Formal Verse Imitation and the Rhetorical Principles of Imitation in the Neo-Latin Poetry of Samuel Johnson
Venturo, David F., Studies in the Literary Imagination
Born in 1709, Samuel Johnson grew up with and maintained a lifelong interest in English formal verse imitation, as both poet and critic. He was familiar with its history and personally witnessed the genre's extraordinary peak in popularity in the 1730s, thanks largely to Pope's splendid Imitations of Horace, which was published to much acclaim just as Johnson was beginning his career as a professional writer, indeed, Johnson earned his earliest literary recognition with the publication of London (1738), a verse imitation of Juvenal's Third Satire, and solidified that reputation a decade later with the publication of The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), written in imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire. Moreover, Johnson maintained a lively critical interest in the genre throughout his career. From the Rambler essays (1750-52) to the Lives of the Poets (1779-81), Johnson offers an abundance of occasional commentary, most of it consistently and rather sharply critical of formal verse imitation.(1)
Less well known, even to scholars, is that Johnson's interest in verse imitation was not restricted to English. As Robert DeMaria, Jr., helpfully reminds us, Samuel Johnson was a lifelong participant in the Late Latin culture of eighteenth-century Europe (xi). His practice as a neo-Latin poet was profoundly affected by the conventions and tradition of English verse imitation. Indeed, Johnson strove not only to emulate Pope by imitating Juvenal as Pope had imitated Horace, but also to emulate the accomplishments of such neo-Latin humanists as Buchanan, the Scaligers, Erasmus, Heinsius, and Burman. His neo-Latin imitations, as the selected readings that follow later in this essay will attest, reveal Johnson's coming to grips with classical, patristic, and neo-Latin or humanistic predecessors.
One needs to be careful, however, in discussing Johnson's Latin poetry specifically in terms of formal verse imitation. Johnson never claims, when writing Latin verse, to be writing formal verse imitation. In Latin, he never carefully updates a particular ancient poem, substituting references to modern persons and events for those that appear in the classical original. Nevertheless, he relies on many of the conventions familiar to him from his experience with the English verse imitations of such poets as Rochester, Oldham, and Pope. Sometimes, for example, he constructs a Latin poem around a series of references or allusions designed to evoke the poetry of a classical, patristic, or neo-Latin precursor. Sometimes Johnson relies on a meter associated with a particular classical or patristic genre, poet, or poem. Sometimes Johnson employs diction or subject matter in order to evoke a particular period.
Beyond the formal, poetic conventions, Johnson acquired a habit of mind--a process, of sorts--for dealing with his poetic precursors when writing English verse imitations that he also used when writing Latin poetry. The process consists of two parts. First, as Johnson writes, he enters into the moral ethos and philosophical values of the antecedent poet, striving to assume the identity and values of that poet. But then, having made this attempt at Negative Capability, Johnson begins to reassert his own identity and values, usually--but not always--in opposition to those of his model. Thus, Johnson establishes a moral and critical dialectic between himself and his Latin poetic model that mirrors the dynamics he establishes in his English verse imitations between himself and his classical predecessors.
Johnson uses all of these devices in writing his Latin verse imitations. Sometimes he organizes a neo-Latin poem around allusions to both neo-Latin and classical sources. In the case of "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," for instance, Johnson relies on a nexus of allusions to Virgil's Aeneid to create a playfully mocking contrast between the tribulations of the epic hero, Aeneas, and the Johnsonian anti-hero who has just endured the revision of the fourth edition of his Dictionary. Furthermore, in the same poem, Johnson creates a mock-heroic contrast between himself and the great humanist Joseph Scaliger, who, as he finished his Arabic lexicon, also wrote a poem--to which Johnson alludes--complaining of the tedium of dictionary-making.
In one of his most interesting exercises in neo-Latin verse imitation, Johnson updates the moral and philosophical sentiments typically found in a Horatian ode while retaining the Horatian diction and meter so that he makes Horace speak as he would were he living in eighteenth-century Europe rather than in first-century B. C. E. Rome. But, instead of making Horace speak English as John Oldham and Alexander Pope had done, Johnson has him speak as a late-eighteenth-century Latinist. Thus, in the Latin ode beginning, "Ponti Profundis," Johnson writes a Christianized version of a Horatian ode, which closes not with a celebration of Stoic self-sufficiency and an invocation of the classical gods but with a pointed reminder of humanity's dependence on a single Christian God. Johnson also Christianizes the classical in his Latin translations from the Greek Anthology, which were probably begun as a means of easing the tedium of sleepless nights during Johnson's last year of life, but which evolved into a kind of devotional exercise for the dying man.
On other occasions, Johnson uses a Latin precursor as a "screen" in order to address a subject that he was reluctant to take up in propria persona, as in his beautiful devotional poem, "Aeterne Rerum Conditor." Since religious subject matter was generally taboo for him as a poet,(2) Johnson learned to rely on buffering models of poetic precursors when writing Latin religious poetry, much as he had done when composing his Christian response to Juvenal in the concluding section of The Vanity of Human Wishes.
