I often wonder what inward pangs of laughter or despair he may have felt as he sat behind the old desk in Chase Hall and watched us file in, year after year! Callow, juvenile, ignorant, and cocksure–grotesquely confident of our own manly fulness of worldly savoir–an absurd rabble of youths, miserable flint-heads indeed for such a steel! We were the most unpromising of all material for the scholar’s eye; comfortable, untroubled middle-class lads most of us, to whom study was neither a privilege nor a passion, but only a sober and decent way of growing old enough to enter business.
We did not realize how accurately–and perhaps a trifle grimly–the strong, friendly face behind the desk was searching us and sizing us up. He knew us for what we were–a group of nice boys, too sleek, too cheerfully secure, to show the ambition of the true student. There was among us no specimen of the lean and dogged crusader of learning that kindles the eye of the master: no fanatical Scot, such as rejoices the Oxford or Cambridge don; no liquid-orbed and hawk-faced Hebrew with flushed cheek bones, such as sets the pace in the class-rooms of our large universities. No: we were a hopelessly mediocre, well-fed, satisfied, and characteristically Quakerish lot. As far as the battle for learning goes, we were pacifists–conscientious objectors.
It is doubtful whether any really great scholar ever gave the best years of his life to so meagrely equipped a succession of youngsters! I say this candidly, and it is well it should be said, for it makes apparent the true genius of Doctor Gummere’s great gift. He turned this following of humble plodders into lovers and zealots of the great regions of English letters. There was something knightly about him–he, the great scholar, who would never stoop to scoff at the humblest of us. It might have been thought that his shining gifts were wasted in a small country college, where not one in fifty of his pupils could follow him into the enchanted lands of the imagination where he was fancy-free. But it was not so. One may meet man after man, old pupils of his, who have gone on into the homely drudging rounds of business, the law, journalism–men whose faces will light up with affection and remembrance when Doctor Gummere’s name is mentioned. We may have forgotten much of our Chaucer, our Milton, our Ballads–though I am sure we have none of us forgotten the deep and thrilling vivacity of his voice reciting:
O where hae ye been, Lord Randal, my son?
O where hae ye been, my handsome young man?
I hae been to the wild wood; mither, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi’ hunting and fain wald lie doun.
But what we learned from him lay in the very charm of his personality. It was a spell that no one in his class-room could escape. It shone from his sparkling eye; it spoke in his irresistible humour; it moved in every line of that well-loved face, in his characteristic gesture of leaning forward and tilting his head a little to one side as he listened, patiently, to whatever juvenile surmises we stammered to express. It was the true learning of which his favourite Sir Philip Sidney said:
This purifying of wit, this enriching of memory, enabling of judgment, and enlarging of conceit, which commonly we call learning, under what name soever it come forth or to what immediate end soever it be directed, the final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clay lodgings, can be capable of.
Indeed, just to listen to him was a purifying of wit, an enriching of memory, an enabling of judgment, an enlarging of imagination. He gave us “so sweet a prospect into the way as will entice any man to enter into it.”