Monday, June 11, 2012

A peculiar pleasure

The poet and teacher William Johnson, later called Cory, died 120 years ago today. Educated at Eton, he returned to the school to teach immediately on leaving university (like A. C. Benson, a generation later). He taught there for a quarter of a century before resigning because of a minor scandal. His very readable diaries and letters were published privately soon after his death.

Cory was born in 1823 to a Devonshire family. His father had been an indigo planter in India, and his mother was a great-niece of Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was educated at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge, and then returned to Eton in 1845 to work as an assistant master for over 25 years. He is said to have been a brilliant teacher and to have had a great influence over many of his pupils, some of whom went on to be important statesmen of the day. He contributed to education theory with two pamphlets, Eton Reform and Eton Reform II. He also developed a reputation as a poet; and A. C. Benson, in fact, later edited one volume of his poems (Ionica).

In 1872, Johnson was forced to leave Eton after an indiscreet letter to a pupil was discovered (his ODNB biography states: ‘he was dangerously fond of a number of boys’). He changed his name to Cory, and retired to an estate leased from his brother at Halsdon. Subsequently, he travelled abroad, and settled in Madeira where he married (aged 55) Rosa Caroline Guille with whom he had one son. While there he also wrote Guide to Modern English History (which is considered somewhat idiosyncratic). He and his family returned to live in Hampstead, North London, in 1882 where he died on 11 June 1892. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or (with login) from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Cory’s personal writings were edited by Francis Warre Cornish and published privately - thanks to funds raised by friends and former pupils - in 1897. This book, Extracts from the Letters and Journals of William Cory, is freely available online at Internet Archive, but, as far as I know, has never been reprinted or republished. It is more letters than diary (and, unfortunately, there are no diary entries about his resignation from Eton, only letters). Nevertheless, here are a few diary entries from his time at Eton, and a couple from his travels in Egypt.

10 February 1864
‘School, the last chapter of both Timothies - half the boys got punishments for being late - this is one of the results of our hateful irregularities; for if we began every day with a regular lesson or prayers no one would be late. I railed. Took refuge in the good and steady lads who have too much self-respect to be late, and read with them; expounded the peculiarly ecclesiastical nature of these epistles, the liturgical flow of some passages, the germs of a Creed found herein, the obscure nature of the evidence about the government of the early Church, &c., &c. . .

8.45. Times at the fireside; F. W. late for breakfast because of prayers at 9.0.

Took it easy by way of keeping Lent: did some exercises, read Latin and Greek for Rawlins, which I found more edifying than the curses of the Jewish law. . .’

12 February 1864
‘I was on Myrtle, with a dog at each stirrup, the soft rain in my face, and the kind wind coming to me from my home: so I galloped blindly - for the rain disabled the spectacles - up the river as usual, but further than usual, even to Bray; back the same way, chirruping to the dogs and meditating on Colenso, whether it would be expedient to subscribe.’

24 July 1864
‘I wrote two sheets full of outlines of a discourse on youth and its rising above the world. I wrote with hardly an erasure, and finished what looks complete, in time for Church.

We were not out of Church till 12.30, when my listeners met. I began my talk easily by speaking to R. Lewis about his essay on music which he is to write - its effects - its use in training - rhythm - form - how to the performers it is finite, regular, formal; how to non-musicians who have imagination it suggests the infinite, awakens longings that we cannot satisfy; how this desire for what is unattainable blends with all our pleasure, which is not the ‘pleasure’ spoken of by the old pagan philosophers; that our pleasure, as soon as we become men, is indissolubly blended with regret, remembrance, regard; that early manhood is a sort of autumn; that we repine, reproach ourselves, often with injustice, &c., &c.

One notion followed another, and I was helped by what I had written, but not bound by it.

Among other things I told the lads that manhood will bring them Ephphatha, that they will some day ‘dare to seem as good and generous as they are.’ A strange sermon: but they listened, and answered me when I questioned them of their own experience; and my friend, in the evening, gladly took my MS. to keep for his brother to read; so perhaps I had as much success as the dignitary with his pulpit. . .’

27 July 1864
‘I had a peculiar pleasure - a letter from the father of a boy who had been in my division, thanking me for making his boy’s work pleasant to him; the most gratifying letter I ever had on professional matters.’

4 March 1873 [In Egypt]
‘That night was my sleep murdered. When I woke from my last attempt at sleep, it was still quite dark, but the sakyeh was making distant melancholy, bagpipe, humming-top, grasshopper music. Donkeys were ready for three; the purser and I set off in haste to be at Philae by sunrise, breaking fast on a bit of bad bread and half a teacupful of Marsala drawn fresh from the cask. The donkey-drivers sucked air loudly to encourage the quadrupeds, which were feebler by far than their predecessors at Siout and Keneh.

We left the hideous human warren, following a fair, broad, clean sandy trough with teeth of granite on either ridge, reminding me of the hilltops in the Vivarais, only much nearer to us. After half an hour’s chilly riding, the increasing glow showed us a little village, and then the smooth river; the rapids, falsely called cataract, were heard, but not after the Ciceronian Catadupa style - no fear of being deafened. The sun slanted well upon the innumerable rock edges of creeks and reaches, and told me at least that the island mass over against us had no trees nor mud huts on it, only the stately peristyles growing out of the live rock as at the Acropolis - a solemn, clean, calm mass, but in the dawn not highly coloured, not mysterious. I must try to see it again at sunset. . .

To-day Hadji-bidge-bidge, the Herberee sailor, has come to ask for oil to put on his sick wife’s head. He squatted down in his white drapery while examined by the Sitt through her son as to the malady. As Arabic is not his language, it was not very easy talk. Two interviews: trust on one side, patience and friendliness on the other: no snivelling. The Reis came to listen to it, so did Mohammed, and a tall blue sailor who said thanks for Hadji, leading off for him. This they often do, and we like it. After the aconite and the quinine had been given, with clear orders, accepted with nods of assent, the man was called back to receive a coin. He kissed it, but gravely; no Irish effusion.’

21 March 18873
‘Egyptian summer is said to begin to-day. We think it very hot, but have no thermometer. Yesterday we had an illustrious sunrise, which glorified the 400 feet scarp level strata, and one deep shadow cradle of Gebel el Aridi. For an hour there was the pink and glaucous hue on the hills, which melting into the water reflections is, for me, a feast of beauty such as I do not get when I look through other men’s eyes by looking on a picture. We rowed straight at the cliff, and as we came nearer, of course we exchanged the glamour of distance for the clean, bare quarry, and the regular embrasures which stand for tombs, or hermitages, or workmen’s lairs. They were busy hewing stone for building, but we heard no ‘shots’ nor any sound of tools. Sunset was nearly as good in the sky, and I feasted on it undisturbed in a little walk, undisturbed by men, though the gilt green plain was all alive with troops of cattle and sheep-drivers going from pasture, and the bank with lively singing troops of nimble people, towing big boats which were crammed with cheerful creatures going home from their month’s corvĂ©e. . .’

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