Finally, on occasion, Johnson adapts the style and voice of a classical precursor in order playfully to explore a subject that might otherwise seem beyond his usual poetic range. In the "Verses Addressed to Dr. Lawrence," for example, Johnson writes a delightful Ovidian-Lucretian cosmogonical poem, in which he allows himself to speculate on the origins and order of the natural world. The devoutly Christian Johnson is careful, however, to avoid personally endorsing the Epicurean materialist cosmogony that is so central to his classical sources.
These encounters between past and present in Johnson's Latin poetry are particularly fascinating because they testify to Johnson's pleasure in meeting--and sometimes confronting--his poetic precursors. For Johnson, as a philosophical and moral essentialist, the past remained historically distinct but morally accessible, and he was never shy about arguing questions of truth with other writers, even across the divide of centuries.
"[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" ("Know Thyself") is Johnson's Latin tour de force. The poem, written in 1772, brilliantly combines complaint--and a steady soul-searching that eventually undercuts the force of that complaint--with an irony that ultimately mocks it. Chiefly through the use of classical echoes and allusions, Johnson vividly describes the anxiety and frustration he felt upon finishing the revision of the Dictionary for the fourth edition, while bringing those emotions into perspective by measuring them against objective standards. The meter Johnson chooses for his poem--heroic hexameter--helps account for this double perspective, since it was the standard Latin meter for both heroic and satiric or mock-heroic poetry (Baldwin 81). This clever dynamic helps to explain why Johnson enjoyed showing to friends a poem that modern commentators frequently have found painfully confessional: "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" couples its lyricism with a self-possessed, self-deprecating sense of humor.(3)
The poem was inspired by a neo-Latin epigram written by the great Renaissance humanist Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) upon completing his Arabic lexicon:
Si quem dura manet sententia iudicis olim, Damnatum aerumnis suppliciisque caput: Hunc neque fabrili lassent ergastula massa, Nec rigidas vexent fossa metalla manus. Lexica contexat, nam caetera quid motor? omnes Poenarum facies hic labor unus habet.(4) Should a judge's harsh sentence await anyone in the future, His person condemned to torture and hard labor: Let neither the slave-workshop weary him with its workman's anvil Nor mined metals lacerate his calloused hands. Rather, let him compile dictionaries, for why should I dwell On these others? This single undertaking is equal To all other forms of punishment combined.
In "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," Johnson borrows and elaborates on Scaliger's central conceit, which equates lexicography with a sentence at hard labor in a slaveprison (ergastulum). Indeed, Johnson habitually thought of human existence as a criminal sentence to which one is "condemned"--("damnatis"; line 5)--and returned to the conceit a decade later in his elegy "On the Death of Dr. Robert Lever." While Johnson insists that the brilliant and polymathic Scaliger was justified in feeling imprisoned by lexicography, he maintains that his own moral and intellectual limitations deny him Scaliger's license to complain.
Johnson avers that Scaliger's labor on the Arabic lexicon was indeed confining since that eminent, learned, and discerning ("sublimis, doctus, et acer"; line 6) man had mastered not only the "rough road of words" ("vocumque salebris"; line 19), but also the disciplines of history, poetry, science, and philosophy: "Qui veterum modo facta ducum, modo carmina vatum, / Gesserat et quicquid Virtus, Sapientia quicquid / Dixerat, imperiique vices, coelique meatus, / Ingentemque animo seclorum volverat orbem" ("He revolved in his mind now the deeds of ancient generals, now the verses of poets, and whatever Virtue did and Wisdom spoke: the rise and fall of empires, the motions of the heavens, and the immense cycle of the ages"; lines 8-11). By contrast, Johnson has no reason either to castigate lexicography or to celebrate the completion of his own task. Although he, too, finds himself freed from a painstaking chore--"pensum" in line 24 refers to the portion of wool weighed out to a spinner, usually a slave, for a day's work--his freedom brings no sense of relief. Instead, Johnson's liberation from work on the Dictionary serves to remind him that he remains "condemned" ("damnare"; line 52) to the inward prison of a restless temperament, an idle mind, a slothful disposition, and a troubled conscience.
"[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" culminates in the harrowing, introspective journey on which Johnson embarks in paragraphs five and six (lines 24-51) of the poem. Here, as Susie I. Tucker and Henry Gifford noted many years ago, the poem becomes richly allusive, resonating with echoes of, among other poems, the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, Juvenal's Third and Tenth Satires, and Statius's Sylvae (215-21). But critics continue to be puzzled by the function, if any, of these allusions; one recent commentator, for example, criticizes them as "varied" and "random" echoes that alternate haphazardly between meaningful allusions and mere appropriations of vocabulary.(5) It is true that, like most neo-Latinists, Johnson enjoyed the practice of adorning his Latin poems with "tags"--words and phrases taken from classical poems that are sometimes ornamental in function, sometimes more meaningfully allusive. One can make the case, however, that Johnson organized a significant number of his allusions, which gradually shift in tone from heroic to ironic, around analogies to events in the Aeneid: just as Aeneas struggles to sustain the Trojans' morale against the onslaughts of besieging Greeks, the Juno's enmity, and the trials of a long journey, so Johnson struggles to maintain his own equanimity in the face of gnawing cares, growing anxiety, and a sense of his own squandered talents.
