Le trahison d'un clerc
Keats and Chapman sat reading in armchairs drawn up on either side of a blazing fire. The poet was engrossed in a well-thumbed copy of the Iliad and scarcely noticed the sighs and groans which his friend emitted with increasing frequency and vehemence. At length, however, he was distracted from the feats of Achilles by a furious snarl and looked up in time to see Chapman fling a large and pristine volume into the middle of the flames.
'Good lord!' exclaimed the poet, shocked and astonished by his friend's behaviour, 'what on earth is the matter?'
Chapman paced the room, his entire frame shaking as he sought to control his emotions.
'Do calm down old chap and try to tell me what has caused you such distress.'
Chapman slumped into the armchair opposite and buried his face in his hands.
'Fowler', he sobbed, 'it was Fowler'.
'Fowler?' said Keats in an incredulous tone. 'Surely you don't mean the distinguished author of Modern English Usage?'
'The same', confirmed Chapman.
'I'm afraid I don't understand', replied Keats, his astonishment growing, 'I have perused that work on many occasions and have found much to commend and nothing to censure in its pages. I must, in honesty, confess that I did feel his strictures on the use of "Hellenic" were unduly severe – the result, no doubt, of an excessive ...'
'No, no, no!' moaned Chapman, who dropped his hands from his face to reveal an expression in which disgust and anger competed for dominance. 'Fowler's first edition was capital, of course, and his second was never less than solid. The volume I have just consigned to the flames is the third edition – a work that can only be described as an incitement to linguistic permissiveness, promiscuity and miscegenation. The man has simply turned his coat, he has stabbed a legion of faithful purists in the back, he ...' Chapman raised his hands in a gesture of helplessness as his words trailed away.
'Oh come now! Surely it can't be as bad as that? Let us bear in mind the maxim error communis non error est, and let us also reflect that both split infinitives and terminal prepositions have long ...'
'Shut up!' bellowed Chapman.
Keats directed his gaze into the fireplace where fragments of charred paper floated up and disappeared into the black void of the chimney. Chapman broke the silence.
'I do apologise, but you simply have no idea ... you can have no idea. Do you know what the bounder has done? He has sold the pass on "gender"!'
'Good god no!' cried Keats, aghast.
'He has, he has!' Chapman sobbed uncontrollably.
'Why, it's ... it's unbelievable', stammered Keats. He rose and strode to a large oaken bookcase inherited from his grandfather, took down a copy of Fowler's second edition and began to read aloud: '"Gender is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine gender, meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity ... or a blunder" – why, what could possibly be plainer than that?'
'He's recanted, abjured, decamped at the first approach of the monstrous regiment ...'
'The thing is infamous!' exclaimed the poet, his upper lip curling in an expression of contempt. But after a moment's reflection a sudden look of triumph transformed his features. Turning to his friend, he declaimed: 'let us take solace from the knowledge that the scoundrel's poltroonery shall not go unpunished; that those whom he has betrayed so shamefully shall not go unavenged; that he shall live to rue the day of his treachery!'
'I do wish I could believe it,' said Chapman, wiping a tear from the corner of one eye, 'but how can you be certain? Those who are without principle so often seem to prosper ...'
'Surely', asked Keats rhetorically, 'you must be familiar with the old adage, "filleann an feall ar an bhFowler"?'