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The Burning Word

By Georgina Thomson ’1925

The late Professor Edmund Kemper Broadus was already something of a legend when I came to the University of Alberta as a freshman in the fall of 1915, and our seniors enjoyed making us shiver with tales of his sarcasm and severe marking. We comforted ourselves with the thought that we were safe for at least a year or so, as Dr. Broadus conducted only the senior courses in English. It was with dismay, therefore, that we learned that he was introducing a new course, or partial course, for the freshman class. This would consist of one lecture in two weeks based on a little textbook which he himself had written, called Studies in Oral English. I still own and treasure this gray-covered booklet, and the anguish it caused me some forty-odd years ago has long since faded into a gentle nostalgia.

Ours was a large class until enlistment removed most of its male members, and we filled one of the larger classrooms of the newly occupied Arts Building. The day of Dr. Broadus's first lecture, there was a noticeable preference shown for the back seats, and an attempt to make ourselves as inconspicious as possible.

Dr. Broadus entered in his ragged gown of rusty black (both students and professors being required to wear gowns in those days) and regarded us solemnly through the smoked glasses which he always wore, while his characteristic little palsied shake of the head, accentuated his Vandyke beard, made his appearance still more portentous to us. After roll-call, he told us in his clipped Harvard enunciation with still a trace of his native Virginian, just what the course would involve. The purpose was set forth in the preface of the text, to be:

"(a) For practice in reading; (b) for study and class-discussion of the meaning and connotation of words. For this purpose, in each selection, words to which the students' attention is particularly directed are printed in italics. If the italicized word is archaic, the student will be expected to substitute the appropriate modern word or phrase. If the italicized word is modern, the student should be prepared; (1) to give the precise meaning of it; (2) to give synonyms for it; (3) to construct a sentence (not a paraphrase of the text) in which the word is appropriately used; (4) to give an opinion as to what the author meant to suggest by it; what associations or ideas the word evokes; why, in short, the author used that particular word rather than some synonym or dictionary-equivalent for it."

We knew we were for it!

Dr. Broadus then assigned for the next lecture, the first lesson, which was entitled, "Two Masters of Plain English" followed by the quotation from the Book of Proverbs: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." The lesson consisted of an extract from Dryden's "Essay on Dramatic Poesy" and one from Samuel Johnson's "Life of Dryden."

We were told to come next day prepared to read these passages aloud before him and the class in such a way as to bring out clearly what the writers intended to convey. We were also to be prepared to deal with all the italicized words according to the directions given in the preface.

Spurred on by fear of the awful consequences if we were not so prepared to do, we fell upon our dictionaries and thumbed them through more assiduously than we had ever done in our lives before. Our findings were then written into the margins of our texts so that they might be readily available in time of need. The margins of my copy are filled with such pencilled notations.

"You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes," says the text, referring to Ben Jonson, "or endeavoring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to such a height. Humour was his proper sphere; and he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He was deeply conversant in the Ancients both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them."

Here Dr. Broadus fixed his eyes, or rather his smoked glasses, upon a luckless youth whose name I forget, and asked him if Dryden was insinuating here that Ben Jonson was a plagiarist. The youth squirmed but did not answer.

"What is a plagiarist?" asked the Professor.

The youth conferred anxiously with his neighbor, who happened to be George V. Ferguson, and then answered, "A plagiarist, Sir, is a sort of literary thief."

"Yes," said Dr. Broadus, "for instance if I asked you a question for which you obtained the answer from Ferguson and then gave it as your own, you would be a plagiarist." It is a word which I do not think any of us will forget.

And so we progressed word by word to Section II, "The Prose and the Verse of It." with Mallory's and Tennyson's parallel versions of "The Casting of Excalibur" and Dorothy and William Wordsworth's descriptions of the daffodils, and finally "The Story of the Revenge" by Robert Louis Stevenson and Tennyson. Our progress was very slow, for each italicized word was a battleground, while the halting rendition of the various selections by students was a painful process.

Dr. Broadus knew very few of us by sight, and his method of choosing his victims was to start at the top of the roll one day and at the bottom the next. It was the day for the end of the alphabet and Dr. Broadus fixed upon Lily White to read from Tennyson's "Revenge." Those who remember Lily (now Mrs. Harold Inglis of Wetaskiwin) will recall how her name suited her, for she was fair, dainty and feminine, with a small twittering voice in keeping. Not too dismayed, she began to read:

"He had only a hundred seamen to work the ship and to fight,
And he sailed away from Fores till the Spaniard came in sight...."

