I have had good response to the first instalment of from the bookshelf, so I will do another today. I don’t intend to make it a daily thing – it’s more time consuming than a post without pictures – but I won’t run out of books however often I do it.
Today’s book is a time-abused little volume of instruction that came into my possession I know not how (though I think my mother-in-law picked it up at a rummage sale for me). It has seen rain (though not fire) and curious white substances. But it stands proud and confident nonetheless.
Behold Cobbett’s English Grammar, a volume far more sure in its learning than even those far more knowledgeable books piled beneath it. Ah, grammar: one of those fields, like painting and sartorial fashion, in which many people feel that the confidence of their opinion is the surest index of their rightness, and they just make things up on the basis of their own felt discernment – and publish them (caveat emptor). Grammar is like feces unto the flies of prescription: people who believe that we must have rules are naturally drawn to it and impose rules willy-nilly, brooking no question or opposition, giving no quarter.
And of course they seek to impress those rules on the still-curing cement of young minds, to pre-empt any grammatical libertinism that could take hold. Flip this book open and the very first page you see – before even the title page – is this:
Whoever this Harry Martin was, he was a dab hand with a pen. We can see that this book was set to brand its rules on his brain fully an eighth of a millennium ago, and on the far side of the Atlantic: the Thomas Rawlins Grammar School in Quorn, Leicestershire.
Here is the title page:
This book is, as I say, very confident in its prescriptions. It is no respecter of persons; however great they may be, if they do not meet the standards of the author, they are given no courtesies, as you will see from the table of contents:
Doctor Johnson, the king, various other statesmen: all guilty of “false grammar” and “errors and nonsense.”
Would you let a creature such as this slip his crusty avuncular arm in its shiny sleeve around the shoulders of your impressionable offspring today? But this is just his approach. The book is written as a series of letters to his fourteen-year-old son, James. You will see that the letters are dated beginning 1817, a full human lifetime before this volume was entrusted to the instruction of master Harry Martin.
Why is he writing letters to his son? He is on Long Island, New York. What on earth for? The footnote is instructive: “In March, 1817, Cobbett fled from England to the United States, partly influenced by political reasons, and partly, no doubt, by the fact that he had contracted debts in England to the amount of £34,000.”
£34,000 is a fair chunk of change even today. But a debt of that size at that time would be equivalent to almost exactly one million pounds in 2015 spending power. A million pounds! What did Mister Cobbett do with that? I’ll tell you what I think he did: poured it into his book. Every reader of this work is weighed down with a million pounds of high-handed prescription, of which not a featherweight is honest linguistic research and understanding. (He doesn’t even use the term etymology correctly.) And Harry Martin made notes and underlinings in the book, giving thereby at least the impression of heeding its admonitions.
I am confident that Cobbett was as conscientious and scrupulous in matters of learning as he was in matters of finance. He may have brooked no idleness or shortcuts, but he was apparently quite fine with deciding things without considering that they may not be true.
There are so many words in this book. Which one shall I taste? Well, you know already; it’s at the top of this article. On what page do I find it? I find it in a speech by Lord Castlereagh reproduced on page 150.
The sentence is long, but here is the part of it with which we are concerned: “there is reason to foresee that French ship-owners might be induced to renew the Slave Trade, under the supposition of the peremptory and total abolition decreed by Napoleon Bonaparte having ceased with his power…”
Mister Cobbett does not like this. He does not like the speech at all. He states no position regarding the slave trade; it is a mere trifle in the face of such terrible writing. He presents his own revision of this unintelligibly obscure speech, including this revised passage: “there is reason to apprehend that the French ship-owners may be induced to renew the Slave Trade, from a supposition that the total abolition recently decreed by Napoleon, has been nullified by the cessation of his authority…”
If you think his version is worse than the original, well, so do I. But Cobbett is a man on a mission. He picks the speech apart sternly, mercilessly, decisively, conclusively.
“If the abolition were total, what had peremptory to do there? Could it be more than total?” Well. Is that what peremptory means? It’s not a word we often use. What is peremptory?
This book and its author, that’s what. Peremptory comes from Latin perimere ‘kill, destroy’, which in turn comes from per ‘thoroughly’ and emere ‘take’. That same emere later came to mean ‘buy’ and shows up in caveat emptor and pre-empt. (It is not related to emetic, which comes from Greek ἐμεῖν emein ‘vomit’, but in a case such as this there may be some concinnity.) That which is peremptory takes a merciless attitude: slaughter and scorched earth. Decisive, conclusive, fixed, dogmatic, intolerant of other positions, hyperconfident.
So peremptory would not mean more than total. It could seem to be redundant with total, at least until you stop to think that a person may peremptorily declare a partial ban: “The slave trade shall be limited to [place X] and [persons Y], and all others shall be punished without mercy.”
If you were Napoleon, you could make such a decree and expect it to be enforced. If, on the other hand, you simply had a Napoleon complex, you might make your pronouncement emptily. Well, you could enlist a children’s crusade, perhaps, and these children, some at least, could grow to have brains as desiccated and obdurate as yours – mistaking the wizened for the wise – and pass the instruction to the next generation.
Peremptory is an important-sounding word, proud with its p’s, conservative with its tory. It may describe good things, such as abolition of slaving, or bad things, such as, well, books like this. But this is a nice volume to have for historical interest and entertainment. The paper is soft and still resilient, though it is clearly wood pulp and not quality linen bond. I do not know what the type face is; there is no colophon. But I have noticed – have you? – that there are wide spaces after the periods. They would probably create what designers call “white acne” on the page… if the sentences weren’t several lines long each. I don’t like those big spaces. But that’s a hot topic for another time.