Lyric Poems in Latin

Probably, if you like reading modern lyric poems in Latin, you do not need to be told why it is fun, instructive, and (in its own small way) important to write them. The genre serves as a proof that we take our cultural legacy from Rome seriously; also, they require various virtues, especially patience and self-criticism; also, they are very satisfying when complete, at least for the author!

Below, for each poem, I include both my original Latin text (on the left) and a translation.


Ode to George Steiner

For George Steiner, the well known public intellectual, who for decades has served as a unique link to the now almost vanished intellectual culture of prewar Europe. Originally written in 2002, revised in 2008. I got a nice note back from him, now treasured. Metre: Alcaic strophe.
Diluvio quondam innavigabili
Fertur superstes dux animalium
   Crepusculo accepisse puro
      Munus oliviferae columbae,

Miratus alem cuius interim
Spes nulla erat nec iam vigilax navis.
   Misit tamen virgo piorum
      Provida Cecropidum Minerva.

"Fulgens olivis imperium gerat,"
Inquit, "Pericles per maria omnia;
   Oliveto legat recumbens
      Gaudia Deucalionis aegri."

Haud hic minorem ramulus aureus
Praebet salutem; Lesbiaco modo
   Pronuntiat culturam et artes
      Loco in amoeno aliquo renasci.

Heu fessus alis (sic placuit deo)
O Steiner, exuli hunc tribuo tibi
   Ego halcyon Canadiensis
      Fluctibus in mediis fidelis.
Once upon a time, in the unnavigable flood (the story goes) the surviving leader of the animals received, at the cloudless sunset, the gift of the olive-bearing dove,

amazed at the bird of omen, of which meanwhile no hope remained, and [for which] the ship was not vigilant. She sent it, nonetheless, the virgin, who, as to the pious sons of Cecrops, was protecting/far-seeing - Minerva.

"Shining with olive-oil, let him wield an empire," she said, "Pericles, across all the seas; [but] when he is lying back in his olive-garden, let him read of the joy of the stricken Deucalion."

This little Golden Bough, hardly a lesser rescue does it provide; with Lesbian strains it heralds culture's and the arts' rebirth in some agreeable spot.

Alas, tired as to my wings (for so it pleased God), O Steiner, I bring this in tribute to you, the exile, I, the Canadian kingfisher, faithful in the middle of the waves.


Birthday Ode for Darya Netz

Born February 2004. The imagery refers to the fact that her parents are both poets and are of Russian Jewish background.
Fas est, amici, cingere tempora
Euclidicis iam circuitis patrem;
   Fas est matrem lassam labore
      Prole nova celebrare cantu.

Poetam utrumque tollere mors nequit
Exstant dum amores versibus et solum
   Natale.Nunc nequit parentem
      Dum diligit nata Darya utrumque.

Miraculum ecce non minimum quod hanc
Illitteratam suscipiet domus
   Expers adhuc doctissimorum et
      Eloquio auxiliatur infans.

Regalis illa et callida erit. Fuit
Exemplar heres aetherei Cyri
   Et rex regum visit Scytharum
      Calliditate genus celebre.
It is proper, friends, to crown the brows of the father with Euclidean circles; it is proper to celebrate the mother, worn with labour, in song for new offspring.

Death is unable to take away either of these poets as long as in their verses romance endures with native land; now it's unable [to take them] as long as newborn Darya loves either parent.

Behold, it/she is not the smallest miracle in that a house will take up this illiterate girl which til now has known the most learnèd and an infant will take part in the eloquence.

She will be regal and intelligent. Her namesake was the heir of heaven-sent Cyrus and, as King of Kings, he visited the Scythians, a race renowned for their intelligence.

