Christopher Stray, in Classics Transformed (Oxford, 1998, 68-74 and elsewhere), has a lot to say about verse composition in the history of English classical education. For him, verse composition was primarily a signal that its practitioners belonged to, and earned respect in, an exclusive social group. At no point does he stop to ask, ‘Was it any good? Is it Art?’ Analysing the practice of composing Greek or Latin verse from the point of view of social structures is interesting, provided one is not so distracted by structural or sociological theorizing as to miss the value of the content.
What, I wonder, would Dr. Stray make of the social significance of a journal of Latin verse composition founded in 2010? It is called Vates (and can be read online here). And what would the literary student make of the content?
The first piece in the first issue contains advice from Frank Lelièvre for the student beginning Latin verse composition. That advice is in Alcaics.
The first stanza (for those who want a taste before deciding whether it is worth clicking on the link!) reads:
perstare, credo, Musa suos iubet,
utcumque chordis dulcisonos negat
cantus et, exoptata quamuis,
peruigilem refugit lucernam.
Is it worthy of Horace? I am not sure. I have to say I find the poem as a whole satisfying and delightful.
The journal is not limited to classicizing pieces. The above lyric is followed by a lovely Haiku by Ginny Lindzey:
tua in umbra grata
sed tu non ades.
For the reader of Latin verse, a little writing practice could surely teach as much as a shelf of criticism. Why do universities so rarely teach creative writing in Classics degrees, in spite of its obvious value? There are two reasons. First, many teachers have not the skills to pass on. They like me were brought up in an age when this skill was pruned away, perhaps because it was felt there was too little time for it in the curriculum. I was taught that to get good at the skill, and to maintain it, one really needs to practice it daily. Greek and Latin verse composition is an endangered skill. I was taught neither at school, though I had a little training in Latin verse at university with with the late D W T Vessey, who I believe was noted for his skills in composition while still at Eton (and whose Housemanesque English verses are charming). An endangered and ancient skill should be nurtured and revivified before it dies. It is central to the profession of a Classical scholar and teacher to maintain traditions (of texts, of teaching, of language), as well as to innovate. Second, teaching this skill requires either one-to-one teaching, or at most a very small group. Few universities can afford to offer this individual attention. The loss of verse composition, for all the more or less specious arguments which can be mounted for killing it off, is surely a major casualty of the current difficulty in funding individual attention for students in our universities.
Vates, at any rate, should be supported, encouraged, and (for anyone interested in Latin verse) read!