Grammar — Young Lady's Accidence — Murray — Parsing — Pope's Essay
ON my fifth summer, at the age of seven and a half, I commenced the study of grammar. The book generally used in our school by beginners, was called the Young Lady's Accidence. I had the honor of a new one. The Young Lady's Accidence! How often have I gazed on that last word, and wondered what it meant! Even now, I cannot define it, though, of course, I have a guess at its meaning. Let me turn this very minute to that oracle of definitions, the venerable Webster: "A small book containing the rudiments of grammar." That is it, then. But what an intelligible and appropriate term for a little child's book! The mysterious title, however, was most appropriate to the contents of the volume; for they were all mysterious, and that for years, to my poor understanding.
Well, my first lesson was to get the Parts of Speech, as they are called. What a grand achievement to engrave on my memory these ten separate and strange words! With what ardor I took my lesson from the mistress, and trudged to my seat! It was a new study, and it was the first day of the school, moreover, before the bashfulness occasioned by a strange teacher had subsided, and before the spirit of play had been excited. So there was nothing at the moment to divert me from the lofty enterprise.
Reader, let your mind's eye peep into that old school-house. See that little boy in the second high seat from the front, in home-made and home-dyed pea-green cotton jacket and trowsers, with a clean Monday morning collar turned out from his neck. His new book is before him on the bench, kept open by his left hand. His right supports his head on its palm, with the corresponding elbow pressed on the bench. His lips move, but at first very slowly. He goes over the whole lesson in a low whisper. He now looks off his book, and pronounces two or three of the first, — article, noun, pronoun; then just glances at the page, and goes on with two or three more. He at length repeats several words without looking. Finally, he goes through the long catalogue, with his eye fastened on vacancy. At length, how his lips flutter, and you hear the parts of speech whizzing from his tongue like feathered arrows!
There, the rigmarole is accomplished. He starts up, and is at the mistress's side in a moment. "Will you hear my lesson, ma'am?" As she takes the book, he looks directly in her face, and repeats the aforementioned words loudly and distinctly, as if there were no fear of failure. He has got as far as the adverb; but now he hesitates, his eye drops, his lips are open ready for utterance, but the word does not come. He shuts them, he presses them hard together, he puts his finger to them, and there is a painful hiatus in his recitation, a disconnection, an anti to the very word he is after. "Conjunction," says the mistress. The little hand leaves the lips, at the same time that an involuntary "Oh!" bursts out from them. He lifts his head and his eye, and repeats with spirit the delinquent word, and goes on without hesitation to the end of the lesson. "Very well," says the teacher, or the hearer of the school; for she rather listened to than instructed her pupils. "Get so far for the next lesson." The child bows, whirls on his heel, and trips to his seat, mightily satisfied excepting with that one failure of memory, when that thundering word, conjunction, refused to come at his will.
But that word he never forgot again. The failure fastened it in his memory forever. This pea-green boy was myself, the present historian of the scene.
My next lesson lagged a little; my third seemed quite dull; my fourth I was two days in getting. At the end of the week, I thought that I could get along through the world very well without grammar, as my grandfather had done before me. But my mistress did not agree with me, and I was forced to go on. I contrived, however, to make easy work of the study. I got frequent, but very short lessons, only a single sentence at a time. This was easily committed to memory, and would stay on till I could run up and toss it off in recitation, after which it did not trouble me more. The recollection of it puts me in mind of a little boy lugging in wood, a stick at a time. My teacher was so ignorant of the philosophy of mind, that she did not know that this was not as good a way as any; and indeed, she praised me for my smartness. The consequence was, that, after I had been through the book, I could scarcely have repeated ten lines of it, excepting the very first and the very last lessons. Had it been ideas instead of words that had thus escaped from my mind, the case would have been different. As it was, the only matter of regret was, that I had been forming a bad habit, and had imbibed an erroneous notion, to wit, that lessons were to be learned simply to be recited.
The next winter this Accidence was committed, not to memory, but to oblivion; for, on presenting it to the master the first day of the school, he told me it was old-fashioned and out of date, and I must have Murray's Abridgment. So Murray was purchased, and I commenced the study of grammar again, excited by the novelty of a new and clean and larger book. But this soon became even more dull and dry than its predecessor; for it was more than twice the size, and the end of it was at the most discouraging distance of months, if not of years. I got only half way through the verb this winter. The next summer I began the book again, and arrived at the end of the account of the parts of speech. The winter after, I went over the same ground again, and got through the rules of syntax, and felt that I had accomplished a great work. The next summer I reviewed the whole grammar; for the mistress thought it necessary to have "its most practical and important parts firmly fixed in the memory, before attempting the higher exercises of the study." On the third winter, I began to apply my supposed knowledge in the process of passing, as it was termed by the master. The very pronunciation of this word shows how little the teacher exercised the power of independent thought. He had been accustomed to hear parse called pass; and, though the least reflection would have told him it was not correct, that reflection came not, and for years the grammarians of our district school passed. However, it was rightly so called. It was passing, as said exercise was performed; passing over, by, around, away, from the science of grammar, without coming near it, or at least without entering into it with much understanding of its nature. Mode, tense, case, government, and agreement were ever flying from our tongues, to be sure; but their meaning was as much a mystery as the hocus pocus of a juggler.
At first we parsed in simple prose, but soon entered on poetry. Poetry — a thing which to our apprehension differed from prose in this only, that each line began with a capital letter, and ended usually with a word sounding like another word at the end of the adjoining line. But, unskilled as we all generally were in the art of parsing, some of us came to think ourselves wonderfully acute and dexterous nevertheless. When we perceived the master himself to be in doubt and perplexity, then we felt ourselves on a level with him, and ventured to oppose our guess to his. And if he appeared a dunce extraordinary, as was sometimes the case, we used to put ourselves into the potential mood pretty often, as we knew that our teacher could never assume the imperative on this subject.
The fact is, neither we nor the teacher entered into the writer's meaning. The general plan of the work was not surveyed, nor the particular sense of separate passages examined. We could not do it, perhaps from the want of maturity of mind; the teacher did not, because he had never been accustomed to anything of the kind in his own education; and it never occurred to him that he could deviate from the track, or improve upon the methods of those who taught him. Pope's Essay on Man was the parsing manual used by the most advanced. No wonder, then, that pupil and pedagogue so often got bewildered and lost in a world of thought like this; for, however well ordered a creation it might be, it was scarcely better than a chaos to them.
In closing, I ought to remark, that all our teachers were not thus ignorant of grammar, although they did not perhaps take the best way to teach it. In speaking thus of this department of study, and also of others, I have reference to the more general character of schoolmasters and schools.