Grosvenor House Publishing (2020) p/b 148pp £8.99 (ISBN 9781839750229)
This elegant libellus calls for a little history to set it in context. Already in 1850, in the first of four (!) editions of Sabrinae Corolla the editors wrote, of verse composition, studia quae veremur ne in dies obsolescant. They were not wrong, but happily somewhat premature: scholars such as Jebb, Murray and H.A.J. Munro were distinguished versifiers, and not a few others produced substantial individual volumes, notably the well-known Cambridge tutor Richard Shilleto. Ronnie Knox’s brilliantly idiosyncratic compositions have also been collected.
The early years of the twentieth century produced books of compositions from both Universities, and the Oxford Composition Club—which included both J. D. Denniston and Maurice Bowra—flourished in the mid-twentieth century, producing two distinguished books of compositions in both prose and verse. Since then, the stream has run almost dry, and even Boris Johnson’s revival efforts when he was editor of The Spectator did not last very long. Since then, there have been little but occasional pieces to celebrate an anniversary or a retirement, or the competitions proposed from time to time in the Classical Association’s newsletter when Jenny March was editrix.
Hence S.’s book of ‘Challenges’ comes as a welcome outlier. It is a collection of English (and other) poems that S. has been translating into a variety of Latin metres, which he sends out to friends, challenging them to locate the originals. Your reviewer’s sampling found that some were very easy (it helped to have been a classicist at school), some very difficult, and a third group sometimes gave up its secret after some cogitation. Here lies a problem of a different kind: broadly speaking, the more closely the English is translated, the more difficult it is to produce really good Latin verse; by contrast, the more bold the approach taken, the better the Latin. Sir Robert Tate (in Carmina Dublinensia) notoriously translated the whole of Henley’s ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight’, offering, for ‘Play up, play up and play the game’, Eia age perstandum qua ualet arte uirum.
S.’s book opens with his autobiography, not omitting his Cambridge prizes (by contrast with Oxford, he was allowed to win a prize more than once) and an account of how the ‘Challenges’ arose and developed: S was of course a pillar of the Horatian Society for many years. This followed a fine Foreword by David Butterfield (did he occasionally lend a hand with the finished product?), which also justly praises S.’s work for its skill and diversity of metres (there is a conspectus metrorum on p.143).
Your reviewer found that S.’s elegiacs were, as befitted an Old Etonian, notably good; only very occasionally did I detect any sense of strain (trux in Challenge III, of Charon, was unnecessary: even if Charon was hardly ‘Mr Chuckles’, illam would serve well). Curiously, S. translates a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay into hexameters, where the Heroides seems a natural model, but his choice of metres is generally well-judged—and his choice of models is both broad and daring (there are offerings from e.g. Pinter, Kingsley Amis, Tom Lehrer, Dorothy Parker to be found, as well as from French and Italian), and several versions have Greek originals.
Here, I found that even S. could not match the elegiac elegance of Callimachus’s mourning lines for Heracleitus, nor the incantatory magic of the famous lines from the anonymous ‘Lament for Bion’. There are some admirable alcaics: indeed, when I read the alcaic Tailpiece—one of my favourites—so fluent was it that I thought that S. must have composed it without, or before, the English, which turned out to be by S. himself: perhaps they went hand in hand. Hendecasyllables, as he rightly found, are fun (and not unduly difficult) to write; but he also ventures confidently and with competence into the more esoteric metres of Horace, with those choriambic-based asclepiads and others. I do not want to pick out just one favourite, but the elegiac version of Lewis Carroll’s ‘You are old, Father William’ (Challenge II), among its virtues, successfully brings out the humour of the original.
Non omnia possumus omnes, and, for this reviewer, S.’s hexameters were very slightly less assured than the (excellent) elegiacs. (That great scholar, the late Josef Delz, said that in his opinion good hexameters were more difficult to compose, but also more worthwhile, than elegiacs). But there is much to enjoy, and no call for further nit-picking.
I shall close by breaking the reviewer’s iron rule of avoiding autobiography for a once justifiable reason: I have twice been invited, non-Etonian though I am, to compose verses on behalf of an anniversary at Eton College. I did so with pleasure—but they really should have invited Sydenham. Surely even the editors of Sabrinae Corolla would ‘scarce forbear to cheer’ if they were alive to enjoy this book.