If memory serves—and that tells you something right there—I had five years of Latin in school, three in high school, two in college. I think I started off pretty well: I remember some A’s in my first year. Unfortunately, the Law of Diminishing Returns eventually exerted its irresistible power, and I was soon down to B’s, and then C’s. But I did pass. I always seemed to be able to scrape by with enough correct answers on the grammar and vocabulary tests, and to make my way more or less ignorantly and uncertainly toward the gist of what we were called upon to translate.
So Harry Mount’s charming little book Carpe Diem: Put a Little Latin in Your Life would seem to be right down my alley. “In brief,” Mount writes, “if you already know the bare bones of Latin”—which is about all I can honestly claim to know—“by the time you’ve finished this book, your dormant knowledge (“dormio,” “dormire”—I sleep) will have woken up.”
In fact, even “if you have no knowledge, dormant or otherwise you’ll have the basics, which should mean you’ll at least be able to translate ... the simple Latin—but all the more moving for that—of Leonardo Bruni’s epitaph in the church of Santa Croce in Florence.” (The English translation awaits you on the last page of the book.)
So here’s the epitaph:
“Postquam Leonardus e vita migravit
Historia luget; eloquentia muta est
Ferturque musas tum Graecas tum
Latinas lacrimas tenere non potuisse.”
Actually, I thought I had a pretty good idea right off the bat as to what the epitaph was getting at, which led me to think my ignorance was not quite as abysmal as I supposed. Alas, as Mount wended his way blithely through declensions and conjugations, subjunctives and ablatives, and less and less of what he was explaining adhered to my consciousness, I began to feel exactly as I had in those classrooms long ago: not quite on top of the material at hand.
So his book had a peculiar and somewhat paradoxical effect on me: However much I might miss being young, I am certainly glad to no longer be a student in a Latin class.
Mount, by the way, would approve of my splitting the infinitive in the foregoing sentence. “English pedants,” he notes, “date their dislike of a split infinitive from Latin. Since you can’t split a Latin infinitive because it’s a single word, you shouldn’t do it in English.” But, he points out, ” `to boldly go where no man has gone before’ ... actually sounds better than `Boldly to go ...’ or `To go boldly ...,’ and is easily translated into Latin—“Ire audacter eo quo nemo antea.” (That’s obviously worth remembering if you plan to attend a Star Trek convention.)
Mount thinks the world of Latin, but his enthusiasm is grounded in reality. “To say you need to understand Latin to understand English, as some people do say,” he writes, “is as crazy as suggesting you need to understand Anglo-Saxon, German, and Norman French to understand English.”
He notes cannily that “the only reason you will understand English better as a result of reading Latin is because it is so different from Latin, not because of any similarities. It is in computing the changes from one language to another that you are forced to think about the structure of each of them.”
No, Mount says, “the really useful thing about Latin is ... that it will help you to understand Latin, in which some of the most stirring prose and poetry ever was written.”
It is this evident passion for both the Latin language and the literature it gave birth to—as well as Roman “tempora et mores” (come on, you can figure that out, right?), about which he writes so entertainingly—that lends force to Mount’s disappointment over how much the study of Latin has lately declined in his native Britain, where “the number of children studying Latin in private schools and the remaining grammar schools has collapsed”—from 60,000 doing the tough O level in 1960 to 10,000 doing a more basic replacement today. (In the United States, he notes, “there’s a bit of a revival going on.” In 1977, only 6,000 students took the National Latin Exam. By 2005 that number had soared to 134,873.)
As for me, I’m going to take Mount’s parting advice and get the Loeb classic translations of Horace, Catullus, and Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” and see if I can get my Latin up to speed.
Oh, and the translation of Leonardo Bruni’s epitaph that appears on the last page? I’d quote it, but that would spoil the fun of reading Mount’s book, wouldn’t it?