Two Despondent Elegiac Couplets

I can't quite remember when I wrote these; I think in the Spring of 2003 in San Francisco.
Rosea cui misero desperat oscula carpi
   Posse puellarum nec placet aura Iovis,
Nec libet inuleos montis per culmina citos
   Frustra venari cui sine amore vivit.
To one who, in misery, despairs that girls' rosy kisses can be harvested, neither is Jove's breeze pleasing,
Nor is the one who lives without love inspired to chase swift fawns across the hilltops in vain.

Inscription for a Book

I've used this in bookplates.
Librum qui meditare meum raptare caveto,
   Ne dum elegos rides mutuer ipse tuum.
You who are considering whether to seize my book, beware
Lest, while you are laughing at my couplet, I am off borrowing yours.

Farewell to Latin 101

Written for my Cicero and Catullus class in the Fall of 2003.
Qui mecum hendecasyllabos Catulli
Legistis elegosque lustravistis
Qui passi Ciceronis ora docti,
Exemplo utili quo quidem caretis?
Neque impuriter abluare dentes
Nec cara recubare cum sorore
Neque odisse supra modum atque amare
(Etsi basia mille feceritis)
Mecum una didicistis appetentes
Salvete o memorandi Adassa et Anna,
Et Sara et Katerina cum Rachele
Atque Amanda Grahamque masculine:
O dulces comitum valete coetus;
Gratias Cicero et Catullus egit.
You who have read the hendeacyllabules
Of Catullus, and who have illuminated his elegiacs,
Who have endured the phrases of learnèd Cicero,
What useful example do you lack for?
To brush your teeth uncleanly,
To sleep with your beloved sister,
To hate and love beyond the limit
(Even if you have given a thousand kisses),
All this you've learned enthusiastically not to do,
With me. Farewell, memorable Adassa and Anna,
And Sarah and Katherine and Rachel,
And Amanda and masculine Graham:
Oh, farwell, happy gathering of friends:
Cicero and Catullus have said thanks.

Baby Beluga

The much-beloved Raffi song, now finally available in Latin. I undertook this when my first child was born as as a way of amusing myself while singing lullabies. The beluga whale is also known as a White Whale, whence "Alba Balaena" (lit. "White Whale") here.
Alba balaenacula in alta unda
Hic illicque natabunda
Oceanum inter atque aetherem
Utinam tecum possem

Errare, o alba balaena!
Alba balaena,
Aqua iam calet
Domi te decet
Cum matri frui

Alacres apud delphinos
Dies aludis totos
Resurgentibus fluctibus
Spiraculo spuis aestus

O alba balaena
Alba balaena,
Canta cantulum 
Illum amicum
Qui nobis placet

Domum regressa et depasta
Aqualectulo lapsa
Lunam mirata nec non stellas
Iam bene o balaena dormitas

O alba balanae, alba balaena,
Tactu mox solis
Expergisceris
Novum in diem

Alba balaenacula in alta unda
Hic illicque natabunda
Oceanum inter atque aetherem
Utinam tecum possem

Errare!
Little white whale in the deep wave,
Swimming hither and thither
Between the ocean and the sky,
If only I could with you

Wander, o beluga [white whale]!
Beluga [white whale],
The water is now warm
It is suitable that you at home
Should enjoy it with your mother.

Among the swift dolphins
You play for whole days at a stretch,
The waves rolling in,
And from your blowhole you spit up the fervid water

O beluga [white whale],
Beluga [white whale],
Sing your little sing
That friendly one,
Which we like.

Once you're home and fed
And fallen into your little water bed,
Having admired the moon and the stars too,
Now may you go to sleep well.

O beluga [white whale], beluga,
Soon at the touch of the sun
You will be awakened
For the new day.

Little white whale in the deep wave,
Swimming hither and thither
Between the ocean and the sky,
If only I could with you

Wander

Hymnus Internationalis

The Internationale in Latin. Here's the tune (with English lyrics). The good Wikipedia article features various lyrics in French, English, Russian, Chinese etc., and there is a whole slew of other versions, mostly in living languages. Believe it or not, mine is not the only Latin version!

