On this page you will find my tentative experiments in composing original Latin Verse in a variety of metres (some classical some not) and on a variety of subjects -- serious, frivolous and personal. I have taken occasional liberties with vocabulary and verse forms, in an attempt (however ill-advised) to write in my own ‘voice’.
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Cantilena, related to Latin cantus, is a modern Italian musical term that indicates a smooth-flowing melodic line. But the Romans tended to use the word to describe an oft-repeated refrain, like the chorus of that annoying pop song you heard on the radio that you just can’t get out of your head. Hence it came to mean something overly familiar, a platitude. But such commonplace maxims designed to be repeated have their place: think of the Buddhist practice of reciting mantras over and over again as a way of fully absorbing their religion’s tenets. Likewise, the ancient philosophical schools of Athens and Rome understood that reasoned argument alone is not sufficient: our brains need something more readily accessible and easy to remember if we are fully to internalise their teachings. Epictetus advocated regular recitation of Stoic praecepta, and his Enchiridion (‘Handbook’) is essentially a collection of just such stock phrases, tailor-made for frequent repetition by his students; his most devoted follower, Marcus Aurelius, fills his Meditations with his own self-admonitory precepts.
Below are not clever Senecan sententiae, nor are they erudite Epictetan praecepta, they are simply my attempt at casting some everyday animadversions on impatience, vanity, anger and the like, into easy-to-remember couplets addressed to myself in the hope that by writing them down then reciting them I will not only better be able to absorb the lesson, but also more easily call them to mind in times of need – and that’s the real point: to make them simple enough to recall under duress. They make no claims to poetical merit, either. The English paraphrases capture their prosaic nature.
(1) iam culpas alias animo patientius aequo
ferre tibi liceat, nec tolerare tuas.
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(2) natura aduersa, rationeque mente neganti,
ne capias uanas consilia atque uias.
* * *
(3) non tibi non umquam circum te uoluitur orbis;
uel te uel non te uoluitur orbis item.
* * *
(4) est puerilis se flammare frequenter ad iram;
sit se contentus tempore maior homo.
* * *
(5) quod potes, hoc facias bene, fortiter atque libenter;
nec te paeniteat quod nequit illud agi.
* * *
(6) res ipsae modo res, rerum modo motus inanis;
mens solus regnumst imperiumque tuum.
* * *
Metre: Elegiac couplets
(1) Be patient of people’s faults, but not your own.
(2) Don’t make plans that can’t be realised.
(3) You are not the centre of the universe.
(4) Anger is a sign of immaturity – grow up.
(5) Do the best you can and don’t worry about the rest.
(6) Shit just happens.
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The great Requiem sequence, Dies Irae, has long exercised a special fascination for me – this in spite of, or possibly because of, my unbelief in matters spiritual (psychologists, discuss). Considered purely as poetry it has, I think, a passion and a power unrivalled in the whole corpus of not just medieval and sacred verse, but all Latin poetry. An opinion not entirely without precedent: Lord Macaulay once remarked that he thought Quaerens me sedisti lassus was “the saddest line of poetry” he had ever read – this from a man who had read pretty much every line of Latin and Greek verse available to him. And when Dr. Johnson once protested to Mrs. Thrale that all religious verse was “cold and feeble” she reminded him that he invariably became choked up whenever he read that same line – Johnson, too, knew a thing or two about Latin poetry. Clearly this is a poem capable of inspiring deeply personal reactions; only consider its innumerable musical settings down the ages. Hence, when I am at times moved to write something de profundis cordis mei I am often drawn to the outward form at least of the Dies Irae, with its simple, extraordinarily succinct rhythmic trochaic scheme and rhyming stanzas.
Luna mane lucens clare, gaudens Sole nunc micare, nequit umbra te uelare.
Luna lucis Solis plena
labens super me serena,
neque tractat te catena,
quae retractat me submissum ex Olympo nunc demissum,
uinctum sine spe amissum. Luna lenis, me precatum iuues scire meum fatum
terra non in caelis natum.
* * *
To the Moon
O morning Moon shining brightly, now delightfully sparkling with the Sun, no shadow can hide you. O moon full of sunlight gliding serenely over me, no chain drags you, which now drags me back, thrown down from the heights, submissive, defeated, lost without hope. O gentle Moon, help me who addresses [you] to understand that my place is on the earth not in the heavens.
