BMCR 2010.01.18

Reading Latin Poetry Aloud: A Practical Guide to Two Thousand Years of Verse

, Reading Latin Poetry Aloud: A Practical Guide to Two Thousand Years of Verse. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xi, 318; 2 CDs. ISBN 9780521697408. $38.99 (pb).

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

All who want to learn to recite or sing Latin more effectively and more authentically will benefit from this fascinating and innovative, if quirky, book. Part polemic on the merits of postclassical Latin, part history of Latin poetry, part pronunciation guide, part treatise on metrics, it is a blast of fresh air through the still rooms where Latin metricians come and go. Though of interest to all Latinists, it will be especially helpful to singers who want to know the historical basis of various Latin pronunciations, and to learn more about important sung texts such as Stabat Mater and Dies Irae.

The standard books on Latin versification1 are comprehensive, but oracular, and their intended audience is not always clear. From an ordinary reader’s point of view, the information, say, that acatalectic trochaic dimeters are to be construed as the second half of trochaic octononarii, or that word-division very rarely occurs at the end of the second foot of a hexameter unless there is also a caesura within that foot, seems of little importance. From the point of view of a would-be Latin poet, these books provide information, but little help.2 From a literary critic’s point of view, knowing about metrics is essential, but the curt and dictatorial tone of the standard books, and the small number of authors they treat, make them uncongenial to good criticism. Brooks’ book is of a wholly different kind. He takes the point of view not of the reader, the poet, or the critic, but of the performer, the reciter, the singer.3 This is a most welcome approach, because it focuses the mind, restricts the necessary amount of detail, and brings us back firmly to what many of us loved about Latin poetry in the first place: the sound of it, or rather the haunting marriage of sound and sense.

The traditional approach is to state the rules as they have been deduced by scholars, then add an occasional snippet of verse to illustrate the rules. Brooks delightfully reverses the format: he provides an anthology of case studies, passages of 15-20 lines or so, roughly chronologically arranged, each individually explicated on its own terms. Brooks describes how they comply, massage, restrict, fail to cope with, rewrite, try to revive, deliberately abandon, and best of all make poetry with the rules and patterns. Each example passage is translated, often ingeniously, and also, in another effective innovation, rendered into the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The ten minutes it takes to master IPA will amply repay the reader. Two CDs of recordings by Brooks are also included.

The 70 example passages are in a variety of meters and (in another welcome departure from the genre) they come from a very wide spectrum of Latinity, from Lucretius to medieval hymns, the verse of renaissance humanists, and ending up with Pope Leo XIII’s iambic dimeters on seeing a photograph for the first time in 1867. They include some delightful curiosities: a lullaby, a poem about an enraged bishop, one about a girl ostracized because she became pregnant. In a time lapse effect the reader sees Latin poetry, and the pronunciation of Latin, develop and change, acquire regional variants, undergo reformation, revival, and influence from vernacular languages and poetry, and even adapt itself to the world of technological modernity. Brooks sees the traditional focus on classical authors as “oddly skewed” (12), and one main purpose of the book is to introduce “an enormous body of remarkable and largely forgotten literature,” (17) post-classical, medieval, renaissance and early modern.

After an introductory chapter that makes the case for reading aloud and for later Latin, come three large sections on classical, medieval, and early modern poetry respectively. Each of these is preceded by a chapter discussing the pronunciation(s) appropriate to that period. Within the first (classical) section Brooks deals with the main meters in turn: hexameters, elegiacs, iambic meters (excluding drama), and some lyric meters, including hendecasyllables. The medieval section deals with the development of rhyming and two-part or leonine hexameters, other medieval quantitative verse, then rhythmic verse, with examples from the Cambridge Songs and Carmina Burana. Finally, the early modern section focuses mainly on the revived quantitative hexameters and elegiacs of the classical type, along with several hendecasyllabic and iambic poems. Appendices provide hints for singers, advice for further study, and the full texts of the songs Adeste Fideles and Gaudeamus Igitur, with interesting discussions.

