The Latin Poems

By Considine, John | Seventeenth-Century News, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Latin Poems


Considine, John, Seventeenth-Century News


The Latin Poems. By Archibald Pitcairne. Ed. and trans. by John and Winifred MacQueen. Bibliotheca Latinitatis Novae / NeoLatin Texts and Translations. Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, and Tempe: ACMRS, 2009. xvi + 484 pp. Archibald Pitcairne was a noteworthy figure in late Stuart Scotland. He was a founding member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and briefly professor of medicine at Leiden (where students apparently found his Scottish pronunciation of Latin difficult to follow); he made original contributions to mathematics; his conviviality was remembered for more than a century after his death in 1713; he wrote anti-Presbyterian satires in English verse and Latin prose. He was also a Latin poet of real distinction.

In 1671, when Pitcairne and his friend Robert Lindsay were young men, excited by the accounts of the afterlife which they had been reading in Plato, Ficino, and Henry More, they agreed that whichever of them died first should return to visit the other and tell him about his experiences after death. Four or five years later, Lindsay appeared to Pitcairne in a dream, saying "Archie perhaps you heard I'm dead."

Pitcairne had not yet heard the news, but Lindsay had indeed died that day and told him that "they have buried my body in the Gray-Friars, I am tho alive and in a place the pleasures of which cannot be exprest in Scots Greek or Latin." In his Latin poetry, the themes of the dead, the underworld, and revenants come back again and again: in that respect, the apparition of Robert Lindsay is an exemplary moment in his imaginative life.

As a friend and husband, he lamented the death of individuals close to him; as a Jacobite, he associated the return of the exiled Stuarts with the return of the dead from the underworld; as a drinking man, he celebrated the Stygian depths of the taverns in the cellars of old Edinburgh; as a physician, life and death were his stock in trade. As a neo-Latin poet, of course, he was in the ambiguous business of celebrating the immortality of a dead language. In a review of David Money's The English Horace, James Binns summarizes Money's sense of "the subversive, subtle, ironic opportunities which the Latin language ofered those of the Jacobite persuasion," and this is well and elegantly said, but one might also say that writing a neo-Latin poem is always an act of restoration. Since restoration was precisely what mattered most in the Jacobite imagination, Jacobitism had a profounder affinity with neo-Latin than with a living language like Scots or English, and neo-Latin was the natural medium for Pitcairne's many Jacobite verses.

There was a "design of collecting" Pitcairne's poems "and printing them altogether" just after his death, but this came to nothing, and they are collected here for the first time by John and Winifred MacQueen, in an edition with facing-page English prose translations, a historical and critical introduction, an ample commentary, and indexes. The MacQueens count 124 surviving poems, though in some cases it is difficult to decide whether two texts are drafts of the same poem or different but related works. They group them into nine thematic sections; many of the poems are difficult to date, and some of the re-workings took place at substantial intervals, so a chronological ordering would have been impractical. …

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