BMCR 2020.04.12

George Herbert’s Latin verse: Musae Responsoriae, Passio Discerpta, Lucus, and Alia Poemata Latina

, , , George Herbert's Latin verse: Musae Responsoriae, Passio Discerpta, Lucus, and Alia Poemata Latina. . Fairfield, CT: George Herbert Journal, 2017. xxxi, 283 p.. ISBN 9781888112221 $40.00.

Perhaps the 17th c. English poet, George Herbert, needs no introduction, though in these days, when even undergraduate English majors avoid poetry, one wonders. That he was also a Latin poet has been of little, or no, concern to those who value his English poetry. However, granted that any author requires for complete understanding an assessment of his whole literary output and influences, one may deplore this lack of interest. Many of the greatest European authors from Dante to at least Pope wrote substantial amounts of Latin verse or prose, or at least assiduously read ancient or more recent Latin literature. To ignore this means that we cannot entirely appreciate such writers’ cultural setting. (Of course, early modern authors who wrote only or primarily in Latin receive even less attention.) Although such a deplorable trend has not always been the case, it is more common now when classicists do not read post-“Silver Age” writers, due to the constraints of the curriculum or from mere prejudice, and early modernists do not have the equipment to read Latin. (Admittedly, continental scholars have been more inclined to do the necessary work than Anglophones.) And thus this reviewer, a classicist, always rejoices to find a publication dealing with Neo-Latin verse (or prose) and especially one written by English speakers.

The volume at hand completes the authors’ translation of all the Latin poems (and Greek, in vol. 1) of George Herbert. (The earlier volume, issued by the same publisher, Memoriae Matris Sacrum, 2012, was reviewed at BMCR 2013.07.39by V. Moul.) More than simply a translation, the book includes a 25 page introduction, a facing Latin text, three appendices: I) “Triumphus Mortis”[= Lucus 32] and “Inventa Bellica” [a poem by Herbert, not found elsewhere in the book]; II) Andrew Melville’s Anti-Tami-Cami-Categoria, [Latin text and translation]; and, III) Herbert’s Meters, 40 pages of notes and a bibliography.

Gathered here are four collections of poems, none of which was published by Herbert. 1) Musae Responsoriae (written most Plikely circa 1620-22), a set of poems, in eleven different metres, written in answer to the A-T-C-Cat. (1603, published in 1620), composed by Andrew Melville, a Scottish Presbyterian. This is a poem in Sapphic stanzas “attacking the liturgies, devotional practices, theology and polity of the Church of England and arguing in favor of a more radical reformation” (pp. vii-viii). 2) Passio Discerpta (editio princeps 1874, composed probably in 1622) a sequence of poems written in a variety of metres, mostly elegiac couplets, and treating aspects of the passion narrative. 3) Lucus (i.e., Silvaeor Forest, composed 1623(?); first print publication date not given); as the title indicates, this is a miscellany of religious and moral poems, mostly in elegiacs, but also in hendecasyllables, iambic trimeters, and one in dactylic hexameters. 4) Alia Poemata Latina, an omnium gatherum of Herbert’s occasional verse, mostly in elegiacs, only three of which were published (two in 1613 and one in 1626) during the poet’s lifetime. These are mostly dedicated to members of the royal family or to Herbert’s good friend, Francis Bacon; one is for another friend, John Donne.

Why “Inventa Bellica” appears in Appendix I and not among the Alia Poemata Latina is not explained, perhaps the reason being that there is no modern edition of it. Which leads to my next point: this is not, nor intended to be, a fully critical edition of the Latin text. It reprints, with a small number of minor changes, the Latin text of Hutchinson (Clarendon Press, 1941; Oxford English Texts), although the authors assert they have taken into account the extant manuscripts and relevant early printed editions (p. xxx). Editorial choices regarding the Latin text are explained in the notes; there is no apparatus criticus, which, while one would have been helpful to a reader of the Latin, may be excused, given the purpose of the book. Appendix III, which specifies the metre of each Latin poem, does not give the metrical schemata, nor does the bibliography include any of the relevant handbooks to which the interested reader might turn for such information. The table of contents lists the poems only under their English titles (though the four collections are identified only by their Latin titles) and, unfortunately, there is no index of any kind. The translations are set as verse, but are really prose. They are reasonably accurate (minor quibbles will not be noted here) and quite literal.

I append two poems (the texts given exactly as they appear in the book, with the omission of diacriticals) so that the reader may get an idea of both Herbert’s Latin and how it has been rendered in English. First, in a satirical mode, MRIII(3), to Melville:

In Monstrum vocabuli Anti-Tami-Cami-Categoria./On the Grotesqueness of the word Anti-Ox-Bridge Accusation.

O Quam bellus homo es! Lepido quam nomine fingis

  Istas Anti-Tami-Cami-Categorias!

Sic Catharis noua sola placent; res, verba nouantur:

  Quae sapiunt aeuum, seu cariosa iacent.

Quin liceat nobis alias procudere voces:

  Non tibi fingendi sola taberna patet.

Cum sacra perturbet vester furia omnia, scriptum

  Hoc erit, Anti-furi-Puri Categoria!

Pollubra vel cum olim damnaris Regia in ara,

  Est Anti-pelvi-Melvi-Categoria.

Oh how charming a man you are! With what an elegant name you fashion

  Those Anti-Ox-Bridge-Accusations of yours!

Thus for the Pure Ones novelties alone are pleasing; things, words are invented anew:

  What tastes of age, as if carrion, lies neglected.[1]

So allow us too to hammer out some words:

  Not for you alone does the shop for their forging lie open:

Since your Puritan fervor disturbs all things sacred, your word

  Will be this: Anti-Furi-Puri-Accusation.

Or since you once condemned the basins for ritual cleansing on the Royal altar,

  It is Anti-Basin-Melvi-Accusation.

And second, in a religious and somewhat Metaphysical vein, PD XVII(17): Monumenta aperta./The Opened Tomb.

Dvm moreris, Mea Vita, ipsi vixere sepulti,

    Proque vno vincto turba soluta fuit.

Tu tamen, haud tibi tam moreris, quam vivis in illis,

    Asserit & vitam Mors animata tuam,

Scilicet in tumulis Crucifixum quaerite, vivit:

    Conuincunt vnam multa sepulchra Crucem.

Sic, pro Maiestate, Deum, non perdere vitam

    Quam tribuit, verum multiplicare decet.

As you die, My Life, the entombed themselves have come alive,[2]

    And for one fettered a multitude has been unbound.

But You, you do not so much die to yourself as live in them,

    And animated Death delivers your life.

Of course seek out the Crucified One among graves, he lives:

    A multitude of tombs defeat one Cross.

So, for his sovereign Majesty, it is fit that God not dissipate,

    But multiply, the life he gave.

Let the authors have the last word: “…George Herbert’s neo-Latin verse demonstrates tremendous wit, variety (metrical, formal and tonal), and inventive energy. Sound and sense are richly wed. Poetry’s musical purpose is to awaken us, to turn us from stones into flesh…” (p. xxix)


[1] This is not quite right. Literally: “What tastes of the age, as if carrion lies;” or better, if less literally, “What smells good today, stinks tomorrow.”

[2] Rather: “The entombed themselves have lived for you, My Life, to die,”