Robert Southey and Rhyming Greek Grammar

Charlotte May

Keswick Museum holds a unique handwritten artefact, ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’, a small booklet authored by the Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774–1843). It includes his unique bookplate, designed by the popular Romantic-period engraver Thomas Bewick, and contains an inscription by Southey’s nephew and son-in-law, Herbert Hill:

This little book
Written by Robert Southey for his son Herbert,
Was given by Mrs Wordsworth to his Grandson
Herbert Southey Hill
A.D. 1843.
After the Death of Herbert Southey
It came into the possession of Miss Barker,
Kedora Niabarma,
Then the nearest neighbour & friend of the Southeys,
by her it was give to Miss Hutchinson,
from Miss Hutchinson it passed into the hands of her sister Mrs Wordsworth.
I mention this here not only for the information
Of my littlest son if he lives to read it,
but rather that the names of three very dear
friends of Robert Southey may remain
linked with this work of his affectionate heart.

H Hill. Feb 1 1844.

Written onto the pages of the manuscript three decades later, the inscription reminds the reader that this document is a record of friendship, family, and love. It was a document in which Southey demonstrated his love of literature, both classical and modern; a love of education; and his love of family.

Who Was Robert Southey?

The poet laureate Robert Southey was one of the most prolific writers of the 19th century. Not only was he a bestselling poet, but his 1813 biography The Life of Nelson has never been out of print, and his story The Three Bears (minus Goldilocks) is a tale we have all grown up with. He even created the word ‘autobiography’!

Lord Byron rhymed Southey with “quaint and mouthy” and it is indeed true that Southey had a lot to say. His writing covered a breadth of genres, from biographies and epic poetry, to reviews and literary criticism. He was never one to shy away from experimenting with poetry either, writing for audiences in a range of styles, from the serious anti-war poem ‘After Blenheim’ (1796) to the playful “helter skelter, hurry skurry” onomatopoeia of ‘The Cataract of Lodore’ (1820). He became Poet Laureate in 1813, after his friend Walter Scott (1771–1832) recommended him. It was a difficult position which came with few financial boons and many political challenges, He remained Poet Laureate until his death thirty years later, making his Laureateship the third-longest served (behind Tennyson at 42 years and Masefield at 37).  

Southey was born in Bristol and educated at Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1794. They became brother-in-laws and after the death of their first child, Southey and his wife Edith (née Fricker) relocated to Greta Hall, Keswick, where Coleridge already lived with his wife Sarah. Edith and Sarah’s other sister, Mary Lovell, also lived at Greta Hall with her son. Southey and Edith remained permanently at Keswick, renting Greta Hall even when Coleridge left the home and Southey became financially responsible for the extended family.

Robert Southey, aged 31, by John Opie (Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, Cumbria, UK).

Educating Children at Greta Hall

The Southey and Coleridge children had a shared and unique education at Greta Hall. As detailed by Kathleen Jones in her biography of the women related to the Lake Poets, A Passionate Sisterhood, Southey and Mary Lovell taught Greek, Spanish, Latin and English, Sarah taught mathematics, French, Italian, handwriting, and needlework, and Mary Barker – who lived in Greta Lodge next to the Hall – taught drawing and music. The environment at Greta Hall was a busy one, and one in which the creativity and education of children was fostered. In the same volume in which Southey published The Three Bears in 1837, he noted that ‘a house is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment, unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising six weeks’.

There is something relatable about Southey that perhaps one does not feel as keenly with other poets. He was a dedicated writer and designed a routine to balance writing the work he loved (particularly epics) with the work that brought in the money his extended family needed to survive.

Whilst educating his children at home, Southey began to foster the intellect of his son Herbert. Herbert was born in 1806 but died in 1816, a bereavement that left Southey “shaken to the roots”. Four of Southey’s eight children died in their youth, but the promise that Herbert had shown as a scholar was? a particularly hard loss to bear. In a letter to his uncle Herbert Hill eleven years later (available online here), Southey was imagining how Herbert’s schooling might have developed:

If my dear Herbert had lived to reach that age, he would have been advanced enough for the sixth form, & have acquired as many modern languages as I could have taught him, or learnt in teaching him. Yet his lessons never employed more than three hours in the day, – & when he was with me they were as much sport as study. – So easily are these things acquired by a willing & apt mind, when it is led in the right way.[1]

It is easy to imagine that ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ was one of the tools Southey used to teach Herbert from this description.

Greta Hall from Keswick Bridge, c.1840.

‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’

Southey was not a scholar of Ancient Greece, although he was educated about the language and culture. He had an interest in the classics that would be expected of a professional and educated man. In a letter to his friend John Rickman in 1803 (available here), Southey laments how his Greek education has been under-used:

I have let my Greek sleep so long that perhaps it may never be awakened – yet I must read Homer again & again. I mean to hunt the Byzantine historians for facts of manners & such corollaries as may be gleaned – & there must be something in Nonnus which might be useful in writing upon Hindostan – to all this, bless the old Editors! their Latin will help me, & I have yet Greek enough to verify all that concerns me.[2]

A letter to the same John Rickman in 1816 (available here) shows Southey’s playful response to Rickman’s feedback on Southey’s poem The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo:

The Greeks had their Doricé, Attice Ionicé, Ӕolice & Beoticé on an occasion, & we poor Englishmen are not even allowed a Rhymicé, – all these were not enough for them, but they must have their Poeticé into the bargain. How oddly an English poem would look with a mixture of all our dialects, provincialisms, brogues as far as they can be expressed in letters, elongations of some words & curtailments of others![3]

Southey is playing with language here and suggests that the diversity of language Greek writers used would not be expected of contemporary English poets. This is, of course, not true – many writers of the Romantic period were experimenting with spelling, grammar, and accent in their works to engage new readerships and represent diverse voices. However, there is a clear distance Southey places between himself as a professional poet determined to make a financial and intellectual success of his work, and the nameless ‘Greeks’ whose experimentation with literature had been validated by their critical intellectual status.

This may be one of the reasons that Southey authored ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ as a teaching aid. By rhyming Greek with English phonics, the words and grammar become easy to memorise and recite, making the study of Ancient Greek very much like the study of contemporary poetry. Southey used the oral tradition of poetry to engage Herbert as a learner and reimagine pedagogies of Classical grammar.

The book itself is divided into sections on articles, declensions, adjectives, and prepositions. Images of the completed pages are available at the end of this article. There are many blank pages at the end of the booklet, leading the reader to wonder how these might have been filled if Herbert’s education had been given the chance to develop further.

And Finally…

For me, as both a Trustee of Keswick Museum and a literary historian, Southey’s ‘Greek Grammar in Rhyme’ is a unique and engaging object. It is sentimental, reflecting Southey’s investment in the education of his children; it is clever, using new ways of learning and memorizing to make grammar accessible; and it shows how a family responded to the needs of educating their children at home which – especially after the Covid-19 pandemic – is a relatable situation for many.

Charlotte May is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Heritage Learning Officer at the University of Nottingham and has been a Trustee of Keswick Museum since completing a postdoctoral project with the Museum and the University’s Professor Lynda Pratt in 2020. She is currently developing a programme of events and activities to commemorate Southey’s 250th anniversary in 2024.

Further Reading

Lynda Pratt, Tum Fulford & Ian Packer (edd.), The Collected Letters of Robert Southey (online resource).

Kathleen Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: The Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the Lake Poets (London, Virago, 1998).

W.A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 2006).

Greek Grammar in Rhyme

By Robert Southey

(Generously transcribed for Antigone by Lorna Holmes, Emerita Professor of Hillsdale College; the pagination reflects the order of the poem)


The Article Ὁ, ἡ, το, my son say so.
του, της, του, you must say now.
τω, τη, τω, then we go
And τον, την, το, with Aballiboozo.

The Dual comes next, but you need not be perplex
Think of banganorribo with its τω, τα, τω.
And when you come to τοιν, ταιν, τοιν,
Then you may think of the Battle of the Boyne.

Plural οἱ, αἱ, τα, the Sheep say Ba.
The genitive alone has των, των, των;
Lift up your voice for τοις, ταις, τοις,
And at τους, τας, τα, you may say ha-ha
For the Article is done, O Herbert my Son.

You’ll remember this, your father weens
Because it’s the oldest of all tontines. But this, my son, your eye should strike
That every “to” is not alike.
The neuter with its little o
Hath in either case one little το.
But Herbert every scholar knows
That the Dative & Dual have four great τω.s


First Declension

Son Herbert, son Herbert, attend if you please.
The Nominative ends in ας or in ης.
The Genitive now is always in ου;
And the Dative must be in α or in η.
And the Vocative always the same, do you see.
There then cometh last as may plainly be seen
The Accusative either in αν or in ην.

Now we come to the Dual, which is not so cruel,
Having cases but twain in α and in αιν.

