Britain’s obsession with Latin verse still lingers

‘Like a strict dress code, or refined form of dance, the myriad rules of ancient versification prove to be liberating’

If the past really is a foreign country, it should presumably talk like one. For more than a hundred years, Britain actually sang as one: for most of the 19th century, many of the highest positions across the land — in the law, the church, the civil service, and academia — were awarded according to poetic prowess. Yet this was not poetry as we know it, but the mind-bendingly precise and brow-moppingly difficult translation of canonical English poets into Greek and Latin verse.

The classics were a dominant force in Victorian culture, so this may seem credible, if rather odd. But these composers were not trudging through dictionaries and mechanically replacing every English poeticism with the nearest equivalent in Latin or Greek. No, the real transference was much more stylistic than linguistic, for the two poetic traditions are poles apart. English poetry typically regulates itself by the natural stress of spoken language: Shakespearean “blank verse” is not a blank canvas but a disciplined series of five accentuated iambs, each stressed on the second syllable — “How líke a fáwning públicán he loóks!”

Greek and Roman verse instead worked by communal acceptance of a strange lie — that all syllables can be divided between those that take a “short” time to utter, and those that take twice the time, as “long”. This false simplification swallowed, prose is turned into poetry by the precise patterning of long and short syllables. Put the right words in the right sequence and strings of rolling dactyls (long-short-short) emerge. Cut and bend those strings to the right length, and whole hexameters and pentameters recreate the elegiac couplet of the great Greek epigrammatists and Roman love poets. Unlike verse in most European languages, word accent (of stress in Latin, of pitch in Greek) has no hand to play. By contrast, Victorian attempts to resurrect these ancient rhythms in stress-based vernaculars were often spectacularly unsuccessful. It’s enough to recall that waspish elegiac couplet of Tennyson: “These lame hexameters the strong-winged music of Homer! | No, but a most burlesque, barbarous experiment.”

But turning English into Latin and Greek, prose and verse, became an obsession of the Victorian Age, comfortably taking up half the curriculum in many British schools — public and grammar. The best compositions won scholarships to these schools, and likewise from them to the ancient universities. Successful candidates had often written some 10,000 lines of  classical verse as teenagers, nearly all of which never left the school gates. The bizarre importance laid upon this exercise is well encapsulated by the Etonian beak (and future Head Master) Edward Balston, who told a pupil of the 1840s: “If you do not take more pains, how can you ever expect to write good longs and shorts? If you do not write good longs and shorts, how can you ever be a man of taste? If you are not a man of taste, how can you ever hope to be of use in the world?”

This outré accomplishment was regularly practised by those in high office: in 1861,  William Gladstone and George, fourth Baron Lyttelton published a set of lengthy Latin and Greek verse translations as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Clarendon Commissioner respectively. 

Britain’s city mottoes, institutional slogans and — until recently — coinage are filled with the shattered fragments of Latin verse. And the profound influence of classical verse composition upon contemporary English poetry is insufficiently understood.

But what, you may ask, is the point of something so pedantic, so abstruse, so absurd? After all, the best poetry is untranslatable, and the best Latin and Greek poetry was written two or three millennia ago. Why shoehorn modern verse into the strait-jacket of ancient metrics? The Victorians, though, knew they were on to something. Good versification demands linguistic precision, logical clarity and a sound appreciation of poetic ambiguity. It also requires the ability to work within a rigorous technical structure and recognise a cul-de-sac when progress is genuinely impossible. It’s a challenge of lateral thinking, of balance and of measured inventiveness. Unsurprisingly, there’s considerable overlap between keen versifiers and crossword lovers (and setters). But business trumped leisure for the earnest Victorians: their enterprising civil service needed — and still needs — the sort of nimble minds willing and able to rethink the hitherto unthinkable.

Perhaps in response to the free-flowing open-endedness of modern(ist) English poetry, the rule-clad character of Greco-Roman verse has an enduring attraction. Like a strict dress code, or refined form of dance, the myriad rules of ancient versification in practice prove to be liberating: poet and reader alike are readied for the same rhythms but acutely alive to each distinct variation within that framework.

Verse composition dwindled in popularity and influence in the early 20th century. But the challenges and pleasures of this arcane art form still fascinate a small band of devotees. Those knee-deep in retirement keep their minds agile by verse translations: an 80-year-old friend is soon to publish a collection of his own astoundingly impressive compositions, first produced to fox and amuse his poetry-loving coterie.

But youngsters buzzing with extra-curricular curiosity are also trying their hand. A gaggle of versifiers still take up the art afresh at university, some knowing no Latin prior to the course; owing to the benefactions of Georgian and Victorian verse-lovers, some are still rewarded handsomely. In the all-connected present, several online communities encourage novices to take up their pen, at home and abroad. A ten-day Latin verse composition camp — for Anglophone classicists — ended in Sicily last month.

The possibilities for composition are as endless as they ever have been. Anything, indeed, can be versified:

Hoc tibi sit, Standpoint, sapiens defensor honori,
fasciculos centum plusque dedisse probis.

“Let it be to your credit, Standpoint, wise guardian, to have produced a hundred issues and more for sound folk.”

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