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Sapphics; a fun first experiment in writing in this metre. Though hardly in the manner of Horace, I have tried to observe some Horatian conventions, such as synaphea (continuous scansion from one line to the next within each stanza), a regularly heavy fourth syllable, and occasional use of the weak caesura (unusually twice in the second stanza, following talis ... qualis). Each stanza is a single sense-unit/sentence (stanzas 3 and 4 connected by et). Un-Horatian are the deliberately ‘gargantuan’ words, including several unwieldy genitive plurals, in an attempt to give the piece a lumbering, dinosaur-like gait. The first two stanzas seem rather prosaic but things get interesting (and funnier, hopefully) in the third and fourth when you are asked to imagine being seized by a T Rex. The jokey payoff comes right at the end.
Dinosaurorum species (scientes
inquiunt) olim fuerant per orbem:
rupibus ruptis fodiunt uatillis
Mors quidem talis fuit ossearum
belluarum qualis ad usque nostrum
saeculum semper miserenda nobis
Finge – te Regis manibus Tyranni
(sportulae causa) subito prehenso –
te lacertosum facies tueri
Et lacertarum, minimis lacertis
dentibus magnis, hilareque ridet
te, renidens atque boans, minutum
Ne queraris, ne doleas opertum
funus idcirco gregis opstupendae:
forte si saevae nihilo sepultae
* * *
Species1 of dinosaurs, scientists say, once existed throughout the world: having broken open the rocks they unearth with their trowels an astonishing lineage. But the death of the bony monsters was such as right up to our own time is still to be pitied and feared. Imagine -- suddenly having been seized (for the sake of a snack) by the hands of the Tyrant King -- that brawny2 you catches sight of his gore-stained features [or vice versa, see note], and the Terrible King of lizards2, with the smallest arms2 and huge teeth, cheerfully laughs -- grinning and bellowing -- at tiny you. Do not lament, do not mourn therefore the mysterious funeral of the astonishing flock: if by chance the savage race had not been buried, they would have buried you!
1. Species in the Linnaean sense
2 Note word-play: lacertosum (meant ironically -- how puny you actually are in the arms of the monster), lacertarum (gen pl of lacerta, 'lizard') and lacertis (abl pl of lacertus, 'upper arm'). The accusative + infinitive works the other way round, too, so you could read it as the bloody features of the T Rex gazing at you. In fact T. Rex's forearms were notoriously teeny and he couldn't really have held you in those arms at all.
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De ape Insulae Vectis illaqueata ab aranea
Elegiacs; based, as they say, on a true story; Bombus = Bumble-Bee; Insula Vectis = Isle of Wight.
Bombilat ignarus Bombus prope litora aprica,
ut solet, apricans soleque bombit apis.
‘Ne uenias uereor, tu paruule bestiolarum
adueniens aditum: limen inire nefas –
in foribus uitreis casses hic celat Arachnes,
letiferis filis celat aranea se1.’
Retrorsum retrahit sero se rusticus ille,
in campos liber nunc reuolare uolens.
Alis Bombulus heu! uolitat moriturus ineptis,
et neque texturas lumina texta uident.
‘Venatrix apium uersuta, perita uenenis
rusticitatis apis te miserere rogo:
funibus astrictis constringere desine quaeso,
si placeas, etiam desine rete malo.’
Sic oro frustra: captus tunc illaqueatus,
infelix Bombus, morsus ab artifice.
Stridor inhumanis insecti ululatibus auctus,
luctu commoueor bestiolaeque dolo.
‘Naturae teneat cursum res,’ traditur, ‘ipsa.’
‘Sane,’ inquam, ‘sed sit res utinam melior.’
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A Bumble-bee on the Isle of Wight ensnared by a spider (A true story in verse)
A Bumble-bee bumbles unmindfully beside the sunny sea-shore, as is his wont, and sunning himself in the sun the bee buzzes. “I'm afraid of your coming, you smallest of little beasts approaching the entrance: it’s forbidden to enter these doors -- here in the glass atrium a spider conceals Arachne’s webs, and in death-dealing threads conceals herself.” Too late the rustic bee bends his course backwards, now wishing to fly free back to the fields. Alas, the doomed little bumble flies on clumsy wings, nor does he spy the woven strands. “O cunning bee-huntress, skilled in poisons, I ask that you have mercy on the awkwardness of the bee, I ask that you cease to constrict with your tightening ropes, if you please, I ask even that you abandon your wicked web.” Thus I entreat in vain: the unfortunate bumble is captured, ensnared, bitten by web-maker. The buzzing of the insect is magnified by inhuman screams, and I am disturbed by the lamentation of the little beast and by the deceit. “Let Nature take its course,” they say. “Quite so,” I reply, “But would that it were a kinder one.”