In the Plural we say Nominative αι,
And Vocative also without delay.
In a deeper tone is the Genitive ων;
The following case is the Dative in αις,
And last by the mass comes Accusative ας.

In this form the first Declension is done.
Remember it well, O Herbert my Son.


As sure as your wife will be bone of your bone,
All genitives plural are always in ων.
In Neuter nouns you may proclaim
The first, fourth, & fifth cases ever the same;
And in the plural they are always in α,
As sure as the Ducks cry qua-qua-qua.

The Vocative plural, give ear unto me,
Must always the same as the nominative be.


Now these terminations at one view we’ll see.
Ας, – ου, -α, -αν, -α,- will the singular be.
The dual α, -αιν, as is equally plain;
And with αι, -ων, -αις, -ας thro the plural we pass.

As thus for example, forget if you can
Ταμιας, ταμιου, ταμια, ταμιαν.
Ταμια for the vocative we must bring in,
Ταμια, ταμιαιν too, or else ‘twere a sin.
The plural rhymes in by the help of alas,
Ταμιαι, ταμιων, ταμιαις, ταμιας.

Ης, -ου, -η, -ην, -η must a noun in ης be.
In the singular only the difference is seen
Τελωνης, τελωνου, τελωνη, τελωνην.

These nouns without their meaning, would be rather too hard.
Τελωνης is a tax-gatherer, & ταμιας a steward.


Second Declension

The second Declension will certainly please ye
Because you will find it remarkably easy.
In α or in η must the Nominative be,
And like thereunto the Vocative too,
The Genitive ης, and then η, if you please.
Of the dual & plural we need make no mention,
Because they are like the first Declension.

Μουσα, μουσης, μουση, μουσαν,
Remember it well o my little man.
Μουσα, μουσαιν, comes the dual again.
Μουσαι, μουσων, μουσαις, μουσας,
Put up the plough, & turn the horse to grass.

Τιμη, τιμης, τιμη, τιμην,
Blessed be the momory of Elizabeth our Queen.
And whether the noun be in α or in η
The Dual & Plural alike will be. The meaning of the words we never must excuse.
Τιμη is honour, & Μουσα is a muse.
Honour to thine heart for its inmate take,
And love the Muses for thy Fathers sake.


Say now if you can, α, ης, η and αν,
Or else η, ης, η, ην, as may often be seen.


Third Declension[4]

In declension the third, when we come across
A masculine word, it endeth in ος.
And then we must go, by ου and by ω,
Until we get on to Accusative ον;
And lastly we see the Vocative ε,
Such always, my son, must an epsilon be.

The dual we join in ω, and in οιν.
And as sure my dear Herbert as you’re a good boy
The Nominative Plural will always be οι.
The Genitive ων chimes in with των
And the Dative οις in echo to τοις
And Accusative ους with its partner τους.

A word in ον must neuter be
And therefore the same in cases three.

What better example for declension the third
O Herbert can we find than λογος a word?
Λογος, λογου, λογῳ, λογον, λογε
Learn the line well, & say it rapidly.
When on dual ground we tread, λογω, λογοιν, soon said.


Λογοι, λογων, λογοις, λογους,
Love Greek, my son, as well as a sportsman loves grouse.

A neuter noun, ξυλον, ξυλου, ξυλω, tis Wood.
Ξυλω, ξυλοιν in the dual; very good.
Ξυλα, ξυλων, ξυλοις; so tis done, and we’ll rejoice.


Ος, ου, ω, ον and epsilon
ω, οιν for number the second,
οι, ων, οις, ους amd the plural too is reckoned.


Fourth Declension[5]

The fourth is only an Attic declension,
And I dare say you will think it a troublesome invention.
For of this fourth class every single word,
In other parts of Greece would have been in the third.
But the people of Attica, plague upon them for’t
Always liked the long o better than the short;
And in all the three numbers three endings alone
These lovers of long o made, ως and ω & ων.
Genitive and Dative singular in ω,
Nominative & Vocative plural also.
And the Nominative dual, as τω λεω.
The first case & the last case singular in ως,
The third case & the fourth case plural, as λεως.
Dual and plural genitives in ων
And accusative singular in the same tone.

This love for long o in neuter nouns they show,
Putting by St John ων instead of ον,
And then in the plural away they throw
The α to make room for their favourite ω.
They have ως in the Dative plural alone,
And all other cases in ω and in ων.