Johnson relies most heavily on his readers' knowledge of the events of Books 1, 2, and 6 of the Aeneid. In Book 1, after his ships are overtaken by a dreadful storm that Aeolus raises at Juno's request, Aeneas sails to Carthage, where his mother, Venus, disguised as a huntress, suitably prepares him to meet Queen Dido. In Book 2, Aeneas describes for his Carthaginian hosts the sack of Troy and his narrow escape from the burning city. Finally, in Book 6, Aeneas descends to the underworld, where he observes many of the denizens of Hades and converses with the shade of his father, Anchises, who grants his son a prophetic vision of his line of illustrious progeny.
The allusions to Book 2 of the Aeneid help to explain the anxious tone and martial metaphors of paragraph five of "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]." When Johnson describes himself in lines 27-28 as harried ("vexat") by a relentless troop ("importuna cohors") of inescapable cares, he has begun to compare himself with Aeneas. In line 32, the comparison becomes explicit. When Johnson declares, "Omnia percurro trepidus, circum omnia lustro / Si qua usquam pateat melioris semita vitae" ("In trepidation I race through all things and survey everything around me, searching everywhere for a better way of life"), he is echoing lines 564-66 of Book 2 of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas, who has just witnessed the murder of Priam, thinks in horror of the possible fate of his own family and then looks about in vain for help from his weary troops, who have either dropped to the ground in despair or fallen into the flames (Wiesenthal 295). Secondary allusions contribute to Johnson's comparison of himself to a combatant in the Trojan War. When Johnson, for example, refers to his sluggish existence as "tardae taedia vitae" ("the tedium of a dull life"; line 26), he is drawing on Ulysses's description of the ten years of the Trojan War in Book Thirteen of Ovid's Metamorphoses as "longi taedia belli" (line 213) ("the tedium of a long war").
With the allusions to Book 6 of the Aeneid in paragraph six, the tone changes from heroic to mock-heroic as Johnson compares the survey of his life's accomplishments to Aeneas's descent into, and survey of, the underworld. Here, the echoes grow mocking: in contrast to Aeneas, who marches hellward with "fearless steps" ("haud timidis ... passibus"; Aeneid 6.263), Johnson shudders ("horret"; line 50) at the mere thought of file ghosts that inhabit his personal, internal Underworld: the "empty visions, fleeting shadows, and thin shapes" (lines 50-51) that flit through his mind. These visions, which symbolize the paucity of Johnson's accomplishments, contrast with Anchises's prophecy of the many achievements of Aeneas's posterity. While Aeneas is granted a vision of the greatness of his descendants, Johnson enjoys no comparable survey of the "march of [his] achievements" (line 46). Nor can Johnson boast any equivalent to the "laetos ... honores" ("pleasing adornments"; line 47) with which Venus graces her son just before he first meets Dido (Aeneid 1.591).(6)
Echoes of Juvenal's Tenth and Third Satires and Statius's Sylvae complete the irony. The quotations from Juvenal are especially telling because Johnson had previously translated the echoed passages in The Vanity of Human Wishes and London. When an anxious Johnson looks to see "Si qua usquam pateat melioris semita vitae" ("If a better way of life should open up anywhere"; line 33), he seems to be castigating himself--in spite of his well-known reservations about Stoicism--for failing to utilize Juvenal's memorable advice on achieving peace of mind from the conclusion to Satire Ten: "[M]onstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certe / tranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae" ("I show what thou canst give to thyself: the only sure way to a tranquil life lies through Virtue"; lines 363-64).(7) While Juvenal confidently maintains that the path to a calm and virtuous life is open and obvious, Johnson, the famous imitator of this very poem, is forced to confess that he has not been able to find it.(8) Likewise, when Johnson complains, "Quicquid agam, quocunque ferar, conatibus obstat / Res angusta domi, et macrae penuria mentis" ("Whatever I do, wherever I go, my scanty means and the poverty of a barren mind hinder my efforts"; lines 40-41), he echoes perhaps the most famous passage in Juvenal's Third Satire, translated in London as, "Slow rises Worth, by Poverty deprest" (line 177).(9) In telling contrast to Juvenal's speaker, who is stymied by an accidental lack of riches, Johnson admits to a more fundamental poverty of native intellectual talents. He turns his irony in upon himself further in an echo of Statius's Sylvae 2.2. When Johnson refers to his mind as "Summus ... celsa dominator [in] arce" ("the mighty ruler [in] its lofty citadel"), the elaborate periphrasis mockingly dramatizes the blustery "empty force" of his mind's pretensions. In the Sylvae, by contrast, Statius uses virtually the same language to praise his patron Pollius Felix for maintaining his Epicurean detachment in the face of all-pervasive human folly (lines 131-32).(10)
Johnson's self-mockery serves important rhetorical, moral, and psychological functions. First, it calls into question the epic proportions of the troubles depicted in paragraph five. Johnson may feel the aptness of the analogy, but do the difficulties of his lexicographical drudgery really compare with the trials of a Virgilian hero? In turn, such mockery forces Johnson to look more dispassionately at his failings, and, as the title of the poem indicates, to