1. aranea se -- ending a pentameter with a monosyllable (not est) is a very, very naughty thing to do. I have been chastised severely for it by a Classics professor, who told me by email (after I had defended it) that he wanted to have nothing more to do with me and my ‘free verse’ experiments. But somehow that makes me even less inclined to change it!
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Hexameters; a quasi-Lucretian meditation, originally intended to form the exordium for an epic poem whose central thesis was to be that blind adherence to dogma (religious or otherwise) – the kind of irrationality that gives rise both to Creation ‘science’ and suicide bombers – is a debilitating shackle on human reason. I have yet to make progress beyond these lines!
‘To increase the sum of happiness, and to diminish the sum of misery, is the only right aim both of reason and of religion.’
(Walter Savage Landor)
Ecce catenati nostris erroribus omnes
et uiuunt homines et qui uixere per aeuum,
iudiciis prauis mentes animique ligati,
humanas acies onerant inscitia saxa:
quin fallacia sit mortalis non dubitari.
Sed patientibus et rapidis rationis ab undis
abluitur scopulus; lautus velut ab ueritate
quae sapientia fert, paulatim soluitur error.
Cogitat ille probe secum qui cogitat arte,
libertate potest totas res quisque uidere
consiliis aequis, expersque superstitionis.
Sed pietatis homo caelestis, funibus umquam
cingitur, ille nequit nodosis soluere sese
doctrinis fidei; defessis fluctibus aeui
conteritur numquam sanctumque immobile saxum.
Vana fides, dic – quae rationi imperuia semper,
ingeniisque animis semper quoque perniciosa –
quomodo, quassatrix hominum, tu uincere corda
ac mentes posses, possisque per omnia saecla
uaniloqua uentres complereque credulitate?
Damnosumque nefas tanto quod corda uenenat:
iustior humani talis sit meta fidelis
et mentis qualis nobis augescere summa
gaudia uelleque res etiam decrescere nequam.
* * *
Behold all men, all who live and ever lived, shackled by their own errors, hearts and minds bound to misguided judgments, the rocks of ignorance weighing down human understanding: truly is error our mortal situation. But the rocks are cleansed by the patient yet rapid tide of reason; as if washed by the truth that wisdom brings error is gradually wiped away. He thinks rightly who thinks systematically, can perceive everything independently, with impartial judgment and free from superstition. But the man of heavenly piety is ever encircled by ropes, he cannot loose himself from the knotty doctrines of faith; the unyielding holy rock is never worn down by the weary waves of the ages. O tell me empty faith – you who are always impervious to reason, pernicious to intellect and understanding alike – how, o shatterer of men, are you are able to conquer hearts and minds, and have been in every age able to fill our bellies with empty credulity? That which poisons hearts so much is dreadful and unholy: let the more righteous goal of human faith and reason be such as to desire to increase the highest happiness and to decrease evil.
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Cupido honoris uana
Elegiac couplets with Leonine rhymes in both hexameter and pentameter -- those in the pentameter forming repetitive, chorus-like refrains. I have laid out the poem below in half-lines to make it look (as well as read) more like a modern (or at least medieval) song lyric than a classical quantitative poem. Standard layout would be:
Spes aspernatae, non acceptae nec amatae
Atque meis dominis, atque meis animis ...
The layout below is an experiment in how such classical verse might be adapted to make it more suitable for musical setting. This and the following accentual poem Fragilitas form a pair on the same subject, viz: repeated rejection by publishers, editors and literary agents!
non acceptae nec amatae
atque meis Dominis
atque meis animis.
Quare dic quaeso
noceatis me mihi laeso,
absque meo clipeo,
hostibus in cuneo?
deceptus fraude tabesco,
in laqueis stupide,
et consiliisque senectis,
Nec me dementem,
necnon obtestor amentem:
mens iterum ualeat,
spes iterum redeat!
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The vain seeking after distinction
O spurned hopes -- neither agreeable to nor desired both by my masters1 and my heart -- tell me, I beg, why do you still hurt me when I am injured, without my shield, with my enemies arrayed against me? Alone I languish, deceived by a trick I pine in bonds foolishly, in prison eagerly2. With my writings unread and my plans grown weary, I take up the shame, base as I am I accept it. I solemnly declare that I am not mad nor yet insane: let my mind be well once more, once more let hope return!
