Christopher Howse

A tongue that still wags

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Long Live Latin

John Gray

Canis Press,, pp. 218, £

Among the unexpected pieces of information in this enjoyable ramble among the picturesque ruins of the Latin language is the name of a good restaurant if you should find yourself at Larroque in Tarn. The advice comes under B, for Bonum vinum laetificat cor hominis, ‘good wine cheers the heart of man’, an adage written calligraphically on the wall of the Restaurant Le Roucanel. (The thought comes from Psalm 104, though Mr Gray doesn’t mention that.)

No great Latinist myself, I was glad to find Long Live Latin to be the welcoming Hampton Court Flower Show of Latin; Chelsea gold medallists might no longer care to walk among such (to them) familiar blooms. But Long Live Latin is no bare seedsman’s catalogue.

It has the readability of a diary rather than a dictionary. We discover that John Gray has not wasted the years since he took early retirement from the law (which now, he frequently laments, spurns the use of Latin). Apart from anything else, he has set up the Canis Press, of which Long Live Latin is a well designed publication. Away from home, the Royalty Bar in the Place Georges, Biarritz, reminds him of Ovid’s Spectatum veniunt, veniunt spectentur ut ipsae, ‘They come to see; they come to be seen themselves’. Not so Mr Gray, homo cui vivere est cogitare, ‘a man to whom to live is to think’. Visits to Malta, Paris, Tuscany, all provoke thoughts, even the obituaries page of the Daily Telegraph, where the law lord, Lord Salmon, was described as ‘Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo’. Gray quotes Lord Chesterfield’s remark on these words, ‘I do not know any one rule so unexceptionally useful and necessary in any part of life.’

Even if you think, with Samuel Johnson, that Chesterfield displayed ‘the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’, you would not dream of extending any such judgment to Gray, who laboured over this book while his wife was on pilgrimage, on horseback, to Santiago de Compostela, leaving him to feed the cat. He finds time to keep up his interest in numismatics and, we gather, to listen to bits of Bach, Mozart and César Franck.

These composers often set pieces of Latin to music, though Gray’s knowledge of their liturgical use is sometimes a bit sketchy. ‘The beginning of the Roman Catholic Mass, is Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi.’ No, it isn’t. ‘In paradisum de- ducant te angeli, May the angels lead thee into paradise,’ he notes, was ‘set to music as a choral anthem by G. Fauré’ and is the ‘opening words of the Requiem Mass’. Well, no. The chant accompanies the body to the grave. The opening words of the Requiem Mass are ‘Requiem aeternam’.

Let us not quibble. There is plenty here to enjoy. I didn’t know that Hovis is a telescoping of hominis vis, ‘strength of man’. Nor did I know that Hic et ubique terrarum was a motto of the University of Paris. So when Hamlet says to the understage Ghost, ‘Hic et ubique?’, does it indicate that his father went to Paris and not to Wittenberg?

It is good to learn that the phrase lupus in fabula is ‘not a Roman Little Red Riding Hood equivalent’, but rather the Latin for ‘speak of the devil’. And it is striking to read that naufragia, ‘shipwrecks’, was applied to chariot crashes in the hippodrome.

Gray is devoted to the Church of England, and though he annotates the names of such canticles as the Magnificat or the Nunc Dimittis with the formula ‘to be said or sung in English in accordance with the Church of England Book of Common Prayer’, it is clear from his comments on ut amem et foveam ‘to love and to cherish’ (as he points out, one of David Beckham’s tattoos), that he is aware that the Book of Common Prayer was redacted in Latin too, for the use of the sodalities of Oxford, Cambridge, Eton, Winchester and other places where the tongue was (once) understood.

It may be true that ‘during the Commonwealth coins were not generally inscribed in Latin. To the Puritans this smacked of Popery,’ but Latin was marshalled for controversy by Puritan and Papist alike. Milton, Latin secretary to the Commonwealth, defended republicanism and Protestantism in robust Latin. For some reason he chose to write Paradise Lost in English, but this error of judgment was rectified in 1750 by one William Dobson under the slightly jangly title of Paradisus Amissus. It starts well enough:

Primam Hominis Noxam, vetitaque ex Arbore foetus

Avulsos, morsu quae desgustata nesando
Humanae genti mortem et genus omne malorum
Intulit, et miseros Edeni sedibus egit,
Donec Progenies Humano ab semine Major
Restituat lapsos, laetisque reponat in arvis
Diva canas.

Yes, it ain’t over till the heavenly muse sings. Vivat Lingua Latina!