Larkin in Latin

Manus Oxoniensium

Philip Larkin (1922–85), one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century, was born one hundred years ago. But Larkin’s status as a major poet began rather late for him to meet with the fate enjoyed by many pre-20thcentury greats, of being frequently translated into Latin verse.[1] To celebrate his centenary, we have attempted to put this right.

Each of us has selected one or two of our favourite Larkin poems and attempted to translate it into the most appropriate sort of Latin verse. Larkin had a characteristic style: “Crumpled lugubriousness in plain man’s chat, / Moaning and muttering fuck from time to time.”[2] But he didn’t employ it in quite the same way in each poem. The structure of the verses and the subject of the poem also had their say. The Latin forms that we’ve felt appropriate to each poem have likewise varied.

Philip Larkin in 1957 (National Portrait Gallery, London, UK).

The tongue-in-cheek misanthropy of This be the Verse takes one of us towards a knowing sort of elegiac couplets; another seeks to capture the stanzaic turns of the poem by opting for the third asclepiad.[3] Versatile elegiacs are also apt for Within the Dream’s vision of love, or something like it. The Mower’s unobstructed view of death must be set on a metre that can bear the weight: let the burden rest on a hexameter. For Money, the resounding stanzaic structure of sapphics offers a chance to match Larkin’s quatrains. Complaints about a cocktail party in Party Politics bring us closer to the territory of Catullus or Martial, and Phalaecean hendecasyllables. But few metres, either in Latin or in English, have only a single, well-defined association, and it will be better to let them speak for themselves.

What would Larkin have made of this frolic? His own view was that the Classics themselves had been plundered too blatantly for too long in English verse, and that allusion had had its day:

I have no belief in ‘tradition’ or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or poets, which last I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right sort of people.[4]

The debt that Larkin’s verses owed to subtler, more formal aspects of Classical poetry and their impact on the English lyrical tradition must be explored elsewhere. He might, perhaps, have been pleased by our desire to pay tribute to his skill as a craftsman by trying to work out what exactly it is about his verses that needs to be carried across in translation. All the same, a non-pessimistic Larkin quotation with which to support this idea has not yet sprung to mind.

“Grumpy Cat”, defender of Myth-Kitty.

This be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

“Hic ille versus” (Elegiacs)

Corrumpunt tete penitus materque paterque –
   scilicet inviti – perficiuntque tamen.
quotquot uterque habuit tibi tradant omnia damna,
   pluraque te spectans addit uterque mala.

ipsi sed fatuis corrumpebantur ab illis
   indutis petaso ridiculaque toga;
en, rigidos vultus nunc falsaque mollia fingunt,
   saepius et rixas inter utrumque cient.

tradit homo lacrimas homini patiendaque maesta:
   tristitia, a, crescit pumicum ut ora maris.
o fuge quamprimum pedibus pernicibus illinc
   quisque agat ut natos parcat habere suos.

Armand D’Angour


Your mother and father corrupt you thoroughly – unwilling, to be sure – but they achieve it nonetheless. All the losses they have had they each hand down to you, and with you in view each adds more afflictions. But they were corrupted by those fools, dressed in hat and ridiculous toga. See, now they make their faces stern, now feign false blandishments, and they often stir up rows with each another. Man hands down tears and misery to man; sadness grows, ah, like the sea’s shoreline of pumice-rocks. Oh, flee as soon as you can from there with swift feet, and let everyone act to spare themselves having their own children.

“Hic ille versus” (Third/Fifth Asclepiads)

Mater teque pater, scilicet inscii,
iam pridem vitiis inficiunt suis
   ignotasque ruinas
      uni subiciunt tibi.

ipsi sunt patriis dotibus invicem
corrupti, suboles horrida tristium
   vanorumque parentum et
      grata bile tumentium.

heu, tradit miserum posteritas sibi
maerorem veluti defoditur specus:
   quin hinc, dum licet, exi,
      nec tu progeniem genas.

Maxwell Hardy


Your mother and your father, to be sure unknowingly, for a long time have been infecting you with their own faults and laying unknown catastrophes beneath you alone. They were themselves in turn corrupted with their ancestors’ qualities, being the rude offspring of depressing and fatuous parents who would inflame themselves with indulgent spleen. Alas, posterity hands on sad sorrow to itself, in the same manner as a pit is dug. Get out of here while you can, and do not beget offspring yourself.

Sarcophagus of Marcus Cornelius Statius, AD 150 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

“Within the dream…”

Within the dream you said:
Let us kiss then,
In this room, in this bed,
But when all’s done
We must not meet again.

Hearing this last word,
There was no lambing-night,
No gale-driven bird
Nor frost-encircled root
As cold as my heart.

In somnio (Elegiacs)

Talia per somnos me parva voce monebas:
   “nunc igitur labris oscula iunge meis,
in thalamo furtim mollique recumbe cubili
   grataque erunt nobis suavia lectus amor.
nec tamen hic una nobis post esse licebit,
   nec tibi post lectum rursus adire meum.“
haec ubi dicta tremo frigusque per ossa cucurrit.
   nec nox qua pullos candida gignit ovis,
frigida nec radix nec flatibus acta volucris
   frigidior misere corde dolente riget.

