Neo-Latinity in Early America

James Raven writes about neo-Latinity in early America in his review of Roger E. Stoddard’s A Bibliographical Description of Books and Pamphlets of American Verse Printed From 1610 Through 1820 in the July 19 Times Literary Supplement:

One of many questions that Stoddard’s work enlarges on is that of neo-Latinity. Several early American poems were written in Latin, and lively English translations from the classics also appeared. Richard Lewis (d. 1734), master of the Latin school at Annapolis and correspondent of the Royal Society, memorably announced the reign of civility in Maryland with his translation from Holdsworth, “Musiculpa, sive Kambromyomachia”, a poetic narrative adapted from Homer about battles (at least in this version) between the ancient Welsh and mice (although Holdsworth’s 1709 original is not mentioned in the entry for the Lewis 1728 edition). In 1741, Aquila Rose (1695-1723) offered imitations of Ovid’s elegies of Scythian exile empathizing with intellectuals living in colonial backwaters. Historians have long debated the commercial and political significance of New World classical learning. Bernard Bailyn famously dismissed classical influences on revolutionary thinking as highly marginal (and his comments are echoed by others). According to Bailyn, participants exhibited amateurish and superficial learning. And David S. Sheilds, in his book Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America (1997), quoted a poem by John Seccomb (1728):

At Ten this Morn. Dear Friend, Your Most,
Receiv’d your Packet by the Post,
Kiss’d the out-side, broke up the Seal-o
And promis’d Fi’pence to the Fellow,
Then try’d to read – But hah! what is’t?
O vile! the Language of the Beast!
Chinese? or Syriac? – let me see, –
Amice selectissime
Magick! of which thy old Acquaintance
Knows not a Page, or Word, or Sentence,
But stands with Horror Half a Headful,
And cries, O terrible! O dreadful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *