More Modern Latin Poetry

Antigone’s Choice

Today we run some more fun poems which play with the Classical tradition, and this time they’re all in Latin. We hope you have some fun with them, however much you do or don’t spend time with the Romans.

First up some cricket: Allen Beville “the Ram” Ramsay (1872–1955) reflects upon the loss of the Ashes in the 1921 test, where the Australians again beat England on home turf (the very event that back in 1882 had caused the stumps to be burned as tribute to the “death” of English cricket). Ramsay plans exacting revenge on the insufferably delighted Australians when the next series swings round on the other side of the planet:[1]

Greetings, land of the Antipodes, greetings, victorious Australians. Make hay while the sun shines; winter will come. I will visit distant shores, the upside-down peoples and the Southern Cross. Often will I count out 100 runs, and often 200; I will win a hat-trick and send the stumps flying. Seize the day. You will again mourn the loss of the Ashes. Rejoice when I am a boy, as you’ll be sorry when I’m a man.[2]

Now over to the venerable Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804–1889), famous for sharing the surname of his daughters who revised and primed Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer. The tale is told that, back in 1842, the polymath Temple Chevallier was in conversation with some fellow dons at the University of Durham, and the claim was made that anything at all could be put into Latin verse, however apparently inappropriate. Out of another (rather sceptical) don’s pocket emerged a dull-as-dishwater note, inviting the reader to a meeting about some civic engineering triviality. Chevallier turned up a version the next day, and many others tried their hands over subsequent years. But despite their cleverness, Kennedy’s own version stands supreme:[3]

One of the chaps most incurably addicted to versifying the seemingly unversifiable was Henry Broadbent (1852–1935), Librarian of Eton College. Every day he would find adverts in The Times and amuse himself by reinventing them as Ovidian (or sometimes Martialine) elegiac couplets. Here are just a couple of examples from the hundreds that survive:[4]

Writing Latin verse of course takes some practice, since not only do the rules have to be properly mastered but the prosody (lengths of individual syllables) of all manner of words needs to be ascertained. These can be easily looked up in any dictionary worth its salt, but if you don’t have the books to hand, you will find yourself having to guess. While serving as an examiner for a Classics scholarship at the University of Cambridge, A.E. Housman (1859–1936) amused himself by tackling one of the topics set for the competitors’ verse composition paper: “Nonae Novembres” (The Fifth of November), a.k.a. Guy Fawkes’ Night, when the English Parliament was very nearly blown up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Rather than attempting a decent poem of his own, Housman instead produces a mock student entry, having fun both with the difficulties that a student may face when trying to remember how words scan and also with the crudeness of the content that uninspired students may have to pile into their “poetry”. The lines are written in dactylic hexameters which deliberately involve inelegant word order, and half-remembered Classical tags, while intermittenly voicing their author’s compositional frustrations:


Come now, let’s explain in sweet-sounding song how, when you celebrate your Nones (5th), rainy November, the fires glow bright around Guy Fawkes.

Pope (Pāpa or Papā? – for the poet [Martial] whom it is impossible to mention in this verse [because his name Martiālis contains an inadmissible cretic rhythm][5], but can easily be named via clues, for he composed many epigrams, reports that it was appropriate for the Greeks to write both Āres and Ares[6] – and, to cause you all the more pain, I’ll add Papa), you who fill the peaks of the seven hills with your vast posterior, you Pope (Papa Pāpa Papā) are the cause of so many woes. And no wonder, since you are a woman arrayed in purple and are that beast with ten horns on the crown, whose number is 666.

My good Prōtestant (unless I should have said Protestant? For my dictionaries are far from poor old me, those dictionaries are far away but the invigilator is near; alone in Senate House do I in my misfortune compose these verses, while those books are at home), but, whether you want to hear Prōtestant or Protestant, you are good and, since you are, you may proceed to share my horror.

For I will sing by what deceit, by what trickery, and by what a great undertaking the most shameful Church of Rome tried to smash British politicians into smithereens, and to raise the king’s body [James I] to the sky along with them, but send it down below to his decapitated mother [Mary, Queen of Scots]. This was planned by the power of gunpowder [literally “fire-bearing dust”] and Guy Fawkes.

He was a Catholic; for the Cātholic (or Cathōlic or Catholīc) always delights in murder and bloodshed, and delights in crimes and a huge heap of evils, which, should anyone want to count them – but hold your step, Calliope, and go back to the Fifth of November, errant muse.

