The Languagernof Literaturernby Thomas FlemingrnThe Latin & Greek Poems ofrnSamuel JohnsonrnText, Translation,rnand Commentaryrnby Barry BaldwinrnLondon: Duckworth;rn299 pp., £55.00rn”Poets who lasting marble seekrnShould carve in Latinrnor in Greek.”rnWhen I last quoted those lines ofrnEdmund Waller, 1 was put downrnas a hopeless reactionary trying to restorernLatin as the language of literature. In therncase of the conservative journalist whornmissed the point, it would have beenrnenough to learn a little English. The factrnremains, however, that no one ignorantrnof Latin can entirely appreciate the masterpiecesrnof English literature, and thernLatin literary tradition includes suchrnBritish writers as Buchanan, Milton, andrnSamuel Johnson. Even James Joyce triedrnhis hand.rnThat Johnson is among the greatestrnpoets to write in English, no one wouldrnmaintain; that he is among the wisest, nornsensible reader would deny. However,rnthe very qualities that make Johnson’srnverse seem stiff—his formality, his gravityrn—are almost perfectly natural in Latin,rnand it might be argued that Johnson’srnbest Latin verse is an important part ofrnhis literary achievement.rnA superb new edition, edited by BarryrnBaldwin, now provides us with somethingrnapproaching authoritative texts, asrnwell as translations and commentary thatrnwill help the reader who might have forgottenrnsome (or all) of the Latin he wasrnsupposed to be learning in school. Baldwin,rnwho confesses that he comes fromrn”what may be the last generation of Englishmenrntrained to write Latin andrnGreek verse at school,” is the ideal scholarrnfor such a task: a classical scholar withrna lifelong interest in English and Europeanrnliterature.rnJohnson’s interest in postimperialrnLatin poetry was lifelong. (I say postimperialrnto avoid the wretched term “neo-rnLatin,” which carries the suggestion thatrnmodern writers of Latin are hypocriticalrnsecond-raters who converted to Latinityrnwhen they failed to succeed as vernacularrnwriters.) His first announced literaryrnproject was an edition of Politian, thernbest known Latin poet of the Italian Renaissance.rnJohnson defended the universityrnpractice of writing verse in dead languagesrnand said that Latin was the onlyrnlanguage for letters of resignation, medicalrntexts, and epitaphs. But, as Baldwinrnpoints out, he could be severe upon thernshortcomings of even the best later Latinrnpoets.rnJohnson’s surviving Latin poemsrncome from his college days, his years as arnhack journalist, and the period of hisrngreatest fame. More than half of hisrnLatin poems, many of them religious,rncome from the last 15 years. “In the lastrninsomnia-plagued winter of his life, hernturned out almost a hundred Latinrntranslations of epigrams from the GreekrnAnthology,” a great many of which arernon moral themes. “Johnson’s version are,rnthen, extensions of his Christian devotionals.”rnJohnson’s most celebrated Latin poemsrnare the three he wrote on his Scottishrnadventure and the powerful “GnothirnSeauton” composed after completingrnthe dictionary. Of this last it has beenrnsaid that “Johnson never spoke so truly inrnEnglish.” After describing Joseph JustusrnScaliger’s disgust at completing a lexiconrn—a task, he said, which ought to berngiven to condemned criminals—Johnsonrnacknowledges he is unworthy of therncomparison, “whether because the coldnessrnof sluggish blood or lying too long inrnsloth get in the way, or because naturernhas given me too small a mind.” However,rnthe real horror for this confessed sluggardrnis not work but idleness and “the tediumrnof a life that drags on.” He spendsrnthe sleepless nights “mulling over grandrndesigns” but is forced, in the end, to facernthe knowledge of himself: “an uncultivatedrnheart and an intelligence that takesrnpride in fruitless ability.”rnThis note of personal, almost Romanticrnmeditation is sounded even morernbeautifully in an apparently late poemrnupon his youth in Litchfield, wherernhe used to swim in the stream runningrnfrom Stowe Mill. The contrast is betweenrnthe privacy of Johnson’s youth,rnwhen “branches made a secret refuge,rnand a bending tree kept the waters hiddenrnin daytime shade,” and the barrenrnscene he confronts upon returning:rn”Now those old shadows have fallen victimrnto hard axes, and the bathing spotsrnlie exposed to faraway eyes.” But thernChristian moralist refuses to draw thernobvious lesson of entropy: “The unweariedrnstream, for all that, continues its regularrncourse; where once it flowed hidden,rnit now flows in the open,” and he concludesrnby advising that, whatever timernmay bring, you must “calmly continue torndo whatever it is you have to do.”rnThe Scottish poems are, for the mostrnpart, direct and even “natural” in theirrnLatinity. Baldwin describes the religiousrnconclusion to “Skia” as “jejune.” Elsewherernhe concedes that such things mayrnbe a matter of taste, and if a Homer nods,rnso can a Baldwin. The tightness of thernpoem obviously lies in the contrast betweenrnthe storm-wracked shores of Skyernand the power of God to quiet the ragingrntempests of the heart. Neither Christianrnhumility nor acquiescence in the divinernwill be to everyone’s taste, but they are atrnthe center of Johnson’s moral vision. Asrnfor the lines on the Stoics being clumsy,rnI leave it to the reader to judge:rnHumana virtus non sibi sufficit,rnDatur nee aequum cuiquernanimum sibirnParare posse, ut StoicorumrnSecta crepat nimis alta fallax.rnJohnson is Christianizing, as Baldwinrnnotes, a famous passage in Horace, and itrnis much to the editor’s credit that he hasrnassiduously drawn attention to the Englishrnpoet’s dependence upon Latinrnoriginals. Occasionally, he does go too farrnin suggesting that a passage is somehowrnless brilliant, merely because it includesrnborrowings from Vergil and Horace—rnwho in their turn borrowed from Homer,rnApollonius, Callimachus, Alcaeus, andrnvirtually every poet known to them. Likernhis Roman predecessors, Johnson is partrnof a tradition in which readers were supposedrnto appreciate echoes and allusionsrnas a dimension of the text that played uponrnthe reader’s own experience of earlierrnwriters.rnJohnson, for all his brilliance, was alwaysrnconscious of the tradition in whichrnhe wrote; his debt to that tradition, asrnwell as his own contributions to it, are evidentrnon every page of this splendid newrnedition.rnThomas Fleming is the editor ofrnChronicles.rnJULY 1996/33rnrnrn