Regarding the pronunciation of Latin there is now a remarkable degree of consensus, but also a remarkable amount of heated argument over the controversial details, and not everyone will be pleased by Brooks’ choices. He tends to the hyper-restored when dealing with classical texts. Final m is lost, but produces a nasalization of the preceding vowel. N before s is lost, hence infas for infans, isoles for insolens, both with nasalization of the preceding vowels (though this n mysteriously returns in the medieval transcriptions, see p. 106). On such disputed matters Brooks is not an authority, but by consulting Allen and Sihler one can work out one’s own position and take or leave Brooks’ views.4 Brooks treats Allen as authoritative, but is apparently unaware of Sihler, with whom he nonetheless agrees about final m. On medieval pronunciation Brooks canvasses various possibilities before settling on a single straightforward, usable system. The part about pronunciation in the renaissance is enlivened by a discussion of Erasmus’ work on this subject, and Brooks is in the end prepared to recommend different pronunciations of g, c, and sc, depending on whether the text comes from Germany, France, or England.

Brooks describes himself as a former music student at Cambridge, who went on to teach music and English as a foreign language until his retirement, and who has had a lifelong interest in Latin language and literature. This musical background carries major advantages. He privileges the perspective of the performer, and his or her sense of taste, as much as the author. His approach relies heavily on what seems to him likely to have been effective in oral reading. He argues, as others have done, that elided vowels and syllables did not always disappear completely. This he explicates through a discussion of Catullus 85 ( Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris. / nescio, sed sentio et excrucior). To begin this poem Odet amo, as if the meaning might be “I love Odette,” then to follow it with quarid, does not seem plausible as spoken language. In the second line, to pronounce sentio et as sentiet is to say something totally misleading ( she will feel it). Rather, Brooks maintains, in most cases the elided vowels remained in a “vestigial” form: pronounced lightly, but not to be completely ignored. The OED uses superscript letters in IPA to “denote an element that may or may not be present in a local or an individual pronunciation,” and Brooks has employed this device in his transcriptions for elided sounds, except where the two vowels are the same, as in pror(a) avertit or atqu(e) equidem. These, he suggests, plausibly disappeared altogether. Personally, I find this utterly persuasive, though not a scrap of ancient evidence has been brought to bear. For what it is worth, Allen comes to the opposite conclusion, i.e., that elided vowels were probably all completely lost, based on some comments by ancient grammarians.5 But Brooks’ view feels right to me as a matter of poetic performance.

On the perennial question of ictus and accent, Brooks presents a level-headed, subtle, and historically informed discussion, concluding that a “scanning” reading, with emphasis on the ictus, must be wrong, but that reading Latin verse in a purely prosaic rhythm would be to make the opposite mistake. Words will be accented as in prose, but the pattern of the meter will maintain a constant average proportion between long and short syllables, some syllables being allowed more time for full articulation, while others might be hurried to make up for lost time, “which is exactly what a skilled jazz singer will do over a mechanically exact rhythmical accompaniment.” (54) Here and throughout, he emphasizes that we are dealing with an art, not a science. The reader has to take the rules under advisement but rely on his or her own instinct and experience. When it comes to the technique of reading, the only major thing I missed was a discussion of pausing, a key matter for literary effect and intelligibility, and one dealt with explicitly by Quintilian in his discussion of how to read the proem of the Aeneid ( Inst. 11.3.33-38).

Brooks’ approach to metrics is practical, fresh, and idiosyncratic. He invents numerous symbols and terms. The reader is advised to check the glossary of terms tucked away on pp. 284 ff. He uses “sestertian” for the more traditional hemiepes, for example, and has separate symbols for a longum that can split into two breves (“fissile long”), and two breves that can be replaced by a longum (“fusible breves”). There is a new symbol, a kind of inverted f, for an anceps in final position; but this comes in handy later when medieval poets insert such a verse ending anceps at what had been merely a caesura of the hexameter. As Brooks himself understatedly says, when discussing iambic meters, “This notation may [will] offend some [all] traditionalists . . . but the gain in clarity is considerable if you compare the complexities Kennedy, for example, is obliged to introduce” (76). When the goal is effective performance, simplicity at the price of some neologisms is a good bargain, even if it is not by any means the last word on Latin metrics.

