Some Games in Greek and Latin

Wags of yesteryear

There is no more famous macaronic in English and Latin than A.D. Godley (1856–1925) on the arrival in Oxford of the dreaded omnibus (the vehicle “for all”).[1] If you don’t know it, and its delightful bending of Motor Bus as if a true Latin phrase, that moment is thankfully about to end. For those who already do know it, well, perhaps as an insight into the pronunciation of Latin in Oxford a hundred years ago (detectable by the rhyme scheme), it is of interest; or perhaps you may like to wonder, as Godley himself did, whether Bus might have the genitive Buris?[2]

What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo—

Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:—
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.

How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!

An explanation of the Latin elements of this passage is given at this footnote[3]

Inspired by Godley’s globe-trotting success with such a poem, H.H. Huxley (1916–2010) decided to try a similar trick with the Mars Bar, putting the whole poem into octosyllabic lines of rhyming Latin:[4]

Est praedulcis esu Mars Bar.
Nil est cibo tuo, Mars, par.
Tune vis beatum Larem?
Habe promptum Martem Barem.
Captus dono Martis Baris
Helenam liquisset Paris.
Dum natabunt ponto scari
Dentur laudes Marti Bari!

… which in (desperately prosaic) English may run:

The Mars Bar is very sweet to eat.
Nothing rivals your food, Mars.
Do you want a happy household?
Have to hand a Mars-Bar.
If he’d been seduced by the gift of a Mars Bar,
Paris would have ditched Helen.
As long as fish[5] swim in the sea,
let praise be given to the Mars-Bar!

To take a different tack, what about writing English poetry in Latin metres, while mixing up contemporary English slang with ancient epic language? Step forward Frank Sidgwick (1879–1939), son of the Oxford Classicist Arthur, whose entry to one of the famous Westminster Gazette competitions of 1906 is palmary stuff indeed: asked to write a Macaronic poem, he forged this cockney-inspired but Virgil-infused epyllion of Bank Holiday larks in London. Every line reads with the rhythm of a dactylic hexameter (for more on which, try this piece), and the whole result is a masterpiece. The footnotes are on the Latin and English (leaving the echoes from six Classical poets for you to ferret out) – and we’re acutely aware that we are here in real danger of “doing a Ralph” on it. So, without further ado, here’s the Bankolidaid!

Charmer virumque[6] I sing, Jack, plumigeramque Arabellam[7].  
Costermonger[8] erat[9] Jack Jones, asinumque agitabat[10]
In Covent Garden[11] holus[12], sprouts vendidit asparagumque[13]
Vendidit in circo[14] to the toffs Arabella the donah[15]
Qua Picadilly propinquat[16] to Shaftesbury Avenue, flores[17].  
Jam Whitmonday adest[18]; ex Newington Causeway[19] the costers 
Erumpunt multi celebrare[20] their annual beano[21]
Quisque suum billycock habuere, et donah ferentes[22]
Impositique rotis[23], popularia carmina[24] singing, 
Happy with ale omnes[25]-exceptis excipiendis[26]
Gloomily drives Jack Jones, inconsolabilis heros[27]
No companion habet[28], solus sine virgine[29] coster. 
Per[30] Boro’[31], per Fleet Street, per Strand,[32] sic itur ad “Empire”[33]
Illinc Coventry Street peragunt[34] in a merry procession, 
Qua Picadilly propinquat to Shaftesbury Avenue tandem[35] 
Gloomily Jack vehitur[36]. Sed amet qui never amavit![37]
En! subito fugiunt[38] dark thoughts; Arabella videtur[39]
Quum subit illius pulcherrima bloomin’ imago,[40]
Corde juvat[41] Jack Jones; exclamat[42] loudly “What oh[43], there!” 
Maiden ait “Deus, ecce Deus!” floresque relinquit.[44] 
Post asinum sedet illa; petunt Welsh Harp prope Hendon.[45]  
O fons Brent Reservoir![46] recubans sub tegmine brolli,[47]
Brachia complexus[48] (yum yum!) Jack kissed Arabella; 
“Garn” ait illa rubens, et “Garn” reboatur ab echo;[49] 
Propositique tenax[50] Jack[51] “swelp me lumme[52] I loves yer.”

Hinc illae lacrimae;[53] “Jest one!” et “Saucy, give over.”  
Tempora jam mutantur,[54] et hats[55]; caligine cinctus 
Oscula Jones iterat, mokoque inmittit habenas.[56] 
Concertina manu sixteen discrimina vocum 
Obloquitur;[57] cantant (ne saeve, magne policeman)[58])
Noctem in Old Kent Road.[59] Sic transit gloria Monday.[60]    

Crackjerack. OK, we have space for one more piece, so let us leap across to Ancient Greek. Inspired by the farcical dialogues of Aristophanic comedy, Ronald Knox (1888–1957), prodigious at the worst of times, set about crafting a dramatic fragment of his own. The setting is a telephone conversation where, via the contemporary technology of 1918, the speaker (one “Snooks”) seeks to contact one “Mr Binks”, first via the “Hello Girl” who manages the telephone exchange, and then via whoever ends up picking up the ‘phone. It is all written in elegant iambic trimeters, echoing the language not just of Attic comedy (the poor Frogs listing especially heavily) but also tragedy. Ladies and gentlemen, the sole surviving glimpse of the long-lost Telephoniazusae:[61]

