Vice versificata: Poetry in the Remaking

Stephen Coombs

I would like to present and exemplify some points regarding the translation of poetry. Perhaps I can persuade a few readers to re-evaluate the business of tackling Latin versification, perhaps even encourage them to try it seriously themselves.

In a previous piece for Antigone entitled “Metre and Writer” I wrote:

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.

Since then I’ve felt dissatisfied with the end of that sentence. My examples there were all taken from In Perendinum Aevum, a collection devoid of translations from great poets. But I should confess that recently I have tried my hand at this task a number of times. The reader will be able to judge to what extent I’ve managed to pull it off.

So far as I know, verse composition in the Classical languages is taught, if at all, as a way of acquainting students with the rules of quantitative versification. The student is deemed incapable of providing content of his or her own, therefore translation or paraphrase is the method imposed. What isn’t sufficiently considered in practice is the succinctness of all good verse: its very integrity. Nothing is more destructive to poetry than padding out. The dimensions and the shape of a Latin translation ought not to conflict (indeed where possible to correspond) with those of the original. There are several ways in which this can be achieved.

One of four illustrations of Virgil’s Georgics (1.145-6), Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter, c.1683 (King John III Palace Museum, Wilanów, Poland).

Translating Free Verse and Poetic Prose

When an original poem has no easily definable structure, the choice of a Latin metre or system lies of course rather wide open. In antiquity iambic metres were considered closest to ordinary speech.[1] I was drawn to these few lines by the Portuguese poet António Botto (1897–1959).

Busco a beleza na forma;
E jamais
Na beleza da intenção
A beleza que perdura.

Só porque o bronze é de boa qualidade
Não se deve
Consagrar uma escultura.

I look for beauty only in form and never in beauty of intention: the beauty which lasts. Just because the bronze is of good quality there is no obligation to consecrate a sculpture.

In trimeters, the commonest iambic verse:

Ipsa venustum quaesii forma modo
nunquamque bello mens quod intendit sibi:
videlicet durante pulchritudine.
Tantum quod aere est facta de probissimo
debet sacrari statua nulla numinis.

I have sought the charming in form alone and never in any attractiveness purposed for itself by the mind; that is to say in the beauty that lasts. Simply because it has been made of the finest bronze no statue of a deity needs to be consecrated.

Title-page of Antonio Botto’s Canções (“Songs”).

The oxymoronic term ‘prose poem’ is modern, but there’s a parameter in the narrative of the best writers which, at one end, does overlap with poetry. The final words of Tonio Kröger (1901), the  unforgettable novella of Thomas Mann (1875–1955), are a case in point:

Aber meine tiefste und verstohlenste Liebe gehört den Blonden und Blauäugigen, den hellen Lebendigen, den Glücklichen, Liebenswürdigen und Gewöhnlichen. Schelten Sie diese Liebe nicht, Lisaweta; sie ist gut und fruchtbar. Sehnsucht ist darin und schwermütiger Neid und ein klein wenig Verachtung und eine ganze keusche Seligkeit.

But my deepest and most furtive love belongs to the blond and blue-eyed, the bright lively ones, the happy, love-worthy and ordinary. Do not rebuke this love, Lisaweta; it is good and fruitful. There is longing in it and melancholic envy and a tiny measure of contempt and a whole, chaste blessedness.

This time iambic dimeter seemed called for, and a vocabulary of an everyday kind – ‘extraordinarius’ for example – is in this context perfectly suited to its rôle.[2]

At est profundus maxime,
furtivus est summe meus
amor capillos aureos
et lumina horum caerula
habentium, qui lucidi,
qui vividi cum gaudio
amabilesque se gerunt
nec extraordinarii.
Ne forte castigaveris
meum hunc amorem idoneum
ac fructuosum: sic amans
et invidus desidero
fioque demissus simul:
aliquantulum haud deest pectori
contemptus, haud quaedam meis
pars, Lisaveta, sensibus
castae beatitudinis.

But my deepest love, my most furtive, is for these with golden hair and blue eyes, who comport themselves brightly, in a lively way, joyfully, lovably and not at all remarkably. Do not by chance reproach this fitting and fruitful love of mine: loving thus I both yearn enviously and at the same time am made downcast. In my heart contempt is found a little, and in my feelings, Lisaveta, a certain portion of chaste blessedness.

Photograph of Thomas Mann in his twenties (c.1900).

