The Latin Poetry of Englishmen by Richard Stoneman

Richard Stoneman, a leading Classics scholar

In the modern day, the language barrier is often seen only as a hindrance to total harmony, in contrast to the medieval English opinion that, in fact, poetry in Latin was equal if not superior to poetry in the mother tongue of its author. From this unusual situation arose a climate in which poets would speak one language and write in another, creating some of the most important works of the literary cannon in a language in which only the weatlhiest and best educated had proficiency.

This extract is taken from PN Review 29, Volume 9 Number 3, January – February 1983.

IF Petrarch had chosen to write only in the vernacular, it has been said, the Western world would have had no classical comedy or tragedy, no Paradise Lost, no Pindaric Odes of Ronsard: our literature would be the poorer.

For Renaissance Latin poetry is pivotal in many senses. There is a constant interplay in the Renaissance between Neo-Latin, classical and vernacular literature. Many poets, including Milton and Crashaw, wrote in Latin as well as English; George Buchanan translated his own Latin poetry into English (see no. LXVIII in McFarlane); the translators of classical poetry, like Timothe Kendall, George Turbeville, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Stanley, also translated Neo-Latin. Marcantonio Flaminio’s In Auroram was the inspiration for an Italian poem of Bernado Tasso. The universality of Latin is exemplified by translations from Greek into Latin: Politian’s Iliad, the Theocritus of Eobanus Hess, which was still printed-as the standard ‘crib’-in Valckenaer’s edition of Theocritus of 1781.

Teaching of Latin verse was done not only from Virgil and Ovid, but from that deutero-Virgil, Baptista Mantuan, and from Palingenius and even the contemporary George Buchanan.

Just why was facility in Latin so highly prized? One answer is that no one ever thought to question it: at a certain level Latin was a current tongue and, as Thomas Nashe said, ‘Erasmus . . . Philip Melancthon, Sadolet, Plantinus, and many other reverent Germans insisting, have re-edified the ruins of our decayed libraries, and marvellously enriched the Latin tongue with the expense of their toil.’ He was talking of translations, but the original work is, as I shall indicate, at least as important. Then there is the productive tension between the sense of being heirs to a great tradition, which enabled Maphaeus Vegius confidently to ‘complete’ the Aeneid with a thirteenth book, and, its corollary, a powerful sense of mutability and decay, exemplified in Sannazaro’s lines ‘Ad ruinas Cumarum’ (‘On the ruins of Cumae’, Sparrow 149 f.)

    Et querimur, cito si nostrae data tempora vitae

    diffugiunt? Urbes mors violenta rapit,

    . . . . Fatis urgentibus, urbes

    et quodcumque vides auferet ipsa dies.

    [And shall we complain, if the span allotted to our life departs so swiftly? Violent death seizes cities . . . at the beckoning of Fate, the day itself shall remove both cities and all you see.]

In the next century, the theme reappears in Du Bellay’s Anti quitez de Rome:

    Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome

    Et rien de Rome en Rome n’apperçois

    Voy quel orgueil, quelle ruine . . .

    Ce qui est ferme, est par le temps destruit,

    Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.

This awareness of the insistence of decay and loss, which urged Poggio Bracciolini on his restless travels to recover the manuscripts of classical authors, urged the poets to preserve scrupulously the forms and the loci communes of classical poetry. This is the ode which, in the works equally of Horace and of Casimir Sarbiewski, gave impetus to the poetry of Ben Jonson and his ‘Tribe’. Yet in many instances genre seems curiously irrelevant to Neo-Latin poetry. No one would place a high value on the Pindaric encomia of contemporary monarchs and other notables by Benedetto Lampridio, religiously though they follow the rules of the genre as understood at that time. In many ways the products of the generic approach invite comparison with the equally frigid, if often entertaining, attempts to transfer classical quantitative metres bodily into English poetry. The motive is clearly analogous: as Gabriel Harvey argued, in effect, in defence of classical metres, what was good enough for Homer was good enough for him.

To concentrate on the generic aspects of Neo-Latin poetry distracts attention from what should be at the centre of our focus: that much Neo-Latin poetry is fine work in its own right, and that it is important to strands of English literature other than the classicising. I will try to justify this contention.

It is significant that many authors attempted to avoid following too exactly in the footsteps of their models, while certain forms such as the pastoral were often repeated, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it lays some stress on the description of real landscape. Du Bellay’s Iolas, though largely a conventional description of rustic rites and merry-making as mannered as Horace and as fairyland as The Winter’s Tale, is set in a real landscape:

    Pastorum dum laeta cohors, durique coloni,

    Qui Drynium, qui culta tenent vineta Lyraei,

    Bosylij quique arva colunt, humilemque Marillum,

    Florenti qui saxa tenent, quique ardua servant

    Montis, lane, tui, & quae illo sunt cognita tracta

    Rura super virides Ligerium spectantia valles.

