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In book III of Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the narrator, who has published some popular poems, reads her fan-mail, which includes:

… rarer tokens from young bachelors,
Who wrote from college (with the same goosequill,
Suppose, they had just been plucked of) and a snatch
From Horace, ‘Collegisse juvat,’ set
Upon the first page.

There are a couple of difficulties here:

  1. Why does she suppose that the bachelors wrote with “the same goosequill they had just been plucked of”?

  2. What is the significance of the Horatian tag? “Collegisse juvat” means “delights to have gathered” and is from the dedication of Horace’s first book of Odes. What does the use of this tag imply about the writers?

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I think the suggestion is that in their letters the bachelors declare that her writing has given them gooseflesh/goose bumps:

A rough, pimply condition of the skin, resembling that of a plucked goose, produced by cold, fear, etc. [per OED]

A recent study into brain differences in people who get the 'chills' from music may be interesting in this regard. Although focused on music, the PDH student carrying out the work says

“People who get the chills have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions,” Sachs said. “Right now, that’s just applied to music because the study focused on the auditory cortex. But it could be studied in different ways down the line,” he pointed out.

It is possible that there is a side order of Aurora regarding the bachelors as geese, in the sense of

A foolish person, a simpleton. [per OED]

This gives a picture of Aurora Leigh having a good understanding of the overwrought nature of a teenage fan who not only experiences intense emotions in response to art, but feels moved to act upon in by writing to the creator because they feel the connection to be intense and personal.

A characteristic which still pertains today, currently under the term 'stanning'. https://youtu.be/aSLZFdqwh7E

Given this I would interpret the use of the snatched words from Horace as being indicative of that same overwrought and somewhat pompous nature. Teens like 'deep' quotes, then as now they crib lines from 'meaningful' works of poetry, not always with a great understanding of their meaning.

The full quote is Curriculo pulverem Olympicum Collegisse juvat; that is: It's a pleasure to have collected the dust of Olympus on your carriage-wheels.

The line seems to be often used in publication but seldom interpreted. Translation is common, but not explanation of what we are to take from its deployments. It is often used as a standfirst in chapters of memoirs related to travel, sometimes in reference to horseracing, but I've also found reference to it being used on the front cover of books of collected botanical specimens.

I'd hazard that one objective with its use is to demonstrate the erudition of the writer to his audience and that this is the point Aurora is making about her correspondents: they take themselves very seriously and wear their learning heavily, as teens are wont to do.

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The bachelors are described as having written “from college”, suggesting that “plucked” is being used with an eye to this sense:

pluck, v. 8.a. transitive. Originally in Oxford University: to reject (a candidate) as not reaching the required standard in an examination (now historical). Later in extended use: to reject (a candidate for any examination, for office, etc.); (more generally) to call to account, to reprimand. Frequently in passive.

1837   J. R. McCulloch Statist. Acct. Brit. Empire II. v. i. 461   Those who fail in showing such an amount of proficiency as, in the opinion of the examiners, entitles them to their degree, are said, in the language of the place, to be ‘plucked’.

Oxford English Dictionary

The implication being that her correspondents showed little evidence of academic merit.

Possibly “goosequills” implies a character of fustiness or being out of date. Steel nibs, much more durable than quills, had been mass-produced since the 1820s, with sales reaching hundreds of millions annually by the 1840s.

I have a couple of thoughts about “Collegisse juvat”. First, this phrase is from the fourth line of the first Ode in the first book, and perhaps the suggestion is that this might be as far as the correspondents had got in their reading of Horace: that is, their scholarship is shallow.

Second, the choice of tag fails to be appropriate to the circumstance. For in this first ode, Horace elaborates on the commonplace idea of “to each his own taste”: that is, it pleases the politician to be elected to office, it rejoices the farmer to fill his granary, it excites the hunter when his dogs scent a deer, and first of his examples,

sunt quos curriculo pulverem Olympicum
collegisse iuvat metaque fervidis
evitata rotis

There are those whom it delights to have gathered Olympic dust in a chariot, and the turning-post having been shaved with fiery wheels

Horace (23 BCE). Odes, book 1, ode 1, lines 3–5.

The “meta” was the pillar at each end of the “circus” or racecourse, and the charioteer who shaved it closest, without striking it and overturning, took the shortest path. In the context of Aurora Leigh, this seems quite the wrong example for the fans to have picked, for what does Aurora care about chariot-racing? A few lines later there is a much more appropriate pair of lines from which to pick a tag when writing a fan-letter to a poet:

Quod si me lyricis vatibus inseres,
sublimi feriam sidera vertice.

But if you will include me with the lyric poets, I would touch the lofty stars with my head.

Horace, lines 35–36.

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  • On quills, what do you think of the idea, which I didn't explicitly include in my answer that the bachelors are fancying themselves in the mode of the Romantic Poets who per the British Library page stressed 'the importance of expressing authentic personal feelings' and certainly began their work before the mass production of steel nibs. Also, how do you interpret their being 'plucked of their goosequills as opposed to being plucked from college? Would they write from college if they had already failed their degrees? – Spagirl Nov 30 '20 at 15:44
  • A quill as signifier of authenticity is a good suggestion! Like my idea of a quill as signifier of old-fashionedness, it depends on how quickly quills were replaced by steel pens, and I suspect that 1856 may be too early for quills to be particularly unusual or marked. As for "plucked" in the sense "failed the examinations", it clearly doesn't quite work grammatically, so the primary meaning is the image of the correspondent as a goose (as you said in your answer), with the "failed" sense lurking as a pun. – Gareth Rees Nov 30 '20 at 16:14

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