In (again apologetically basic) English, the dialogue runs as follows:

Snooks : Telephone

Sn: Hello there, hello, hell-
Te: Number, please.
Sn: Double 8, 0, 5, Paddington.
Te: 8, double 0, 5, Paddington.
Sn: No, damn it; for God’s sake, it’s double 8.
Te: (ringing) brekekekex koax koax, brekekekex koax,
Hello there, hello; brekekekex koax.
Sn: Ah, the dearest voice of my godfather Binks, I’m delighted to have you.
Te: What Binks do you? Off the top of my head, I don’t know anyone with that name.
Sn: But who are you?
Te: Who am I? Fothering.
Sn: But your number at least is 8805?
Te: No, it’s 5431.
Sn: It look’s like I made a mistake. Let it ring out.
Te: Brekekekex koax koax; oh-op, oh-op, oh-op; brekekekex koax,
Hello there, hello?
Sn: By the Gods, whoever you are, go up and call Binks down from the house.
Te: (Muttering.)
Sn: I’d be glad to hear you if you shout loudly.
Te: Know that the person you’ve asked for is not with us.
Sn: You mean dead, or out of the house?
Te: Don’t worry, he’s coming back; and so what should I announce?
Sn: That it’s Snooks speaking.
Te: Blokes?
Sn: Snokes I say!
Te: Snokesersay?
Sn: SNOKES, Snokes, Snokes’s, Snokes! S, n- do you hear?
Te: Ah right, he’s now coming back from the garden.
Hello there, hello. Binks speaking; koax koax,
Brekekex koax koax, brekeke-
[The line cuts out; silence.]

There’s plenty more of this kind of stuff, if it floats your boat. Just let us know!


1 The poem first appeared in a letter to C.R.L. Fletcher of 10 Jan., 1914.
2 When delivering the Creweian oration for 1914 at Oxford, a speech which summarises the events of the previous year, Godley made mention of machinas illas quas videtis, quae, utrumque BI an potius BURES appellandae sint, equidem prorsus ignoro (…those machines that you see, which whether they should be called BI or BURES I have absolutely no idea).
3 What is this that roareth thus?/ Can it be a Motor Bus? (nominative singular)/ Yes, the smell and hideous hum/ Indicates a motor bus! (accusative singular)/ It fills me, in the Corn and High,(Two streets in central Oxford.)/The terror of the Motor Bus (genitive singular)/ I will shout out to the Motor Bus (dative singular)/ Lest I be killed by the Motor Bus— (ablative singular)/ Dative be or Ablative/ So thou only let us live:—/ Whither shall thy victims flee?/ Spare us, spare us, Motor Bus! (vocative singular)/ Thus I sang; and still anigh/ Motor Buses came in hordes (nominative plural)/ And there filled up the whole market/ Loads of Motor Buses (genitive plural)/ How shall wretches live like us/ Surrounded by Motor Buses? (ablative plural)/ O Lord, defend us/ Against these Motor Buses! (accusative plural).
4 The poem first appeared in Favonius 40 (1987) 40.
5 The parrotfish, truth be told.
6 [Of the charmer] and the gentleman
7 and the feather-wearing Arabella
8 Street-seller of vegetables; also ‘coster’.
9 was 
10 and he was driving an ass
11 The market in London’s West End.
12 vegetables
13 he sold, and asparagus too
14 Sold it in [Piccadilly] Circus
15 Cockney slang for a lady.
16 Where Piccadilly approaches
17 flowers [Arabella sold!]
18 Now it’s Whitmonday [the day after Whitsun, then a bank holiday in the UK]
19 a major thoroughfare in South London
20 burst forth in great number to celebrate
21 party, knees-up, bean-feast
22 Each had his hat [billycock] and brought along his lady [donah]
23 and sat on their bikes
24 popular songs
25 everyone 
26 making due allowance for those whereof due allowance needs making
27 our inconsolable hero
28 does he have
29 alone without a girl
30 Through
31 Borough, the London region just south of the Thames
32 two streets heading West
33 journey was made to The Empire [a celebrated music hall in Leicester Square]
34 There they head up Coventry Street
35 at last
36 rides along
37 But may he who has never loved love!
38 When – lo! – suddenly disperse his
39 is clocked
40 When the bloomin’ beautiful image of that girl comes over him,
41 delight in his heart does
42 he cries out
43 Hey up!
44 The girl says, “It’s a god, look, a god!,” and abandons her flowers.
45 She sits behind the ass, and they head to the Welsh Harp [a famous pub at Brent Resevoir] near Hendon.
46 Oh, source of the Brent Resevoir [in North London]!
47 Lying back under the cover of a brolly [umbrella],
48 taking her by the arms
49 “Come off it”, she said blushing, and “Come off it” reverberated in echo.
50 “the imperturbably proposing”
51 <said>
52 So help me and love me
53 And that’s when the tears began
54 Time is now passing
55 pick them up and go
56 In the cover of darkness Jones repeated his kisses and gave free rein to the ass [moke]
57 A hand-held concertina addressed sixteen distinct voices.
58 they sing (don’t be harsh, good Mr Policemen
59 Night in Old Kent Road, punning on the music-hall number Knocked-em in Old Kent Road.
60 Thus passes the glory of Monday (punning on the Papal Latin formula ending with mundi).
61 The skit first appeared in The Salopian, the magazine of Shrewsbury School, for 1918.