What are your top eight Latin lyrics?

Coming across Mackail’s book of the hundred best lyrical poems in Latin – you can find the link on the new Page called ‘Books on Line’ – set me wondering what Desert Island Discs selection of Latin poems I’d make.

The Desert Island Discs format suggested asking for eight Top Poems. (Note to non-UK readers: D.I.D. is a very (very, very) long-running BBC radio programme on which eminent people are invited to choose the 8 pieces of music they would like if cast away on a D.I.)

My eight would have to include Catullus 101 (multas per gentes) and at least one other, a love poem, of his. The choice is terribly hard. Should it be ille mi par esse deo, or the one with the haunting last line, nox est perpetua una dormienda ? By the way, I’m aware that multas per gentes is in elegiac couplets, and so isn’t technically a lyric, but I’m going to have it anyway. And I shall probably sew odi et amo into the hem of my shirt and smuggle it onto the island. It’s so small that no one will notice.

From Horace, I suppose o fons Bandusiae will have to come with me – it brings back not only happy schooldays long ago, but also a happy visit to the villa – and maybe diffugere nives along with AE Housman’s translation. But then there’s donec gratus eram tibi, with its happy ending. Or exegi monumentum. What a torture!

And then? Should I take animula vagula blandula ?  If I do, then I have only 3 niches left for the whole of the rest of Latin-speaking civiisation.

Could I take the whole of dies irae, dies illa ? That would sober me up if I ever became too light-hearted on my island! As an alternative ultra-serious lyric, there’s solus ad victimam procedis - and I’d need the Helen Waddell version with it. There would have to be one of the mediaeval Spring songs, too – they are so immediate and joyful; probably we would feel more strongly about Spring today if we lived in a Mediterranean country with ultra-short Spring, and if we had lived, like the people of the Middle Ages, in draughty, dark, almost unheated houses all winter. So, Alcuin’s Cuculus ? No, I’ve just looked it up and my memory had failed me; Alcuin wrote in hexameters. So levis exsurgit Zephyrus ? Or salve, ver optatum ?

I think I shall choose as Number 8 Abelard’s o quanta qualia. It’s partly the hypnotic rhythm, partly Abelard’s scholarly skill with the possibilities of Latin, partly the fine tune that goes with the English version O what their joy and their glory must be. And as an old man I do look forward ….

Anyway, would you care to share your Eight Desert Island Latin Lyrics with the world? Or criticise mine? Please use the Comment button (labelled No Comments if you are the first!).

Note: links are to readings of the lyrics, on the ARLT Podcast channel.

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3 Responses

  1. I could cheat and not include poems I’ve memorized–figuring I get to bring those for free–but that doesn’t seem quite fair. I’ll also bend the rules to include any “short” poem, not just lyrics. Here’s my list:

    Catullus – Multas per gentes (Carm. 101)
    Horace – Integer vitae (Ode I.22)
    Horace – O fons Bandusiae (Ode III.13)
    Horace – Nil Admirari (Epis. I.6)
    Propertius – Qualis Thesea iacuit (Eleg. I.3)
    Propertius – Desine, Paulle, (Eleg. IV.11)
    Seneca – Audax nimium (Medea 301-379)
    Statius – Crimine quo merui (Silv. V.4)

  2. Thanks for these, Chris. They include three that I don’t know (shame on me!), so I’ll go and hunt them down now.

  3. I’m guessing Propertius I.3 is one of them. This is a personal favorite, but it’s a little off-color; Propertius arrives home after a night of drinking and sees the sleeping Cynthia.

    I especially like the way he wrecks the stately mythological opening with the couplet that begins “Ebria”, and her little nag when she wakes up.

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