Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 8. Medieval and Modern Latin Verse

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIII. Robert Burton, John Barclay and John Owen

§ 8. Medieval and Modern Latin Verse

The bulk of medieval and modern Latin verse is enormously greater than the whole of extant classical poetry. In England, during the past century, while the art has been greatly exercised and has formed a prominent item in higher education, the usual aim of its adepts has been to display their ingenuity and scholarship in devising the most appropriate equivalents by which to give a Latin metrical dress to the thoughts and expressions of English poets. As a rule, the renderings are of short poems or isolated extracts. Widely different from this was the method in vogue at the time of the renascence, when, while translation from the Greek was not unknown, most Latin verse was an attempt on the part of scholars and men of letters to express their own thoughts and feelings. Some, like Petrarch, Vida, Fracastorius and Sannazarius, aspired to produce works of permanent value; in the case of others, such as J. C. Scaliger, verse was a conscious relaxation from severer labours. Too often, instead of careful finish, we find fluent inprovisation. For a century and a half, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands lisped in Latin numbers. In our own country, where the effect of the renascence was less and later, the amount of Latin verse was inferior. Still, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there is a succession of Latin versifiers from Sir Thomas More to Abraham Cowley. Nor is production confined to lighter and more occasional pieces: poems of more ambitious scope were attempted, such as the De Re Publica Anglorum instauranda of Sir Thomas Chaloner the elder (1521–62), some lines of which are familiar through Burton’s quotation.

In the north, the art was cultivated with success; Buchanan won the highest praise from J. J. Scaliger; and Arthur Jonston, himself a Latin poet of merit, edited Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum under the patronage of Scot of Scotstarvet, as a pendant to Gruter’s collections.