Autobiographical Fragment

This was recorded on March 21, 1977. The essay to which Whalley refers is “The Place of Language in the Study of Literature,". It originated as a paper read in Toronto on October 15, 1976, originally entitled “The Imprint of Man's Mind.”

This is a transcription:

GW: I said that in my paper on the imprint of man’s mind, the one that I gave in Toronto to the highschool teachers of English, that they had left a little autobiographical bit out. Well it’s not all that autobiographical, but I thought you might like to have it anyway.

It comes on page nineteen of the printed version, and I guess that’s where the printer came unstuck and they had to revise something by sticking a piece of type over the bottom of page nineteen. It comes after the phrase, “without binoculars and without a Peterson’s guide.”

This is what I wrote: “Let me be a little autobiographical. As far back as I can remember, growing up in a small Ontario town, I was always fascinated by words and language, as well as by music, and as a child listened entranced to the talk of my parents and grandparents and their friends. We were read aloud to a great deal as children. I learned to read very early and read voraciously throughout childhood. Much of what I listened to and read was way over my head. That made it all more fascinating. My father and grandfather were both keen classical scholars. Although Latin was then holding on only by the skin of its teeth in the schools and Greek had vanished, I began to learn Latin at about seven and Greek a couple of years later. At school, in which classes were small and discipline strict according to principles that would now be judged archaic and perhaps oppressive, we were thoroughly trained in spelling, parsing, analysis, reading aloud, writing correctly and in a clear hand, not copperplate but, as I discovered years later, italic. I don’t know what the effect was on my peers, except that most became articulate and some were to become a little eminent. Myself, this training provided a confident craftsmanship in handling language that came to my call long before I had any intention of writing anything for publication. The advantage of working in three languages, actually four because we were also trained thoroughly in reading French, was immense. Especially when two of them are as different in mentality, structure, and texture, as Latin and Greek are. I continued in classical studies until about the beginning of the war. I’d taken two university degrees and I taught in the school for two years. I don’t remember that any study of literature in school after matriculation presumed to attempt any, what we now call, criticism. We were simply induced to get to know certain books and poems, to read them accurately and with pleasure. Our teachers must have been quite deft. In any case, I still think of the business of criticism as getting to know works of literature, with the purpose of extending and clarifying awareness. I still have three Shakespeare plays almost word for word by heart, from the age of nine or ten from having them read aloud to us, and from reading aloud various parts of them. Many phrases and passages of Shakespeare and other poets, together with the King James Bible, and certain Latin mnemonics, stuck in my mind at that time and still resonate to the lightest touch. I still remember vividly how at the age eleven or twelve, I came upon the feeling of being possessed by poems, and so the windows of the mind had suddenly been flung open on a sunny morning, particularly Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, book II in Latin, and Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’. Once, sitting in sunlight with my back against a limestone wall, the other time walking on a spring day down a steep hill on my way home from school. In neither case had anybody ventured to talk about symbolism, or social settings, or hidden meanings, or types of ambiguity, or archetypes, or techniques of communication. I’d experienced something of inestimable value. Indispensable, I later found, was studying literature. I now knew what it felt like to enter the life of a poem, to be commanded and shaped and exalted by that life. Much later I recognized once what Robert Frost meant when he said, ‘the right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, and knows that he will never get over it.’ My study of music carried on in childhood as passionately as anything else, brought me to realize that the feeling of great poetry was exactly like the feeling of great music. That it was as simple, direct, shapely, and powerful as that. That it came in through the ear, and was nourished by submission, by listening.

I came to be an instructor of English at the University entirely by accident, ten days after leaving my last ship, after almost six years of seafaring, with no more formal preparation for that task than a first year undergraduate survey of English literature, and what I’d read on my own. So I guess there is something to be said for the old fashioned allegedly oppressive ways of teaching. And something to be said, too, for the lucky accident of growing up in a house full of books and music and talk. For in our house, talk went on incessantly it seems, on any subject: From fishing to naval gunnery; from the foibles of neighbours to the philosophy of history; from the grafting of apples trees to carpentry and the design of gun sights; from sculpture to needlework, and the management of a no trump hand in bridge; from politics to the lubricated system of aero-engines; the names of stars and constellations, and how to find them; how to use an axe and how to get a good water cut or wash on paper to bring up a granular pattern; about the characteristics of antistigmatic lenses and the manipulation of photographic papers in various chemicals; about Clara Schumann and how she had to sit on her music when she gave a public recital; about ghosts and premonitions and the ways the mind can ignore space and time; about linotype machines and printing and the shapes of letters written and printed; the identities and names of birds and trees, flowers and grasses, fishes and clouds; the way of boats on the river and of ships at sea; methods of astronomical navigation, ways of finding your ways in the woods, ways of finding your way through a musical score or a difficult book. One of my father’s usual cautionary remarks was, ‘not necessarily’. There was a Amazon parrot in the house too, who taught me something about the breath-taking appropriateness with which a limited vocabulary can be managed.”