The Language of Literature

"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...

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