his interest was stimulated the results were surprising. He liked to have notice of awkward questions. If his mind was a well-stored encyclopedia, it was an incomparable bibliography. His cash resources were as nothing to his credit. He had a rare nose for books, and anything that lurked in a book he could track to its lair. He was seldom visible before lunch time; and I think of him as spending long mornings in his library, pacing the floor with his delicate step, lighting and relighting his big pipe, and ever and again pouncing hawklike on his quarry. Scholarship and lexicography owe much to those unrecorded searches.
His published works, though their volume is respectable, afford but rare glimpses of the range of his learning or the play of his discursive judgement. They are confined strictly to his professional avocation, and are the best illustration of his favorite censure, ‘It isn’t a business-like book’. But their quality, if severely, if even regrettably restrained, is the mirror of his exact, profound, and laborious scholarship. ‘Of its exactness I once made a searching experiment. He had commissioned me to read the proofs of his last and most important book. So honorific an invitation could be received only as a command; but it was embarrassing, the more so as a handsome and equally obligatory honorarium was attached. The substance of the commentary I could not presume to criticize; and how should I earn my guineas by the barren labor of verifying references which I was sure had been tested again and again, any time those twenty years ? I cast here and there; but the most assiduous angler will flag under the conviction that there are no fish in his waters. I fell in despair upon the index verborum; and by erasing a word in the text, as I checked each entry, hoped at last to reap a harvest of paralipomena. A grotesque, but perhaps a unique labour; I pursued it with zeal. My mind misgave me when I got to φ, and found the pages of the text all but obliterated; and when I reached the last word in the index, and turned to the text for my reward, all I had to show for my toil was one lonely word overlooked, a single islet in a sea of erasure.
If the old man had a vanity, it was that being a great scholar, who lived to celebrate as a Regius Professor the jubilee of his matriculation, he preferred to envisage himself in a metropolitan setting. Affectionate loyalty forbade a hint that Oxford was parochial; but there was a modest gratitude in the explanation, ‘I have a house in London’. Certainly those who knew him only in the streets of Oxford, in the high gloomy room in Wolsey’s Quad, or the very ordinary villa in the Parks, missed the cream of his urbanity. But I think fondly of the Oxford house. It was there I first enjoyed his familiar conversation, and heard him quote the saying of Chandler–‘a better Aristotelian than I shall ever be’–that ‘the first half-dozen chapters of any book of Aristotle are really very well done’. It was there that on the eve of his leaving Oxford he invited me to call on him at five o’clock, ‘when I shall be still able to give you some tea’. I have often smiled, as I smile now in fond amusement, at something engaging in that phrase. The amenities of tea were unruffled by any squalor of packing; and the object of the invitation was to load me with books. They were duplicates, he explained, and it was therefore in my power to do him a kindness.
But the house in Kensington was more amply expressive. A house is infinitely communicative, and tells many things besides the figure of its master’s income. There are houses that confess intellectual penury, and houses that reek of enlightenment. The habitations of professors are in general, perhaps, too apt to emphasize the dignity of labor. This, on first showing, was merely the house of a cultivated gentleman of easy fortune, liberal tastes, and ample leisure. Here were no telephones or lists of engagements, no display of the apparatus of research. The study at the top of the house confessed itself a workroom; but even there his guests breathed a serene atmosphere. If there was any litter it was a litter of pipes and tobacco jars, and if any books lay on chairs or tables they were probably recent acquisitions which had not yet been assigned their places. If the house was unlike a laboratory it was equally unlike a museum; the responsive visitor felt that his senses were agreeably amused, but became only by degrees aware that the furniture was more than good, the silver better than old, the books not only handsome but rare and precious. Of books, and especially of early Greek books, he was a systematic collector; his other possessions he had acquired by the same gift which gave him his miscellaneous information; he never seemed to know anything that was not worth knowing, and his house, by the same flair, held nothing one might not have been tempted to covet.
Of his tastes and opinions I can qualify none as prejudice, unless it be his dislike of chrysanthemums; but there were proclivities and avoidances as characteristic and as amiable as the best of prejudices. I do not think he had any love of the sublime in nature; I have heard him avow a distaste for mountains, and he never spoke of Switzerland except as a natural obstacle. He loved the ordered landscapes of South England; he loved Paris, and he loved the Mediterranean. He never visited Greece, and did not regret the omission. I think he had his own vision of the Academy and the Lyceum, and shrank from the desecrated temples and the spurious pretensions of modern Athens. But he travelled much in Italy, and more in Spain; and his mind was stored with rich impressions of old cities, of noble libraries, gorgeous palaces, solemn rituals. Perhaps the disapprobation of mountains extended itself to the lesser pinnacles of human architecture; I think of him, at all events, as less moved by domes and buttresses than by the dim magnificence of interiors, by porphyry and bronze and incense and the pomp of the mass. He told me once that were he a pious millionaire desirous of raising a monument to the glory of God and for his soul’s good, he should not spend his money on spires and arches, but should buy a building in a street, with no exterior but its modest frontage, and lavish his resources on gorgeous incrustations.
To see him among his books was to learn a lesson in piety. When he described the printed catalogue of his choicest volumes as Elenchus librorum vetustiorum apud…hospitantium, he was guilty of no affectation of modesty. He did not conceal a collector’s just pride of possession; but you need only see him take a book from its shelf to know that he felt himself the ephemeral custodian of a perennial treasure. There is a right way and a wrong way of taking a book from the shelf. To put a finger on the top, and so extract the volume by brutal leverage, is a vulgar error which has broken many backs. This was never his way: he would gently push back each of the adjacent books, and so pull out the desired volume with a persuasive finger and thumb. Then, before opening the pages, he applied his silk handkerchief to the gilded top, lest dust should find its way between the leaves. These were the visible signs of a spiritual homage. His gift of veneration was as rich as his critical faculty was keen; if a book was of the elect it was handled with a certain awe.
