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This article is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

From Courts and Alcoves: On Jane Stevenson's Women Latin Poets Eavan Boland

I learned Latin the old way. I chewed my pencil, stumbled over translations, sat for hours with Arnold's grammar and dreaded tests. But I had one extraordinary advantage. I had come back to Ireland as a teenager, having spent years in schools in London and New York. Since I had no Irish, I had to sit the GCSE exams as a preparation for my entrance to Trinity. I chose to do Latin and English. By a quirk of circumstance, I was in a minority; and a privileged one.

Few other girls in my convent school at the edge of Dublin sat those exams. None at all were doing the A levels and S levels in Latin. Had I had any other choice, I probably wouldn't have either. But I had no background in European history and my maths was non-existent. Latin was the substitute requirement for University. The result was that I sat, hour upon hour, usually alone, my grammar in front of me, a shining Irish sea at my back. My small, elderly, enraged Latin teacher alternately glared and shouted. Her face was apple-wizened. A scarf was wound around her neck twice. She smoked constantly.

She was also - although it took time to see this - a superb teacher. What she gave me was a lasting sense of linguistic difference. Her passion for syntax, her pride in the density and turn-on-a-dime neatness of certain constructs eventually got through to me. Seasons passed under ...


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