Charles Dickens and the Literae Humaniores

Of Greek and Latin Vegetables, Less Humane Classicists, and Mathematical Gooseberries — Very Sour Ones

Charles Dickens on his 1842 American tour, a year before writing A Christmas Carol. Sketch by

My mother’s parents brought from Ireland the poverty, spatial ingenuity, and priorities of many American immigrants: they could fit lots of children into their two-bedroom South Bronx apartment, but not many books. All in all they had about three dozen (books, that is; there were six children). There were Catholic books (a Bible and a few dreary forgotten others); and there was Dickens. The family had a complete set of all his works, which were functionally the only books of my mother’s childhood. The reverence for him she acquired then has never faded. When in junior high school I started taking an interest in writing, she made it clear that writing could be the sort of thing even a good human being could do — and started talking about David Copperfield. His writing, she thought, was not merely a display of intellect or inspiration, but a thing with conscience and purpose; and yet was also light and funny; the way a human heart is. My seventh grade English teacher, who had us read Oliver Twist, felt similarly: I remember her drilling into us the sense that our modern world “needed another Dickens,” and that truly great writers — quite a claim, now that I think about it — were always beloved by the poor.

I think it’s fair to say that “beloved by the poor” — as, to an extent unusual for a writer, Dickens has been — and “beloved by classicists” generally represent two different subsets of the Republic of Letters. Ovid might be one of the few crossovers; he at least claimed in the Ars Amatoria to have some currency with the poor of two thousand years ago (“pauperibus vates ego sum, quia pauper amavi,” (“I am a poet for poor people, because I was poor when I loved”)). While today the Dickens audience may have gotten a bit more posh — a 2012 BBC study put the value of “the Dickens brand” at a quarter of a billion pounds per annum — he still is not particularly beloved among classicists. Dickens gave classicists little to boast of, and hence they generally ignore him. “You will remember,” wrote the learned Dr. Henry Danson to John Forster, Dickens’ first biographer, “there is no allusion to the classics in any of his writings.” But this is only mostly true. Dickens does bring up the classics — though associated usually only in the person of a classicist, and usually in the form of an attack.


Dickens’ formal education started late and ended at age fourteen, but he did have a few years of traditional schooling. He studied two years at Wellington House Academy in London, where somewhat doubtful traditions record that he placed into Vergil and took a prize for Latin. It is not doubted that he was an exceptional student and reader (he was certainly reading much Fielding and Richardson at the time), and that all students at the time took Latin. There exists a letter where the thirteen-year-old Dickens speaks of selling his clavis, the term of art for a Latin glossary. Whether the students were offered anything more than grammar exercises and memorizing translations for exams — still the staple of many a modern Latin classroom — is not clear. The Dickens scholar C.M. Neale attempted to determine the content of Dickens’ school lessons in his 1912 article “Did Dickens Read Vergil?” Neale discovered an abundance of absolute constructions in Dickens’ work (“the basket having been repacked,” and others) and concluded rather inconclusively that Dickens must therefore have read Caesar. It is likely enough that he read some Caesar, because it is unlikely his teachers were imaginative enough to do anything else other than force-feed standard authors to their ill-prepared and unwilling students. It bore little good fruit. Whether drawing on his own experience or that of his children, Dickens uses metaphors of force-feeding and barrenness to describe a classical school in his 1846 (aetatis suae 34) novel Dombey and Son:

Whenever a young gentleman was taken in hand by Doctor Blimber, he might consider himself sure of a pretty tight squeeze. The Doctor only undertook the charge of ten young gentlemen, but he had, always ready, a supply of learning for a hundred, on the lowest estimate; and it was at once the business and delight of his life to gorge the unhappy ten with it.
In fact, Doctor Blimber’s establishment was a great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work. All the boys blew [i.e., flowered] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well.

James Hughes, in his book Dickens as Educator, called Dickens not only England’s most famous novelist but its “greatest educational reformer,” equal in importance with Germany’s Friedrich Froebel. Froebel’s “infant gardens” (we now know them by their original German name) were repeatedly celebrated in articles by Dickens, even while they were banned in Froebel’s Prussia, where child-centered playrooms were declared “atheist and demagogic.” Dickens’ fictional works feature no fewer than twenty-eight schools, ranging from the harrowing misopedic efforts of Creakle, Murdstone, and M’Choakumchild to excellent schools where love and affection ruled the day. In his little-known story “Barbox Brothers” a teacher named Phoebe declares her method is “the pleasure I have in it, and the pleasure it gives me when they learn.” This kind of naturalness in process, fortified by affection — as opposed to “forcing” early blooms — is Dickens’ educational creed. “When I love a person very tenderly,” says Esther Summerson in Bleak House, “indeed my understanding seems to brighten; my comprehension is quickened when my affection is.” The contrast is coercion, fact-storing, and imposition of the teacher’s thoughts and conclusions onto minds not yet ready for them — which Dickens claimed “didn’t keep well.” This was the classical education Dickens knew: reciting of paradigms, regurgitation of translations, acquisition of meaningless jargon. Not only that, the proponents of a classical education were themselves lifeless and pretentious:

