A Pickwick among Poets, Exiled in the Fatherland of Pickled Fish

Colin Burrow

  • The English Horace: Anthony Alsop and the Traditions of British Latin Verse by D.K. Money
    Oxford, 406 pp, £38.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 19 726184 1

On 16 June 1783, Samuel Johnson was rendered speechless by a stroke. His first action was not to try croaking for a doctor, but to compose a prayer in Latin: ‘The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.’ Johnson was relieved that he could still pray in Latin, but the greater part of his relief was that he was still enough of a critic to know that his verses were not much good.

Latin verse composition was a mental reflex for most educated English men, and for a significant number of women too, in the period from 1500 to 1800. In the later part of that period it was exercise for the mind, a test of its vigour, and an index of civility. In the early 16th century, though, Neo-Latin verse was much more than this. It was a rich political resource. Neo-Latin panegyrics were a good means of winning friends and pleasing princes. Latin verse was also the perfect medium for humanist poets who wished to go beyond the parochial constraints of national politics to address a wider audience of freer thinking international readers. Thomas More’s book of Latin epigrams was the first printed volume of classically derived Latin verse by an Englishman. It appeared first in 1518, bound with the second edition of Utopia, and it shares both the brilliance and the elusively reforming political stance of its more famous companion piece. More muses about the best state of a commonwealth in one of his epigrams (it goes roughly: ‘do we want a king or a Senate? – hang on, if we have the power to answer this question then we must already be kings; and if we are not kings we’d better shut up and stay out of polities’). In another he writes movingly to his children while absent from them on royal business. His Latin poems are part of the texture of his life as an uneasy servant of the Crown, and set the tone for British Neo-Latin verse in the later 16th century. The Latin works of George Buchanan won him an international audience, and pulses of Protestant resistance theory run through his Latin dramas on Biblical themes. In the first half of the 17th century most major English poets – Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Crashaw, Cowley – were bilingual in English and Latin, and the few who weren’t bilingual could jog out a few elegiacs for their friends.

Something went horribly wrong with this tradition of writing. By the early 20th century Neo-Latin had become the medium for some of the most ghastly drivel ever written in England. Pieces like A.D. Godley’s grammatical declension of ‘motor bus’ offer the odd polite titter (‘the noise and hideous hum/indicat motorem bum’) but no more. The majority is unspeakably donnish. The Master of Magdalen A.B. Ramsay wrote ‘Horatian’ poems on how good it was to be blown apart for your country in the First World War. These were the product of the same delicate sensibility that forced his pupils to stand dazzled in a shaft of sunlight while they recited huge chunks of Cicero. The centres of Ramsay’s world were Magdalen, Eton and Horace. And his Horace clearly went to Eton and Magdalen.

The period from 1680 to 1730 was the critical stage at which English Neo-Latin verse declined into donnishness. There was no reduction in the volume of Latin verse composed in this period – turning out a few honest alcaics of a Saturday afternoon was a harmless occupation for hundreds of clergymen and dons. There was, however, a change in the nature and needs of the audiences which Neo-Latin verse served. The community of European humanists who exchanged Neo-Latin epistles in the 16th century were attempting to create a world of letters which would arch over the heads of their rulers. By the 1690s this republic of letters was replaced by an increasingly narrow community of dons and clergymen engaged in an intimately Horatian Neo-Latin mode of correspondence. (The Horatian ode had emerged as an epistolary form in the wake of the phenomenal popularity throughout Europe of the Neo-Latin odes of Casimir Sarbiewski, ‘the Polish Horace’.) University friends who married and took provincial livings sought to re-create a schooly companionship by exchanging odes. In reading these verses you are meant to fondle their metrical smoothness, smile wisely at an appropriate allusion to Virgil, smirk at a double entendre, or burst into applause at moments of striking innovation. And what radical innovations they were! In 1721 Nicholas Hardinge wrote an epistle to accompany a gift of a cheese to one of his university friends, and managed to get the place name of Cottenham (a village outside Cambridge) to scan in a line of verse.

English Neo-Latin poetry came to be dominated by people educated at Eton and Westminster. At school they trotted out elegiacs for the vanity volumes printed regularly by their masters; at Oxford and Cambridge they contributed panegyrics or genethlaica to the volumes routinely churned out by the Universities whenever anyone famous died or had a child. Even the authors of these volumes had a suspicion that what they were producing was painful. Writing to the Queen in 1640, after her successful delivery of child, M. Bate recognised that, having endured the pains of childbirth, she would now have to endure the even greater pain of reading bad verses about it:

Great Queene, You are not yet deliver’d, Wee
From throwes, and labours shall not thinke you free,
Till you have pass’d ours: which I dare maintaine
(Ill verse is such a torment) the worse pain.