He was easily persuaded to do the honors of his collection. One book would suggest another, which would be taken down in its turn to prompt further comment and reminiscence. He did not disdain the collector’s foibles; he liked to point out that this was a dean copy and that a tall copy; or even, with a smile that confessed a weakness–‘ It has the blank leaf at the end!’ The importance of these qualities may seem to be exaggerated by booksellers’ catalogues, when they deplore a missing dedication or measure values with a millimeter scale; but an accurate regard for them is common to connoisseurs, and should not be held to argue an undue concern for externals. Here, at all events; was no room for such a suspicion; for it could not be supposed that he had not read his books.
His standard was as high in this as in less important matters. He condemned as ignorant the modern passion for old Sheffield plate. Old Sheffield might be very well; but no one of the period bought Sheffield for any better reason than that he could not afford to buy silver. He was equally contemptuous of the exaggerated value now set upon old English cottage furniture, which he regarded as barbarous. He named a lady who had filled her rooms with it: ‘You know, the house of a baronet’s widow oughtn’t to be like the bar parlour of the Pig and Whistle.’ His taste in books was as severe. He often mentioned an excellence–‘It’s a good copy; it’s a better copy than the one in the British Museum’–but I do not remember his owning a defect. I must suppose that he had no poor copies. The same standard was applied to the discrimination of the products of presses and centuries. He loved the best, and had no reason for putting up with what was inferior. I do not think anything later than the sixteenth century had much power to stir him.
I was very sensible of the beauty of his books–the fine old Italian print, the fair margins, the armorial bindings eloquent of worthy ownership. I felt myself incompetent to appraise the rare industry and rarer learning by which the collection had been formed. But no profound acquaintance with a subject or a period was required to appreciate his knowledge of books in general, their every circumstance and attribute. He answered to any and every test, ‘Yes. I know the book. I have a copy. It isn’t a rare book.’ It has been said of him that if he had not been a great scholar he might have been one of the greatest of all booksellers. His instinct for prices was uncanny. Of imprints he could talk by the hour; whether Londini or Londinii were the preferable form; of the Paris imprint, which at a certain date appears as Parisius (a fact not generally known); of a well-known scholar who imagined that Hafnia was Hanover, but might have remembered Campbell–‘Hafnia and Trafalgar’. His regard for myself, I cannot doubt, had at least its origin in my unfeigned appreciation of such particulars of controversy, obscurity or scandal. My memory, by the same predilection, retains these anecdotes, while preserving only a vaguer sense of the range and charm of his talk, the mordant perspicacity of his judgements. We are accustomed to associate candor and charity with an amiable character; but greatness of mind is allowed to justify a measure of cynicism; and his censorious worldliness was so rooted in wisdom, and so divorced from all vanity and pettiness of spirit, that I found it not only more entertaining, but even more lovable, than the most good-natured disposition to see the best in everything. He had no regard for established reputations, or none that he allowed to obscure his judgement; and the surprise with which he recognized the ignorance and mendacity of mankind was the measure of his intellectual probity.
Scorn looked beautiful In the contempt and anger of his lip
as he pronounced the final verdict, ‘It’s a shoddy book’. Most books, if not shoddy, are yet, in his other phrase, ‘not important’; and if his admiration was less often exercised than his censure, it was less often deserved. It was the more impressive. He seldom quoted a saying of his own; but he was fond of relating how, in an academic committee, some one who should have known better had suggested, on a proposal to further the study of inscriptions, that people who dabbled in inscriptions were always charlatans. ‘Do you call Mommen a charlatan?’ It is probably a legend that he used to take his hat off when, in lecture, he had occasion to name Bernays; but I can hear the tones of his voice when he invoked the authority, or appealed to the example, of Erasmus, or Bentley, or Gibbon.
Johnson has been reported as saying that ‘the happiest conversation is that of which nothing is distinctly remembered, but a general effect of pleasing impression’. I comfort myself, in the face of my poverty of recollection, with an impression, as rich as it is doubtless incommunicable, of my old friend’s wit and wisdom, his courtesy and kindness. He was an admirable host; exacting only in the attention invited to his cellar and his cigars, and in the inordinate hours at which one was expected still to converse, or at least to listen. It was difficult to resist that glass of claret which wasn’t a dinner claret but an after-dinner claret; and I have a shameful memory of being once caught in a yawn, and politely escorted to my candle, at about half-past one. When I dined with him last he had been very ill; his servant met me with an anxious face, and a request that I would not keep him up. He looked old and frail, and was unusually silent; but over the second glass of port–the doctors were building him up–he began to mend; and when the second cigar had been smoked the flame of discourse was burning with its old mild radiance. He would not speak of the war; I think he already knew he should not see its end. But the recent publication of a volume of Professor Oman’s History evoked his interest in the great days of the Peninsula; and I heard for the last time the old stories of San Sebastian and Salamanca.
The graces of civilization and the delights of learning are far from me now. But my nomadic and semi-barbarous existence is still solaced by a few good books; and the best odes of Horace, the best things in Boswell or Elia, often awake memories of Attic nights. Memories and visions, in which gleaming mahogany and old morocco are seen darkling in a haze of smoke, and an old man in his big chair by the fire draws forth, for my pleasure and his, the hoarded treasures of his rich old mind.
Snevce, October 1917