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.

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