The poet and classicist John Talbot, who teaches at Brigham Young University, sent me a copy of “Johnson’s Classical Mottoes,” an article he published in 2003 in the journal Essays in Criticism. By “mottoes” Talbot means the brief tags or epigraphs in Greek and Latin placed by Johnson at the top of his Rambler (1750-52) and Adventurer (1752-54) essays, often accompanied by English translations made by the lexicographer himself. Talbot’s reading of Johnson’s poems (they have been identified as such at least since 1940, when David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam included them in The Collected Poems of Samuel Johnson) is close and sensitive, like that of his former colleague at Boston University, Christopher Ricks. Here are some of Talbot’s choicer observations:
“The energy Johnson infuses into his translations derives in part from his determination that no form of the verb `to be’ should survive the transit from Latin to English unreinforced.”
“Johnson’s choice of words reveals other subtleties. On indication that these brief translations amount to more than mere cribs is their frequent recourse to words which connect the classical quotations to the phrasing of Johnson’s own major poems.”
“It is a kind of levelling: he naturalizes the Greek and Latin not only into English, but into Johnsonian, idiom.”
“`Verbs bristling in every line’ is [Walter Jackson] Bate’s characterisation of this feature of Johnson’s style, adding that Johnson’s mature prose style has a high proportion of verbs.”
“`Vain’ ranks near the top of Johnson’s most frequently used words, appearing seventy-six times in the poems alone.”
“All but five of the seventy-seven instances of `still’ throughout Johnson’s poems are in the adverbial sense.”
“…the words do not stand alone, but sound and resound off one another in the Johnsonian aural network…”
“This epigram and the best of the other mottoes and quotations from the Rambler and Adventurer deserve their place alongside Johnson’s more celebrated poems, whose aural intelligence and lexical vigour they so often share, and to which they so often allude.”
Talbot refers to “the magisterial severity” Johnson’s greatest poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” For a further taste of Talbot try “Information Age” from his first collection, The Well-Tempered Tantrum (David Robert Books, 2004):
“From parroting that ours is the Information Age,
Some respite, please. Say that on crumbling piers
Fishermen wait; say the tossing wife pines
For footfall in the courtyard; report that the mountains
Are, and are, and are, underneath
Ice that was not, and is, and will not
Be. I can learn nothing from news.
Bring word of what I already know.
That breath is short. That daylight inches.
(These apples ripen to redness or paleness.)
That love comes shedding confetti from gnarled
Branches above; that canyons are deep
And from the deep canyons word sounds, resounds,
And will not alter and wants no age.”
As a former newspaper reporter, I find Talbot’s simple statement, “I can learn nothing from news,” a reliable mood-elevator. In his second collection, Rough Translations (David Robert Books, 2012), Talbot includes sixteen translations of Horace and one each of Virgil and Callimachus.