She got as far as,

"And Sir Richard said again: `We be all good Englishmen.
Let us bang these dogs of Sevile, the children of the devil,
For I never turned my back upon Don or devil yet.' "

Here in a cold and awful voice Dr. Broadus stopped her. "Miss White," he said, "reading aloud is supposed to give pleasure to the listeners. Your reading does not give me any pleasure whatsoever."

We all felt deep sympathy for Lily and shivered vicariously, but she did not take it too seriously, passing it off with a little laugh and a shrug. Dr. Broadus's eye then lighted upon George Ferguson, he of plagiarist fame, and he called on him to read the poem.

George would read a stanza or too and pause tentatively, only to be signalled on by the professor, who was pacing back and forth across the room, a pleased smile on his face. At the end he was not sparing with his words of commendation and we others basked in the reflected glory of the reader. George V. Ferguson is now a distinguished editor and a frequent commentator on C.B.C., and I never hear his voice without recalling this his early hour of triumph.

As time went on I began to feel secure, because at whichever end of the roll Dr. Broadus began, he never seemed to get as far as me. Then one day when he was calling the names, he stopped at mine, raised his eyes and regarded me for what seemed a very long time as I gazed back with a fearful fascination at the smoked glasses and oscillating Vandyke. Sure enough, as soon as the rollcall was finished, he began on me, not just one question but a series, one after another. I struggled to make some intelligent answers, but so great was my nervous tension that I cannot remember what he asked me nor what I answered. It was all blotted out by shock!

With only one class in two weeks plus our collective stupidity, we made poor headway. We stumbled somehow through Section III, "The Nimble Word," and Section IV, "The Graceful Word," but before we got to "The Vigorous Word," "The Pregnant Word," "Burning Word," and "The Inevitable Word," the term was almost over. There was to be only one more class in oral English.

According to regulations in my day, students were allowed a certain number of "skips" of lectures (I think it was eight), in each course and if we absented ourselves oftener than this without a medical certificate or other proper excuse, we would not be allowed to write the final examination.

When the day came for our last class in oral English, many of those who had not exceeded the permissible number of skips, decided this was the day to take one. Accordingly, when Dr. Broadus came into the room, he faced mostly empty chairs. He took in the situation at a glance through the smoked glasses, the slight increase in his palsy seeming to express more sorrow than disapproval.

After roll-call, so sparsely responded to, he turned to us faithful few. Since in this one short hour we could do but little with the still uncovered sections of the booklet, he told us he had decided to spend the time reading to us from his own favorite selections and purple passages from what remained.

With a sigh of relief we settled back to enjoy this unexpected reward of virtue. Here was a new Dr. Broadus, no longer sarcastic and exacting, but a friendly person, sharing with us his delight in the beauty and power of the written word. And how well he read ‚ not in an elocutionary nor oratorical way, against which he had warned us in his preface, but with beautifully clear enunciation that made everything he read plain to understand, and a warmth and ring to his voice at parts that stirred his emotions, that sent responsive quivers up and down our spines.

The hour sped away. I do not remember all the passages read, but when we came to "The Burning Word," he began to read from "Drake's Drum" by Sir Henry Newbolt. Remember this was in the spring of 1916 and World War I was nearly two years old. We had been through the retreat from Mons, the Battle of the Marne, Ypres, Festubert, St. Eloi and many another battles of heroic significance. The German submarines were preying on our shipping and taking a great toll of human life as well as supplies.

Dr. Broadus read on:

"Drake he was a Devon man, an' ruled the Devon seas, (Capten, art tha sleepin' there below?)
Rovin' tho' his death fell, he went wi' heart at ease,
An' dreamin' arl the time o' Plymouth Hoe.
"Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven
An' drum them up the Channel as we drumm'd them long ago."

It was the Huns, not the Dons, we faced, but our powder was indeed running low. Every newspaper carried its long casualty list. There was probably no one in the class who had not some loved one overseas, or was about to go himself. Yet as we listened to that strangely vibrant voice in that quiet room, we felt there was nothing to fear, nothing we could not face. The spirit of Drake was still alive‚ the unconquerable spirit of Britain.

These last pages of my little book have no pencilled notes. There was no need, for the words were indeed burning words, and they were written on our hearts.

Dr. Broadus must have regarded the experiment as a failure, for as far as I know, he never gave the course again. I wonder how many of his little gray books are still in existence! For myself, I have always been glad I was one of the guinea pigs, one of the fortunate few who took oral English with Dr. Edmund Kemper Broadus.

Published Winter 1957-58.

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