ως, ω, ω, ων, ως, the singular must be.
Say ω, ων for the dual, & then we shall agree.
Plural ω, ων, ως, ως, ω, – verily tis so.


Something more clear all this will appear,
If, Herbert my son, we decline for example
Νεως, which is Attic for Ναος a temple.
(For in cases like this where alpha is short
They frequently chose to put epsilon for’t.)

Thus thro the singular rapidly we run
Νεως, νεω, νεω, νεων, νεως, my Son;
Νεω, νεων, and the dual too is done.
Then thro the plural merrily we go,
Νεω, νεων, νεως, νεως, νεω.

Ἱερον which signifies also a temple
Will give my son Herbert a neuter example.
Ἱερων, ἱερω, ἱερω, ἱερων, ἱερων
In this way we go over it with the Attic tone.
Ἱερω, ἱερων is the Dual alone.
Ἱερω, ἱερων, ἱερως, ἱερω, ἱερω,
And so farewell to the Attic long o.


Fifth Declension[6]

With the fifth Declension what shall we do.
It will puzzle me I think, & I fear twill puzzle you.
It takes in nouns in α and in ι,
In ω and in υ and in ν and in ξ
And also in rho & in sigma and ψ.
But nominative & vocative off we may strike,
Because we shall generally find them both alike.
ος, ι and α then for the singular will do,
ε & οιν for the number which speaketh of two.
And ες, ων, σι & ας for the plural may pass.

Take notice my son, as Grammarians all mention,
The fifth’s an imparisyllabic Declension;
That is that the change in declining takes place
By adding a syllable to the first case.
But the modes are too many to put into rhyme
And Herbert will learn them from practice & time.

The vocative sometimes my son you must know
Puts the short vowels instead of long e and long o.
Sometimes it throws away ς, thus we say
That παις a child has its vocative παι.
And some proper names change ας into αν,
As from Καλχας the prophet is made Καλχαν.


The Dative plural requires some recollection
Because of exceptions there’s a troublesome collection.
If the nominative end in ξ, or sigma, or ψ,
Then we form the dative by only adding ι.
Thus γυψ a vulture maketh τοις γυψι.

Words which end in ν also we must say,
In the dative plural throw the ν away.
So from μελαν, ink, the Greeks had a fancy
To make the case μελασι instead of μελαν<σι.>

Words that end in ηρ make their dative in ρας<ι.>
Πατηρ a father, dative τοις πατρασι.
Words in ων, dative οντι, have dative plural ουσι
Λεων a Lion, dative τοις λεουσι.
Words in εν, dative εντι, dative plural εισι
Χαριεν gracious, dative χαριεισι.

Poets make a dative plural in εσσι,
Ορνις a bird, dative ορνιθεσσι.
From the dative singular they form it, you may guess,
Putting in before iota their e Double ss.
Κυων a Dog, κυνι, κυνεσσι.
Λαμπας a torch, λαμπαδι, λαμπαδεσσι.
Ναυς a ship, νηι and νηεσσι.


Now Lunus[7] we’ll take φωρ a thief for our sample
For of what fitter thing can we make an example.
Singular then is thus φωρ, φωρος, φωρι, φωρα,
If your wife’s name should be Dorothy, you will call her Dora.
And after φωρε φωροιν, the two Dual cases,
Come φωρες, φωρων, φωρσι, φωρας, in their places.



Of feminine adjectives those that may be
In α or in η,
You must learn to decline like μουσα and τιμη.
The masculine ος makes the feminine η;
But if before ος you a vowel should see,
Or if ος should be ρος, as it often may be,
The feminine then must be α, & not η.

The masculine in ος you like λογος will find;
For the neuter in ον call ξυλον to mind.
Other masculines and neuters too many to mention
Follow the rules of the fifth declension.

Simple adjectives mostly have three terminations
That are usually formed after these variations.
Ταλας which is wretched, ταλαινα, ταλαν;
But Πας which is all, maketh πασα & παν.
For comely, Χαριεις, χαριεσσα,χαριεν;
For tender, τερην, with τερεινα, τερεν.
Honourable is τιμης, τιμησσα, τιμην.
And honoured is the memory of Elizabeth our Queen.
Honied μελιτους, μελιτουσα, μελιτουν.
[from p. 19:] The Lion beat the Unicorn all round the town.
One more example and that will do,
Tis the sweet one γλυκυς, γλυκεια, γλυκυ.


