Witley, May 8, 1917

Tuesday          The weather of today was exactly the same as yesterday I rec’d a letter from Mother Roamed the woods this morning — there’s nothing much doing Am in the pink.

plane tree canopy Andrea KirkbyOne of the curiosities of Percy’s diary is the odd quotations which he has written down at the end of the book. I think it is unlikely that he was reading Plato himself, but somewhere he came across a quotation from the end of Phaedrus, and thought it important enough to copy into his tiny pocket diary: “Grant me to become beautiful in the inner man, and whatsoever outward things I have may be at peace with those within.” The syntax is a little odd, but a comparison with other translations suggests that Socrates’ prayer (for it is Socrates addressing Pan and the other gods of the place where he has been in dialogue with Phaedrus) is for the inner man to  become beautiful, and for the outward and the inner to be in harmony — or as the Victorian Benjamin Jowett put it, “give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one.” (1892)

Phaedrus, unusually, is set outside the city, in a spot described (in Jowett’s translation) as “a fair resting-place, full of summer sounds and scents…[with a] lofty and spreading plane-tree, and [a vitex] in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance; and the stream which flows beneath the plane-tree is deliciously cold to the feet.” For all its pleasantness,  the trees and the countryside have nothing to teach Socrates — he prefers the city where he can learn from men.

Percy does not quote Wordsworth, but we know from the little books in his possession (of which more anon) that his tastes ran to the Romantics. “The Tables Turned” is the antithesis of Socratic dialogue, with its call to”quit your books” (line 1) and the “meddling intellect” (line 26) they represent, and “let Nature be your teacher.” (line 16)

“She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
“One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.” (lines 17-24)

But perhaps a sage like Socrates is useful for summarizing what is learned in roaming the vernal woods of Surrey.  And the quotation, you remember, is from a prayer Socrates addressed to Pan, the god of nature, and to all the other gods who haunt the countryside. Perhaps Wordsworth and Socrates are not so opposed after all.

Benjamin Jowett’s translation (1892) can be found in Project Gutenberg; the photograph of the canopy of a (London) plane-tree is by Andrea Kirkby illustrates Ben Venables’ “The Secret History of the London Plane Tree” (2015) in Londonist.

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”
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