Metre and Writer

Stephen Coombs

Making use of Latin

“What’s the use of Latin?” We’d normally understand that as a rhetorical question with “use” meaning “benefit”, but I suspect that won’t be the whole story in the near future. The interest shown in Latin at the moment is to some extent of a novel kind, barely recognisable to us who were taught the language decades ago simply because a GCE qualification in it was required to get into certain universities. Latin is now frequently being made use of: admittedly as an oral medium and with the ostensible purpose of better attaining traditional academic goals. But any new or recovered facility in the everyday use of a language is likely to lead some blessed – or wretched? – souls to want to go a step further, to wield it with literary aspirations. It happened with Esperanto and Revived Hebrew. If someone told me it’s happening with Klingon I wouldn’t be too surprised.

With active use comes innovation. There are stories of how non-classical expressions have been able to spread internationally among exponents of Living (i.e. spoken) Latin. This may become a problem for those intent on preserving the purity of Golden Age usage. Not quite so fraught with danger is the written use of a tongue – after all a writer has time soberly to consider the propriety of his idiom and the advisabilty of to any extent sidestepping ancient precedent.

However literary aspiration isn’t compatible with the pretence of living in a circumscribed antiquity – or so it seems to me. Whereas a craftsperson of any kind bears in mind the needs and tastes of his or her clientèle, an artist has the additional obligation to realise his or her own needs and tastes, to deal with the fundamentals of his or her outer and inner existence. To achieve this aim no means can be spurned. The resources of the the entire history of Latin are available. They can be augmented with occasional neologisms. Sometimes the remit of an old term may need to be stretched, or a grammatical construction applied where it hasn’t been found before. Nonetheless the essential integrity of the language, its truth to itself, will need to be preserved. That can rightly be demanded by putative readers, but it will be even more indispensible to the self-respecting writer.

The title-page of a celebrated collection of 20th-century Latin poetry (Artemis, Zurich/Stuttgart, 1961). It reads “The Living Muse: Latin poets of the present age, collected and edited by Josef Eberle, with a brief account “On more recent Latin literature” by Josef and Line Ijsewijn-Jacobs.”

Apologia Apollinea: or, a Defence of Poetry

As a sixteen-year-old, just before Christmas, I composed a slightly lame, by intention jocular elegiac couplet and wrote it on the blackboard before the arrival of our Latin master, Mr Lyman, an infinitely kind and painstaking but conventionally minded man:

Ecce bene ornato puer obstat limine visco:
    sicne puellas vult protegere a pueris?[1]

See, a boy is blocking a doorway nicely decorated with mistletoe; does he want in this way to protect the girls from the boys?

He took it in his stride, checked with me (whom else?) that viscum did indeed mean “mistletoe” and then without comment started the lesson.

Elegiacs weren’t on the syllabus – the only poetry we were dealing with was a book of the Aeneid – but I think Mr Lyman may have shown us how they scanned when introducing the subject of Latin metre. Around that time I also attempted a poem on Phaethon in hendecasyllabics, a metre which I’m sure I only knew about from some manual or other, rather than from the poetry of Catullus or Martial. Back then it was just the idea of quantitative verse that intrigued me: only later did I fall in love with its multi-faceted beauty, when I eventually plucked up courage and intruded myself into the company of Horace, in whom GCE requirements took no interest.

Me valde iuvenem modo Horatius adficit pavore

    cuius vix operas trepidans aperire cupivi.
        Tollo forte librum, pagina mox patet,
            ignota aspicio soluta verba
quae sunt “Nox erat et caelo” velut antea repulsus

    sim de proposita porta sine cardine Flacci
        iamque admissus habens advena tesseram:
            pugno pignus inest, vocatus ergo
degustare queo tot cetera quot creavit ille.[2]

In my early youth it happens to be just Horace that strikes me with dread, and I’ve hardly yearned, in my trembling, to open his works. I pick up a book by chance, a page is soon visible, I spy these free-flowing, new to me words: “It was night and up in the sky” – as if I’ve been hitherto thrust away from Horace’s hingeless confronting door, but admitted now that I turn up with a ticket; the key-card is in my fist, I’m therefore invited to taste and enjoy all the rest of what he has created.

A snippet from William Morris’ 1874 manuscript of Horace’s Odes (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Lat. e 38). The text pictured shows the end of Odes 1.27 and the beginning of 1.28. The full manuscript can be explored here.

