“Poets who lasting marble seek Should carve in Latin or in Greek.”

When I last quoted those lines of Edmund Waller, I was put down as a hopeless reactionary trying to restore Latin as the language of literature. In the case of the conservative journalist who missed the point, it would have been enough to learn a little English. The fact remains, however, that no one ignorant of Latin can entirely appreciate the masterpieces of English literature, and the Latin literary tradition includes such British writers as Buchanan, Milton, and Samuel Johnson. Even James Joyce tried his hand.

That Johnson is among the greatest poets to write in English, no one would maintain; that he is among the wisest, no sensible reader would deny. However, the very qualities that make Johnson’s verse seem stiff—his formality, his gravity—are almost perfectly natural in Latin, and it might be argued that Johnson’s best Latin verse is an important part of his literary achievement.

A superb new edition, edited by Barry Baldwin, now provides us with something approaching authoritative texts, as well as translations and commentary that will help the reader who might have forgotten some (or all) of the Latin he was supposed to be learning in school. Baldwin, who confesses that he comes from “what may be the last generation of Englishmen trained to write Latin and Greek verse at school,” is the ideal scholar for such a task: a classical scholar with a lifelong interest in English and European literature.

Johnson’s interest in post-imperial Latin poetry was lifelong. (I say post-imperial to avoid the wretched term “neo-Latin,” which carries the suggestion that modern writers of Latin are hypocritical second-raters who converted to Latinity when they failed to succeed as vernacular writers.) His first announced literary project was an edition of Politian, the best known Latin poet of the Italian Renaissance. Johnson defended the university practice of writing verse in dead languages and said that Latin was the only language for letters of resignation, medical texts, and epitaphs. But, as Baldwin points out, he could be severe upon the shortcomings of even the best later Latin poets.

Johnson’s surviving Latin poems come from his college days, his years as a hack journalist, and the period of his greatest fame. More than half of his Latin poems, many of them religious, come from the last 15 years. “In the last insomnia-plagued winter of his life, he turned out almost a hundred Latin translations of epigrams from the Greek Anthology,” a great many of which are on moral themes. “Johnson’s version are, then, extensions of his Christian devotionals.”

Johnson’s most celebrated Latin poems are the three he wrote on his Scottish adventure and the powerful “Gnothi Seauton” composed after completing the dictionary. Of this last it has been said that “Johnson never spoke so truly in English.” After describing Joseph Justus Scaliger’s disgust at completing a lexicon —a task, he said, which ought to be given to condemned criminals—Johnson acknowledges he is unworthy of the comparison, “whether because the coldness of sluggish blood or lying too long in sloth get in the way, or because nature has given me too small a mind.” However, the real horror for this confessed sluggard is not work but idleness and “the tedium of a life that drags on.” He spends the sleepless nights “mulling over grand designs” but is forced, in the end, to face the knowledge of himself: “an uncultivated heart and an intelligence that takes pride in fruitless ability.”

This note of personal, almost Romantic meditation is sounded even more beautifully in an apparently late poem upon his youth in Litchfield, where he used to swim in the stream running from Stowe Mill. The contrast is between the privacy of Johnson’s youth, when “branches made a secret refuge, and a bending tree kept the waters hidden in daytime shade,” and the barren scene he confronts upon returning: “Now those old shadows have fallen victim to hard axes, and the bathing spots lie exposed to faraway eyes.” But the Christian moralist refuses to draw the obvious lesson of entropy: “The unwearied stream, for all that, continues its regular course; where once it flowed hidden, it now flows in the open,” and he concludes by advising that, whatever time may bring, you must “calmly continue to do whatever it is you have to do.”

The Scottish poems are, for the most part, direct and even “natural” in their Latinity. Baldwin describes the religious conclusion to “Skia” as “jejune.” Elsewhere he concedes that such things may be a matter of taste, and if a Homer nods, so can a Baldwin. The tightness of the poem obviously lies in the contrast between the storm-wracked shores of Skye and the power of God to quiet the raging tempests of the heart. Neither Christian humility nor acquiescence in the divine will be to everyone’s taste, but they are at the center of Johnson’s moral vision. As for the lines on the Stoics being clumsy, I leave it to the reader to judge:

Humana virtus non sibi sufficit,

Datur nee aequum cuique animum sibi

Parare posse, ut Stoicorum

Secta crepat nimis alta fallax.

Johnson is Christianizing, as Baldwin notes, a famous passage in Horace, and it is much to the editor’s credit that he has assiduously drawn attention to the English poet’s dependence upon Latin originals. Occasionally, he does go too far in suggesting that a passage is somehow less brilliant, merely because it includes borrowings from Vergil and Horace—who in their turn borrowed from Homer, Apollonius, Callimachus, Alcaeus, and virtually every poet known to them. Like his Roman predecessors, Johnson is part of a tradition in which readers were supposed to appreciate echoes and allusions as a dimension of the text that played upon the reader’s own experience of earlier writers.

Johnson, for all his brilliance, was always conscious of the tradition in which he wrote; his debt to that tradition, as well as his own contributions to it, are evident on every page of this splendid new edition.


[The Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson, Text, Translation, and Commentary by Barry Baldwin (London: Duckworth) 299 pp., £55.00]