Woodcut from Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books
Woodcut from Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books

To all those suffering through exams this week:

Take comfort in the words of those who have gone before you.  A Howard College student wrote the following reflection on the anguish of examinations, both real and imagined, for a January 1859 article in the Howard College Magazine.  Our thanks to Dr. Todd in Classics for his help on the translations; this particular student, still very enthusiastic about his newfound knowledge of French and Latin referenced Seneca’s Moral Epistles, Julius Caesar, and the Rubicon.  However, some sentiments do not fully translate so with your post-exam ego SUM, sign up for a Greek or Latin course!

The intermediate examinations have, many of them, just passed like whirlwinds over our heads, and whoever has survived one of these “soul grinders” can form a very correct estimate of the manner in which things are carried on.  Books (our pen smilingly records the fact,) have been horribly mutilated, and have suffered the keen edge of the hasty couteau (French: ‘knife’) till naught remains to tell of a quondam (Latin: ‘former’) text book but its back; and all to subserve the wicked purpose of lazy students.  Any one who has passed through one of these can also appreciate the peculiar defaillance (French: ‘fainting feeling’) with which one enters the endroit (French: ‘place’) upon these occasions when “obstinate questionings of sense and outward things” are propounded for the student’s entertainment (?)

We can testify ourselves from honorable experience, that there is no fun in being bored from two to four hours a day sub judice (Latin: ‘under the judge’) during one of these entertainments, sustaining at the same time an “out side pressure,” equal to the enormous weight of a “prospective fizz.”  But after all, there is not generally as much harm done as is anticipated before entering.  When the smoke of the battle clears away so that we can see ourselves again, we are forcibly struck with the truth of the remark, “Plura sunt quae nos terrent, quam quae premunt et saepius opinione quam re laboramus.” (Latin: “There are more things which mentally terrorize us than which physically oppress us and we suffer more in anticipation than in the experience itself.”)

It is quite amusing, however, to witness the dignified appearance of those who have stood the fiery trial and come out sound.  From the most illustrious Senior down to the shabbiest Freshman you can see the ego SUM distinctly marked on every countenance.  Notice that gentlemanly fellow smoking his “stogy” with an air of nonchalance that would do honor to a Turkish Sultan!  He has stood his last examination, (minus one or two) and feels himself to be “like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion!”  What “crowns of glory,” “fields of happiness,” and “temples of fame” does he behold around the corner of five more months, as he forgets the tight place out of which he has just come, and is transported into the future.  But what deep expression of joy upon that countenance!  He is thinking of home and friends, and imagines he is talking to her under the “kind parental roof.”  Who blames him if he does feel a little all-overish when he holds up these bright prospects in contrast with the fading memories of the past.  He is now tired of college life, and would rather seek a “lodge in some vast wilderness,” “some boundless contiguity of shade,” where he will no longer be “cabin’d,” “crib’d,” “confin’d” but free as air, to blow on whom he listeth; and why should he not?  He has struggled manfully to obtain his independence.  We certainly can have no objection, but hope he will wait until he “gets through,” for we have heard of these “constant quantities” disappearing.  Poor Sophs and Juniors how we pity you!  But if you would be true to yourselves, having already “passed the Rubicon,” you must now dash into the “battle of books,” with a “soul in arms eager for the fray,” and you, too, may soon be raised to the degree of gentlemen of the “first order.”


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