Thursday, January 12, 2017

Old Price's Remains

Review of:
Old Price's Remains, Posthumous or during Life (by John Price, 1864).

There are some books which a conscientious critic may review without having read them through, especially if he mentions the fact; and Old Price's Remains appears to be one of them. To read through the whole of the 600 pages of which the book is composed would be not merely an act of supererogation, but of stupidity, for it would show a great want of appreciation of the character of the book. It is not meant to be read through, but belongs to that class of works which ought to be merely tasted, and which may be judged of quite as well by sample as by the bulk. It is, on the whole, as odd a book as ever was written. It is neither more nor less than a record of the tastes and humours of a veteran clergyman, who has passed, as he tells us, the greater part of his life in teaching, and to whom in the course of the last year it has seemed good to publish, in twelve parts, a set of miscellaneous papers about all manner of subjects, which are connected together by the fact that all of them in some way illustrate or were suggested by one or other of his multifarious tastes or pursuits. Old Price, otherwise the Rev. John Price of Chester, was the son of a Welsh clergyman, who sent him successively to two different private schools. From the second of these he went to Shrewsbury, and from Shrewsbury to St. John's College, Cambridge, where in 1826 he was Wooden-spoon and third in the first class of the classical tripos. He was also a fellow of St. John's. He has passed the subsequent years, mostly in teaching, at Bristol, at Liverpool, and at Birkenhead; and he now lives at Chester—in what capacity, whether as a clergyman or a schoolmaster does not exactly appear.  He has a variety of tastes. He likes natural history. He has many opinions about philology, and especially about construing the Greek Testament.  He has theological opinions; in particular, he believes in the plenary verbal inspiration of the whole Bible.  He likes puns, riddles, and doggrel rhymes, more or less resembling Swift's well-known Productions in that kind. He has a turn for collecting marine creatures, and putting them into aquariums. He knows Welsh, which is one of his native languages, and French and German, besides Greek and Latin, and likes making verses in a medley of all these tongues. He has taught himself a certain quantity of mathematics since he left Cambridge, and has written a set of papers called Mary's Euclid. By putting in print pretty nearly everything suggested to him by any one of these tastes, he has made up a good thick octavo volume of 600 pages. After a good many specimens of such of these subjects as we can profess to offer any opinion upon, we have been unable to discover anything in the book that can be called either very bad or very good. The philology and natural history, as far as their substance goes, are likely to interest a very small class. In form, the papers are written—especially those which relate to natural history—in that half-frolicsome vein which, for some reason or other, appears to be indispensably necessary to people who pick creeping things off the seashore, or scrape shellfish off piles for the purpose of keeping them in captivity. Perhaps the best serious article in the book, so far as our examination of it has gone, relates to a plan for doing translation exercises in various languages, of which Mr. Price is the inventor, and which certainly seems worth the attention of schoolmasters who have to teach the first elements of languages. It consists of an arrangement for translating the passage to be dealt with twice over, so as to show, first, the sense of the passage, and, next, the exact translation and position of the words. Thus, “Au lieu d'entrer dans des discussions critiques sur le mérite des auteurs modernes” would be translated, first, “Instead of entering into critical discussions on the merit of modern authors,” and next, “To the place of to enter in of the discussions critical on the merit of the authors modern.” By various typographical contrivances Mr. Price would convey the two translations at once. Thus, over the word “instead” he prints, “to the place,” and he puts 1–2 over “critical discussions,” to show that in French the substantive would come first. No doubt such a plan, thoroughly carried out, though very tedious and requiring minute care, would fix the distinctions between different languages and the explanation of their idioms very firmly in the minds of young pupils. Mr. Price admits that to look over a great number of exercises done in this way would be an awful business for the unfortunate master, as no doubt it would. One great reason why so few even of those who have had a classical education read the classics in after life with much pleasure is that they do not really know what the little words, the δι, and μεν, and δη, and γε, &c., mean. They get a general notion of the effect, and result of a passage, but, for want of having been thoroughly drilled in the exact force of all the words of which it is composed, they do not know its precise meaning. Mr. Price's method would, at all events, teach those who used it fairly that the connecting words in a sentence—the prepositions, articles, and particles—have a real signification, and are not scattered by chance over the page, an error incredibly common even amongst those who suppose that they must know the classical languages after having learnt them for so many years.