‘Length of Thought’ Line by Line

It seems to me that the practice of forcing all sorts of texts into the mould of dactylic hexameters or elegiac couplets must have a bad effect on the development of poetic sensibility. It all too often results in the redundant and vapid. Only exceptionally does the ‘length of thought’ (if the expression be excused) in lines of English verse correspond to the capacity of a dactylic line. Nonetheless cases do occur, as with this poem of A.E. Housman (1859–1936), which goes very nicely into elegiacs:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
    My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
    The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

Oh, grant me the ease that is granted so free,
    The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
    With flint in the bosom and guts in the head.

Sidera non sortita mihi quae pessima possint:
    dulcia multa puto, sola molesta duo.
Attamen his eheu privor requiete duobus,
    quod capiti cerebro cordeque inest sinui.

O securam animam date quae donatur abunde,
    possideam quod plebs in patrimonium habet
quae perfructa cibo dormit tranquilla cubili:
    pectore enim silicem, viscera temporibus.

The stars have not dealt me the worst they might do;
    many things I find pleasant, irksome only two.
But by these two, alas, I am deprived of rest,
    the brain that is in my head and the heart that is in my breast.

Oh give me the unworried soul which is granted in abundance,
    let me possess what the common people have as their inheritance,
who having relished their food sleep tranquil in their beds –
    flint indeed in their chests and guts in their temples.

A.E. Housman aged 18, on his arrival at St John’s, Oxford (1877).

To take the case of another familiar metre: it so happens that Ariel’s song “Full Fathom Five”, sung to Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act I, Scene 2), fits neatly line by line into hendecasyllabics:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich, and strange.
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

Quinque ulnas pater incubat profundo:
mutantur propria in corallium ossa:
sunt iam lumina facta margaritae:
nil de corpore perdidit colorem,
sed vertunt mare agente cuncta membra
in miranda elementa sumptuosa.
Illum Nereides gemunt in horas.
Heus! Cautes modo nenia resultant!

Your father lies five fathoms deep;
his bones are transmuted to coral;
his eyes have already become pearls;
nothing of his body has lost its colour,
but by the sea’s action all his parts
are changing into wondrous rich elements.
The Nereids mourn him upon the hour.
Listen! The cliffs are right now resounding with their song of lamentation.

Ferdinand’s encounter with Ariel, an illustration by A.E. Jackson from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (London, 1918).

Verse Patterns that Suggest Latin Counterparts

The format of a beautiful poem by Stefan George (1868–1933) looks on paper very much like that of Horace’s Ode 2.18, Non ebur nec aureum, which is a unique example of the rather demanding Hipponactean system. It consists of pairs of verses, one short, one long, together comprising nine trochees (long-short), only two of which may be converted into spondees (long-long):[3]

   — ∪ — ∪ — ∪ X

X — ∪ — X | — ∪ — ∪ — X

   — ∪ — ∪ — ∪ X

X — ∪ — X | — ∪ — ∪ — X

The challenge is plain!

Mein kind kam heim.
Ihm weht der seewind noch im haar·
Noch wiegt sein tritt
Bestandne furcht und junge lust der fahrt.

Vom salzigen sprühn
Entflammt noch seiner wange brauner schmelz:
Frucht schnell gereift
In fremder sonnen wildem duft und brand.

Sein blick ist schwer
Schon vom geheimnis das ich niemals weiss
Und leicht umflort
Da er vom lenz in unsern winter traf.

So offen quoll
Die knospe auf dass ich fast scheu sie sah
Und mir verbot
Den mund der einen mund zum kuss schon kor.

Mein arm umschliesst
Was unbewegt von mir zu andrer welt
Erblüht und wuchs –
Mein eigentum und mir unendlich fern.

My child came home; the sea wind blows still in his hair; his tread sways still from fear survived and youthful joy in journeying.

The brown lustre of his cheeks is still inflamed with salt spray, fruit ripened quickly in the wild scent and burning of foreign suns.

His gaze is already heavy with the secret I shall never know, and lightly veiled by his entering from spring into our winter.

The bud has burst so open that I have beheld it almost shyly and forbidden myself the mouth which has already chosen a mouth for its kiss.

My arm embraces what without my prompting has blossomed and grown to reach another world – belonging to me and infinitely far from me.

Stefan George (back right) among friends, 1902 (original in Amsterdam University Library, Holland).