When adjectives have terminations but two,
Then one for the male & the female must do.
And the neuter is made, as you often will see
By shortening omega, & also long e.
Ευδαιμων, ευδαιμον; αληθης, αληθες;
Happy examples & true, will the manner express
Ις & υς in the neuter throw sigma away,
Ευχαρις, ευχαρι, for grateful we say.
But ους you must know, will be neutered by ουν
As two-footed διπους becometh διπουν.


Comparison of Adjectives

The degrees of comparison, how shall I show ‘em
Bad subjects my son, as they are for a poem?

For adjectives in ος with penultimate long
Remember this rule & you will not be wrong.
The positive ς in a regular way
To make the degrees is put out of the way.
The comparative τερος then taketh its place,
And superlative τατος comes in with a grace.
Glorious ενδοξος under this will fall,
More glorious ενδοξοτερος we call,
And ενδοξοτατος most glorious of all.

But for adjectives in ος with penultimate short
To a different rule you must resort.
Ος you must then change into ωτερος
Φρονιμος wise, wiser φρονιμωτερος.
The superlative then will be rendered in ωτατος ,
And so we’ll call King Solomon ανδρων φρονιμωτατος.

For adjectives in ας, in υς & in ης
Add τερος & τατος to the neuter if you please.
Ευσεβες is the neuter from pious ευσεβης,


Ευσεβεστερος , ευσεβεστατος, the other two degrees,
Ευρυς broad, in the neuter is ευρυ
Ευρυτερος, ευρυτατος then you see will do.
Black μελας for its neuter hath μελαν
Μελαντερος, μελαντατος. Huzza my little man.

A different rule of comparison is seen
For adjectives which end in ιον & in ην.
To the nominative plural masculine gender
τερος & τατος these adjectives render.
We’ll show it in τερην, which as you know is tender.
Nominative plural οι & αι τερενες,
Τερενεστερος, τερενεστατος you readily will guess.

What other regular adjectives are still to be had,
τερος & τατος to the singular add.
Μακαρ is happy, & as happy here we are
We will not go from home in comparing μακαρ
God grant O my son you may always enjoy
As happy a life as you do while a boy.
Few alas are the children as happy as those.
Μακαρτερος Herbert thou never wilt be;
But shouldst thou be always as happy as now,
Μακαρτατος then will thy destiny be.



Αντι, απο, εκ or εξ, and προ
Govern a genitive you must know.
Against & instead of will do for αντι,
And I can rhyme to it, Herbert, can’t I?
Remember by help of your Uncle Tom
That απο is out of, & since, & from.
And you must not let it your notions perplex,
That from, & out of, & by, are εκ and εξ.
Προ is for, in behalf of, & before.
And so of these five we’ll say no more.

Συν & εν a dative choose,
And by favour of the Muse,
You & I shall shortly do
With these prepositions two.
Συν is with & εν is in,
To forget them were a sin.

Εις & ανα for their share
An accusative prefer.
Εις is within, towards & to,
And ανα is against & thro.

Δια, μετα, κατα & υπερ, my boy,


A genitive, or an accusative employ.
By, & thro, for δια will do.
Μετα is with, & towards, & after,
My rhyme must rest upon that rafter.
Think how the Dutchman swears by Thunder,
And that κατα is Greek for with & under.
For, above, & concerning, are meanings of υπερ
Which you know hath a son in Latin called super.

Αμφι, περι, επι, προς, παρα, & υπο remain
A very long list as you see
We may be glad that it is not as long again.
They all govern cases three.
Αμφι is about & near,
Περι over, about & above will appear.
Επι is in, & upon, & προς,
The next in the list which we come across,
Towards, & to, & from, & for, & at, –
How easily, my Son, we rhyme to that!
Παρα towards, from, with, beyond, & by,
And υπο is under, here methinks I spy
You are glad it is over, & so am I.


(Each can be opened separately for greater detail: click on mobile, right-click open image in new tab on desktop)


1 Robert Southey to Herbert Hill, 30 April 1821, in Lynda Pratt & Ian Packer (edd.), The Collected Letters of Robert Southey here.
2 Robert Southey to John Rickman, 8 April 1803, in The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, available here.
3 Robert Southey to John Rickman, 1 March 1816, in The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, available here.
4 Typically called the Second Declension in modern terms, Southey’s ‘Second’ being treated as a variant of the First.
5 Southey’s ‘Fourth’ decelension is now treated as an Attic variant of the Second.
6 Now commonly regarded as the Third declension.
7 Southey’s nickname, alongside “Dog-Lunus” and “The Moon” for Herbert.