31 May 2024

The Benefits of a Classical Education?

'In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in High School to teaching remedial English in college.' ~ Joseph Sobran

From The Imaginative Conservative

By E.J. Hutchinson

Some familiarity with the ancient world really does enliven one’s appreciation of the arts and literature of the European tradition and its geographical and cultural penumbra. I was reminded of this recently in an apparently trivial—but, for all that, rather delightful—way. 

Are there any “benefits of a classical education,” as Hans Gruber puts it in Die Hard? As it turns out, understanding the reference in Die Hard itself is one of those benefits, even if the villain happens to be using a fake quotation.

But, to speak more generally, some familiarity with the ancient world really does enliven one’s appreciation of the arts and literature of the European tradition and its geographical and cultural penumbra. I was reminded of this recently in an apparently trivial—but, for all that, rather delightful—way. 

The Scene

Not long ago, I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous to some of my children. A contemporary review in The Atlantic Monthly calls it “one of those simple, vigorous conceptions which we have come to expect from [Kipling].” We found it to be so, though I will admit that a good third of it went right over my head due to my lack of familiarity with late nineteenth century sailing argot. The amount of specialized vocabulary makes Melville’s “Cetology” look like a remedial whale picture-book for preschoolers. But let that pass.

As I say, I was reading Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous to some of my children. In chapter 4, the men and boys of the crew of the We’re Here are below, diverting themselves with song during a time of rough seas. The turn of Harvey Cheyne, the rich kid—The Atlantic’s anonymous reviewer, with somewhat greater imagination, calls him “a putty-faced, impudent fifteen-year-old”—rescued from the sea by the We’re Here’s salt-of-the-earth sailors, to offer a musical selection comes. But all he knows is a bit of something called “Skipper Ireson’s Ride” that he had learned at camp.

“Skipper Ireson’s Ride” is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92). And Disko, the captain of the ship, doesn’t like it; he therefore forbids Harvey to proceed. 

And why doesn’t he like it? Well, it’s historically false, in his view:

“All you’re goin’ to say,” said Disko. “All dead wrong from start to finish, an’ Whittier he’s to blame.”

The Background

On October 28, 1808, Benjamin Ireson, the captain of the Betsy, found a sinking ship called the Active off the North Atlantic coast of New England. Ireson wanted to attempt a rescue, but his crew did not. So the Active was left to fend for itself, and when the crew members found themselves in, er, hot water for cowardice in their home port of Marbelhead, Mass., they blamed Ireson for making them run away. Leonee Ormond, the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Kipling’s novel, continues the tale:

The arrival of four survivors from the Active seemed to confirm the crew’s story, and  resulted in the so-called “ride,” during which Ireson was dragged through the streets, and tarred and feathered. The inhabitants of Marblehead eventually recognized their mistake, but Whittier’s poem served to perpetuate the original story.

In Captains Courageous, Disko takes the part of Ireson and offers an apologia on his behalf. As a captain himself, he naturally takes umbrage at Whittier’s anti-capitanical slander, and will brook none of it aboard his own vessel. Instead, he gives what he takes to be the true account that exonerates Ireson from blame, concluding by with a judgment and a moral, “Ben Ireson weren’t no sech kind o’ man as Whittier makes aout; my father he knew him well, before an’ after that business, an’ you beware o’ hasty jedgments, young feller.”

Whence and whither Whittier?

I wasn’t familiar with this story or the poem, so I suggested to my children that we pause our reading at this juncture and read Whittier’s ballad. I duly looked it up and did so.

Sure enough, Whittier’s amusing poem is written from a (playful) perspective of high dudgeon and schoolmarmish ire (if you will pardon the expression) at Captain Ireson. A number of features stand out to the classically inclined. 

First, there is the name of the villain, whom Whittier calls “Floyd Ireson,” and, in the stylized accent of the poem’s persecuting womenfolk (on whom more in a trice), “Flud Oirson.” Why “Floyd”? After all, the man’s name was Benjamin. 

Thanks to Wikipedia, we can glean that Mr. Ireson had the nickname “Flood.” “Floyd,” then, seems to be a corruption of Ireson’s nickname, presumably modified, in good Homeric fashion, in the oral transmission of the tale as it made its way to Whittier. Can you say pa-ja-wo-ne? Sure you can.

My “first” above was perhaps premature, at least with respect to order of appearance. For Whittier has already given the reader something classical from the outset, even before the mention of Ireson’s name that might lead one to speculate about oral tradition. In the third line, we are greeted by none other than Apuleius:

Of all the rides since the birth of time,
Told in story or sung in rhyme, —
On Apuleius’s Golden Ass,
Or one-eyed Calender’s horse of brass,
Witch astride of a human back,
Islam’s prophet on Al-Borák, —
The strangest ride that ever was sped
Was Ireson’s, out from Marblehead!

