In an exam I once took we were presented with a passage that began: 'To see the wind, with a man his eyes, it is impossible, the nature of it is so fine.' I found that sentence so distractingly meaningless, and lovely, that it was hard to concentrate on the rest of the passage, which (much more comprehensibly) described a snowy field over which a light wind was blowing; tiny particles of snow were picked up by the wind and carried short distances in complicated patterns, so that the way the wind blew was suddenly visible, in the same way that dye in water makes visible the flow of hidden currents. Part of the test was, supposedly, to determine when the passage would have been written, and by whom, to contextualise it without external clues. Was this deliberately distorted language, newly written? I had no idea; mesmerised by that sentence, I panicked. Years later, I discovered that the source was Roger Ascham's Toxophilus (1545), ostensibly a book about the pleasures of archery. Ascham was a schoolmaster. His mission, he felt, was to make writing accessible for an audience that knew little Latin but longed to be educated. Now that everything is available on the Internet, the passage appears online in multiple past papers on university websites from Florida to Michigan. In order to test the ability of the must-be-educated to find the context, examiners clearly study other exam papers and transplant words from one contextless context into another, copying also the (deliberately?) misleading modernised spelling that makes you read the words the wrong way. The passage's original purpose - to be understood - seems to be lost on those setting the tests. But perhaps it had lost its context in any case: as a record of a moment during a walk from one parish to the next, it seems to belong to a class of Romantic epiphanies; there is nothing like it in the writing of its own time. It should have been less Wordsworthian; it's unclassifiable.
LRB 8 August 2002 | PDF Download