Surgite, opressi orbis terrarum!
Surgite, adesurientes!
Sonat ratio cantu tubarum
Aevi huius cineres.

Tabula fiat nobis rasa —
Io Spartaci omnes surgite!
Et saecla iniquitates passa
Tandem praecipite!

[chorus]
proelio in compurgando
disponamur sic ut cras
gentem quae vivit laborando
victricem videas!
Arise, oppressed people of the world!
Arise, ye thirsty!
Reason, with the call of trumpets, sounds
The ashes of the present age.

Let us have tabula rasa —
Oh, arise, Spartacuses all!
And the centuries which have suffered iniquities
At last overthrow them!

[chorus]
In the battle to end all battles
Let us take station so that tomorrow
The class that lives by working
You will see it victorious!

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in Elegiacs

To my shame, I have been neglecting Sanskrit, which few (or none mortal?) ever master, which is infinite, which is seldom translated into Latin verse; but back when I was studying it in the class of Fred Porta, we read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the favourite text of many a leotard-clad mystic male or female, and we relished them, and so I though I'd try translating them.

Sanskrit is truly the most philosophical of languages, because it can express any degree of abstraction (or combination of abstractions) through the compounding of verbal roots; so the potential for theoretical complexity is practically infinite. For instance, just as you could express the idea of "I made myself a jelly sandwich" in Sanskrit as something like "Jellysandwichself-fashioningI," you could also express "The mind-body problem is not without its Hegelian rammifications" as "notHegelrammifyeverlacking mindbodyproblem." And this is actually a fairly basic example. Many of the individual Sutras of Patanjali are expressed in only three or four words; wheras it takes as many words as you find below to render them in English.

Well then, I thought, here we have this language which can achieve incredible levels of abstraction; what would the same ideas look like in that most concrete, most abstaction-wary of languages -- Latin? And shouldn't they go into elegiac couplets? Patanjali's thought comes in little bite-sized Sutras, just like elegiac couplets -- it seemed a natural fit. I didn't get past #14, however. But I am particularly proud of #10. I plan to continue these some day but I will first have to clean the deep rust off my Sanskrit.
(0) Incipit, ut faveas lingua, Pantangelis hymnus.
   (1) Iam docimur ducle consuemusque iugo.
(2) Iugo mens discit se erroribus exonerare:
   (3) Primo ne in forma percipientis alat.
(4) At mirabiliter nonnunquam constat in ipsis
   Errorum formis iustitia atque iugum.
(5) Dividitur quinque in species variablis error
   immitis sint alii sint mitis atque alii:
(6) Cognitio insapientia imago somnus et uxor
   Mnemosyne sanctis data Iovi precibus.
(7) Cognitionis opus constat quo percipitur vel
   quo coniectatur quove lege traditur.
(8) Insapientia mendax est doctrina et inanis;
   (9) Imago plena est phantasiis vacuis
(10) Somnulus error inest quo non prodesse cupido;
   (11) Conscientia sic mane habitus memorat.
(12) Libertas homini detur studio atque apathia;
   (13) Durando studiis fit tibi liber homo.
(14) Nec nisi continua cura studium exploretur
   Aurea libertas denique erit stabilis.
(0) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
(1) Now, instruction in yoga.
(2) Yoga is the restraint of fluctuations of the mind.
(3) Then there is abiding in the seer’s own form.
(4) At other times it takes the form of the fluctuations.
(5) The fluctuations are fivefold: afflicted or nonafflicted.
(6) Valid cognition, error, conceptualisation, sleep, and memory.
(7) Valid cognitions are perception, inference, and valid testimony.
(8) Error is false knowledge, without foundation in form.
(9) Conceptuatlisation is the result of words and ideas empty of object.
(10) The sleep fluctuation is baased on the intention of nonbecoming.
(11) Memory is the recollection of an experienced condition.
(12) Through practice and dispassion arises restraint.
(13) Effort in remaining there is practice.
(14) But that is firmly situationed when carefully attended to for a long time without interruption.

