Philip Davis

mr. abbot’s teaching

in 1864, at the age of only 26, Edwin A. Abbott became headmaster of the City of London School where he served until 1889, becoming one of the most admired teachers of his age. Immediately upon his appointment—though he had just come from being a fellow in classics at St John’s College, Cambridge—he went beyond the traditional school curriculum in Latin and Greek, introducing the study of English Literature, as well as the sciences. From an article on ‘The Teaching of English’ which he published in Macmillan’s Magazine in 1868, and from the introduction and the ‘notes and questions’ section in his Shakespearian Grammar of 1869, it is possible to reconstruct something of what a pioneering lesson in thinking about Shakespeare would have been like over one hundred and fifty years ago.

Set out in solid sections simply labelled ‘Adjectives,’ ‘Prepos­itions’ and so on, and with numbered paragraphs for each sub-section of examples, A Shakespearian Grammar looks like what it is only in part—an exhaustively useful book of reference for all the difficulties of Shakespeare’s syntax and prosody. But beneath that, in its passionate accumulation, it is also a way of learning a whole language. The diffi­culties, said Abbott, were not to do with individual words, which could always be looked up in a glossary; they were to do with a whole idiom. So Abbott begins by telling students about the difference between Eliza­bethan and Modern English. He says of the dramatic nature of Elizabethan grammar in general: ‘It was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind, without much regard to syntax, and the result was a forcible and perfectly unambiguous but ungrammatical sentence.’ He gives an example of this Elizabethan commitment to succinct compression from The Rape of Lucrece—on time as the tempting provider of opportunity, setting the wolf far too close to the lamb:

O hear me then, injurious shifting time;
Be guilty of my death, since of my crime—

Since [you are guilty] of my crime. It is just such ellipses, such accelerated and energising compactions that most interest Abbott, ignoring as they do the serially unfolding subject-verb-object order of Victorian English. ‘One great cause of the difference between Elizabethan and Victorian English is that the latter has introduced or developed what may be called the division of labour.’ Where, for instance, an Elizabethan might tersely say, ‘Make peace of enmity’ (Richard III 2.1 51), Abbott’s Victorian speaker would say more methodically, ‘Make peace instead of enmity’—thus, not making one word almost imme­diately out of another, but rather spelling and spreading the meaning out, ‘diminishing the task assigned to overburdened words,’ so as to divide and share the labour of expression. It is as though such Victorian prose exists to fill in, or spell out, the meaningful gaps for inference left by the compression of the Elizabethan message: at its best, it is not tame paraphrase so much as the receiving partner in meaning, the mental legatee that the poetry sought. Indeed, from Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine to Darwin’s Origin of Species, that is what the later nineteenth century often characteristic­ally thought itself to be: the conscious receiver of the explicit working-out of implicit codes, as they realized themselves in the long course of history.

Abbott thus warned his students that ‘The Elizabethan authors objected to scarcely any ellipsis, provided the deficiency could be easily supplied from the context.’ The Elizabethans were used to involving an audience or a readership in filling in the rest. But their implicit priority is that Mind comes before formal Syntax—though arguably this happens, not quite ‘without much regard to syntax’ as Abbott puts it, but rather through the adaptation of grammar, in the second place, to the spaces that the excited mind, at the first, leaves and finds for it. As Hazlitt had said, Shakespeare’s words ‘seem to know their places’ (‘On Shakspeare and Milton,’ Lectures on the English Poets, 1818). They seem summoned by a momentary pre-vision of the gaps, spaces and contours of situation, which they turn into realized shapes and syntax.

At any rate, Abbott set his class of fifteen-year-olds to study Shakespeare’s Richard II. They were to consider the speech of the Duchess of Gloucester to John of Gaunt, where she complains of his lack of response to the loss of her husband, his brother: ‘Call it not patience, Gaunt, it is despair’ (1.2 29) The teacher asked: how is it decided which is the right word to ‘call it’ by? Then he wrote out two further lines:

That which in mean men we entitle patience
Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts. (33-4)

Across what are, characteristically, two different lines of thought in Shakespeare, that which is called the virtue of ‘patience’ for ‘mean men’ may become the vice of ‘cowardice’ relative to ‘noble’ ones. The inferred context makes the difference. The teacher then recalled one other line from Mowbray in the play’s opening scene: ‘Yet can I not of such tame patience boast/As to be hushed . . .’ (1.1 52-3). ‘What is the difference,’ Abbott asks finally, ‘between “patience” and “tameness”, “patience” and “despair”, “tameness” and “cowardice”?’

