Thursday, October 23, 2014

Swift's wit and Johnson's precision

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell on High Street.
From the Hyde Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard.

I've been posting a lot about classics stuff lately, which I suppose is a hazard of the fact that it's most of what I come across these days. But it's humbling to consider the command of Latin and Greek that people used to have, as a couple of literary anecdotes from the 18th century show.


Jonathan Swift—esteemed author of Gulliver's Travels and "A Modest Proposal," not to mention dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin—was not only as well-versed in Virgil as any other literary figure of his time, but also a much sharper wit than most. Now, as background for this anecdote, you have to understand that there's this moment in Virgil's 9th Eclogue when a shepherd exclaims Mantua vae miserae nimium vicina Cremonae : "Mantua, alas! too near ill-fated Cremona." This is normally taken to be a reference to an event from Roman history in 41 BC: Marc Antony, who needed a way to pay the soldiers who fought against Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, confiscated land belonging to private citizens around the town of Cremona—and, when he ran out, he took land from the neighboring town of Mantua (Virgil's birthplace), too. Okay. There are two other things you need to know:

  1. Cremona is also where, much much later, the famous Stradivarius, Amati, and Guarneri violins were made. 
  2. Mantua later gave its name to a kind of woman's dress called a mantua, often made of silk. 

 So, to return to Jonathan Swift... Well, the mid-20th century Columbia classicist Gilbert Highet (whom I wrote about here) tells the rest this way:
[Swift] was at a party where a fashionably dressed lady, with a sweep of her gown, knocked a violin to the floor, where it broke. Swift put Cremona violin and silk mantua together, and observed 'Mantua vae miserae nimium vicina Cremonae!'
Another anecdote relates to the great literary critic Samuel Johnson. Johnson is best known for his work in English, but as this story shows, also knew his Latin very well. Now, Latin poetry has certain rules for deciding what syllables are "long" and "short" (like "strong" and "weak" syllables in English); one of those rules is that a syllable whose main vowel sound is followed by two consonants is "long"—except when those consonants are a "stop" (like B, P, D, and T) followed by a "liquid" (L or R). Sound arcane? Well, it is—which makes this anecdote from James Boswell's Life of Johnson all the more striking:
On another day after this, when talking on the subject of prayer, Dr. Brocklesby repeated from Juvenal,— ‘Orandum est, ut sit mens sana in corpore sano,’ and so on to the end of the tenth satire; but in running it quickly over, he happened, in the line, ‘Qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat,’ to pronounce supremum for extremum; at which Johnson’s critical ear instantly took offence, and discoursing vehemently on the unmetrical effect of such a lapse, he shewed himself as full as ever of the spirit of the grammarian.

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