When a genethlaicon hurts more than childbirth you can be sure that poetry is in trouble. The audiences for these University volumes were acutely critical, and received some much better writing than they deserved (‘Lycidas’ appeared first, along with some respectable Neo-Latin, in just such a volume); but dons tend to worry about metrical correctness and the exact use of elision, rather than seeking to re-create the bite of Martial or Horace. By 1800 university prize poems on set themes were the dominant form of Neo-Latin verse, and they are, most of them, remarkable carbon copies of metrical correctness and imaginative emptiness. There still were odd moments of passionate spontaneity in the later 18th century – Samuel Johnson’s rant against the Scots to Mrs Thrale, composed on the Isle of Skye in 1773, shows a healthy lack of finesse – but most people outside Oxford and Cambridge knew the game was over. No one was having the kinds of risky imitative fun that had led Milton to end his elegiac vision of the dead Bishop of Winchester Lancelot Andrewes with an imitation of Ovid’s sigh after a good afternoon with Corinna (‘Lord send me many afternoons like this’).

The most copious Neo-Latinist of the 19th century, Walter Savage Landor, printed 60 of his Latin verses in a collection of 1858 called Dry Sticks Fagoted. That title says it all. By the mid-19th century Neo-Latin verses were destined for the mustier shelves of second-hand bookshops. And there they rest today, the curios, the beached experiments, the gatherers of dust: the Latin translation of Paradise Lost by William Hogg, the versions of Spenser’s Shepeardes Calender by Theodore Bathurst and John Dove (both of which experiment vigorously with Latin metrical form), the stately Latin transformation of Absalom and Achitophel by Francis Atterbury.

David Money’s learned book seeks to rescue one exponent of this cliqueish art-form from the dust-heap. His hero is Anthony Alsop (1669-1726), Pickwick among poets, a figure whose donnish and parsonical life was disturbed only when in 1716 he married the widow of the former incumbent of his living in Berkshire. He was promptly sued by his mistress for breach of promise and had to flee to Rotterdam to avoid paying her the ruinous sum of £2000 in compensation. In Rotterdam he ranted against Holland (which he described as ‘the fatherland of pickled fish’) and the Dutch (who were ‘barbarously dressed’ and monstrously venal). He constructed a Horace-meets-Ovid-in-exile persona for himself, with a little dose of Aeneas (he is ‘fato profugus’, a fugitive from fate, like Virgil’s hero) thrown in for good measure. His wife died in 1718, leaving him exiled and alone and a slightly better poet than he was before her death. The rest of his life was devoted to polishing off Horatian epistles to his friends, the odd sermon, and many glasses of claret. He died falling into a brook (drunk?) when the ground gave way beneath his feet on 20 June 1726. Thomas Hearne recorded that Alsop ‘was looked upon to be the best Writer of Lyric Verses in the World’.

A figure who attracted such praise deserves to be the subject of Money’s meticulous research – although Pope was more guarded, cattily suggesting that a Neo-Latin manner could be a stylistic prison: ‘Let Freind affect to speak as Terence spoke,/And Alsop never but like Horace joke.’ The heart of Money’s argument for the strength of Alsop’s contribution to literature is that he was the centre of a group of Jacobite Neo-Latinists who mingled Newtonian science with their attacks on Walpole and the Hanoverian usurpers. The argument enables Money to claim for early 18th-century Neo-Latin verse something of the political energy of its 16th-century ancestors: he sees it as a literary form which constructs an invisible community of those who resisted the political status quo. Alsop’s friends John Freind and John Dolben had clear Jacobite sympathies. Francis Atterbury (whose anthology of Italian Neo-Latin verse was reissued by Pope) and the great Scottish Neo-Latinist Archibald Pitcairne, too, would raise a glass in private for the House of Stuart. The decline of English Neo-Latin verse, Money appears to suggest, was linked with the decline of Jacobitism, and the consequent declining need for secretly shared verses.