Through adulthood I occasionally essayed short poems in Latin. It was only when I retired from teaching that for a year or two I found myself positively pouring out Latin verse. It was as if a need had been accumulating for decades to take my own part in creating the sort of writing I loved best. Now the dam had burst. And since I was – am – one of those people who can hardly come across a set of similar-but-distinct entities without considering how the set might be added to, besides plying well-known metres and strophic forms (Horace, Catullus, Seneca) I experimented with new patterns.

To me the possibility of metrical innovation seemed perfectly obvious. I found the variety of Horace’s metres enchanting and worth taking further. I’d noticed deviations from Golden Age formal practice in Ausonius, Prudentius and Boethius (the verses of The Consolation of Philosophy). I’d come across a novel epodic system tried out by Paul Melissus (1539–1602) in the 16th century. In modern languages poets have invented new rhythms, stanza forms and rhyme schemes with complete freedom. My intention was not at all to pretend to be an Augustan, but rather to produce new, true poetry that would be enjoyable to any contemporaries able and inclined to peruse it. My poems should unmistakeably not have the nature of academic exercises or jeux d’esprit. Though remaining strictly loyal to the principles of quantitative verse I felt that where their actual deployment was concerned I wasn’t bound by precedent or taboo.

Paulus Melissus, engraving by Jean-Jacques Boissard, c.1597. The elegiac couplet at the bottom means “Let German poets come and compete for their stake: the Frankish swan will win through his polished poetry.”

Eventually an amount of material had accumulated which raised the question of an attempt at self-publishing. I felt very unsure about going ahead, but through an intermediary I was able to ask the opinion of the greatly respected Italian-American poet Joseph Tusiani (1924–2020), and was reassured by him that what I was producing “was indeed poetry”. With the help of a Stockholm book designer, Ingela Hallonquist, a volume was put together under the title In Perendinum Aevum (“Into the age of the day after tomorrow”), and in the spring of 2015 a few copies were indeed privately printed.

Things could have ended there in decent obscurity. However a few years before this I’d seen and answered a call for a Latin translation of ‘All in the golden afternoon’, Carroll’s introductory poem to Alice in Wonderland (1865). This had been omitted by Clive Harcourt Carruthers in his Latin version of the story published in 1964. Now a revised edition of this Latin Alice was being prepared for Evertype (a frankly astonishing enterprise whose list I recommend every linguistically minded lifeform among us to look into). To my pleasant surprise I found the task of revision had been taken on by a Swede, Johan Winge, then living in Uppsala where I taught.

My careful paraphrase of the poem in iambic trimeters – so much more suited to the purpose than anything dactylic – was accepted. (Through Johan I also got to know Daniel Pettersson who would go on to establish the website Latinitium.) Then in 2015 I found on enquiry that Michael Everson, based in Ireland at the time, was prepared for my still virtually unhatched collection of Latin poetry “with parallel texts and notes in English” to appear under his Evertype imprint. Such a happy concatenation of circumstances can be put down to luck or to a fluke or as a case of “it was meant to be”, but it was truly, to apply an abused term appropriately, awesome.

“Others are less like you than you could ever guess.”

My Latin verse has been formed almost entirely by my own taste: the exceptions would be pieces designed for a scholastic context. And my own taste was above all for Horatian variety. The less often Horace had used a metre or system the more precious it seemed in my eyes, or rather ears. To me the rhythm (the rhythm pure and simple) of Epode 16 (Second Pythiambic) suggests a unique degree of urgency.

Distribue acceptos panes, o divide pisces,
    sed haud edenda frusta frugis editae
restituas ne quid pereat pereamve relictus:
    tuere Christe me virentem et integrum.[3]

Distribute the loaves you have accepted, oh share out the fishes, but of the produce dealt out restore the crumbs that are not to be consumed, lest anything be lost, or I be left behind and lost; O Christ, keep me safe, thriving and whole.

The rhythm of Horace’s Ode 1.4 (Fourth Archilochian) conveys spaciousness and reflection:

Lumina sim tua, mens tua sim, tua lingua gustet ore:
    tecum pererrem semitas perennes:
quod didicisti tunc discam modo naribus reductum
    inter ruinas curruumque bellum.[4]

Let me be your eyes, your mind, let your tongue taste in my mouth, with you let me wander eternal paths; what you learnt then let me learn simply by drawing breath among ruins and the warfare of the traffic.