Miss Blimber, too, although a slim and graceful maid, did no soft violence to the gravity of the house. There was no light nonsense about Miss Blimber. She kept her hair short and crisp, and wore spectacles. She was dry and sandy with working in the graves of deceased languages. None of your live languages for Miss Blimber. They must be dead — stone dead — and then Miss Blimber dug them up like a Ghoul.
Mrs. Blimber, her Mama, was not learned herself, but she pretended to be, and that did quite as well. She said at evening parties, that if she could have known Cicero, she thought she could have died contented. It was the steady joy of her life to see the Doctor’s young gentlemen go out walking, unlike all other young gentlemen, in the largest possible shirt-collars, and the stiffest possible cravats. It was so classical, she said.
As to Mr. Feeder, B.A., Doctor Blimber’s assistant, he was a kind of human barrel-organ, with a little list of tunes at which he was continually working, over and over again, without any variation. He might have been fitted up with a change of barrels, perhaps, in early life, if his destiny had been favourable; but it had not been; and he had only one, with which, in a monotonous round, it was his occupation to bewilder the young ideas of Doctor Blimber’s young gentlemen. The young gentlemen were prematurely full of carking anxieties. They knew no rest from the pursuit of stony-hearted verbs, savage noun-substantives, inflexible syntactic passages, and ghosts of exercises that appeared to them in their dreams. Under the forcing system, a young gentleman usually took leave of his spirits in three weeks. He had all the cares of the world on his head in three months. He conceived bitter sentiments against his parents or guardians in four; he was an old misanthrope, in five; envied Curtius that blessed refuge in the earth, in six; and at the end of the first twelvemonth had arrived at the conclusion, from which he never afterwards departed, that all the fancies of the poets, and lessons of the sages, were a mere collection of words and grammar, and had no other meaning in the world.

Here Dickens disproves Dr. Danson with a well-deployed (but admittedly very rare) allusion to Curtius (he who leaped fully armed into a chasm in the Forum) — indeed a singularly apt image for philological self-immolation.

The bitterness Dickens felt toward such “ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate persons would have intrusted the board and lodging of a horse or a dog” — almost all of whom were, by the nature of the position, classically trained — is given a ridiculous twist in another Dickens work, almost completely forgotten today. Called “Holiday Romance,” it consists of four short stories, totaling about 13,000 words, written from the perspective of children. They are so completely juvenile that I would not be surprised to hear that Dickens had amplified tales written by his own children. The third, “from the pen of Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Redforth, aged nine,” treats of the adventures of one Captain Boldheart, a pirate whom “we find… in command of a splendid schooner of one hundred guns loaded to the muzzle, ere yet he had had a party in honour of his tenth birthday.” This Captain Boldheart sails the seas until encountering a boat captained by a “Latin-grammar master,” who was scouring the oceans in search of the young boy who had defected from his Latin lessons. After a sea battle, Boldheart captures the schoolmaster alive:

Capt. Boldheart then turned to the Latin-grammar master, severely reproaching him with his perfidy, and put it to his crew what they considered that a master who spited a boy deserved.
They answered with one voice, “Death.”
“It may be so,” said the captain; “but it shall never be said that Boldheart stained his hour of triumph with the blood of his enemy. Prepare the cutter [i.e., the lifeboat].”
The cutter was immediately prepared.
“Without taking your life,” said the captain, “I must yet for ever deprive you of the power of spiting other boys. I shall turn you adrift in this boat. You will find in her two oars, a compass, a bottle of rum, a small cask of water, a piece of pork, a bag of biscuit, and my Latin grammar. Go! and spite the natives, if you can find any.”

After a heavily racially stereotyped interlude involving these aforesaid natives, the Latin-grammar master is found to be the prisoner of a party of cannibals:

But how to depict the captain’s surprise when he found a ring of savages singing in chorus that barbarous translation of ‘For what we are going to receive,’ &c., which has been given above, and dancing hand in hand round the Latin-grammar master, in a hamper with his head shaved, while two savages floured him, before putting him to the fire to be cooked!
Boldheart now took counsel with his officers on the course to be adopted. In the mean time, the miserable captive never ceased begging pardon and imploring to be delivered. On the generous Boldheart’s proposal, it was at length resolved that he should not be cooked, but should be allowed to remain raw, on two conditions, namely:
1. That he should never, under any circumstances, presume to teach any boy anything any more.
2. That, if taken back to England, he should pass his life in travelling to find out boys who wanted their exercises done, and should do their exercises for those boys for nothing, and never say a word about it.