know himself better. The shift from subjective description to objective analysis ultimately lessens the impact of the self-recrimination that haunts much of the poem. After placing his trepidation in perspective, Johnson concludes "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" by laughing at himself. Indeed, Johnson seems to have enjoyed depicting himself mock-heroically. On at least one other occasion, when writing to Mrs. Thrale, Johnson playfully compares himself to Aeneas about to recount the sufferings of the Trojans to Dido (Letters 335). Furthermore, Isobel Grundy emphasizes that Johnson "enjoyed the implications of comparing himself in jest with Aeneas or Odysseus or Alexander" (179). By so doing, Johnson frees himself to move from the gloomy pose of paragraph six to the laughter of the surprise ending of the poem: "Quid faciam? tenebrisne pigram damnare senectam / Restat? an accingar studiis gravioribus audax? / Aut, hoc nimium est, tandem nova lexica poscam?" ("What should I do? Is my slothful old age doomed to gloomy obscurity? Or should I boldly gird myself for more serious studies? Or if this prove too much for me, should I undertake new dictionaries?"). Perhaps Joseph Scaliger found lexicography confining, but Johnson, as Robert DeMaria, Jr., has shown, seems to have grown fond of this "harmless drudgery" because he concluded that it allowed him usefully to fill up the vacuities of his time.(11) Indeed, two years after completing "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," Johnson told his Bolt Court neighbor, the Rev. Percival Stockdale, that he hoped to secure from the booksellers the job of revising Elisha Chambers's Dictionary of the Arts' and Sciences, explaining, "I like that muddling work" (Letters 191n; Stockdale 182).
If Johnson builds a new moral and rhetorical context around the heroic allusions in "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]" to emphasize his inability to measure up to epic standards, then in his Latin odes he creates a new religious context around the Horatian form of the ode in an attempt to Christianize the classical. Thus, as Alan Wiesenthal has observed about the Skye Ode beginning "Ponti Profundis," "while Johnson [the] poet can embrace the [formal elements of the] Horatian ode, Johnson the moralist must repudiate [its content]" (301). In "Ponti Profundis," after a Horatian introduction, the speaker replaces the polytheism and Stoicism of Horace's Ode 2.16 with a celebration of the dependence of humanity on a single, Christian God.(12) In the process, Johnson transforms the Horatian ode into a Christian hymn.
The poem fits into the same category of survey or travel poems as The Vanity of Human Wishes. Under the pressure of geographic or temporal survey, Johnson is habitually reminded of the common fallacy that happiness is a function of place.(13) "Ponti Profundis" opens with a vividly drawn Horatian landscape of striking contrasts:
Ponti profundis clausa recessibus, Strepens procellis, rupibus obsita, Quam grata defesso virentem Skia sinum nebulosa pandis. (lines 1-4) Surrounded by the deep hollows of the ocean, howling with storms, bestrewn with rocks, how kindly, misty Skye, do you receive the weary traveler into your green bosom.
Skye is personified as a welcoming nurse ready to offer refuge to the weary traveler, battered like Johnson by autumnal storms. Initially, the speaker seems to take pleasure in describing the wild, Hebridean landscape, for he appears to accept the familiar Horatian assumption that retreat from the complexities of civilization may bring relief from care. Surely in this remote place, he tells himself, using a familiar Johnsonian metaphor, there are no emotional ambushes ("Insidias"; line 8) awaiting the traveler.
But the sixty-four-year-old Johnson, in contrast to the twenty-eight-year-old author of London, gives no credence to the efficacy of rustic escapism. In the central third stanza, in which one might expect the "Men[s] aegr[a]" ("distressed mind"; line 10) of the speaker to sympathize with the rough and stormy landscape, the speaker instead discovers an incongruity, a discrepancy between the worlds of nature and humanity:
At non cavata rupe latescere, Menti nec aegrae montibus aviis Prodest vagari, nec frementes E scopulo numerare fluctus. (lines 9-12) But it behooves not a distressed mind to hide in a rocky hollow, nor to wander over remote mountains, nor from a cliff to count the roaring waves.
This discrepancy is reinforced both by what Wiesenthal terms the "periodic" nature of the stanza--Johnson describes not one but three successive landscapes that offer no consolation--and by the emphatic rhetorical placement of the negative--"At non"--at the very beginning of the opening line (300).
In a conventional Horatian ode, the next stanza would present the Stoic alternative. Take, for example, Horace's Ode 2.16, which Johnson recited while sailing in an open boat from Skye to Raasay during the same week that, according to Boswell, "Ponti Profundis" probably was written (5: 163). The poem begins by observing the universality of the human desire for "tranquility" ("otium"): the storm-tossed mariner, the impetuous warrior, even the most wealthy and powerful of men, is compelled to pray for such peace of mind since that elusive condition is independent of one's ability to acquire material possessions. The only way to achieve lasting contentment, according to Horace, is to temper one's desires (lines 13-14), to live for the present (line 25), and to accept the will of the Fates, the "Parcae," on whose name the speaker puns, since in Latin "parca" means both "Fate" and "frugal" (line 39).