Though demanding of accuracy of attention, this wasn’t a mere pedantic formalism. Abbott insisted that by asking his precise questions he was teaching not only ‘the knowledge of words’ but through them ‘the knowledge of thoughts and the power of thinking.’ The process of what Coleridge called ‘desynonymising’ was what E.A. Abbott was carrying out in his classroom. When words, introduced into the language, find ‘the broader room which they had been intended to fill already occupied,’ says Abbott, they ‘were forced to take narrower meanings.’ This is what happens in the gradual process of the evolution of a language, as the words find room for their place or niche in the system of thought.

But Richard II himself calls it a setting of ‘the word itself/Against the word’ (Richard II 5.5 13-14, Quarto)—because in Shakespeare, as at the very beginning of things, there is no gradual evolution but an accelerated struggle for verbal existence in the dramatic working out of meaning. With both borrowings from the classics and native neologisms, the period from 1570 to 1630 provided the fastest growing vocabulary in the history of English, pushing the very limits of grammar. However familiar, there is no more important fact in the story of Shakespeare’s emergence. Shakespeare is the highest expression of that historical phenomenon.

Thus, for example, in Coriolanus there gathers around the impact of the protagonist, in his so-called ‘pride,’ a whole competing spectrum of words and meanings offered—stretching all the way from arrogant ‘obstinacy’ at one extreme to heroic ‘constancy’ at another. If what in Richard II is ‘patience’ in one line but ‘cowardice’ in another, then Coriolanus intuitively understands what the Shakespearian interrelation of words to lines stands for, when he himself says of the Romans:

I had rather be their servant in my way
Than rule with them in theirs. (2.1 200-1)

His way of finding a place of meaning for himself in this world is to make proud service not an oxymoron but a bearable alternative to the intolerable paradox of weak leadership.

This was the same E.A. Abbott who in 1884, while still a headmaster, was to write Flatland: a Romance of Many Dimensions, in which he satirically imagines a creature who, living inside a two-dimensional plane, is roused to ascend to a three-dimensional world called Spaceland. The flat creature gets there only by first going down to the lower realm of Lineland and then Pointland—closed worlds that can no more imagine a higher dimension, he realizes, than he himself could within the bounds of Flatland:

‘Behold yon miserable creature. That Point is a Being like ourselves, but confined to the non-dimensional Gulf. He is himself his own World, his own Universe; of any other than himself he can form no conception; he knows not Length, nor Breadth, nor Height, for he has had no experience of them; he has no cognizance even of the number Two; nor has he a thought of Plurality; for he is himself his One and All, being really Nothing. Yet mark his perfect self-contentment, and hence learn this lesson, that to be self-contented is to be vile and ignorant, and that to aspire is better than to be blindly and impotently happy.’ (Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (London: Penguin, 1998), p. 108)

Beyond the world of Pointland where there is no communication, creatures in the acoustic universe of Lineland communicate across space by sound-vibrations, and reproduce by a form of music. By such acts of (as it were) reverse imagination, in imagining less than he knows now, Abbott’s protagonist from Flatland is equivalently impelled, by analogy, in some sense to try to ‘see’ more than his own two dimensions tell him. For this is a mind now straining blindly to think outside its own framework or configuration. The book becomes a work of creative geometry. In it, it is easy for creatures in every dimension to look down on the level below them and see the limitations; what is harder is to imagine that their own dimension is, likewise, not the ultimate one. That difficult imagination he calls Thoughtland, and he tries to hold onto his intimation of an extra dimension by repeating the mantra ‘Upwards, and yet not Northwards’—since in his world’s terms, northwards would only take him along existing lines, not above them. Where he cannot truly see, except through the mind’s eye, it is words which are the necessary holdfast to the possibility of an invisible reality: ‘Upwards, and yet not Northwards . . . I determined steadfastly to retain these words as the clue’ (p.107), Yet all the time, despite this blind language, he feels his vision of something-more ‘in some strange way slipping away from me, like the image of a half-grasped, tantalizing dream’ (p.112). Partly to hold onto his own lesson, he tries unavailingly to teach it to others in his world, despite the state laws against such thinking: ‘with the view of evading the Law, if possible, I spoke not of a physical Dimension, but of a Thoughtland whence, in theory, a Figure could look down upon Flatland and see simultaneously the in-side of all things’ (p.114). To be inside a framework and yet at the same time to be able somehow to think outside or above it, is the challenge.