Money also wants us to believe that ‘Anthony Alsop is one of Britain’s major poets.’ But Alsop is quite clearly no such thing. The very qualities which make him in a quiet way appealing – his intimacy with many of his addressees, his slippered Horatian gentility, his cryptic Jacobite sympathies – also make it entirely fair that the critical tradition has written him out of the canon. He asks to be excluded. His few early printed university pieces from the 1690s have something of the declamatory force, but nothing of the subtlety, of Horace’s political poems. His privately circulated manuscript odes speak only to the likeminded (patches of Jacobite feeling are often omitted in the more widely circulated manuscripts). A Jacobite who writes odes to his friends is never going to produce a double-edged public meditation on the immediate past of his nation on the scale of Horace’s Cleopatra ode. He is going to produce yet more circumspect verses for friends who long for the King across the water. In every stanza of Alsop’s work you know exactly which echoes of Horace will come next. Each cadence seems pre-scripted. The metre, the lexis, the mode of address have nothing at all of Horace’s voracity for Greek forms, his sparky use of the odd incongruously low word, his sheer sly spikiness. Alsop rises to a few low peaks (the ode on the death of his wife, until it lumbers its way to the inevitable wish that he could be another Orpheus and revive his Eurydice, has a contorted melancholy of its own), and then subsides to a low cultivated murmur. In between moaning about Holland he teases his friends endlessly about sex, and the tiresome puns on stiff schoolmaster’s canes, on the need to teach women about the genitive case (nudge nudge say no more) and on the importance of keeping your spears sharp for pricking in the wars of love are those of someone attempting to revive his schoolboy years through coterie verse. His poems show Neo-Latin becoming an in-language for chaps.

Alsop (his very name announces that, like Leavis’s impossibly named favourite Ronald Bottrall, he could never make it in the canon) is not the English Horace. He is a Neo-Latin simulacrum of Horace. What is lacking in his writing is any live sense of inter-cultural stress: he has no difficulty in sounding like Horace while remaining an 18th-century Englishman. Claret translates with an easy gurgle into Falernian wine, and the odd non-Horatian detail like pipe-smoking or beer-drinking slips only too naturally into Horatian metres.

Neo-Latinists in the early 16th century and before were arguing as they wrote: could a poet writing from a Christian perspective adopt a purely classical idiom? Should a new field of cultural beliefs generate new modes of expression? Neo-Latin verse from 1500 onwards was dangerously, and often excitingly, poised in the cross-fire between these two attitudes. The best of it – which is more or less identifiable with verse written before 1640 – re-enacts the argument within itself, and daringly juxtaposes exact classical diction with explicit Christian matter. By the 1720s this internal debate had hardened into the public battle between the Ancients and the Moderns. Understanding of the lexis and metre of classical verse had become so precisian that poets who valued their reputations checked the classical pedigree of each word and weighed each foot with a fine balance. Someone like Alsop, who had played a small part in the early skirmishes between Ancients and Moderns in his attacks on Richard Bentley in the 1700s (he described Bentley as ‘a man of fair diligence in turning the pages of dictionaries’), was always going to be watching his feet. In the early decades of the 18th century Neo-Latin poets tried to sound as Latin and as un-Neo as they could manage: if you misplaced a bucolic diæresis, then ‘slashing’ Bentley would rip you to pieces and ruin your chances of a fellowship. Neo-Latin poetry was never the same. It ceased to be a vehicle in which cultures audibly grated together. It ceased to challenge its readers with the disjunction between their world and that of Rome, as, say, Crashaw had done when he charged his Latin epigrams on Christian themes with the eroticism of Ovid’s Amores.

The pleasures of an English Horace are by 1730 only to be found in Horace’s imitators in English. It was among English translators and imitators of Latin in the 17th century, rather than among Neo-Latin poets, that debates continued about how to reconcile the continuing value of classical writing with the fact that linguistic practices and cultural mores were visibly changing. Pope participated in this debate by printing free English imitations of Horace on pages which faced the Latin text. His readers were made to read inter-culturally, skipping in uneasy balance between the English and Latin. In the first of his Horatian paraphrases Pope tackles the anxious dialogue between Horace and the lawyer Trebatius about the Roman law of libel in Sermones 2.1. Pope’s version of this knotty bit of Roman law runs:

It stands on record that in Richard’s Times
A man was hang’d for very honest Rhymes.
Consult the statute: quart. I think it is,
Edward Sext. or prim. – quint, Eliz:
See, Libels, Satires – here you have it – read.

This is dazzling and disruptive. How can he squeeze the right way of referring to an English statute by regnal year and number into a pentameter? And then the thought comes: are those statutes actually the equivalents for the Roman originals? They aren’t, in fact, since they are directed against the slander of monarchs and the spreading of seditious rumours rather than (like their Roman equivalents) the libelling of individual citizens. The panache of the line covers over this thought for a moment, leaving you not quite subject to Roman or to English law, and not quite sure if Pope fears something more regal and threatening than the law of libel as it applied to private individuals. Now that is the English Horace, dislocating your thoughts, creating a moment when you drop into pure cultural in-betweenness. Alsop, with his endless whingeing against the Dutch, could never do that.