Letter 2: February 2019 | Gladstone's Library

Letter 4: February 2019

The letter I have picked for February’s Letter of the Month comes from our Glynne-Gladstone Archive. It is part of a folder containing 91 items, all relating to press cuttings about W. E. Gladstone’s classical translations and his work on Homer. Gladstone was a great classical scholar and read both Latin and Greek throughout his life. In our library, anything found in classmark WEG/L relates to books owned by Gladstone on classical scholarship.

This letter was sent to Gladstone from his nephew Robert(son) Gladstone in Liverpool on 31st December 1875. In this letter Robert is writing to W. E. Gladstone about his use of Latin when translating a Hymn and critiques his uncle’s grasp of the language, for example;

'I am however in some doubt about the ‘pointing’ of the first stanza. It seems to me that there should not be any inverted commas until Veni  – and that there should be an ‘R’ before Veni.'

On the other hand, it does seem that he has Gladstone’s best interests at heart as in the next sentence he states;

'I should not like the print to go out with any inaccuracies and you are the proper person to decide the matter.'

At the end of the letter it becomes clear that Robert does trust his uncle’s understanding of Latin as he detours and discusses the Judicature Act [1] in Latin – albeit with an English translation underneath!

Enclosed with this letter is a newspaper cutting entitled ‘Mr Gladstone’s Latin Hymn’. In this article we find out that Gladstone was translating the;

'beautiful English Hymn: ‘Art thou weary?’'

The article is a fabulous introduction to ideas of translation at this time, discussing the trend of rhyming Latin in Hymn translations, and how the general population can enjoy Latin Hymns without any understanding of Latin. It also compares Latin to Greek, and debates the use of rhyming in Greek, suggesting that any Greek rhyming is done;

'of very inferior quality, and evidently intended chiefly to catch the ears of the most ignorant class.'

When commenting on Gladstone’s translation of ’Art thou weary’ the article is mostly complimentary. It highlights the use of double rhymes – although if this was an improvement or not is still under question – and the successful smoothness of the first line in Gladstone’s translation. However, in the final paragraph the article finds fault with Gladstone’s management of the pronouns stating;

'Mr Gladstone uses indifferently ‘Iste’, as in the second verse, or ‘Hic’ as in the third; while in other places he has nothing at all.'

This criticism highlights the fluctuating nature of Latin translations, as one person may see a translation as correct, but someone else may find fault with it. In this instance it is Robert Gladstone’s opinion against the opinion of the article.

Overall this letter has allowed us a glimpse into W. E. Gladstone’s editing process, humanising him a little more as we see that sometimes even he asks for advice. It also gives us a window into how his classical translation was interpreted by the press of the time. It is a great example of how multi-faceted Gladstone was outside of politics. If you want to read this letter in person or are interested in our archival collection this letter was found in folder number GG/1636 and is item number GG/1636/32.

By Rhiannon Perrin, Graduate Work Experience student 


[1] Act of Parliament that abolished high courts and implemented a new Supreme Court of Judicature which consisted of the High Court of Justice and the Court of Appeal. (Two acts passed, one in 1873, one in 1875.)

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