As for Mr. Price's theological speculations, there is nothing very remarkable about them. He gives slightly different reasons for his opinions about the Bible from those which many other persons have long ago given for them, and he displays a certain sort of ingenuity in dealing with one or two isolated topics connected with the subject. The really important part of the controversy he never attempts to grapple with. It is fair to add that it did not lie in his way, though, on the other hand, his way is so erratic that it is hard to say what is in and what out of it. The really curious and characteristic part of Old Price's Remains is to be found in the general character of the book. It is surely a very odd thing that a respectable and rather elderly clergyman, who is distinguished from the rest of the world principally by his hobbies, should assume, as a matter of course, that the world at large will take sufficient interest in them to make it worth his while to publish a thick volume about himself, his pursuits, and the little everyday incidents which lead him to make Welsh and German epigrams. It is a still odder thing that he should be justified in his anticipations, and that G. R. (Gentle Reader) should buy all that O. P. (Old Price) likes to say about himself and his affairs. G. R. and O. P. appear to have gone on together month after month in considerable harmony, and with mutual satisfaction, and all because O. P. really enjoys cracking his little jokes and telling his little tales. If people like it, there is no harm in this; but it is very odd that they should like it. What is Mr. Price to me or I to him that he should count with confidence on my liking to know all about his pursuits? Yet he does so, and, as regards a considerable number of his readers, it would appear that he does so with perfect justice. Probably if a man were extremely anxious to force the sale, say of a Directory, his best course would be to begin with some account of himself, the reasons which led him to think it would be a good speculation, the uses to which he would put the profits if he got any, and other gossip of the same kind. If he had ever so little gaiety of mind, ever so faint a dash of genuine fun and humour, he could hardly fail to succeed. This taste is not exclusively English. It is very like one which, to judge from French newspapers, must be common enough in France. In a series of newspaper articles which he republished not long ago, a very popular journalist commenced his operations by giving his readers a particular account of the incidents of his past life and of his present habits and prospects. He felt, he said, that this would put him and them at their ease, and that, when that had been effected, they might carry on their little friendly chat to their joint satisfaction. How is it that some men are able and willing to do such things and give pleasure by it, whilst to others they appear exposures as unwarrantable and improper as any other kind of indecency? What do the men who thus take their fellow-creatures into their confidence, and what do men who shut themselves up in their anonymousness, and as far as possible deprive their writings of any approach to personality, mean to imply by their respective lines of conduct?

There is no doubt something amiable in the appeal which the confidential man makes to the charity and good faith of his neighbours. He says in substance, “You may laugh at me if you like, you may trample on me, but though I do not know you, and never shall even know who you are, I care for your opinion and want your sympathy. I should like to make you laugh, I want you to attach some definite notion to my name and my works; I want to be a pleasant, cheerful companion, without stiffness or solemnity.” The other man, on the contrary, simply makes an observation for what it is worth, and makes it in such a way that no one knows or cares why, or by whom, or under what circumstances, it came to be made. If it be admitted that, of these two ways of proceeding, the first is the more amiable, it must also be added that the second is altogether unobjectionable, and that it is not liable, as the first is, to fall into the most odious of all affectations. For once in a way the first may be pardonable, if it is carefully watched; but for a man who writes much, the second style is almost indispensable. The O. P. and G. R. style of writing is bearable for a little time, but Old Price has gone about as far as a man can go in that direction without being affected and wearisome. There is nothing, after all, that wears like the humdrum style of composition, and experience shows that what is stigmatized as stiffness is much more often a substantial security for good sense and respectful manners.

Saturday Review, June 25, 1864.

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