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“Yet the worms are not one letter wiser….”

October 11, 2009

from Wit in a Constable: A Comedy (by Henry Glapthorne)

Collegian: Did you, ere we departed from the College,
O’erlook my Library?

Servant:                       Yes, Sir; and I find,
Altho’ you tell me learning is immortal,
The paper and the parchment ’tis contain’d in
Savours of much mortality.
The moths have eaten more
Authentic learning, than would richly furnish
A hundred country pedants; yet the worms
Are not one letter wiser.

N.B. I found this brief exchange in the second volume of Charles Lamb’s Specimens of the English Dramatists. Little is known about Henry Glapthorne (1610-1643?). The play from which Lamb takes this extract likely dates from the late 1630s. “Pedants” here carries no air of disdain such as we are now accustomed to in the word. The collegian’s servant is merely pointing out that this library, which his master left untouched to rot on its shelves while at college, might well have educated one hundred country schoolteachers, who might themselves (one assumes) have educated 1,000 country peasants. Education is as often wasted on the ruling class now as it was then. (Very likely the theme touched on here—precious documents being consumed by, and wasted on, worms—was a very old one in England. And yet to have a servant make use of it to his collegian/master in a play dating from the late 1630s adds to the ancient theme a certain political force, given what was then coming on: the English Civil Wars, the Levellers, the Diggers, etc.)

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