Latin Verse Composition in English Schools, 1500-1900

By Matthew Adams

Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries the ability to compose Latin verse was the pinnacle of a schoolboy’s career. Facility in verse composition, especially in elegiacs (‘longs and shorts’), provided an elegance and style of language which gave one the mark of a scholar, or so the public schools liked to believe. As a schoolmaster at Eton College in the 1840s could say to his pupils:

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 be of use in the world?[i]

Complete command of Latin at schools throughout England had to be in verse no less than in prose. Versification was one of the regular school exercises and rules of prosody were learnt alongside the ‘theme’ (a prose composition which appears to have been universally loathed), while for the upper forms the production of elegiacs on a set subject was a weekly task.

The seventeenth century schoolmaster John Brinsley details the steps required to attain proficiency at verse composition. Firstly, he says, the boy (few girls were educated in schools at this time) must already have reached a decent level of ability in prose composition (letter writing and themes). He should have read at the very least Ovid’s de Tristibus or de Ponto, plus selections from the Metamorphoses or from Virgil, and he should be well acquainted with all manner of poetical phrases.  Once this stage has been reached the pupil can receive a thorough grounding in the rules of versification.  An excellent exercise, says Brinsley, is for pupils to ‘contract’ seven or eight verses of Virgil or Ovid into four or five lines of their own (a sort of verse précis). To facilitate their studies Brinsley strongly recommends that pupils maintain the use of a commonplace book in which to record choice phrases and quotations from Latin authors, with each page to have its own topic on marriages, funerals, triumphs and so forth.[ii]

The prevalence of verse composition from the sixteenth century can be seen in school exercise and fair copy books. The Carmen Gratulatorium is a book of 42 poems written by the pupils of Winchester College and presented to Edward VI when he visited the school on 5 September 1552. This beautiful book, still extant, comprises Latin poems in elegiacs, hexameters and hendecasyllables. The following short poem in hendecasyllables was the work of one Henry Faulkner, and shows great facility for versification, if not for content:

Ride si sapis o puelle ride.

Toto hic Rex triduo manere fertur,

Exacto triduo recedit. Ergo

Plora, si sapis, o puelle plora.[iii]

In 1573 Elizabeth visited St Paul’s School, London and was likewise welcomed with a book of congratulatory verses from the boys. The following anonymous poem is in elegiacs:

Anglia prae reliquis tu terque quaterque beata

      Terris, quam Princeps ELISABETHA regit,

Quod te iam Princeps tam sacra et casta gubernat,

      Qua verae floret relligionis apex.

O Regina potens opibus, praestantior arte,

       Stemma, decus, patriae gloria prima tuae.

Post Venerem tu pulchra Venus, post Pallada Pallas,

      Lauriger ad digitos astat Apollo tuos.[iv]

            Both pieces of work are indeed very creditable, especially when one takes into account the fact that they are original compositions rather than translations. The Latin is good, the sentiment shaky – but the boys are probably aged about 14 or 15, and for boys of this age the difficulty was not so much in the composition as in the thinking of what to say in the first place. The requirement for original writing in verse composition was, for the pupils, a heavy and unpopular demand.

Schools on the other hand took an increasing pride in the verses they produced. In the sixteenth century visiting monarchs were welcomed with compilations of verse written by pupils, but from the seventeenth century onwards schools took to publishing collections of their pupils’ best compositions. During this period school editions such as Lusus Westmonasterienses (from Westminster), Carmina Wiccamica (from Winchester), Musae Etonenses (from Eton) and Sabrinae Corolla (from Shrewsbury) start to make an appearance. The presence of verses as opposed to prose compositions or themes in display and celebratory books would suggest that verses were, as Brinsley says, as much for display and ornament as for linguistic training, whereas prose composition (the hated ‘theme’) was more simply to exercise the mind and provide moral instruction.

However, in many quarters the practice of verse composition was hugely unpopular, especially for the demands it made of original composition. In his later years, even the poet John Milton had little regard for the ornamental prose and verse composition of his youth and he derided the ‘preposterous’ task of ‘forcing the empty wits of children to compose themes, verses and orations’ when they were too young to understand such things. For him, the Latin language was ‘but the instrument conveying to us things useful to be known’; and he believed the primary purpose of learning Latin and Greek was to study ‘the solid things in them’.[v] And in 1693, twenty years after the death of Milton, the educationalist John Locke expressed his own hostility to the practice of verse composition in schools. He regarded it as ‘the most unreasonable thing in the world, to torment a child’ who has no flair for poetry, for ‘it is very seldom seen that anyone discovers mines of gold or silver in Parnassus. It is a pleasant air, but a barren soil.’[vi]