There is an implicit connection between Flatland and A Shakespearian Grammar, published fifteen years earlier, which has never been fully acknowledged but which shows Abbott’s deeper intentions as going beyond the writing of his austere student primer. The epigraph for the journey into Other Worlds in Flatland is an adaptation of Miranda’s words near the end of The Tempest: ‘O brave new worlds, that have such people in them!,’ just as the epigraph for the opening part is taken from Romeo and Juliet: ‘Be patient, for the world is broad and wide.’ For what the audience ‘see’ in Shakespeare, from outside the stage, is itself a sort of Thoughtland, working imaginatively in varying geometric dimensions and through different human senses. By means of his very syntax Shakespeare was for Abbott the great explorer of all the overlapping dimensions of meaning, massed together at speed. For the deepest language of thinking in Shakespeare is not to do with nouns and names, or with categories and explanations, but the spaces and journeys between them. It is to do with the sort of resonant mental space Abbott was investigating between the words ‘patience,’ ‘despair’ and ‘tameness,’ as they emerge from the same broad pool or continuum of human character. These are not just separate, static names: what Abbott is investigating is how, across their boundaries, these words call each other forth, in thought, choice and competition, as in the very formation of the language-field itself.

The mental spaces between these words exist just as surely on the stage, in their own dimension, as do the physical spaces between the characters. Thus it is characteristic of Abbott to take a quick shape-shifting line from Macbeth, on Macbeth’s seeing Banquo’s blood on the first Murderer’s face—‘’Tis better thee without than he within’ (3.4 13)—and then in the Notes and Questions for further exercises, at the end of his Shakespearian Grammar, ask in his schoolmasterly voice: ‘Meaning? Comment on the syntax.’ But this is not just an exercise for schoolboys. One scene is almost physically turned into another when the blood that was within Banquo’s veins in 3.3 is now so visibly upon the murderer’s face in 3.4. ‘’Tis better thee without than he within’ then also means that I’d rather come up against a hideous blood-stained monster like you—in the clear and limited physical world—than be penetrated and invaded even unto my heart of hearts by Banquo.

For all the careful pedagogic cataloguing of types and variations in his Victorian Grammar, Abbott understood the Elizabethan dynamic. On the very first page of his introduction he quotes what he takes to be a characteristic Elizabethan move even in the occasional, witty verses of Thomas Heywood who:

after dividing human dinners into three classes thus —
Some with small fare they be not pleased,
Some with much fare they be diseased,
Some with mean fare be scant appeased

adds with true Elizabethan freedom –
But of all somes none is displeased
To be welcome.

Suddenly in the fourth line that word ‘some’ is seized, used to pull the other three indefinite pronouns into itself, and then wittily put back into line, with ‘all’ on one side and ‘none’ on the other, like a noun transformed. In that extraordinary mixture of thrift, richness and mobility to be found in Elizabethan English, ‘almost any part of speech,’ concludes Abbott, ‘can be used as any other part of speech.’ This lifting, turning and new-weighting of the word—technically now known as ‘(word-class) conversion’ or ‘functional shift,’ from one part of speech to another without change in itself—is, I want to say, a source of fresh energy that charges and changes the space all around it, raising the meaning to a new level, letting it leap into a different dimension. Functional shift is what we might now think of as a classic Darwinian example of economy: a single form serving multiple functions; or it is what an Elizabethan might call infinite riches in a little room.