Small classic in Latin

Recently an odd little book, originally published in the US, came my way.  Entitled Ave Ogden! Nash in Latin, it is the work of James C. Gleason and Brian N. Meyer and is a translation of the humorous poems of Ogden Nash into classical Latin. It was issued to the world round April 1, 1974 – so don’t look for it now in your nearest bookshop.

James Gleason was a High School Latin Teacher, one suspects in a Catholic school; Meyer one of his students. Their declared aim was to dress Nash’s verses in the language of Catullus and Juvenal.

It is curious to see a familiar rhyme such as “Candy / Is dandy /  But liquor / Is quicker” all decked out in a toga virilis as “Sacch’rum / Est gratum / Sed liquor / Celerior.” In general the pair managed to find graceful equivalents for Nash’s adroitly turned verses.

This penchant for turning small classics into Latin commenced in modern times with Alexander Lenard’s Winnie Ille Pooh in 1960. Lenard was a German doctor who had found refuge in rural Brazil after WWII. After the success of his book, he published an autobiography, The Valley of the Latin Bear.  In this he explains that his purpose was to translate Milne’s book into what he calls rich “humanistic” Latin. 

This claim raises to my mind an interesting point. Today with Latin gone from the schools, and indeed from many universities – the classics do not pay in the eyes of modern minded administrators who now control the commanding heights of education – Latin has passed from the knowledge or love of most people.

There are, of course, the enthusiasts for its continued use in the Church, but in my experience their love of Latin is confined to a very narrow core; rarely extending to Catullus and Juvenal. They see Latin as a way of preserving religious tradition. But this I think is to misunderstand the role of Latin in Western culture.

The original language of the followers of Christ was Aramaic. In the time of St Paul and the authors of the first Gospels Greek had become the means of carrying the new evangel into other parts of Europe among the gentiles. Greek was also the language of theology – the technical terms of theology remain Greek to this day.

When the Church settled at the centre of the Roman Empire, and became the established religion of the empire, Latin superseded Greek. This was because it provided a universal means of communication. This remained the case down to the Renaissance.

Then Latin was replaced by French, and today by English as the universal lingua franca, or rather lingua Americana. But by then Latin had taken on another role, one which was in fact the source of many trends that began to undermine the Church over later centuries.

The rediscovery of the ancient classics, both Greek and Latin, but especially Latin, which began with search for manuscripts of Cicero by Boccaccio, and the further gleanings by Salutati and Poggio Braccioli, opened up that use of Latin to which Alexander Lennart alluded, the rise of humanism.

From the early humanist revival of Latin and ancient learning, overwhelmingly 'pagan' came the Renaissance and from that the Enlightenment. The study of the texts of ancient authors in the course of the 18th Century, such men as Wolff working on Homer, others working to discover the interpolations into Latin histories, crossed over into the deconstruction of the Christian scriptures.

I was long familiar with Winnie Ille Pooh. But I now find that very earliest translation of such a classic into Latin was a translation of Longfellow’s Hiawatha published in 1862 by Francis W. Newman, the great Newman’s younger brother. He followed this in 1884 with Rebilius Crusoe. He wished to make extensive reading of Latin, that is, a true easy fluency in it, available to many through attractive matter and an easy style.

But he held little hope of sustaining an ancient faith, for Francis Newman had passed from his early Calvinism through Unitarianism to a form of high-minded theism.

Latin, in brief, is the source of the scepticism that continues to undermine the religious beliefs of many.