Calls for the reduction or even abolition of verse composition in schools grew louder in the nineteenth century. The Whig magazine, the Edinburgh Review,[vii] regarded verse composition as ‘a topic so often debased’ in a narrow school curriculum from which everything of value had been excluded. The periodical bemoaned the fact that most eighteen or nineteen year-old boys tended to leave school having written over 10,000 Latin verses, and thereafter never made another verse in their lives.[viii] It declared that facility at verse, ‘a talent for fugitive poetry in a dead language’, is a natural gift, one that cannot be acquired by any amount of labour and industry, and the system of education in England at present ‘trains up many young men in a style of elegant imbecility’.[ix] The magazine could not resist mocking the English public schools’ fascination with verse composition:

It is no uncommon thing to meet with Englishmen, whom, but for their grey hairs and wrinkles, we might easily mistake for schoolboys. Their talk is of Latin verses; and it is quite clear, if men’s ages are to be dated from the state of their mental progress, that such men are eighteen years of age, and not a day older.[x]

Until the nineteenth century there was very little demand in schools for the type of composition which required a passage of English to be translated into Latin (or Greek). Pupil composition at this stage was entirely original, hence the need for commonplace books and notebooks, which might hold a rich store of words and phrases as an aid in composition. So much was the theory, though in practice there was a great deal of what today would be described as ‘plagiarism’.

Richard Shepherd in 1782 wrote that

an indiscriminate imposition of original composition in Latin and Greek, such as themes and verses, without any regard had to the abilities of the boys, or their future destination in life, is a general and capital fault. This preposterous practice not only loads them with a useless and unnecessary burden, but robs them of time that might be advantageously employed.[xi]

It was not all so bleak. Isaac Williams was a pupil at Harrow School at the beginning of the nineteenth century. ‘I took great delight in Latin exercises, especially Latin verse’ he tells us in his autobiography, and ‘the great charm of my life at Harrow was with [verse] composition’.[xii] At the other end of the century Gilbert Murray, a pupil at Merchant Taylors’ School, London, adored the composition of English into Latin, but particularly into Greek, verse.

I remember once being asked by a master how long I had taken in writing some Greek verses; he expected one-and-a-half to two hours, but I had really taken ten. The fact was that I had fallen in love with the verses and thought about them all day till they were finished. It was, I suppose, the one form of art that the traditional education of that day provided. One read a piece of English poetry very carefully, trying to appreciate the meaning and the force of every line, and then came the excitement of trying to get the same effect into Greek or Latin. I generally enjoyed the Greek most…’[xiii]

Nevertheless, it was the excessive demands of versification, in Shepherd’s phrase the ‘indiscriminate imposition of original composition’, that ultimately led to changes in the way schools in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taught the Classics. The national mood shifted from original composition to translations from English, the precursor of prose composition we recognize in schools today.

[i] Leslie Stephen, Life of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1894), 81.

[ii] John Brinsley, Ludus Literarius or the Grammar Schoole, 1627, ed. E.T. Campagnac (London, 1917), 194-6.

[iii] BL12AXXXIII, f.7.

Young boy, smile if you are wise, smile.

The King is said to stay here for three whole days,

At the end of which time he will leave. Therefore

Weep, young boy, if you are wise, weep.

[iv] BL12ALXVII Royal MSS f.15 (the poem continues for 10 more lines).

Anglia, you are thrice and four times blessed over other

Lands, you whom Elizabeth the Queen rules,

Because so chaste and sacred a Queen now governs you,

Where the apex of true religion flourishes.

O Queen, powerful in wealth, more ready in skill,

The stem, the honour, the first glory of your land,

After Venus you are beautiful Venus, after Pallas you are Pallas,

Laurel-bearing Apollo stands at your fingers.


[v] John Milton, The Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. III, ed. J.A. St. John (London, 1848), 464-5.

[vi] John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, eds. J.W. & J.S. Yolton (Oxford, 1990), 230.

[vii] Edinburgh Review, October 1809 (XXIX), 40-52; 42.

[viii] There is evidence to support the Edinburgh Review’s criticisms. Sydney Smith, born in 1771, was sent to Winchester, followed two years later by his younger brother. The two of them were spectacularly successful composers. Indeed, the other pupils at school signed a petition, refusing to try for the College prizes if the Smiths were allowed to continue to contend, as they always won. Regardless of his youthful successes, when an old man Smith himself spoke of this aspect of his schooldays with some disdain: ‘I believe, whilst a boy at school, I made above ten thousand Latin verses, and no man in his senses would dream in after-life of ever making another. So much for life and time wasted’. Mrs. Austin, (ed), 1855, A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by Lady Saba Holland (London, 1855), 6-7.


[ix] Edinburgh Review, October 1809, 48.

[x] Edinburgh Review, October 1809, 46.

[xi] Richard Shepherd, An Essay on Education (London, 1782), 16.

[xii] Isaac Williams, Autobiography, ed. G. Prevost (London, 1892), 4-5.

[xiii] Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography, eds. J.  Smith, and A. Toynbee (George Allen and Unwin, 1960), 84