95. 11 August 1996 [ES] (Spiritual significance pof chess pieces; little Latin; Elgar)

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams and beatrice cazac (Mrs. Mathew’s letters)

Dear Hayat,

   Alas, no one's ever going to ask me to review Bacon. Only Francis Carr so much as seeks my comments on that subject, and then only to (as he thinks) confute them.

   As to your further thoughts – but you are one of the coming young ones. What counts is biological time, healing time, cicatrisation rate. As you yourself have been known to point out to me, age is not measured in years – a thought upon which I often reflect as I hobble arthritically but cheerfully on my way, increasingly tuned in to Radio Ga-Ga.

   I think that the spiritual significance of the chess pieces is one of the few topics we have not yet touched upon. I fear I'm more preoccupied with practical play, by which I mean winning if at all possible. My club caters solely for senior citizens, mostly even older than I am, which I suppose in theory gives me an extra edge. But many of our members have nimble minds that belie their years; and the cleverest ones are European emigres. Our eighty-year-old, if he manages to beat our ninety-year-old, cries out 'Die Jugend hat gesiegt!'.

   I rejoiced to learn that via! is still current. I expect Shakespeare learnt some Italian from John Florio in the Southampton household.

   On p. 184 I'm quoting Prof. Thompson, whose book (unlike anything by Baldwin) impressed me. When an academic speaks of classical  learning he means, I imagine, something far beyond mere knowledge of the text, which in such exalted circles is taken for granted. It means knowing what the sources are, and which are intellectually respectable; commenting on textual variants in palimpsests; or sussing out the exact sense of the subjunctive (e.g. knowing that the phrase 'Socrates accusatus est quod juventem corrumperet' stops short of asserting that Socrates actually did corrupt the youth). In this sense, which was also that of Nashe, Greene, Jonson and Marlowe, Shakespeare has little Latin. My own Latin is little too, although I studied that ancient tongue with fair assiduity for five years and more. No doubt he was much cleverer. I think he read some Latin sources, but e.g. Froissart in English, though Belleforest in French.

   And bless me, I find that I still have difficulties in that language too, after some sixty years of non-stop study. But then I have trouble with English. Even after fifteen or so crosswords a week for all these years there are still myriads of dictionary words I just don't know and just can't learn.

   Speaking of Froissart, the subject of an expressive overture, I've taken up my Elgar studies again. Now there's an introverted cryptanalyst, if ever I saw one; those mystic old whiskery features are just like my commanding officers 1944-7. As his daughter once wrote to me, when he'd finished one of the big Sunday cryptic crosswords compiled by the well-named Torquemada it was exactly as if he'd completed one of his big scores; a holy and beatified hush descended upon a calm household.

   I haven't yet had my lunch with Charles Nicholl, because of various domestic vicissitudes; Richard's over from Tokyo on holiday, and Enid is alas very far from well. But I hope to resume London visits and chats quite soon.

   Love, as ever

   Yours Eric