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The joy of Latin verse – Isabel Raphael

Blog | By Isabel Raphael | Jan 07, 2021

A writer, said to be Sappho, at Pompeii

Latin Verse Challenges: Colin Sydenham, reviewed by Isabel Raphael

Are you looking for a clever, enjoyable distraction in these dreary days of lockdown?

Something both challenging and satisfying, with elements of humour and wit? Something to bring back your Latin, but with all the answers safely provided? Of course, you can always return to Horace, perhaps with the elegant translation of the Odes at your side that was published in 2005 by our then Chair, Colin Sydenham. Or you can treat yourself to Colin’s latest flourish: Latin Verse Challenges, newly available at £8.99 from Waterstones.

For six glorious years Colin devoted himself to challenging some twenty friends, mostly classicists of some form or other, with batches of poems in Latin. Three times a year five or six pieces of verse would arrive for us to identify, for these were all versions of ‘other men’s (and women’s) flowers’, originating in Greek, English, French, Italian . . . You name it,

Colin did it. And the range is astounding.

From such a serious scholar you would expect writers like Housman or Tennyson, even a bit of Shakespeare. But Dorothy Parker? Roger McGough? Wendy Cope? Even Tom Lehrer? Half the fun was working out what the original poem was. - and O, the triumph if you got it right! But here were gems from authors I’d never heard of, as well as new insights into old favourites. How brilliantly Colin transposed modern verse into classical metres (Horace would have been impressed), creating versions that combine real beauty with perception of meaning and tone. We had to work hard on these: the book provides the originals for you to look at, but we had to wait for two weeks, struggling to get our answers in before he kindly sent us the original texts. And yes, we were ranked in order of merit . . .

Now here they are, these twenty challenges, 120 poems in all, elegantly presented in a handsome paperback edition for your delight. You can cheat if you wish, the ‘answers’ are all in the back, but I recommend that you see how far you can get first! You will also find an

admiring and affectionate Foreword by David Butterfield, Senior Lecturer in Classics at

Cambridge and prolific author on a wide variety of subjects, and Colin’s own Introduction

describing how he came to produce the Challenges.

Here is an example to challenge you:

‘Pro desiderio taciti spectemus utrumque

implicitis manibus’.

illa palam simplex nimium muliercula, valde

improbus ille palam;

at nunc cauponae breviter sacrat angulus ambos

paene pares superis.

( Clue: John Betjeman )

These books are printed on demand, so you may have to wait a couple of weeks to get your copy. You will find details on Amazon under Latin Verse Challenges: Sydenham, Colin.

Isabel Raphael was head of Channing School