But, for Johnson, the tranquil mind ("aequus animus") can depend on neither nature, classical gods, nor one's own personal "virtus":
Humana virtus non sibi sufficit, Datur nec aequum cuique animum sibi Parare posse, ut Stoicorum Secta crep[a]t nimis alta fallax. (lines 13-16) Human virtue is not self-sufficient, nor may man by himself achieve a tranquil spirit, despite the deceptive prattle of the over-proud Stoics.
In particular, one cannot rely on one's personal virtue: by repeating the reflexive pronoun "sibi" ("to" or "by himself") in lines 13 and 14, Johnson emphatically denies the possibility of humanity's ethical self-sufficiency. Rather, he insists that the mind owes its tranquility to God, the arbiter of both external nature and the internal world of men's passions. It is precisely on this point, at the end of The Vanity of Human Wishes, where Johnson sharply parts company with Juvenal. Where Juvenal asserts,
Monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certe tranquillae per virtutem patet unica vitae. (Satire 10, lines 363-64) I show what thou canst give to thyself: the only sure path to a tranquil life lies through Virtue.
Johnson argues that man must rely on God if he is to achieve happiness. Thus, while Juvenal urges his readers to undeify Fortune--since it is they themselves who make her a goddess--and to depend on their own internal resources, Johnson urges them to
Implore [God's] aid, in his decisions rest, Secure whate'er he gives, he gives the best.(14) (Vanity, lines 355-56)
In the final stanza of "Ponti Profundis," Johnson elegantly transforms what began as a Horatian ode into a Christian hymn:
Exaestuantis pectoris impetum, Rex summe, solus tu regis arbiter, Mentisque, te tollente, surgunt, Te recidunt moderante fluctus. (lines 17-20) Almighty King, Thou rulest as sole Master the desires of the tempestuous heart. When Thou excit'st them, the waves of the mind surge, and when Thou calm'st them, they sink back.
The passage echoes Juno's flattering invocation of Aeolus at the beginning of Book 1 of the Aeneid, in which she asks the god of winds to raise a storm to sink Aeneas's fleet (Wiesenthal 301). But Aeolus, in contrast to Johnson's Christian God, is only one of many gods, and his powers are severely limited: within fifty lines of his granting Juno's prayer, his actions are overruled by Neptune. The passage also echoes the fourth stanza (lines 13-16) of Horace's Ode 1.3, a prayer for the poet Virgil as he sets out on a voyage to Greece. Horace implores the indulgence of Notus, the South Wind, "quo non arbiter Hadriae / maior, tollere seu ponere volt freta" ("whether he elect to raise or calm the waves, since there is no mightier master of the Adriatic"). Johnson replaces the pantheon of Virgil and Horace's classical gods with a single, almighty Christian deity--"summe ... solus arbiter"--who rules both the stormy seas of nature and the psychological tempests within the human breast. The image of the "tempestuous heart" ("exaestuantis pectoris") is especially effective because the adjective "exaestuans"--cognate with "estuary" and "estivate"--while usually associated with turbulent water, was sometimes used metaphorically in classical Latin to describe a distressed mind or troubled heart (Tucker and Gifford 217). By combining Horatian meter with a simple but passionate invocation of the Christian God, Johnson moves from the world of classical Latin to the prayers and hymns of the early Church Fathers. Indeed, one might say about this poem what F. J. E. Raby says about the hymns of Saint Ambrose: "If, as regards form, [it follows classical] models, [it nevertheless remains] a true effort of original creation, in which the Christian spirit controls the artistic form, and not [a mere effort of imitation] in which the form controls the content of the verse" (Christian-Latin Poetry 36). Johnson thus creates a subtle moral and theological rejoinder to his Horatian poetic model.
Johnson also Christianizes the classical in the process of translating poems from the Greek Anthology, a collection of about four thousand epigrams written between the seventh century B. C. E. and the tenth century C. E. Approximately one-third of these ninety-five translations are epitaphs; many of the others are elegiac, taking as their subject matter the transitoriness of life and the vanity of worldly success. In these poems, Johnson repeatedly explores the uncertainty and impermanence of human happiness: "Nil non mortale est mortalibus; omne quod est hi / Praetereunt, aut hos praeterit omne bonum" ("Nothing is immortal which belongs to mortals; we pass, or are passed by, every good thing"). Even at their grimmest, however, these translations are qualified by the context of Johnson's religious faith. When he writes, "Quandoquidem passim nulla ratione feruntur / Cuncta, cinis cuncta et ludicra, cuncta nihil" ("All is laughter and ashes: since everything is brought hither randomly for no reason, everything is vain"), Johnson avoids the bleakness of classical materialism or modern nihilism by adopting the fideist position of Ecclesiastes.(15) The very fact that "all [mundane life] is vanity" reinforces Johnson's faith in the existence of a hidden God, as the fervency and devotion of Johnson's last Latin prayers, contemporary with these translations, indicate. Indeed, the translations from the Greek Anthology and the Latin prayers complement one another in the same manner as do the "Survey" and "Prayer" sections of The Vanity of Human Wishes. Hence, although Johnson may have begun these translations, as Boswell suggests, simply as a means of alleviating the tedium of a sick man's sleepless nights during his last year of life, they developed into something much more significant: a book of spiritual exercises or meditations composed for the benefit of their dying author.
