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Helen Keller on the Study of Latin and Greek

June 27, 1880

Helen Keller was born on this date over a century ago.  At the age of nineteen months she would suffer from a terrible illness that left her deaf and mute.  Helen faced an overwhelming challenge at a very young age.  And yet, she would overcome this challenge to achieve glorious successes and inspire millions.  This little girl who many must have doubted would ever be able to read her parent language, would become proficient in both Latin and Greek.  The following are a few of her thoughts on these studies from her autobiography, written at the age of 22.

At first I was rather unwilling to study Latin grammar. It seemed absurd to waste time analyzing, every word I came across–noun, genitive, singular, feminine–when its meaning was quite plain. I thought I might just as well describe my pet in order to know it–order, vertebrate; division, quadruped; class, mammalia; genus, felinus; species, cat; individual, Tabby. But as I got deeper into the subject, I became more interested, and the beauty of the language delighted me. I often amused myself by reading Latin passages, picking up words I understood and trying to make sense. I have never ceased to enjoy this pastime.

– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Chapter XVI)

It was the Iliad that made Greece my paradise. I was familiar with the story of Troy before I read it in the original, and consequently I had little difficulty in making the Greek words surrender their treasures after I had passed the borderland of grammar. Great poetry, whether written in Greek or in English, needs no other interpreter than a responsive heart. Would that the host of those who make the great works of the poets odious by their analysis, impositions and laborious comments might learn this simple truth! It is not necessary that one should be able to define every word and give it its principal parts and its grammatical position in the sentence in order to understand and appreciate a fine poem. I know my learned professors have found greater riches in the Iliad than I shall ever find; but I am not avaricious. I am content that others should be wiser than I. But with all their wide and comprehensive knowledge, they cannot measure their enjoyment of that splendid epic, nor can I. When I read the finest passages of the Iliad, I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life. My physical limitations are forgotten–my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!

My admiration for the Aeneid is not so great, but it is none the less real. I read it as much as possible without the help of notes or dictionary, and I always like to translate the episodes that please me especially. The word-painting of Virgil is wonderful sometimes; but his gods and men move through the scenes of passion and strife and pity and love like the graceful figures in an Elizabethan mask, whereas in the Iliad they give three leaps and go on singing. Virgil is serene and lovely like a marble Apollo in the moonlight; Homer is a beautiful, animated youth in the full sunlight with the wind in his hair.

– Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Chapter XXI)

Link: complete text for The Story of My Life

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