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Latin ode to Hester Thrale

Thanks to Jonathan B.P.J. Hadfield, whose generous translation from Latin to English helped to bring this information to you.

  • Posted on: 20 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

On 6 September 1775 Samuel Johnson wrote a Latin Ode to Thrale whilst on a tour of the Scottish Shetlands.

Jonathan says,

I am not a Thrale but found your website enthralling. I hope my attempt at verse will please some of your readers.

Dr. Johnson is arguing that the tough, squalid and filthy life that a crofter was compelled to lead precluded all culture. The Sapphic verse is a metre perhaps invented by Sappho, the Greek poetess of Lesbos, which was taken into Latin by Catullus and later, with brilliant success, by Horace. Johnson uses it here and I have attempted to use it here in an English dress.

Latin English
Permeo terras, ubi nuda rupes
Saxeas miscet nebulis ruinas,
Torva ubi rident steriles coloni
Rura labores.
Through lands I travel, where the naked cliff-top
Merges in cloud its stark and craggy ruins,
Where the stern landscape ridicules the crofter's
Profitless labours.
Pervagor gentes, hominum ferorum
Vita ubi nullo decorata culto,
Squallet informis, tigurique fumis
Faeda latest.
Through tribes I wander where barbarian clansmen
Live a rude life, unbeautified by culture,
Squalid, distorted, by but-and-ben's1 thick vapours2
Eclipsed and filthy.
Inter erroris salebrosa long,
Inter ignotae strepitus loquelae,
Quot modis mecum, quid agat requiro,
Thralia dulcet?
Through all the joltings of a lengthy journey
Through all the babel of an unknown language
In countless ways I ask myself the question:
"How's my sweet Thralia?"
Seu viri curas pia nupta multe,
Seu fovet mater sobolem benigna,
Sive cum libris novitate pascit
Sedula mentem:
Whether, as good wife, she soothes her husband's worries,
Whether, as mother, gently tends her offspring,
Whether, as scholar, feasts her mind on reading
Gaining new knowledge:
Sit memor nostri, fideique merce,
Stet fides constans, meritoque blandum
Thraliae discant resonare nomen
Littora Skiae.
May she remember me! Be her faith rewarded!
Her faith stand firm; and deservedly enchanting
The name of Thralia, learn, Skye, to re-echo
Through all your headlands!

Written by Samuel Johnson in Skye on 6 September 1775. Published in Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson by Hester Thrale, and also in Thraliana - December 1777 entry.

  • 1. 'But-and-ben' is the traditional crofter's cottage in the Highlands of Scotland. It translates the Latin 'tugurium' which means 'cottage'. Johnson wanted to make the point that the tough, grimy and squalid crofter's life stymied all culture.
  • 2. The 'thick vapours' is the Latin 'fumis', which means 'smokings'. Dr. Johnson is referring to the black soot which is characteristic of the old croft's walls and general interior.