Johnson models many of his verse prayers on the verse prayers and hymns of the early Church Fathers. In particular, Johnson seems to have admired the religious verse of Saint Ambrose, whose hymns he echoes in several verse prayers. As F. J. E. Raby notes, "Ambrose rejected metrical complication, chose the easy iambic dimeter, and wrote with all engaging simplicity, dignity, and fervour" (Secular Latin Poetry 50).(16) Johnson most clearly captures this spirit in "Prayer (II)," which borrows its first line and its meter from an Ambrosian liturgical hymn:
Aeterne rerum conditor, Salutis aeternae dator; Felicitatis sedibus Qui nec scelestos exigis, Quoscumque scelerum poenitet; Da, Christe, poenitentiam, Veniamque, Christe, da mihi; Aegrum trahenti spiritum Succurre praesens corpori, Multo gravatam crimine Mentem benignus alleva. Eternal author of all things, giver of eternal salvation, who drivest not away from the seats of bliss the sinful who are sorry for their sins; grant, Christ, penitence and mercy; 0 Christ, grant them to me. Succor my body dragging this afflicted spirit, and raise my mind, O kindly Presence, weighed down by many sins.
Within the narrow confines of Ambrose's spare iambic dimeter, Johnson employs all of the basic rhetorical devices he commonly uses in his Latin verse prayers and then some: repetition, balance, antithesis, alliteration, rhetorical suspension; but when one reads the poem, one is struck not by the technical artistry, but by the direct and striking emotional power.
How was Johnson, who was almost always reluctant to write religious verse, able in this case to overcome that taboo? The answer lies in his use of Saint Ambrose's hymn as both a model and a screen. I have discussed elsewhere Johnson's taboo against writing religious poetry.(17) As he explains in the Life of Waller, Johnson believed that the rhetorical and mimetic qualities of poetry were hopelessly inadequate when attempting to address a God who infinitely transcends the human capacity to persuade or describe (Lives 1: 292-93). But by relying on Ambrose as a model, Johnson, who tended to consider himself spiritually unworthy of addressing sacred subjects in verse, is able to capture some of the Saint's devotional power, while at the same time using Ambrose as a protective screen so that he is never compelled to step forth unassisted, as it were, and speak solely as and for himself. Johnson was, of course, familiar with this rhetorical maneuver from his work on the closing lines of The Vanity of Human Wishes, in which he freed himself to offer religious advice to his readers by speaking not in his own person but as he imagined Juvenal might, from an eighteenth-century Anglican perspective.
One of Johnson's most unusual Latin poems is the Lucretian-Ovidian cosmogonical poem, "Verses Addressed to Dr. Lawrence," written while Johnson was being treated for a serious eye ailment by his physician-friend Thomas Lawrence in the spring of 1773. In this poem, as in "Aeterne Rerum Conditor," Johnson uses the diction and meter of a Latin precursor as a kind of screen to explore a subject that he probably would not have approached otherwise from anything except an orthodox Christian perspective: the creation of the universe. The poem uses the same meter--heroic hexameter--and the same philosophical vocabulary as Ovid's Metamorphoses and Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, both of which address the subject of the origin of the universe from an Epicurean-materialist perspective. In the poem, the ailing Johnson sets out to entertain his doctor-naturalist friend by observing that, "It is normal for the human mind to nourish itself on the forms of Nature and it is a common passion in all to hunt out the truth by investigation, though the passions of everyone differ" ("Humanae mentis, rerum se pascere formis, / Est proprium, et quavis captare indagine verum / Omnibus unus amor, non est modus unus amoris"; lines 6-8). Johnson then divides all of humanity into two groups based on their degree of curiosity about the natural world. The first group, he explains, consists of cautious empiricists and traditionalists: "those timid people who are turned about in a narrow track; whom the senses alone lead, and custom only instructs; who are wise enough in their own eyes, content with the sensations of what they touch, see, or hear" ("Sunt qui curriculo timidi versantur in arcto, / Quos soli ducunt sensus, solus docet usus; / Qui sibi sat sapiunt, contenti noscere quantum / Vel digiti tractant, oculus vel sentit et auris"; lines 9-12). This group obviously constitutes the vast majority of human beings, but the scantness of Johnson's discussion of them--only ten lines (lines 9-18)--suggests that his primary interest lies with the second group: the daring and speculative cosmogonists who are not bound by the rules of empirical observation. Indeed, Johnson devotes the remaining half of the poem, lines 19-36, to this second group. Here, Johnson, without any harsh or overt criticism of the philosophical position, outlines the theories of these "sons of sacred Reason" ("sanctae rationis alumni"; line 19), who "with great effort ... invade nature, forming anew the elements of the world, mixing smooth with rough, square with round" ("magno conamine summam / Naturae invadens, mundique elementa refingens / Laevia serratis miscens, quadrata rotundis"; lines 24-26). Indeed, Johnson goes on to observe with more amusement than disapproval that "these are they whom no wonder surprises, nothing strange moves; while they place all things under laws they have made, and dare to fix a limit to causation" ("hi sunt quos nil mirabile turbat, / Nil movet insolitum, sub legibus omnia fictis / Dum statuunt, causisque audent prefigere metam"; lines 34-36).