For me, Catullus’ Galliambics (Poem 63) convey a mood of crisis, disaster:

Modo me necant in ira: nihil aestimabile
sapiunt, nihil verentur, potius ciet odium
fastidiosum in has res dulcedine saturas.[5]

They killed me out of anger, nothing more; they recognise nothing worthy of esteem, they fear nothing, they are rather impelled by a disgusted hatred of these things saturated with sweetness.

Of course I’ve also used well-known metres, in particular the iambic trimeter, which has often seemed to be a natural choice. But the idea of creating new long wodges of dactylic hexameter or elegiacs hasn’t appealed to me.

A fragment of one of the oldest manuscripts of Virgil’s Aeneid (6.688–96), the late-4th-century Codex Sangallensis (Switzerland, St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 1394, p.31), which can be freely explored here.

One hopes all one’s life that one’s most fundamental notions will be shared by others. Would that they were! To my chagrin I’ve been compelled to acknowledge that the old saw “Do as you would be done by” holds no water. We want, we appreciate different things.

Ecce senectutem nacti sapientia dicta:
esse minus similes alios tibi quam fore credas.[6]

Here’s wisdom expressed by someone who’s reached old age: other people are less like you than you’d expect them to be.

I’d felt naively that there could be no shortage of folk able to read Latin at least as easily as I and presumably open to being offered new, tasty fare. I and my hypothetical reader demanded what we considered a decent but not excessively precedent-chasing concern for correctness. We weren’t after pastiche. A lover of Horace can very well choose in his own verse to avoid certain elisions (of long vowels and diphthongs, say) even more completely than his hero, and at the same time to allow himself more frequent short syllables at the ends of verses.

In such matters every author has a right to his or her own taste. When it satisfies him (excuse the masculine pronoun, I can’t deny I’m primarily thinking of my own non-non-binary self now) he can commit to paper Alcaics whose lines are end-stopped in a way that isn’t Horace’s. Genres can coalesce – for example the lyrical and the causerie – and some bits of the wall between prosy and poetic vocabularies can be pushed over.

Horace reads his poems in front of Maecenas, Fyodor Bronnikov, 1863 (Odesa Art Museum, Ukraine).

Concessions to individuality aren’t concessions to laxness. In every aspect of his craft a poet must in my view demand of himself the same degree of stringency (even though the stringency be of a novel kind) as would be called for by sticking to ancient precedents. One piece of mine, Onyx Nardi,[7] takes the form of a dialogue concerning the interpretation of Horace’s Odes 4.12. The strophe is composed of Asclepiadean verses (1st Lesser, 3rd Greater) and iambic (2nd trimeter, 4th dimeter):

     — — — ∪ ∪ — | — ∪ ∪ — ∪ X
        ∪ — ∪ — X — ∪ — X — ∪ X
— — — ∪ ∪ — | — ∪ ∪ — | — ∪ ∪ — ∪ X
            ∪ — ∪ — X — ∪ X

It was clear to me even before I put any words on paper that this combination of rhythms which I’d designed needed the first syllable of every iambic (even-numbered) verse always to be short, whereas it would conventionally be treated as anceps, i.e. of optional length (short or long). Why this should be so I don’t think I can fully explain, except that it seems to be required to preserve a sense of continuity from the end of the preceding Asclepiadean verse.

    Cur nardum socius de Styge commodet,
        vocatus a te versibus praenuntiis
provecta fragili nave animae dimidium tuae?
            Morine nunc optaveris?[8]

Why should your friend supply balm from the regions of the Styx, he whom you named in prophetic lines, when a fragile bark had sailed away, half of your own soul? Might you now have chosen to die?

Poetry in English has suffered enormously from free-spirited slap-happiness following, I suppose, a feeling that rhyme was becoming so trite and accentual metre so slack that verse was being impoverished rather than enriched by them. To turn from such a situation to quantitative verse is to breathe the air of a different world, more bracing, more satisfying.[9]

The manuscript of Tennyson’s poem “Hendecasyllabics”, which has gentle fun with the idea of writing English verse in Classical metres, in this case doing so by deploying the Phalaecian hendecasyllabic (written in 1863; London, British Library, Add MS 37515)

A poet has an enormous responsibilty to himself or herself and to his or her public, however putative the latter may be. No names, no pack drill (a Mr Lymanism!) – I find Latin verse published by academics in recent years by and large to be exhibitions of would-be artfulness rather than artistry. Quite possibly one person’s banality is another’s profundity, but surely there should be a point to a poem beyond the reader’s surprise that it’s been fabricated at all. Easy but unwarranted choices are made because they fit metrically and seem superficially serendipitous: but seriously, what are we to think of a grandmother who addresses her newly born grandson as Ligurinus? Verse is regularly weakened by facile insertions of ecce, en, quin, –que etc.; or by the use of nec or neque where only non or haud makes proper sense. Expedient recourse to exceptional inflected forms, undue licence with regard to syllable length – these lessen one’s respect for what one’s reading and thus one’s enjoyment also.