Land of the Silver Birch in Latin

A translation of Pauline Johnson's "Land of the Silver Birch," which remains very popular in Canada: at some point it was set to music, with the well-known wordless chorus "Boom de de boom boom / Boom de de boom boom / Boom de de boom boom / Boom de de boom boom boom." I chose Sapphic stanzas for this translation because the characteristic Adonic last line (- u u - x, "saxa lacosque") happens to feature exactly the "Boom de de boom boom" rhythm of the song's chorus! Is that a perfect fit or what?

Metre: Sapphic stanza.

Notes on the translation

  • The Latin botanical name of "Silver birch" is "Betula Pendula" ("hanging birch"), so I used that rather than making it silvery.
  • To avoid total awkwardness, this translation puts adjectives and nouns together, where in my Latin version they are separated by line-break; this is particularly necessary because Latin likes to put the adjective first! Thus for example "validisque certus / alcibus tramen" = here "and for the mighty moose / the reliable path," where a completely literal rendering would be "and for the mighty, the reliable / moose path" where the coloured words are in Latin associated by case and number.
  • I've added a couple details and taken away a couple; I couldn't fit the epithets in for the "blue lake" and "rocky shore" (which is maybe not a serious problem poetically, especially since "rocky" is used elsewhere); and in the third stanza I had to split up "silent and still," making the waters still and adding a "silent" river.
  • The coolest addition (IMHO) is the epithet "tuenda" for the "saxa" (and by extension the "laci" too). "Tueor" (> tuenda) means both "to behold, to look at" and "to conserve, to preserve." So I think this adds a nice, Pauline Johnsonesque touch, saying both that the rocky landscape of the Canadian shield should be experienced directly and that it should be protected.
  • "certus tramen" for "wanders at will" is a bit free, but in "certus" I feel there's a sense of safety, nonchalance, etc., which is surely the meaning of "at will." And moose don't need well-marked paths to wander along; in their wanderings they make their own paths, so I hope "certus tramen" works.
  • "Wig-wam" becomes "rustica tecta," which I think is preferable in a Latin version: "wig-wamum" would be a little too cute.
Pendulae tellus betulae domusque
ampla castoris, validisque certus
alcibus trames! Redeam tuenda
   saxa lacosque.

Abditum luco latitansque campo
cor meum vobis, Borea nivosi,
proclamat, colles. Redeam tuenda
   saxa lacosque.

Rusticam tectam scropulosa in arce
construam immotae prope marginem aquae
quo silet flumen. Redeam tuenda
   saxa lacosque.

Pendulae tellus betulae domusque
ampla castoris, validisque certus
alcibus trames! Redeam tuenda
   saxa lacosque.
Land of the silver birch, and the spacious home
of the beaver, and, for the mighty moose,
the reliable path! May I go back to the captivating / to-be-preserved
   rocks and lakes.

Stuck away in a grove and lying hid in the field
My heart to you, O hills snowy with the North Wind,
It calls out. May I go back to the captivating / to-be-preserved
   rocks and lakes.

A rustic roof on a lofty cliff
I will build, by the edge of the still water,
where the river is silent. May I go back to the captivating / to-be-preserved
   rocks and lakes.

Land of the silver birch, and the spacious home
of the beaver, and, for the mighty moose,
the reliable path! May I go back to the captivating / to-be-preserved
   rocks and lakes.

It's Not Easy Being Green in Latin (first few lines)

For my good friend of Maclean's days, Critical Reasoning, who used Kermit as his avatar.
Haud facile vireo: foliorum forte colorem
   praebere quis gaudet numina si prohibent
Ne rubeam, neque aurescam, quod saepe cupivi,
   Neque fiam croceus, vel itaque aetherius?
Not easily am I green: by chance to show off the colour
   of leaves, who rejoices, if the spirits prohibit me from
Being red, or being gold, what I have often desire,
   or from being yellow, or equally blue?