Monday, December 28, 2015


Inscriptions in Latin

James Boswell (1740-1795), Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (September 5, 1773):
I went into the church, and saw the monument of Sir James Macdonald, which was elegantly executed at Rome, and has the following inscription, written by his friend, George Lord Lyttelton....Dr. Johnson said, the inscription should have been in Latin, as every thing intended to be universal and permanent should be.
John Wilson Croker (1780-1857), note on this passage in his edition of Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:
What a strange perversion of language!—universal! Why, if it had been in Latin, so far from being universally understood, it would have been an utter blank to one (the better) half of the creation, and, even of the men who might visit it, ninety-nine will understand it in English for one who could in Latin. Something may be said for epitaphs and inscriptions addressed, as it were, to the world at large—a triumphal arch—the pillar at Blenheim—the monument on the field of Waterloo; but a Latin epitaph, in an English church, appears, in principle, as absurd as the dinner, which the doctor gives in Peregrine Pickle, after the manner of the ancients. A mortal may surely be well satisfied if his fame lasts as long as the language in which he spoke or wrote.
Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (October 28, 1773):
By the side of the high road to Glasgow, at some distance from his house, he had erected a pillar to the memory of his ingenious kinsman, Dr. Smollet; and he consulted Dr. Johnson as to an inscription for it. Lord Kames, who, though he had a great store of knowledge, with much ingenuity, and uncommon activity of mind, was no profound scholar, had it seems recommended an English inscription. Dr. Johnson treated this with great contempt, saying, 'An English inscription would be a disgrace to Dr. Smollet;' and, in answer to what Lord Kames had urged, as to the advantage of its being in English, because it would be generally understood, I observed, that all to whom Dr. Smollet's merit could be an object of respect and imitation, would understand it as well in Latin; and that surely it was not meant for the Highland drovers, or other such people, who pass and repass that way.
Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), "Landor, English Visitor, and Florentine," Imaginary Conversations:
Florentine. I wish, sir, you would favor us with a Latin inscription for the tombs of the gentlemen whose names you mentioned, since the pathetic is not requisite in that species of composition.

Landor. Although I have written at various times a great number of such inscriptions, as parts of literature, yet I think nothing is so absurd if you only inscribe them on a tomb. Why should extremely few persons, the least capable perhaps of sympathy, be invited to sympathize, while thousands are excluded from it by the iron grate of a dead language? Those who read a Latin inscription are the most likely to know already the character of the defunct, and no new feelings are to be excited in them; but the language of the country tells the ignorant who he was that lies under the turf before them; and, if he was a stranger, it naturalizes him among them: it gives him friends and relations; it brings to him and detains about him some who may imitate, many who will lament, him. We have no right to deprive any one of a tender sentiment, by talking in an unknown tongue to him when his heart would listen and answer to his own: we have no right to turn a chapel into a library, locking it with a key which the lawful proprietors cannot turn.

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