1. Dominis -- i.e. sundry publishers, agents, editors
2. cupide because by submitting proposals I actively seek out opportunities for rejection!
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A companion piece to Cupido honoris vana above, this is non-quantitative, accentual verse expressly written to be sung. The rhythm is produced by alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables rather than syllable quantity. The rhyme scheme is eight-syllabled iambic – or 8pp according to Dag Norberg’s notation (An Introduction to the Study of Medieval Latin Versification) – with each stanza rhyming in the pattern aabccb. Note the alliteration of every third line, in which every word begins with the same letter; also the verbs in lines 3 and 6 of the first stanza are in the first person (sentio … fugio), lines 9 and 12 of the second stanza are in the second-person (memineris … aberis), and lines 15 and 18 of the third stanza are in the third person (debeat … noceat).
In mente mea fragilem
me esse et difficilem
semperque semper sentio.
E uanis nunc consiliis
et uacuis praesidiis
furtiuus furtim fugio.
Dum recido ad nihilum
in egestate tui sum
me miserum memineris.
Dum mentis in paludibus
et desum potestatibus
abusque absens aberis?
Nunc repulso a domino,
confuso me in animo,
donare donum debeat.
Qui plenus potestatis fit
non nimis gloriosus sit,
nec nemini non noceat.
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My fragile mind
Ever and anon my mind feels fragile and troubled. Now furtively thief-like I flee from vain plans and empty strongholds. Will you remember miserable me while I amount to nothing, in need of your presence? Will you be so far away while my mind is in the mire and I am powerless? Now that I have been rejected by my master1, my spirit in disorder, let him bestow a gift. He who is made powerful, let him not be excessively proud, nor hurt anyone.
1. domino -- as in Cupido honoris vana above
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Hendecasyllables; Plato is my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. This was the first Latin poem I ever wrote.
Tu carissimus es caniculorum,
Plato mi, mihi callidissimusque:
tu stertens quoque semper impudenter
stratis, me gelido, cubare raptis
furtiue potes immemorque dormis.
Si fortasse ruas uiam iocose
pellens papilionem in aere agentem,
tu tutus mihi, machinis uitatis,
reddas semper, et immemorque mortis.
Felicissimus es caniculorum.
* * *
My Dear Plato
You are to me, my dear Plato, the dearest of little dogs1, and the most cunning: stealthily having stolen the sheets you lie down, shamelessly always snoring, too, and while I am shivering, heedless you sleep. If perhaps playfully you should rush headlong into the road putting to flight a butterfly fluttering on the breeze, may you always come back safe to me, having avoided the cars2, and heedless of death. You are the luckiest of little dogs.
1. caniculorum -- diminutive for comic effect
2. machinis -- as in Italian machina
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Scazons or 'limping' iambics; for more on this pleasant spot: Coombe Hill.
Amoena moles, optimi loci palmam
dedi tibi, dum prata per tua errabam:
ubique palor cum caniculo, passim
cuniculosas ille per uias currens
comesque laetus. Hic columna nunc sursum,
stilus superbus imminens super campis
quibus sonorum tinnule sonat templum.
Renidet aestas: murmurat iocosa aura
per arboresque uepribus susurratue,
crescitue uentus aptus ad uolandumque
uentosa uela: subuolant simul corda,
cadit deorsum in stragulis agris cura.
* * *
Rambling on Coombe1 Hill
O delightful hill, to you I have awarded the prize of best place of all as I rove through your meadows: I wander everywhere with my little dog, while he capers here and there along rabbity paths, a happy companion. Now here arises the column2, a proud monument overhanging the plain, in which the sonorous church3 rings clangingly. Summer shines cheerfully: playful breezes murmur through the trees or whisper among the bushes, or a wind increases suitable for flying breeze-blown kites4: at the same time as our hearts fly up, worries tumble down into the patchwork fields.
1. concauo -- Coombe is an old English word for hollow
2. columna -- the Boer war memorial at the summit of Coombe Hill, commanding views across Aylesbury vale and Oxfordshire
3. templum -- the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Ellesborough
4. uela -- did the Romans fly kites?
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Read about new Latin poetry in
The Journal of New Latin Poetry
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See more Neo-Latin poetry in ANNUS MIRABILIS and BRITANNICA LATINA
texts and translations on this page
© Mark Walker, 2010
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