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MILTON'S LATIN WRITINGS.
MILTON, like most of the learned men of the age, wrote in Latin both in prose and verse.
The former will, we believe, bear a comparison with any Latin prose of the time, unless we should think that of the natives of the countries which speak languages derived from the Latin to be excepted; as a modern Latin poet, critics are disposed to assign him a place in the first rank. It is not unworthy of notice, that while in English prose he delighted in long and involved sentences, his Latin periods are neither very long nor much involved. This probably arose from his close adherence to his models; for the genius of the Latin language, unlike the Greek, is inclined to brevity and condensation.
To own the truth, we are no great admirers of modern Latin. In the middle and subsequent ages, when modern languages were little cultivated and were rarely learned by strangers, a writer had but a slender chance of being known out of his own country if he used his mother-tongue; men of letters also formed then a more distinct class than they do at present, and they wrote for their own society rather than for the public. The Latin had been transmitted as the language of literature ; annals and chronicles were usually written in it, as well as works of science ; it was the common language of men of learning, and he who wrote in it might reckon on being read wherever literature was cultivated. Thus, to take an example from the North, the History of Saxo Grammaticus was well known out of Denmark, where it was written, while the more valuable Heimskringla of Snorro was only known to those who spoke the Icelandic language. Even in the sixteenth century, Mariana, De Thou, Buchanan, and others, wrote their Histories in Latin, in the hope of being more extensively read and known. In like manner, when men of genius and learn. ing were endowed with poetic talent, they exercised it in the language which alone was esteemed by the members of their society. Thus Dante, it is said,—but we have some doubt on the subject,—at first proposed to write his great poem in Latin, and Petrarca actually did write in that language his Africa, the poem from which he expected his highest fame, while on his vernacular poetry he set comparatively little value. We need not say how posterity has reversed his judgement. Bembo, too, seriously urged Ariosto to write his graceful and sportive poem in Latin ; but perhaps he did not know of what species it was intended to be. The Latin poetry however of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consisted on the whole chiefly of short pieces, such as odes and elegies. It was admired in its day, but for many years it has only been known to a few students. No poet whatever has obtained permanent fame by his Latin verses.
There is, and must be, one incurable defect in all composition in a dead language; it belongs to no particular period, writers of various ages having been used as models and authorities. Let us suppose a Horatius Redivivus, and that some modern Latin poetry were shown to him. He would probably observe on some words or
phrases, that no doubt they were to be found in Terence and Plautus, but that they had become quite antiquated in his time; others he knew to be in Catullus and Lucretius, but that he and his contemporaries would not have ventured to use them. Of others he would profess himself to be utterly ignorant, though perhaps he would not take on him to assert that they were bad,--these came from Juvenal, Statius, and others, down to Claudian; finally, he might light on some which he would pronounce to be absolute solecisms and barbarisms, namely, modern ideas and phraseology in a Latin dress.
In fact, modern Latin poetry is an exotic, a mere hothouse plant, which evermore reminds us that it does not spring from the soil. He that writes it is always held down by secret chains, his wings are clipped, and he can never soar into the regions of poetic space. Spite of himself he must be a mere ape of the ancients, for he may be called on to give his authority for every term he employs. Look at Milton's lines on the deaths of the Bishops of Winchester and Ely, and compare them with those on the Marchioness of Winchester, written about the same time, and the difference between compositions in a living and in a dead language will be apparent. How fortunate was it that he did not write his Ode on the Nativity in Latin ; the same ideas and sentiments might no doubt have been there, but how differently expressed ! Beautiful as Milton's Latin poetry must be confessed to be, it probably does not find, even among those familiar with the language, one reader for fifty readers of his English poetry, and few perhaps ever read his Latin poems without a secret wish that he had written them in English.
We are, it must be again confessed, no friends to modern Greek and Latin poetry; and it is to us a matter of sincere regret that in our systems of education so much time should be devoted to it that we think might be far better employed. Possibly Milton himself was of our opinion, for he has not included it in his plan of education. Prose composition in both languages, if not carried too far, * we deem to be of advantage; what we disapprove of is, making all, without exception, whether favoured by nature or not with poetic power, writers of Greek and Latin verses. The usual reason given is, that it makes them understand better, and relish more highly, the classic poetry. Of this we doubt; and if it be the truth, why not apply the same principle to their own language? why not make them writers of blank verse and Spenserian stanzas ? In the French Alexandrines and the Italian Terza and Ottava Rima there are niceties and peculiarities which require to be understood in order to enjoy them fully, and yet we have never heard of any master setting his pupils to compose them. There is further, we think, this evil, that from so much importance being attached to mere versification, a trifling turn of mind, and a habit of attending more to form than to substance, is apt to be engendered.+ We would say then, let the structure of the hexameter and the other forms of classic verse be carefully taught in schools, and let prizes, if it be deemed advisable, be offered in the universities, as is the custom, for poetic compositions in
* Latin prose is now little used among us, except for inscriptions and for notes on the Classics, both of which are better in English.
† When Burke said véctigal, there was a general laugh in the House of Commons at his ignorance of quantity,--they meant accent ; for there was probably not one the who would not have pronounced mos, dòs, and Dīc mihi Damætas as Dick my high Damætas. How many were there among them who understood the Classics as well as Burke? * We must however inform the advocates for the present system that we were not educated on it; so they may apply to us, if they will, the fable of the fox that lost his tail. Still we think we have as keen a relish as any of them, for the poetry of Greece and Rome.
the classic languages, and those who have the requisite natural powers will soon appear, as is the case with prizes for English composition ; but do not, for the sake of a favoured few, torture and waste the time of hundreds to whom nature has refused poetic talent.
It is Latin verse that we have chiefly in view ; for such are the niceties of the use of cases, tenses, and prepositions in Greek, that we regard it as almost impossible for a modern-it was probably equally so for an ancient Roman—to write in that language so as to escape the charge of barbarism from an old Athenian.*
Milton, as we have seen, would have Latin pronounced in the Italian manner. With respect to the vowels, we quite agree with him ; for what can be more absurd than to pronounce amare, for instance, one way in Latin and another in Italian ? As to the consonants, it is of less importance ; for Cicero is as near as Chichero to the name which the Romans pronounced Kikero. There is however one sound which we have introduced, and which Milton's delicate ear abhorred in any language, that we would fain see banished, namely, that of sh, for c and t before i ; as raisho, a dissyllable, for rătio, a trisyllable, with t hard. We surely also might pay some attention to quantity, and not pronounce mös, rūs, dos, like moss, ross, doss, to say nothing of such a monster as mīhi (my high) for the Latin măhă, where h merely serves by way of diæresis, as in the French trahir. We seem also to make it a rule to pronounce the vowel of the antepenultimate long when it is accented.