Ad larem venit puer
    marisque venti flant adhuc capillis:
post iter movet metu
    victo pedem et nunc gaudium iuventae:

ros salis genas adhuc
    rubore fulvas conciet flagrante,
poma odoribus feris
    mox cocta et aestu solis insolentis:

iam gravatur abdito
    vultus quod unquam noscere haud licebit
fitque brumam opacior
    de vere nostram consequente passu:

sic patente flosculo
    paene in pudorem lapsus intuebor
me vetans dare osculum
    labris rogatis antea tributum:

quiddam enim ferax rosae
    amplector ac me nil agente adultum
vitam in alteram, mihi
    possessum et ultra metienda distans.

The boy comes to his home and the winds of the sea blow still in his hair; after travel and with fear conquered his foot is still being stirred by the joy of youth:

the salt’s spray still excites his tanned cheeks with blazing ruddiness, fruit soon ripened by wild scents and by the burning of an outlandish sun:

his face is burdened now with a secret I shall never be allowed to know, and made more shadowed by the step that takes him out of spring into our winter;

the bud is so wide open that I shall look on having almost succumbed to shyness, forbidding myself to give the kiss that in the past has been granted to lips he has requested;

for I am embracing something abundant in blossom and grown without my participation into another life, possessed by me and distant beyond what can be measured.

Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany).

Translating into a Strophic Pattern

Poets in modern languages often create nonce structures, one-offs as one might say, that are plain to the eye and ear, but have no particular life of their own beyond this piece of verse. A Latin version will also need a clear structure, and there are a half-dozen or so standard alternatives that spring to mind.

I undertook the following translation of the opening of John Donne’s “Lovers Infinitenesse[4] as a reaction to another man’s translation done in the manner I abhor, spinning out eleven English lines into twenty Latin. Using the same metre, and faithful to my own principles, I was able to say what should be said, with due artistic effect, I think, in twelve Latin lines:

If yet I have not all thy love,
Deare, I shall never have it all,
I cannot breath one other sigh, to move;
Nor can intreat one other tear to fall,

And all my treasure, which should purchase thee –
Sighs, teares, and oathes, and letters I have spent,
Yet no more can be due to mee,
Than at the bargaine made was ment;

If then thy gift of love were partiall,
That some to mee, some should to others fall,
Deare, I shall never have Thee All.

Si tuus iam cunctus amor negatus,
cara, nunquam illum solidum tenebo:
edere haud planctus valeam movendo
    corda novatos,

nec iubere ultra lacrimare ocellos:
tot meas gazas quibus olim emaris,
litteras, fletus, gemitus, sacrata
    verba profudi.

Sola mi debes tamen ante pacta.
Dasne quod commune sit aemulorum
gratiae donum? Mihi tota deeris,
    lux mea, semper.

If your entire love has already been refused me, dear, I shall never truly own it; I should not be able to bring out renewed lamentations for the swaying of hearts, nor any more command my eyes to weep: so many treasures of mine with which you at some time should be bought, writings, wailings, sighs, sacred promises I have squandered. But you owe me only what was agreed before. Do you bestow the gift of your favour for it to be shared with my rivals? I shall be utterly without you for ever, my darling.

Portrait of John Donne, unknown artist, c.1595 (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Traduttore… er… Traduttore[5]

There can never be a perfect translation of poetry from one language into another. I’m well aware of blemishes in these samples, but I believe that all things considered such attempts are worth making so long as a degree of poetic effect is achieved and the watering down of original content avoided or at least rigorously minimised. I wish you enjoyment and luck, makers and readers of verse translations!

Stephen Coombs was born in Weymouth, Dorset, in 1943; he attended Weymouth Grammar School, read Music at Balliol College, Oxford (1962–5) and has been resident in Stockholm since 1967, 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. His earlier essay for Antigone can be read here.


1 Aristotle famously called the iambic metre “the most conversational” (μάλιστα… λεκτικόν, Poetics 1449a) of Greek metres, on the alleged ground that iambic rhythms are the commonest in human dialogue.
2 In his Epodes, Horace renounced initial anapaests in his iambic dimeters (alternating there with trimeters). However, in Prudentius, the most renowned author of unmixed iambic dimeters, they occur from time to time.
3 Horace makes only exceptional use of long first and fifth syllables in even-numbered verses. My task here has necessitated a deviation from his practice.
4 It is sometimes called “Love’s Infiniteness”.
5 The well known 18th-century Italian proverb says “Traduttori traditori“, “translators are traitors”. But actually “Traduttore traduttore” – “a translator is simply a translator”.