Althea Sovani


Within the dream you gave me the following instructions in a quiet voice: “Now then, join kisses to my lips. Lie down secretly in the bedchamber and on the soft bed. And kisses, the bed, and love will be pleasing to us. Afterwards, however, it will neither be possible for us to be here together nor for you to come to my bed again.” When these words were uttered, I tremble and chilling coldness ran through my bones. Neither the night in which the white sheep gives birth to its young, nor a frozen root nor the bird pushed by windblows is more coldly stiff than my heart, which is unhappily aching.

The kiss, by Carolus-Duran, 1868 (Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France).

Party Politics

I never remember holding a full drink.
   My first look shows the level half-way down.
What next? Ration the rest, and try to think
   Of higher things, until mine host comes round?

Some people say, best show an empty glass:
   Someone will fill it. Well, I’ve tried that too.
You may get drunk, or dry half-hours may pass.
   It seems to turn on where you are. Or who.

Otii negotium (Hendecasyllables)

En, numquam mihi poculum videtur
plenum, at incipit omne semipotum.
quid nunc? carpere languide relictum,
Parnassique apices videre celsos
donec hospitibus meis repletum?
tu iubes mihi poculum ministris
praebere, at dubius modus replendi est,
namque alter sitit, alterumque mergunt.
refert qua, puto, quisve forte cenes.

Nicholas Stone


Pah, never does my glass seem full, but each one begins half-drunk. What now? [is it for me] to consume the remnant slowly and consider the lofty peaks of Parnassus until [it will have been] refilled by my hosts? You bid me proffer my glass to the servants, but that’s a doubtful way of getting filled up, for one man goes thirsty and another one they drown. It matters, I guess, where and as who you happen to dine.

Poets’ Pub, Sandy Moffat, 1980 (Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, UK).


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
   “Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
   You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
   They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
   Clearly money has something to do with life

– In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
   You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
   Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s looking down
   From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
   In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Pecunia (Sapphics)

Semper exprobrat mihi neglegenti
nummus, incassum quod iners recumbat,
contrahens in se Venerisque damna et
       mercis inemptae,

iam brevi nobis reparanda sumptu.
quo suum perdant alii, requiro:
scilicet nulla bene condita ser-
       vatur in arca.

hic parum raro lare gaudet, illum
coniugem non una facit puella;
non nihil vitae, mihi crede, trito
       constat in aere.

quantum inest instar! iuvenilis aetas
sera differri nequit; aes repostum
sufficit demum tibi comparare
       nil nisi mortem.

audio nummos; simul intueri
oppidum longis videor fenestris,
insulas, amnem, pretiosa templa:
       triste videtur.

Maxwell Hardy


Money is forever reproving my negligence, for that it lies idly to no purpose, contracting losses through itself of unpurchased sex and goods, <losses> which now ought to be recovered with a small expenditure. I wonder, how do others waste their own <money>? It certainly is not preserved in a well-hidden safe-box. One man rejoices in not a few properties, more than one girl makes another her husband: not nothing of life, believe me, consists in rubbing (i.e. using) coin. What a likeness there is in <these things>! The age of youth cannot be put off till later; hoarded coin suffices in the end to procure you nothing except death. I listen to money; at the same time I seem to look upon a town from long windows, upon apartments, a river, expensive temples. It is a sad sight.

A Gallo-Roman relief of ancient tax collection (cast from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Russia of the original in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany).

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Aratrum (Hexameters)

Haesitat in cursu bis, dum procedit, aratrum;
in genua incumbens video mucrone reverso
ericium occisum, densa hic modo gramina pastum,
quem prius inspiciens semel et dare pabula temptans
nunc ego perdideram tenebris umbrisque latentem:
nec solacium erat, quamvis sepelire liceret.
mane ego de lecto surgo; non surgit at ille.
post obitum redeunte die est absentia nota
durum et idem semper. nos usque colamus amandos,
nosque inter, dum vita sinit, decet esse benignos.

Armand D’Angour


The plough stalls twice as it proceeds on its way; leaning onto my knees I see on the upturned blade a hedgehog, killed, that had recently fed here in the thick grass, whom I had seen before and once even tried to give food, but had now destroyed as it lurked in the dark and shadows: nor was there solace, although it could be buried. In the morning I rise from my bed; it does not rise. After death, when day returns, the noticed absence is hard and always the same. Let us be ever careful of those we should love, and while life allows, it’s right for us with one another to be kind.

Gardener mowing the lawn, photograph by Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, 1960s/70s (Tate Britain, London).

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford. He has written on the music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man here, and the Song of Seikilos here.

Max Hardy is a DPhil student in Classics at Trinity College, Oxford. He was written about textual criticism here.

Althea Sovani is an MPhil student in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at Somerville College, Oxford. She is also Academic Director of the Oxford Latinitas project and President of the Oxford Ancient Languages Society. She has written on some of the challenges of learning Latin as an Italian here.

Nicholas Stone studies Law at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Previous Latin poems for Antigone can be found here and here.


1 Anybody who is aware of previous translations of Larkin into Latin or Greek verse should let us know!
2 John Whitworth, “Big Phil and Uncle John,” From The Sonnet History of Modern Poetry (Peterloo Poets, Calstock, 1998).
3 For more detailed information about how Greco-Roman quantitative metre worked, you could read this introductory article and/or have a more targeted look at the lectures and handouts of this course on the many forms of Greek and Latin metre.
4 Statement sent to D.J. Enright in 1955; reproduced in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 (Faber & Faber, London, 1983) 79.