Wednesday, January 19, 2022

'Read Everything He Could'

One of my favorite anthologies is Horace in English (Penguin, 1996), edited by D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes. A reader can acquire a substantial knowledge of the English poetic tradition by reading these translations of the Roman poet’s work. Most major poets and many minor ones from at least the sixteenth century were compelled to take on Quintus Horatius Flaccus. One among them may surprise modern readers: John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), the sixth president of the United States. In 1839, a decade after he left the White House, Adams translated Ode I.22. The poem is dedicated “To Sally.” 

The editors describe Adams’ “imitation” as “the most accomplished translation of Horace by an American until the later twentieth century.” Some of the rhymes are amusing: “dank”/”Mont Blanc,” “settle”/”Popocatapetl,” “Noah”/“boa.” For Adams, Horace, the classics in general and literature were not late-acquired hobbies but longtime interests. In 1799, at age thirty-one, he wrote in his diary:


“I finished this morning the third book of Horace's Odes. Many of them are very fine, and the last one shows he was himself, sufficiently Sensible of it. When a Poet promises immortality to himself, he is always on the safe side of the Question, for if his works die with him, or soon after him, no body ever can accuse him of vanity or arrogance: but if his predictions are verified, he is considered not only as a Poet, but as a Prophet.”


Adams had studied in Europe and graduated from Harvard in 1787. A letter written to his father the previous year attests to the rigor of his formal education. Unlike his parents, John Quincy Adams had little use for Samuel Johnson. He calls him a “brute” and “a mere cynic.” This is gossip, of course, low-rent lit crit, but it suggests a passionate nature and a degree of education and literary awareness unimaginable today among presidents and other politicians.


I think immediately of a later president who had little formal education and was born and raised in a frontier culture without the advantages of an Adams. Yet, like Adams, Abraham Lincoln was a dedicated reader who started young, with the Bible and Bunyan, and later read Gray, Pope, Burns and Byron. He read little fiction but enjoyed, like everyone else at the time, Dickens.

In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (2008), Fred Kaplan tells us the future president read excerpts from works by Dr. Johnson, Gibbon, Hume and Sterne. “Lincoln,” Kaplan writes, “was the Twain of our politics. Since Lincoln, no president has written his own words and addressed his contemporary audience or posterity with equal and enduring effectiveness.” Extensive reading helped turn Lincoln into a great American writer. Kaplan quotes Lincoln’s stepsister, Matilda Johnston: “Abe was not Energetic Except in one thing; he was active & persistant [sic] in learning -- read Everything he Could.”


And a store clerk in New Salem, Ill.: “Conversation very often was about Books -- such as Shakespear & other histories and Tale Books of all Discription in them Day.”

1 comment:

Isaac said...

Dear Patrick,

JQA translated Ode II.16 too, which I included in a recent collection of translations of the ode, here: