Little is known of the life of Vincent Bourne, perhaps the most accessible of all the Anglo-Latin poets. He was educated at Westminster School, England’s nursery for 18th-century Latinists, and after Cambridge returned there to teach a new generation, including the poet William Cowper who always held his former teacher in great affection and said of him,
‘I love the memory of Vinny Bourne. I think him a better Latin poet than Tibullus, Propertius, Ausonius, or any of the writers in his way, except Ovid, and not at all inferior to him.’
Cowper’s estimate seemed, for a time at least, to be shared by many others – Bourne’s Poematia of 1734 had appeared in nine separate editions by 1840. Less overtly indebted to Horace than many of his contemporaries, Bourne’s poetry is, as Estelle Haan puts it, ‘a fusion of the classical and the romantic’. His wry observations on the vanities of life are given additional piquancy by many allusions to the shortness of that life. As he confessed to a friend,
‘It must be the frequent perusal of gravestones and monuments, and the many walks I have taken in a churchyard, that have given me so great a distaste for life; the usual sight of mortality, corruption, and nakedness, must inevitably lead one to a serious reflection on the vanity of all worldly greatness.’
In this clever elegy, Bourne adapts and expands upon an Aesop fable also Latinised by Swift. Here the silly dog snarling at its own reflection in the Thames is heard by the nymph Echo, who decides to tease it. Bourne wittily expresses Echo’s game in a series of verbal echoes before giving us the moral in the final line: all anger is futile and is reflected back upon itself.
Puris in coelo radiis argentea Luna
In Tamisis tremula luce refulsit aquis.
Improbus hic vidit catulus, ringensque malignum
Solvit in indignos ora proterva modos:
Lunamque in coelo, lunamque aggressus in undis,
In sidus pariter saevus utrumque furit.
Sub ripis latuit fors ulterioribus Echo,
Audiit et vanas ludicra nympha minas:
Audiit; et rabie rabiem lepidissima vindex
Ulcisci statuit, parque referre pari.
Ille repercussae deceptus imagine vocis,
Irarum impatiens iam magis, estque magis.
Reddere latratus pergit latratibus Echo;
Quemque canis statuit, servat imago modum.
Tandem ubi lassatae fauces, et spiritus, et vox;
Defervet rabies tota, siletque canis.
Et poterat siluisse prius; furor omnis ineptus,
Omnisque in sese futilis ira redit.
With clear rays the silvery moon in the heavens shone reflected with quivering light in the waters of the Thames. Here a rascally puppy saw something malign, and snarling uttered shameless sounds in an unworthy manner: and having attacked the moon in the heavens and the moon in the waters, the savage dog rages equally against both planets. By chance beneath the further bank lay Echo, and the playful nymph heard the empty threats: she heard them; and the most charming champion decided to revenge fury with fury, and to return like for like. He, deceived by the copy of his echoing voice, is now more and more impatient of anger. Echo continues to return barks for barks; and what the dog started, the image only follows. At last when his jaws have become tired, and his spirit and voice too; his whole fury subsides, and the dog falls silent. Yet he could have been silent before; all foolish fury, and all futile anger returns upon itself.
Chosen and translated by Mark Walker (www.pineapplepubs.co.uk).