The taste of that age liked the butter spread thick, and Erasmus’ was the best butter. He relieved his mind the same day in a letter to Batt—which he did not shrink from publishing in the same volume with his effusion to the Lady Anne: ’It is now a year since the money was promised, and yet all you can say is, “I don’t despair,” “I will do my best.” I have heard that from you so often that it quite makes me sick. The minx! She neglects her property to dally and flirt with her fine gentleman’ (a young man whom Erasmus feared she would marry, as in fact she did, shortly afterwards). ’She has plenty of money to give to those scoundrels in hoods, but nothing for me, who can write books which will make her famous.’ In ira veritas. But for Erasmus—and Batt—the rather simpering statue of Anne on the front of the town-hall at Veere would have little meaning for us to-day.
We must not judge Erasmus too hardly in his double tongue. Scholars of to-day, secure in their endowments, can hold their heads high; of their obligations to pious Founders no utterance is required save coram Deo—’vt nos his donis ad Tuam gloriam recte vtentes’. We hear much now of the artistic temperament which brooks no control, which at all costs must express its message to the world. No artist has ever burned with a fiercer fire than did Erasmus for the high tasks which his powers demanded of him; but at this period of his life there was no pious Founder to make his way plain. Later on, in all time of his wealth, he was generosity itself with his money, and inexorable in refusing honours and places that would have hindered him from his work.
In August 1511 Erasmus returned to Cambridge. He was a different man from the young scholar who had determined twelve years before that it was no use for him to stay in Oxford. In the interval he had learnt what he wanted—Greek; he had had his desire and visited Italy; and now he came back to sit down to steady work, in accordance with his promise to Colet, in accordance with the purpose of his life, to advance the study of the Scriptures and the knowledge of God. It had been no light matter to learn Greek. Books were not abundant, and the only teacher to be had, Hermonymus of Sparta, was useless to him, neither could nor would impart the classical Greek that scholars wanted. So Erasmus was compelled to fall back on the best of all methods, to teach himself. He had no Liddell and Scott, no Stephanus; probably nothing better than a manuscript vocabulary copied from some earlier scholar, and amplified by himself. No wonder that he found Homer difficult and skipped over Lucian’s long words. He exercised himself in translation, from Lucian, from Libanius, from Euripides. But that ready method of acquiring a new language—through the New Testament, was probably not open to him, for copies of the Gospels in Greek were rare, and not within the reach of a needy scholar’s purse. However, he persevered, and at length he was satisfied. He never attained to Budaeus’ mastery of Greek, but he had acquired a working knowledge which carried him as far as he wished to go.