The irony of all this is that at the time, the British universities called their classics programs — as they still do today, in fact — Literae Humaniores, “more humane letters.” They had an example in Cicero, who wrote of the desire for knowledge as an inherent quality of the child:

Videmusne ut pueri ne verberibus quidem a contemplandis rebus perquirendisque deterreantur? ut pulsi recurrant? ut aliquid scire se gaudeant? ut id aliis narrare gestiant?” [Do we not see that children cannot be scared off from investigating and asking about things — even by force? That when driven off they come back? That they are filled with joy when they know something? That they love to tell others all about it?” De Finibus 5.18.48]

Very little of this ever made it to the British classical school. While Dickens’ testimony is unusually imaginative, it is far from uniquely caustic. One might compile a fairly thick book of great writers and intellectuals writing about how much they hated their Latin classes.

In Dickens’ case, it’s not clear he had any obvious way to classical literature, given how entirely the discipline was held as fief of two of his primary intellectual foes: the British class system, and rationalistic industrial education, intent on turning out finished products by Procrustean methods. Dickens insisted that education leave “standing-room for Queen Mab’s chariot among the steam-engines.” But contemporary schoolcraft reduced the glories of, say Homer — whom Dickens never really knew — to just so many syntactic passages and noun-substantives. And that the classics were bound up with class — concerning which Dickens felt both aspiration and hostility, as dramatized in books like Great Expectations — made it all the worse. Dickens sent his oldest child to Eton; but, disappointed with the results, he sent no more of his children there. Once his professional career began at age fourteen, he was ceaselessly busy (besides the infinite novels, his editorship of numerous magazines, the ten children he sired, and a large extended family in continual need of his financial assistance, he is said to have written as many as a hundred letters a day). His trips to Italy were probably his only real chance to overcome these obstacles. He left us some fine specimens of Grand Tour prose, which show what kind of classicist he might have been; witness his description of the Colosseum:

To see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day; the long grass growing in its porches; young trees of yesterday, springing up on its ragged parapets, and bearing fruit: chance produce of the seeds dropped there by the birds who build their nests within its chinks and crannies; to see its Pit of Fight filled up with earth, and the peaceful Cross planted in the centre; to climb into its upper halls, and look down on ruin, ruin, ruin, all about it; the triumphal arches of Constantine, Septimius Severus, and Titus; the Roman Forum; the Palace of the Cæsars; the temples of the old religion, fallen down and gone; is to see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod. It is the most impressive, the most stately, the most solemn, grand, majestic, mournful sight, conceivable. Never, in its bloodiest prime, can the sight of the gigantic Coliseum, full and running over with the lustiest life, have moved one’s heart, as it must move all who look upon it now, a ruin. God be thanked: a ruin! (Pictures From Italy)

His visit to Pompeii was especially intriguing, as here he came face to face with tangible remains of an ancient urban population — where he was most at home:

Stand at the bottom of the great market-place of Pompeii, and look up the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis, over the broken houses with their inmost sanctuaries open to the day, away to Mount Vesuvius, bright and snowy in the peaceful distance; and lose all count of time, and heed of other things, in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the Destroyed and the Destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun. Then, ramble on, and see, at every turn, the little familiar tokens of human habitation and every-day pursuits; the chafing of the bucket-rope in the stone rim of the exhausted well; the track of carriage-wheels in the pavement of the street; the marks of drinking-vessels on the stone counter of the wine-shop; the amphoræ in private cellars, stored away so many hundred years ago, and undisturbed to this hour — all rendering the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of the place, ten thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea.

But there is no evidence he ever turned from the inspiration of those travels in classic lands to classic literature. He leaped back into the business of his life — writing, writing, writing. And yet in so doing he managed, at times, to reproduce some of the wisdom of the classics — sua sponte, as it were, and naturaliter.


It has become a kind of holiday custom for my mother and me to re-read A Christmas Carol during some of the long, often idle nights around Christmas. A busy few Christmases had separated me from the custom — in the past few years I have gotten married and begotten three children — but I returned to the book with fresh eyes this Christmas, with some good results. One was to restore to me one of the great bad lines of all literature: Dickens claims that Marley’s face, seen as an apparition, was not all dark, but “had a dismal light about it — like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” Now lobsters, so far as I know, never emit any light at all, good or bad, and regardless of where they may happen to reside, but somehow Dickens managed to write this line, and it has remained, along with Shakespeare’s “exit pursued by a bear,” as one of the curiosities of our literature. And another thing struck me: the book is far less Christian than I might have supposed. Sentimental observers might imagine Scrooge at the end returning to “the true meaning of Christmas” and preaching to Tiny Tim about “the baby Jesus in Bethlehem” or some such thing. But Dickens resolutely keeps Christ out of his Christmas carol. What he writes is Christian perhaps only insofar as Christianity has taken to itself all kinds of miscellaneous precepts of wisdom and human benignity. In fact, it reminded me far more of Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae.

