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  • Maryland's "First Essay of Latin Poetry in English Dress":Conceiving Cultural Change in Eighteenth-Century Maryland
  • Chris Beyers (bio)

Although he has been dubbed "the finest Augustan poet of the New World" (184) by Leo Lemay, Richard Lewis is known today largely for a single poem, "A Journey from Patapsco to Annapolis, April 4, 1730."1 However, by the time he was composing that poem, his Maryland contemporaries already knew him as the translator of Edward Holdsworth's mock epic, Muscipula (The Mousetrap, 1728; the Latin original was published in 1709). It is not just Lemay who considers it "the first belletristic book published in the South" (127); Lewis's preface announces the work as an "Attempt to cultivate polite Literature, in MARYLAND" (66),2 and his chief patron, Benedict Leonard Calvert (Maryland's governor and the brother of the Lord Proprietor, the fifth Lord Baltimore), sent a copy of the book to the noted antiquarian Thomas A. Hearne, saying that it was part of his plan to create "a real foundation for literature" (282) in the colony. David S. Shields sums up the book's purpose succinctly: Lewis clearly intended the translation to "announce the reign of civility in Maryland and establish his place as its spokesman" ("Eighteenth-Century" 451).

This essay takes a closer look at the book, beginning with what seems to me a crucial question: why begin Maryland's colonial belles lettres with a translation? And, if you are going to begin with a translation, why choose Holdsworth instead of such eighteenth-century favorites as Homer,Virgil, or Horace? Nobody, apparently, has ever asked these questions—in fact, aside from duly repeating the claim that Muscipula was the first "literary" work published in the colonial South, few have paid much attention to the book,3 much less considered the issues raised here. Shields notes that the work "featured" such qualities as "ease, pleasantness, correctness, and sociability" ("Eighteenth-Century" 452), but does not pursue the matter [End Page 247] further. My argument is that, in providing a model for politeness, the work also discloses the tensions of a Chesapeake society in the midst of social transformation and shows how that transformation was conceptualized.

The two men responsible for its creation help explain why Muscipula was chosen. In the preface, Lewis tells his readers that he is "engaged in teaching Language," a "very fatiguing Employment" (65). In addition to his teaching duties, the historical Lewis seems to have been important in the drafting of a more general scheme to educate Marylanders4 and served as clerk of the Maryland General Assembly. After arriving in Maryland by 1728, he gravitated to Calvert's circle.5 His extant works show that his goal was to create, as the preface to Muscipula mentions, a "polite literature" like that of England. The adjective in the phrase is particularly important. As Lawrence E. Klein argues in his study of Shaftesbury and cultural politics, eighteenth-century politeness functioned as a way to "conceptualize complex and erratic phenomena" (9) in an era in which the "decline of inherited discursive and cultural institutions and the rise of new ones posed problems of legitimacy and authority" (11). Shaftesbury's essays on politeness amount to a cultural project with the political aim of encouraging the creation of a "hegemony of gentleman" (20). Klein points out that the terms "polite" and "gentleman" were not at all stable, though "literary politeness" involved an "amalgamation of gentleman and scholar" (6). Lewis's notion of politeness had a similar conceptual purpose, though with a different political orientation.

The persona Lewis created in Muscipula's preface displays both elements of Klein's amalgam. As a scholar, he demonstrates familiarity with such writers as Virgil, Homer, Addison, Pope, Milton, and Dryden. His self-consciousness in acting like a gentleman is evident when he calls his translation a "Performance" (63), implying a social function (that is, acting well before an audience—more specifically, comporting himself in a pleasing way in society) that is at the heart, Klein shows, of Shaftesbury's notion of gentility. Lewis therefore invites his audience to appreciate his ability as a translator, printing Holdsworth's original on one page and...


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