Johnson's attitude in this poem toward a philosophical position that is entirely at odds with his Christian beliefs is as noteworthy as it is surprising. Typically, Johnson would have no time for the philosophical materialism or cosmogonical speculation of Epicurus, Lucretius, and their followers. One need only think of Johnson's exasperated and impatient response in the Life of Pope to Pope's professions of omniscience in An Essay on Man (Lives 3: 242-45). But, in contrast to Jonathan Swift, who includes Epicurus the cosmogonist and his disciple Lucretius among the world's great madmen in Section IX, "A Digression Concerning the Original, the Use and Improvement of Madness in a Commonwealth," of A Tale of a Tub, Johnson displays in this poem surprising tolerance of such philosophical speculation.
Why is Johnson able to discuss the philosophical materialism of the Epicureans here with such dispassion and even--dare one say--good humor? Probably because he uses the same "model and screen" approach to his subject that he employed in writing "Aeterne Rerum Conditor," except that, in this case, Johnson uses the meter and rhetoric of Ovid and Lucretius prophylactically as a buffer to protect himself from the moral contaminants of classical Epicureanism. In other words, Johnson carefully positions himself rhetorically so that he does not speak this poem in propria persona but ventriloquially, as it were, "through" the persons of Ovid and Lucretius. Thus, by self-consciously assuming a Lucretian-Ovidian mask, Johnson is able freely and playfully to explore the Epicurean-materialist perspective without ever implicating himself personally in it. Interestingly, by 1800, with the advent of the Romantic emphasis on sincerity, such rhetorical freedom would become much more difficult for writers to achieve.
Johnson's neo-Latin practice illustrates that, in the eighteenth century, verse imitation and its techniques and conventions were by no means restricted to the vernacular. Indeed, for a diminishing but still significant audience, a poet could write in Latin while drawing on three different traditions: the classical, the patristic, and the Renaissance-humanistic. If vernacular imitations were part of an attempt by eighteenth-century poets to transcend time and space by making ancient poets speak in modern tongues, Johnson's Latin imitations exemplify the efforts of Renaissance humanists to emphasize the continuity of a cultural tradition that stretched back more than two thousand years through the medium of a language that was intended by scholars and clerics to transcend the limits of modern national and cultural boundaries. Curiously, although Johnson gave up writing verse imitations in English after The Vanity of Human Wishes in 1749, he continued to write Latin poems based on the principles of imitation until his death in 1784. In Latin, Johnson could both debate with his poetic precursors and use the rhetorical principles involved in writing verse imitations to speak through a persona on subjects that he might not otherwise have explored.
The College of New Jersey
(1) For more on Johnson's objections to the formal verse imitation as a genre, see chapter two, "London, `Country Ideology,' and the Limits of Augustan Imitation," in my Johnson the Poet.
(2) I discuss some of the reasons for Johnson's taboo against religious verse in Johnson the Poet 147-48. Moreover, Johnson frequently expressed feelings of spiritual unworthiness, which reinforced his resolution not to write religious verse. See especially Bate 458-60, 594-95, and Parker 231-49.
(3) See James Beattie's diary quoted in Tucker and Gifford 219.
(4) Scaliger is quoted in The Poems of Samuel Johnson 160. All English translations from Latin in this article are my own.
(5) See, for example, Wiesenthal 295-96.
(6) "Pleasing adornments" is closer to the meaning of Virgil's phrase in the Aeneid. I have translated "laetos honores" in Johnson's poem as "satisfying rewards."
(7) For Johnson's reservations about Stoicism, see The Rambler 3: 174-79, and my discussion of Johnson's debate with Stoicism in chapter 4, "Faith and the Limits of Reason in The Vanity of Human Wishes," of Johnson the Poet, especially 126-34.
(8) Because Johnson is not involved in a doctrinal debate here, he sees no reason to take issue with Juvenal's Stoic sentiment. In The Vanity of Human Wishes and "Ponti Profundis," however, in which doctrinal truths are being contested, he attacks what he conceives to be the fallacies of Stoicism.
(9) The passage from Juvenal reads, "Haut facile emergunt quorum virtutibus opstat / res angusta domi" (lines 164-65).
(10) See Statius, Sylvae, in Statius: Sylvae, Thebaid 1-4, trans. J. H. Mozley, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 1 (London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967) 94-106. Johnson's (mock)-epic simile about Phidias's chisel is indebted to the same poem by Statius. See Sylvae 2.2, line 66. For Johnson's criticism of Stoic and Epicurean pretensions to detachment and self-sufficiency, see chapter 4, "Faith and the Limits of Reason in The Vanity of Human Wishes," in Johnson the Poet 126-34.
(11) For an astute discussion of Johnson's attraction--moral, spiritual, and financial--to the harmless drudgery of lexicography, see DeMaria 128.
(12) For the text of Ode 2.16, see Horace, Odes and Epodes, trans. C. E. Bennett, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) 148-51.