The first stage of Scrooge’s redemption is not a confrontation with the Cross (at least as commonly understood), but with his own past. Seneca advises us to do precisely this:

Life as we live it is divided into three parts — past, present, and future. Of these the present is brief, the future doubtful. But the past is certain. Chance has lost its power over it, and will never get it back. This is what busy people [occupati, a prime Stoic term] lose: they are never free to regard the past, and if they were, the memory of a regret is hardly pleasant. Our minds return to ill-spent hours reluctantly, and do not dare to revisit them if our vices, which are disguised by the pleasures of the present, should come into clear focus. No one willingly contemplates his past unless his acts have already been approved by his conscience, which is not deceived. Anyone who has ambitiously coveted, contemptuously despised, treacherously betrayed, greedily grabbed, or prodigally squandered, fears his own memory. And this is the part of our existence which is sacred and inviolable, immune to all disasters, and forever outside the kingdom of chance; poverty, fear, and disease cannot shake off our past; they cannot damage or steal it. It is a secure and eternal possession. The days of the present come one at a time, and really only for a moment at a time; but all the days of the past will attend to you, if you can summon them; and they will stay as long as you wish, and submit to your inspection. Busy people can do none of this. It is a sign of a healthy and untroubled mind to investigate all the parts of its life; but the souls of the busy, like animals lashed to a yoke, cannot look behind them or change their course. (De Brevitate Vitae 10)

This is very nearly a description of the “chance and hope” that Marley has procured for Scrooge: the opportunity to investigate all the parts of his own life, and be forced to come face to face with his own self. Dickens represents the past as emitting a kind of light, which Scrooge wishes to extinguish as soon as it becomes too emotionally difficult:

“Spirit!” said Scrooge in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Remove me!” Scrooge exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”
He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
“Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits,” by John Leech.

Similarly, the final stage of Scrooge’s redemption is to confront his fellows’ reaction to him after his death — the post-mortem audience the Romans called posteritas. It is as if Scrooge were dropped for an evening into the mind of Cicero at Tusculum, for whom this was, of course, a constant preoccupation.

But the greatest proof of the immortality of the soul is given by nature herself, who has made all of us anxious — exceedingly so — about what will happen after our death: “A man plants trees for future ages to enjoy,” as Statius saith in his Synephebi. What is his object in doing so, except that he believes posterity means something to him? The loving farmer will plant trees, though he will never get so much as a berry off them. Will not a great man then plant laws, institutions, and public wealth? What does the begetting of children imply, and our care to continue our names, and our adoptions, and our care in drawing up wills, and tombs, and eulogies, but that we care about the future? (Tusculanae Disputationes 1.14)

But this notion is all over the non omnis moriar Romans, who not only invented the word “posterity,” but loved it in the dative case: to do something for posterity, to be slave to posterity, to live for posterity.

When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his tombstone, Scrooge begs for an opportunity to live his life in a different way — the wording of which I found of great interest:

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Dickens here defines “honoring Christmas in my heart, and trying to keep it” as to “live in the past, the present, and the future.” As I read it this year, I was struck by it, and had to think about it for awhile. Certainly the ability to live at least occasionally in the pure present is a valuable discipline of mind; but I think we all have an instinctual sense that much “live in the moment” philosophy feels superficial and smug. The Romans had in fact developed an image for this kind of life sub specie aeternitatis: the image of Aeneas fleeing Troy, carrying the past (symbolized by his father) on his back, and leading the future (symbolized by his son) by the hand. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that Dickens hadn’t so much defined Christmas per se, as he had defined a fully human life, and beyond that, a life enriched by the Humanities. Scrooge needed an engagement with his life deeper than the execution of the tasks of his job, despite the fact that as a classic occupatus he probably had a difficult job. He needed a life enriched by an awareness of the past and the future — by memories and hopes. And one’s own memories and hopes are the place to start, but soon we find they are implicated in the hopes and memories of the people around us. And the Humanities — our history, our politics, our art, our literature— are the memories and hopes of mankind. Even a study of the classics is insufficient if the hopes of antiquity were to be omitted — the hope of democratic government, the thirst for justice, the dream of a life of learning and beauty and poetry and philosophy — hopes hardly attained, but crucial to any full understanding of any human life. This kind of study truly deserves the name Literae Humaniores.

Mrs. Blimber said, “I think if I could have known Cicero, and been his friend, and talked with him in his retirement at Tusculum (beau-ti-ful Tusculum!), I could have died contented.” In Mrs. Blimber’s mouth this is all cant. Dickens himself probably would have been more at home in my mother’s crowded South Bronx apartment. But perhaps he would have been more at home there than he realized. For those of us who keep alive a more humane classics, there is some pleasure in the hope.