In poetry when the sense is flowing the words should also flow.

Possumus interdum dimittere vel fugare curas,
        sed cuncta oblectamenta finientur
    valentque degravare serum saeculum
            gaudia nata hodie.[10]

At times we are able to put aside or chase away our cares, but all pleasures will be terminated and joys born today have power to weigh down upon a later age.

Convoluted word order – what my mind files in a drawer marked “Quis multa gracilis” – has its place as stylistic decoration with a certain elevated, more serious or deeper tone. My version of the Carroll poem mentioned above ends with these lines:

Narrationem liberis idoneam
Alicia sumptam pone leniter precor
ligant puellae qua memoriae copias
in gaudiorum serta veterum mystica,
similia florum iam coronae marcidae
quos in remotis tractibus carpsit pie
nactus viator numinis sacrarium.[11]

Take, Alice, a tale designed for the young to hear
and lay it gently, I beg you, in the place
where girls entwine their memories’ resources
into mystic garlands of joys from days gone by,
not unlike the flowers, now just a withered wreath,
which in faraway lands a traveller piously picked
when he had reached the shrine of a deity.

The effect of the word order in the third and fourth Latin lines just quoted contrasts with the more natural, everyday structure of the preceding text and seems to me to suit the reverent affection Carroll no doubt felt for his young charges. He’d written:

Alice! A childish story take,
    And, with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
    In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers
    Pluck’d in a far-off land.

Alice Liddell, aged eight, photographed by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in 1860; Alice’s father was the Greek lexicographer Henry George Liddell.

The Muse, the mojo

Whether we prefer the metaphor of a Muse standing by or of a mojo working its sorcery we experience enormous pleasure when in the moulding of a piece of art everything seems effortlesly to fall into place. Alliteration presents itself uncontrivedly:

hilarantes ululatus utricularii[12]

the cheerful wailings of a bagpiper

And who would have guessed that the likeness of geometres and gemens could bear significance?

    relicta tantum est ars geometrarum
melos orum et cithararum facta gementium[13]

left is only the art of the geometers turned into a melody of sighing mouths and guitars

I was especially pleased when I found u and l sounds rolling up unbidden in a passage using the metaphor of swallowing or gulping.

Reicite haec folia muti doloris, lugubri
    nolite laedi nucleo cuius simul
pulpa gulis satura miratione defluat.[14]

Reject this foliage of mute grief, do not be harmed by the fruitstone of mourning while down your throats its flesh slips rich in wonder.

There is a similar delight when already decided metrical schemes turn out to be tailor-made to fit a certain essential phrase.

    Quid nuntiatur universitate

What is the university’s message?

A lecture at the University of Bologna, Laurentius de Voltolina, 1360s (Kupferstichkabinett Berlin, Germany). The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is the oldest in Europe.

Sui ipsius interpres – one’s own interpreter

The poetry worth translating from one language to  another is that to which one would least want to do injustice, and I haven’t been keen to try. An exception can be made for light verse, such as Lewis Carroll’s. I was especially pleased to find the perfect metrical medium, anapaestic dimeter, for a poem which got deleted from Through the Looking-Glass:

Me nunc etiam si forte vident
ludificantur vocitantque suem:
unica causa est inimicitiae
flavum, virgo cara, galerum.[16]

Even now if they happen to see me they make fun of me and call me a pig; the only reason for their unfriendliness, dear girl, is the yellow wig.

Carroll’s original:

And still, whenever I appear,
They hoot at me and call me “Pig!”
And that is why they do it, dear,
Because I wear a yellow wig.

Alice goes through the looking glass, illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Carroll’s book, 1870.

However one feels no qualms about transferring to Latin, more or less freely, the content of verses one has previously written oneself in another language – in my case English, Swedish or German. Under the title Fragmenta Mythica I found it satisfying to make ten pieces of 14 x 6 syllables in English into ten pieces of 12 x 11 syllables in Latin. In the following example the paraphrase manages to outdo the original with its final play on seeing and sight.

