An expert on Greek Art chanced to describe in my hearing one of the engraved gems in the Metropolitan Museum. He spoke of it as ‘certainly one of the great gems of the world,’ and there was something in his tone that was even more thrilling than his words. He might have been describing the Parthenon or Beethoven’s Mass,—such was the passion of reverence that flowed out of him as he spoke. I went to see the gem afterwards. It was badly placed, and for all artistic purposes was invisible. I suppose that even if I had had a good look at it, I should not have been able to appreciate its full merit. Who could?—save the handful of adepts in the world, the little group of gem-readers, by whom the mighty music of this tiny score could be read at sight.
Nevertheless it was a satisfaction to me to have seen the stone. I knew that through its surface there poured the power of the Greek world; that not without Phidias and Aristotle, and not without the Parthenon, could it have come into existence. It carried in its bosom a digest of the visual laws of spiritual force, and was as wonderful and as sacred as any4 stone could well be. Its value to mankind was not to be measured by my comprehension of it, but was inestimable. As Petrarch felt toward the Greek manuscript of Homer which he owned but could not read, so did I feel toward the gem.
We may deal with the influence of the gem without striving exactly to translate its meaning into speech. We all concede its importance. We know, for instance, that the admiration of my friend the expert was no accident. He found in the design and workmanship of the intaglio the same ideas which he had been at work on all his life. Greek culture long ago had become a part of this man’s brain, and its hieroglyphs expressed what to him was religion. So of all monuments, languages, and arts which descend to us out of the past.
Good usage has its sanction, like religion or government. We transmit the usage without pausing to think why we do so. We instinctively correct a child, without pausing to reflect that the fathers of the race are speaking6 through us. When the child says, ‘Give me a apple,’ we correct him—“You must say, ‘An apple.’” What the child really means, in fact, is an apple.
The same thing holds true of the other vehicles of idea, of painting, architecture, religion, etc., but since we have been speaking of language, let us continue to speak of language. Expressiveness follows literacy. The poets have been tremendous readers always. Petrarch, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, Byron, Keats—those of them who possessed not much of the foreign languages had a passion for translations.
It is amazing how little of a foreign language you need if you have a passion for the thing written in it. We think of Shakespeare as of a lightly-lettered person; but he was ransacking books all day to find plots and language for his plays. He reeks with mythology, he swims in classical metaphor: and, if he knew the Latin poets only in translation, he knew them with that famished intensity of interest which can draw the meaning through the walls of a bad text. Deprive Shakespeare of his sources, and he could not have been Shakespeare.