Sunday, 21 October 2012


I've spent hours this morning tracking this down: a reference in a footnote to the first edition of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria.  It's from the first chapter, and comes after a passage in which STC complains that too many English poets make up their poetry by pastiching lines of earlier poets, a habit made worse by training up schoolboys to compose Latin verse via their Gradus rather than their hearts.  Here's the footnote:

‘In the Nutricia of Politian, there occurs this line:

"Pura coloratos interstrepit unda lapillos."

Casting my eye on a University prize poem, I met this line:

"Lactea purpureos interstrepit unda lapillos."

Now look out in the Gradus for purus, and you find, as the first synonyme, lacteus; for coloratus, and the first synonyme is purpureas. I mention this by way of elucidating one of the most ordinary processes in the ferrumination of these centos.’

The point, presumably, is to demonstrate that a representative contemporary English Latinist (author of the ‘University prize poem’) has taken a line from Italian Renaissance poet Poliziano’s Nutricia (1486; the title means ‘reward for nursing’, and the poem praises and discusses the most influential poetry), modified it hardly at all and then tried to pass it off as his own.  The first line of Latin means: ‘the pure stream goes murmuring over little coloured pebbles’.  The plagiarised line means: ‘the milk-white stream goes murmuring over the little purple pebbles.’

Coleridge scholars have pointed out that (a) the quoted Latin is not from Poliziano’s Nutricia, but rather from his Rustica and (b) the Gradus does not include the synonyms Coleridge claims.  But Coleridge is perfectly correct that the second gauche and essentially plagiarised line did appear in a ‘University poem’: the Oxford Prize Poem of 1789.  This latter was by George Canning (1770-1827; the man who went on to become Prime Minister) and was on the subject of ‘The Pilgrimage to Mecca’). Coleridge had been ridiculed in Canning’s reactionary newspaper The Anti-Jacobin, and the young STC had attacked the whole of Pitt’s Napoleonic War cabinet (which had included Canning). But he had later been introduced to Canning by Frere, and seems to have mellowed towards him; quite apart from anything else Canning was one of the original subscribers to The Friend.  The actual force of the note, in other words, is an obscure though gentle mockery of a prominent political figure.  ‘Ferrumination’ seals the joke: it is an Anglicisation of the Latin ferrumino, which means ‘to cement, solder, glue, unite, bind, join’ [Lewis and Short].  ‘Soldering’ is, of course, the principle strategy involved in canning.  (Peter Durand’s patent on his new method for preserving food using tin cans had been granted in 1810).

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