To a Clarinettist

My love, if I were blind,
then would you take my part;
with pity in your mind
and deep thoughts in your heart
you’d bend to let me touch
your sweet and darkened face:
you will not grant so much
intimacy and grace
to an unbroken reed.
Must I be cut and shaped
to be worthy your kiss?
See how my soul is scraped
by sorrow’s knife! I bleed!
But you’ll not bend for this.

Ad Tibicinem

Mel meum, si caecus amicus essem
    tunc ferres mihi opem: libente clemens
        mente cogitansque abscondita venis
            deflectereris ut tuam tenebris
tangerem dulcem faciem. Negabis
    non fracto calamove arundinive
        gratiam intimam: caedine opus esset
            fortasse formarique iam priore
sorte quassato mihi ut ore dignus
    mellito fierem? Vide cruentum
        cor doloris hic rasum mihi cultro!
            Videns tamen non flecteris videnti.[17]

To a Player on a Reed Instrument
My darling, if I were a blind friend then you would come to my rescue; with compassion in your willing mind and thinking hidden things in your veins you’d bend so that in darkness I might touch your sweet face. You’ll deny intimate grace to an unbroken rush or reed; do I perhaps need, already bruised by earlier misfortune, to be cut and shaped in order to deserve your honeyed mouth? See my heart here covered in blood, scraped by sorrow’s knife! But you, seeing, do not bend for me who myself have sight.

A roman tibia found in Syria, early 1st millennium AD (Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York, USA).


The title I’ve given this presentation – “Metre and Writer” – may bring to mind (at least for older readers with an Anglican upbringing) the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “it is very meet, right and our bounden duty.” To write, paint, compose can be, in an utterly private way, an obligation: to oneself, to whatever one believes in, and even (hybris alert!) to other mortals. What’s one supposed to do when one has little evidence of others’ interest, when one’s not been reached by any feedback to speak of? Another problem, almost as intractable as that of creativity itself.

Stephen Coombs was born in Weymouth, Dorset, in 1943; he attended Weymouth Grammar School, read Music at Balliol College, Oxford (1962-1965) and has been resident in Stockholm since 1966, teaching mainly music at primary and secondary level. He co-founded in 1994 Katarinaskolan, a free school in Uppsala, where languages are especially well catered for and where in the early years a unique introductory course could be offered in Latin and linguistic matters in general. He retired in 2010. 

The book shown in the header image to this piece is from Arthur Ainger and Henry Wintle’s English-Latin Gradus (London, 1891), a book worth its weight in gold, and freely accessible here.


1 Please excuse a tyro’s clumsy placing of the monosyllable vult!
2 Stephen Coombs (Stephanus Coombs), In Perendinum Aevum (published by Evertype in 2015, henceforth IPA) 91. The four rotating verses of the system, invented ad hoc, are (in the order seen here) Greater Archilochian, dactylic hexameter (these two in this poem always beginning — — — ∪ ∪ — as the remaining pair do regularly), Lesser Asclepiadean, Phalaecian hendecasyllabic.
3 IPA, 73.
4 IPA, 141.
5 IPA, 133.
6 IPA, 153; dactylic hexameters.
7 IPA, 57ff.
8 IPA, 63.
9 The thesis is almost universally denied, but I’m convinced that exacting, successful quantitative verse could be written in English, once conventions for its implementation had been adapted from ancient precursors, just as conventions for Latin quantitative verse had needed to be adapted from Greek models. I’ve worked on a few examples of how this might be done.
10 IPA, 43. Greater Archilochian, iambic trimeter catalectic, iambic trimeter acatalectic, dactylic hemipentameter.
11 IPA, 145; iambic trimeter.
12 IPA, 3.
13 IPA, 7. These verses, from a system shared by the hilarantes ululatus utricularii quotation above and Quid nuntiatur universitate / studiorum below, , are scanned X — ∪ — X — ∪ — ∪ — X / ∪ ∪ — —| ∪ ∪ — — | — ∪ ∪ — ∪ X.
14 IPA, 79; third Archilochian, cf. Horace Epodes 9.
15 IPA, 9.
16 IPA, 147.
17 IPA, 51. The verses are arranged in fours thus: a Lesser Sapphic, a Phalaecean, a novel structure — ∪ — ∪ — — — ∪ ∪ — X, and lastly an iambic trimeter catalectic. The principle uniting the first three verses is that each represents a re-arrangement of the same components, two trochees and the sequence — — — ∪ ∪, in each case finished off by a final — X.