(13) Rambler no. 6, for example, tells the story of Abraham Cowley, the Cavalier poet, who, disappointed at not receiving a sinecure at the Restoration of Charles II, wrote that he hoped to find happiness by quitting England for the West Indies. Although Cowley never emigrated, Johnson believes the attempt would have proved futile since the poet:
never suspected that the cause of his unhappiness was within, that his own passions were not sufficiently regulated, and that he was harassed by his own impatience, which would never be without something to awaken it.... He would, upon the tryal, have been soon convinced, that the fountain of content must spring up in the mind.
At first glance, Johnson's criticism of Cowley resembles the Stoical advice of the conclusion to Juvenal's Tenth Satire or Horace's Epistle 1.11:
Caelum, non animum, mutant, qui trans mare currunt. strenua nos exercet inertia: navibus atque quadrigis petimus bene vivere; quod petis hic est, est Ulubris, animus site non deficit aequus. (lines 27-30) They change their climate, not their mind, who rush across the sea. This busy idleness is our undoing. We seek to make life happy with boats and coaches. What you seek is even at Ulubrae, provided you have a tranquil mind.
In fact, however, it is very different because Johnson's criticism is grounded on the Christian assumption, implied in the concluding prayer of The Vanity of Human Wishes, that human beings can achieve nothing without the assistance of God.
(14) For a concurring opinion on the relation of "Ponti Profundis" and The Vanity of Human Wishes to Juvenal's Tenth Satire, see William Kupersmith, "Declamatory Grandeur: Johnson and Juvenal," Arion 9 (1970): 71-72.
(15) See Parker, "Johnson and Fideism," in The Triumph of Augustan Poetics. Parker persuasively argues that Johnson's religious beliefs are fideist, in the tradition of the wisdom books of the Bible, not colored by Lockean empiricism or Humean skepticism. In addition, see chapter 4, "Faith and the Limits of Reason in The Vanity of Human Wishes," in Johnson the Poet 104-34. I am deeply grateful to Blanford Parker for the many conversations we have had on Johnson's religion.
(16) For Johnson's Ambrosian model, see The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse, ed. F. J. E. Raby (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959) 9-10.
(17) See, in particular, Venturo, Johnson the Poet 147-48.
Baldwin, Barry, ed. The Latin and Greek Poetry of Samuel Johnson: Text, Translation and Commentary By Samuel Johnson. London: Duckworth, 1995.
Bate, W. J. Samuel Johnson. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson together with Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales. Ed. G. B. Hill, revised and enlarged by L. F. Powell. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon, vols. 1-4, 1934; vols. 5-6, 1964.
DeMaria, Jr., Robert. The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993.
Grundy, Isobel. Samuel Johnson and the Scale of Greatness. Athens, Ga.: U of Georgia P, 1986.
Horace. Odes and Epodes. Trans. C. E. Bennett, Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
--. Satires, Epistles, Ars Poetica. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.
Johnson, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Ed. George Birkbeck Hill. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1892.2 vols.
--. Lives of the Poets. Ed. G. B. Hill. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1905. New York: Octagon Books, 1967.
--. The Poems of Samuel Johnson. Ed. David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam. Oxford: Clarendon, 1951.
--. The Rambler. Ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht Strauss. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1969. Vols. 3-5 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Allen T. Hazen, later John Middendorf, gen. ed. 13 vols. to date. 1958.
Juvenal. The Satires. Ed. John Ferguson. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.
Kupersmith, William. "Declamatory Grandeur: Johnson and Juvenal." Arion 9 (1970): 71-72.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Frank Justus Miller. Vol. 2. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976. 2 vols.
Parker, Blanford C. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture From Butler to Johnson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Raby, F. J. E. A History of Christian-Latin Poetry From the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953. 2 vols.
--. A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957. 2 vols.
--. ed. The Oxford Book of Medieval Latin Verse. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959. Statius. Sylvae, Thebaid 1-4. Trans. J. H. Mozley. Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967. 2 vols.
Stockdale, Percival. The Memoirs of the Life, and Writings of Percival Stockdale; Containing Many Interesting Anecdotes of the Illustrious Men with Whom He Was Connected. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809. 2 vols.
Tucker, Susie I., and Henry Gifford. "Johnson's Latin Poetry." Neophilologus 41 (1957): 215-21.
Venturo, David. Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999.
Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid, The Minor Poems. Trans. H. R. Fairclough. Vols. 1-2. Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.
Wiesenthal, Alan J. "On the Literary Value of Samuel Johnson's Latin Verse." Humanistica Louvaniensia: Journal of Neo-Latin Studies 28 (1979): 294-301.
DAVID VENTURO, Assistant Professor of English Literature at The College of New Jersey in Mercer County, New Jersey, is author of Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson (University of Delaware Press, 1999) and editor of the forthcoming School of the Eucharist ... With a Preface Concerning the Testimony of Miracles (AMS Press). He is currently writing a book on the later careers of Milton, Dryden, and Swift.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Formal Verse Imitation and the Rhetorical Principles of Imitation in the Neo-Latin Poetry of Samuel Johnson. Contributors: Venturo, David F. - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Literary Imagination. Volume: 33. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2000. Page number: 71. © 2007 Georgia State University, Department of English. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.