On the minus side, Brooks’ lack of background as a classroom Latin teacher means that he is sometimes oracular where patient exposition is called for. The explications of, say, the mute liquid rule, or the various pronunciations of c in medieval Latin are not models of clarity, and the section on medieval pronunciations has no modern references whatsoever.6 Some of the typographic choices are strange, such as printing consonantal u as v in classical texts, but switching to u’s in medieval texts, when such u’s were pronounced as English v. This is meant to be “a kind of inverted mnemonic for my readers” (107). There is not much awareness of or concession to what gives students trouble.7 Readers are assumed to be able to scan well, and to have a good grasp of quantities. No macrons are given. It will shed no light for the average American student, at any rate, to be told that the diphthong eu in classical Latin sounded like Welsh mewn or llewpard, or that k was pronounced as in English “kapok.” In a puzzling note we are told that “Cotytto was goddess of lewdness” (79). The translations, while often extremely neat, tend to the archaic (“Drink you a rouse” [115]). There is a certain old-fashioned cultural conservatism, with talk of barbarians and gates, raising the cultural standards of the young, of the value of understanding “the past and the language that helped to shape it” (17). The literary criticism is self-assured in an almost nineteenth century way. But such flaws and frustrations do no harm, especially if we have other references to handle the basics.

This book is a labor of love by an inspired autodidact. Its peculiarities do not diminish the boldness of embracing two thousand years of Latin, and the freshness of injecting the performer and questions of performance practice into the discussion of Latin poetry. Its advice is sensible and humane, if not always up to the minute when it comes to scholarly controversies. Even those with no special interest in recitation will enjoy the anthology of passages. It will be valuable to classicists like myself who want to explore later Latin, to singers, and to lovers of Latin poetry everywhere.

Table of Contents:

Introduction; 1. Measuring up; 2. The sounds of Classical Latin; 3. Classical prosody and the dactylic hexameter; 4. The elegiac couplet; 5. Iambics; 6. Aeolic verse; 7. The sounds of Medieval Latin; 8. Medieval hexameters; 9. Other quantitative metres; 10. Medieval vowels and rhythmical verse; 11. Medieval rhythms I; 12. Medieval rhythms II; 13. Early Modern pronunciation; 14. Renaissance verse I; 15. Renaissance verse II; Postscript: the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Glossary of terms; Appendices (Further Study; Hints for Singers; Ennius; A Poem in the Goliardic Measure cum auctoritate; Two late sung poems).


1. Sandro Boldrini, Fondamenti di prosodia e metrica Latina (Rome: Carocci, 2004). D.S. Raven, Latin Metre (London: Faber & Faber, 1965). Friedrich Crusius, R├Âmische Metrik: Ein Einf├╝hrung, 8th ed. (Munich: Huber, 1967). James W. Halporn, Martin Ostwald, and Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry, revised ed. Normal, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980. The sections on classical meters in M.L. Gasparov, A History of European Versification, trans. G.S. Smith and Marina Taralinskaja, ed. G.S. Smith and Leofranc Holford-Strevens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) are fresh and well worth reading.

2. Practical, discursive guides on how to compose Latin verse do exist. David J. Califf’s A Guide to Latin Meter and Verse Composition (London: Anthem Press 2002) is a workbook, and he justly praises the classic work of S.E. Winbolt, Latin Hexameter Verse (London: Methuen, 1903).

3. G.B. Nussbaum, Vergil’s meter: A Practical Guide for Reading Latin Hexameter Poetry (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1986), is entirely unsatisfactory, e.g. in its recommendation to stress the ictus.

4. Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). W. Sidney Allen, Vox Latina: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Latin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

5. Allen, Vox Latina 78-82.

6. See A.C. Rigg, “Orthography and Pronunciation,” in F.A.C. Mantello and A.G. Rigg, Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographic Guide (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1996), 79-82, with further references.

7. For a good discussion of how to teach oral reading of hexameters, see Andrew S. Becker, “Non oculis sed auribus: The Ancient Schoolroom and Learning to Hear the Latin Hexameter,” Classical Journal 99 (2004) 313-322.