    [While a merry group of shepherds, and the sturdy peasants who occupy Drain, the well-kept vineyards of Lire, and who till the fields of Bouzille, and low-lying Le Marillais, who occupy the rock of Saint Florent, and who dwell on the steep slopes of your mount, Jean, and the countryside familiar in that district, looking at the Loire over the green valleys. . . . tr. F. Nichols)

The strange, un-classical French names fight against the euphony, and even the metre, of the Latin; but the catalogue describes a real and loved landscape.

At first sight a surprising use of Latin poetry is as a vehicle for the poet’s most personal reflections. Thomas More is the earliest example of a genre (if one can call it that, when it is so individual) that is still strong with Samuel Johnson.

    Vivis adhuc, primis o me mihi carior annis,

      redderis atque oculis Elisabetha meis!

    Quae mala distinuit mihi te fortuna tot annos?

      paene puer vidi, paene reviso senex . . .

    [Do you still live, you who are dearer to me than my own early years, and are you returned to my sight? What evil fortune held me so many years apart from you? As a boy I had scarcely seen you, now I scarcely see you again, myself an old man.]

This is more direct, more sincerely simple, than anything in Propertius or Tibullus. The greater privacy, perhaps, of Latin, encourages this openness while the greater challenge of technical correctness reduces the danger of formlessness where no formal model is followed.

George Buchanan, well represented in all three of these anthologies, is among Britain’s finest poets, and among the best Latin poets. Again the strongly personal element is present in his ‘Desi-derium Lutetiae’ (‘Longing for Paris’), which despite the familiarity of the pastoral frame and apparatus describes in moving terms his longing for ‘Amaryllis’ from whom he has been seven years separated (probably while imprisoned by the Inquisition).

    Illa mihi rudibus succendit pectora flammis,

      Finiet illa meos moriens morientis amores.

    [She kindled the wild flames in my breast; dying she will bring my love to an end as I die. tr. F. Nichols]

The poem has been compared to the ‘Epitaphium Damonis’ in its directness of expression.

Buchanan’s Silva contains a variety of strains: another masterpiece is his ‘May Day’. Wordsworth in his Guide to the Lakes describes ‘one of these favoured days [which] sometimes occur in springtime, when that soft air is breathing over the blossoms of new-born verdure, which inspired Buchanan with his beautiful Ode to the First of May; the air, which, in the luxuriance of his fancy, he likens to that of the Golden Age-to that which gives motion to the funereal cypresses on the banks of Lethe;-to the air which is to salute beatified spirits when expiatory fires shall have consumed the earth with all her habitants.’ As it happens, Nichols’s anthology gives us not only the whole of this poem but also an earlier one on the same theme by Michele Marullo. The same topics appear in both. The hearers are invited to lay down the yoke of labour and celebrate the first of May.

    Pone supercilium capulo vicina senectus,

      De tetrica rigidas excute fronte minas

exhorts Buchanan [So then let the worries tormenting your heart be gone far off, and the useless anxiety about acquiring things] , where Marullo had cried, ‘Mitte vaesanos bone Rhalle questus’ [Put aside your mad complaints, good Rhallus]. The theme is carpe diem. Where Marullo is lapidary and Horatian, Buchanan is expansive.

    Herba comis, tellus nitet herbis, frondibus arbor

      Luxuriat laetum laeta per arva pecus.

      Et placidum sternit lenior aura fretum.

    [The grass looks bright in its blade, the earth in its grasses, the tree in its leaves; the happy flock gambols through happy fields. Free from confinement, the horse frolics in the open spaces, and tosses his flowing mane over his untamed neck. The field is laughing, the woods laugh, fiery heaven gleams, and a gentler breeze smoothes the quiet sea. tr. F. Nichols]

There is perhaps not all that there that Wordsworth fancied he found in it (and many of the phrases are classical); but the attitude to landscape that became Romanticism is there as it were in potentia.

Milton’s ‘Epitaphium Damonis’ has been overshadowed by ‘Lycidas’ not so much because of its earlier date, or inferiority (though it is a simpler poem), but by the inaccessibility to many readers of its language. It is as haunting as Virgil’s fifth or tenth Eclogue, with its melancholy, self-centred refrain: ‘Ite domum impasti, domino iam non vacat, agni’, and it contains lines such as

    Hic serum expecto, supra caput imber et Eurus

    Triste sonant, fractaeque agitata crepuscula silvae

    [Here I wait for evening; over my head rain and the east wind sound mournfully, and the troubled twilight of the shattered forest, tr. F. Nichols]

Of which it has been said that, if they are bad Latin, they are certainly good poetry. Despite the myrtle thickets of the next stanza, this is a cold and clammy English wood, no classical grove.

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