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Another Inscription for Fr Foster, by Dr Eric Hewett

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, we looked at the winning entry in a contest held by the Paideia Institute for an inscription in honor Fr Reginald Foster, who was the teacher of many of us here at VSI, and whose memory is cherished by so many lovers of Latin, especially those who study and teach it as a living language. Our own President, Dr Eric Hewett, who studied with Fr Foster both at the Gregorian University and in his famous summer Latin course, submitted a four-line poem in elegiac couplets, a perfect example of the power of Latin to say a great deal in very few words.

“Qui vive erudiens et amans dictare solebat
   ‘Mortuus ut fuero, consule discipulis
Vertere ne stulti incipiant a voce priori!’
   Illi Fosterio hic positum decori.”

Dr Hewett explains his work as follows:

“My goal was to create a solemn inscription that also includes some of Fr Foster’s favorite stylistic devises in Latin, and his spoken English in the classroom.

English-speaking students frequently begin translating a Latin sentence with the first word, since that is normally the subject in English. When, as so often happens, the first word of the Latin sentence is not the subject, they then wind up mangling the whole translation, forcing active Latin verbs into English passive ones, messing up cases, and so on. This is why Reginald would shout, ‘Never start with the first word!’, and with his flair for hyperbole, often expanded that to ‘When I die, write on my gravestone, “Tell my students never to start with the first word!” ’ Since Fr. Foster himself while alive referred to a memorial inscription for himself that would continue to help students from beyond the grave, I chose this as an especially fitting subject.

Elements that suggest the style of a solemn inscription are the elegiac meter, the positioning of the relative pronoun ‘Qui’ far before its antecedent ‘illi Fosterio’, the contrast between ‘vive’ and ‘mortuus,’ and the use of a participle, a conjugated verb, and an infinitive in the first line.

Of the many funny gestures he employed to mime out Latin grammatical relationships, Fr Foster seemed to feel the most delight while doing a little dance with his arms, moving them at opposite 45-degree angles, whenever he encountered a double dative construction. I feel he would really enjoy seeing his own name incorporated into a double dative on his memorial inscription.

One striking aspect of his teaching style was a thin crust of orneriness hardly concealing his deep affection (‘amans’) for those attempting to learn his beloved Latin. He would often insult his students, but those with half a heart could see right through the ornery crust and didn’t mind. He once called me an idiot in front of my parents, but I deserved it for thinking I had caught him in a mistake. The predicate nominative ‘stulti’ describing students who start translating from the first word reflects this habit.

Speaking of mistakes, the lack of elision between ‘Fosterio’ and ‘hic’ seems like one, but such hiatuses are in fact permitted in the pentameter of an elegiac couplet across the major caesura. This was exactly the kind of detail about Latin that Fr Foster reveled in. He never let his students rest on their laurels by learning just the basics and the rules; he also encouraged them to master all the little exceptions that make the study of any language intriguing.

Lastly, funerary inscriptions are often include a plural imperative (‘orate pro eo’), but ‘consule’ is singular, because Reginald is saying this to each individual Latin teacher whom he had in his classes over so many years, for whom he took such care, and who are now passing on his legacy to their own students.”

“For the honor of the famous Foster, who as he was teaching so vivaciously, used to lovingly say, ‘When I’m dead, take care for your students, that they don’t foolishly start translating from the first word!’ ”

Macte virtute esto, optime!

(Fr Foster with VSI Vice-President Nancy Llewellyn, at his 80th birthday party, which was held in November of 2019 at the shine of  Holy Hill in his native Wisconsin. Although he spent over 40 years in Rome, Fr Foster was always a member of the Discalced Carmelite community that runs the shine, on loan, so to speak, to the Holy See so that he could work in the office that composes the official Latin texts of the Church’s documents, and teach at the Gregorian University.)

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