Therefore, when…[7]

Something a little stranger now. It’s an imitation of Horace, using that poet’s beloved Alcaic stanza, but the text translated is a poem all about Tide, the laundry detergent. Why does such a poem exist, you ask? No idea. But W.R. “Willie” Smyth (1915–73) of University College, Swansea, has a manifestly good time reworking it into Latin (where Tide inevitably becomes Aestus):

And to make things all the merrier, we get a mock “apparatus criticus” to the Latin text, in which the names of various Horatian scholars offer up comic alternatives to the wording, or invented manuscripts present silly nonsense. Housman worders about the rival brand Persil appearing in line 10; Richard Bentley is teased for his over-literal complaint that no-one can drink with only one lip, so labro in line 18 should become the plural labris; and Hieronymus Bosch (for it is he) sees the dystopian image of smoke (fumum) rather than suds (spumam) arising from the wash. Lollissimumst.[8]

Even in warfare Latin poetry can provide some welcome escape. A curious example comes from the First World War (1914–18). Although not commonly spoken about, because the destruction on the Continent was so much more unspeakable and horrific, over 500 British citizens were killed by German airships dropping bombs during the conflict. In 1915, Sir Alexander Lawrence (1874–1939) was serving in London as an Able Seaman in the Temple Company of the Anti-Aircraft Corps, since he had been deemed unfit for active service abroad. To deal with the Zeppelin Terror, his team manned a two-pounder “pom-pom” gun on the roof of Cannon Street Hotel. When it was deployed it became the first gun fired in defence of the capital. In close imitation of the opening of Book 2 of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura – where the philosopher celebrates the detachment from others’ troubles that the truly serene mind can enjoy – these hexameters give a suitably robust riposte to an invading force using terrifyingly new technology:

On fighting off Zeppelins: a fragment of Able Bodied Lucretius recently found and edited by a so-called “Able Seaman”:

Oh what is sweeter than defending the fortified camp on noisy Cannot Street by the River Thames, a peaceful camp which is raised up high by sailors’ learning, from which you may look down on the City and the various movements of the English people, free from worry and fear? It is also sweet, when great wings are disturbing the sky, to watch a flying Zeppelin from terra firma as it cuts rapidly through the clouds, bringing thunder and lightning[9] to wretched mortals with its nefarious technology. This is flanked by a Dove [the Etrich-Rumpler Taube plane], which shakes its winged oarage through the clouds of the sky with a great screech (the wicked German Emperor, so the story goes, endowed those obscene flyers with the name of Doves/Tauben). Neither with such assistance nor with those propellers will the Kaisers be allowed to defeat our proud and ancient island; in vain does this new Icarus imitate the arts of Daedalus, being bound to an unhappy fate. We attack them with pom-pom guns; the German hog falls to the ground, having dared to threaten such evil deeds, and to no avail does he brandish his Iron Cross. May all who are planning such evil also perish thus.[10]

These notes by Lawrence explain and expand the play:

Let that do for now. If you’re still keen for more, you can look back at this earlier anthology we ran. you have any particular favourites from (relatively) recent Latin poets, especially if they are playful with the form and practice of writing verses, please to get in contact and share them with us. We’re likely to run another selection in a couple of months time…


1 The poem, written in 1921, first appeared in the 1925 collection of verses Ros Rosarum.
2 Translation by David Lloyd.
3 This was first published in his stuffed-to-the-gills collection of verses, Between Whiles (1877).
4 Many of these were published in the collection Leviora (1924).
5 For more on what this actually means, you could try this piece.
6 In his epigram 9.11, Martial disparages those who write Eiarion for Earion: he compares the two Greek scansions of Ares in the vocative, with long and short alphas, as found at Iliad 5.31 and 455, before remarking that Roman poets should not take such licences.
7 Translation by Schwarzkopf Professional. The original manuscript, with the note “Fragment found in the Senate House on Jan. 13 [1921]”, i.e. the day after the exam, was given by Housman to his friend and colleague Henry Jackson, who donated it to Trinity College later that year (=Add. MS a/291).
8 The poem was published in the charming anthology of Horatian imitations that is appended to the intriguing, if eccentric, Horace the Minstrel: A Practical and Aesthetic Study of his Aeolic Verse by Noel Bonavia-Hunt. (2nd ed., Roundwood, Kineton, 1969).
9 tonitruque is a misprint for tonitrumque.
10 Translation by Erik Weisz; the poem first appeared in the Oxford Magazine for 14 May, 1915, and was later reprinted in Lawrence’s Aliunde: Translations and Verses (1938).