Anyone who has read The Golden Ass knows it is filled with fanciful tales and weird magic as its protagonist goes from man to donkey and back to man—but now as a devotee of Isis. Mention of the ancient novel here, then, marks Whittier’s tale out as partaking of the same enchanted atmosphere, an atmosphere marked by the poem as oriental (two of the other references are to the One Thousand and One Nights and a story about the prophet Muhammad)—a connection that is somewhat amusing given how far west we are in the story.

For his own ride, poor Ireson is dressed up in a way reminiscent of a mythical creature as it might be described by the witches of Macbeth (“Body of turkey, head of owl,/Wings a-droop like a rained-on fowl,/Feathered and ruffled in every part”) prior to being run out of town in a cart. 

The cart is rolled by “Scores of women, old and young,/Strong of muscle, and glib of tongue.” This is one feature of the story to which Kipling’s Disko takes special exception. “’Tweren’t the women neither,” Disko says, “that tarred and feathered him—Marblehead women don’t act that way—’twas a passel o’ men an’ boys, an’ they carted him araound town in an old dory till the bottom fell aout, and Ireson he told ’em they’d be sorry for it some day.”

So why does Whittier make the change? Did he get bad information? Is he just lying? (Or both? Hesiod tells us that the Muses know how to lie and lead the poets astray.) Those explanations are possible, I suppose, but a classical explanation works better. Whittier womanizes the—well, whatever the opposite of a welcoming committee is in order to portray them as Bacchants, the crazed female worshipers of Dionysus. 

I mentioned the East a moment ago. The worship of Dionysus as depicted in, for instance, Euripides’s Bacchae has a particularly Eastern flavor, and this makes for a nice link with the opening stanza quoted above. The place of Dionysus’s “Easternness” in “Western” contexts has often puzzled participants and professors alike, and Whittier’s poem raises the same apparent contradiction, albeit in a lighthearted way.

Lest one think I merely conjecture, I hasten to add that Whittier makes the connection to Dionysus explicit. In the third stanza, he describes the women as follows:

Wrinkled scolds with hands on hips,
Girls in bloom of cheek and lips,
Wild-eyed, free-limbed, such as chase
Bacchus round some antique vase,
Brief of skirt, with ankles bare,
Loose of kerchief and loose of hair,
With conch-shells blowing and fish-horns’ twang,
Over and over the Mænads sang…

The scene of chase on an “antique vase” puts one in mind of a rowdier iteration of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In Whittier’s vase-simile, the women and girls pursue Bacchus; but it does not take long for the world of the comparison to seep into the “real” world of the poem, so that the women and girls become, within a few lines, “Maenads” themselves. Euripides’s Bacchae, indeed.

If one desired yet stronger evidence to connect Whittier’s women to Euripides’s female chorus, he should focus on the last word just quoted, “sang”: they are a chorus, too. And what they sing is what is elsewhere in the poem referred to as “the shrill refrain.” It goes like this: 

“Here ’s Flud Oirson, fur his horrd horrt,
Torr’d an’ futherr’d an’ corr’d in a corrt
By the women o’ Morble’ead!”

It is sung by the chorus in oratio recta four times, though some version of it closes each of the poem’s nine stanzas. The repetition of the refrain is reminiscent of, say, the fourth stasimon of the Bacchae (977-1032), with its refrain that begins ἴτω δίκα φανερός… (“Let justice be manifested and go forth…”).

If the women are the chorus of Bacchantes, that makes Ireson Pentheus. But, in a surprising reversal worthy of Euripides himself, this Pentheus is not torn limb from limb, but instead escapes. As he is being carted out of town, the madness of vision overtakes Ireson in a way that calls to mind Aeschylus’s Orestes or one of Seneca’s tragic heroes. 

“Hear me, neighbors!” at last he cried, —
“What to me is this noisy ride?
What is the shame that clothes the skin
To the nameless horror that lives within?
Waking or sleeping, I see a wreck,
And hear a cry from a reeling deck!
Hate me and curse me, — I only dread
The hand of God and the face of the dead!”

It is not physical punishment he fears, but his own bad conscience and the judgment of God. In the final stanza, “they cut him loose” and, refiguring his madness in a Christian key as being due to “sin,” they leave him in God’s hands.

So what?

I’m not sure there’s all that much more to make of this, to be honest. But “Disko” is a homophone of disco, “I learn,” and I learned something I didn’t know in chasing down this reference. Or, rather, a couple of things: about an incident in American history; about Kipling’s reading and his use of the literary tradition in the form of Whittier’s poem; and about Whittier’s own classical frame of reference and allusive practice. 

With respect to the last, I simply note—it is somewhat banal, but the banal often needs saying—that some familiarity with the classical canon can greatly enrich one’s encounters with literature and art in the most unexpected places. In this instance, I came away with a respect for Whittier (about whom I had been almost entirely ignorant) that I did not have before. The frisson of such surprising discovery is, in addition to anything else it might be, fun

And though this sort of thing (that is, astonishment, admiration, and enjoyment) does not loom large in The New Yorker’s most recenmoral panic about classical education, it does in my own experience of it. That’s not nothing.

The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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