Letter to John Conduitt, 8 August 1730
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8 Aug. 1730
at Mr Allut's
In obedience to Your Letter of the 30th of Iuly, and relying upon that Indulgence and Goodness which You shew forth in it, I do here set down my Remarks on the Epitaph offered for our great Friend, endeavouring thus to throw some Lillys upon his Tomb. And here I beg leave to use the same liberty, as if I were the Author of that Epitaph myself. But I do expresly stipulate, That no use of this Letter, or of the Contents of it, shal be made without my leave, except what may relate to Your own perusal of them.
Ingenium divinius, Aut animam candidiorem Terra nunquam tulit. That Distinction Aut seems to me somewhat improper. But as to the Assertion animam candidiorem Terra nunquam tulit, it is more than Mortals can or Angels dare affirm. I would rather say, Ingenium divinius Animaque simul candidiorem. For it may be both probable, and also true, that none excelled him, if we join these two Characters together.
I cannot approve of the Words Gratulemur nobismet. Nobis gratulemur wou'd be better upon many accounts: But still that Word nobis seems too equivocal, not to say too confined, or too much out of the way, in a Monument designed to speak to the latest Posterity, or as long as marble can last, when WE shal be no more. I am at a loss to find out the persons that speak here; or to whom they say Gratulemur nobismet.
I had therefore rather substitute these other Words, less equivocal in reference to the Word exstitisse, and stronger in themselves than those above, and more harmonious; Sibi gratuletur Orbis tale tantumque exstitisse &c. And this tends me also to change the foregoing Line Terra nunquam tulit. If we write Coelum nunquam dedit, this may seem more sublime, and more Christian-like; and, I think, worthier of Sir Isaac Newton.
Hominem enim fuisse Hoc Eheu! testatur marmor. When I repeat the Words Hominem enim I think I perceive in these Syllables a Iingling which I wou'd avoid. But as to the Word Eheu! it comes to a Reader altogether unprepared for it; and does not agree with the Affections stirred up by the Word Gratulemur. I had rather say simply, Nam Hominem eum fuisse Hocce testatur marmor. For the Word Eheu! interfearing abruptly, seems to me to spoil these Lines, and to draw our attention another way. But the more I read even the corrected Expression, Nam Hominem eum fuisse Hocce testatur marmor, and the more I am afraid it cannot be justified. Sir Isaac, I believe, woud not have approved of it. And there is no need to go to his Monument, to learn that He was but a Man. Such flights might be more proper in a Copy of Verses, than in an Epitaph. But if this must be preserved, I wou'd at least involve it in an Expression plainly capable of another sense, and write, Nam Hominem eum fuisse, si dubites, Hocce testatur marmor. The Sense here may either be, For if you doubt that there ever was such a Man, this Monument will prove it: And this sense is the more conspicuous, because of the Word exstitisse. Or else the Sense may be, For if you doubt whether he was but a Man, this Monument will prove it. And what may partly justifie this Equivocation, is that even the Marquis de l'Hopital, that great Mathematician at Paris, is known to have sometimes asked the Question, Is Sir Isaac Newton a Man? But thô the Equivocation mollifies very much, and beautifies greatly this Conceit, yet it borders near upon too much Boldness. And the shortness of the Epitaph wrongs also very much the first Sense, If you doubt that there ever was such a Man: For this seems to require a much fuller Enumeration of the great Discoverys of Sir Isaac Newton.
I suspect that the Dates have been here suppressed, as in some sort uncapable of any Ornament. Were I required to add them, since they seem to be an Essential Part of a Monument, I wou'd try whether some Singularity or other cou'd make them more acceptable: Suppose, for instance, as in the second Column.
With these Alterations and a few Additions, the Epitaph wou'd run as You may see here. The first Column is but a Copy of what You were pleased to send me: which certainly wou'd not be long approved. What the second Column contains, is more like to meet with a long Approbation.
I think, Sir, that I do see such a Difference between these two Epitaphs, thô they may in a great measure pass for one and the same; that some other Epitaphs might well be proposed, and perhaps by myself, which wou'd be preferable to the first, and not to the second: not to mention those that might be preferable to both.
If then that be true, which I have seen in some printed Paper, that there is a Prize reserved for the Person that gives the best Epitaph for Sir I. Newton's Tomb; You see, Sir, that I go against my own Interest, and perhaps against that of others, if I permit these Amendments and Additions to be made use of while there is so great hopes of surpassing the Performance which is hitherto the most valued. Be pleased, Sir, to let me know particularly the truth of these matters, and who they are for whom I do here perhaps prepare a Recompense, if the Administraters intend to give one. As the Author is unknown to me, I have no reason to secure to him the Prize, except I shou'd give up all this to please You, Sir, and for Sir Isaac Newton's sake.<1v>
I intended to write a longer Letter, but must forbear till I hear again from you. Would an Epitaph of seven and twenty Lines be too long? I find that Space very short, to express conveniently what so vast a Subject does require. – –<2r>