Latin — Wanted, Dead or Alive? (Latina — Desiderata, Vivens Mortuave?): Elegiac Experiments in Latin Composition

Latin inscription on the tomb of the poet Vergil: Photo by Schoen at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In my experience, Latin education at the advanced level rarely emphasizes, strangely enough, how to speak or write Latin. Though often helpful at the introductory level, these skills seem to carry limited advantages in the end because Latin is a “dead” language few people communicate with today. Instead, the goal is generally to read Latin texts in order to understand them, interpret them, and learn about the society that produced them.

It’s true that Latin learners are bringing the perspectives of the Romans back to life by reading these texts. Even so, the Latin remains frozen on the page; it is not a living language because it is not spoken, written, or used for everyday communication.

Nevertheless, Latin is still treated as a living language by some. The Vatican, of course, uses modern Latin for official documents. In addition, some instructors (see Cornell’s hiring of a former papal secretary as a Latin professor) and educational programs remain committed to living Latin.

Latin remains alive, since people are communicating with it; however, because its usage remains limited to these specific contexts, it unfortunately cannot be considered as “alive” as a “fully” living language, like English, which is widely used for communication on a daily basis.

Although living Latin techniques have important advantages, I have never found them to be necessary personally. My studies have focused on reading Classical texts, which I’ve been able to do without much training in written or spoken Latin, and the professors who taught me Greek and Latin in college rarely emphasized composition or conversation.

Following my article on Roman elegy, I conducted an experiment in Latin composition and encountered challenges leading me to reflect upon how “dead” languages like Latin should be taught and the advantages of treating an ancient language as living.

Ancient Roman elegy was defined by an emphasis on love and relationships. On the basis of that definition, musicians like Adele could be considered modern elegists in terms of language, style, and themes. However, according to one definition of elegy, any poet who used the metrical form of the genre, the elegiac couplet, was an elegist, regardless of what he or she wrote about.

An elegiac couplet contains two lines of Latin verse. The first line is in dactylic hexameter. A dactyl is a foot made up a long syllable followed by two short ones. As “hex”-ameter suggests, there are six of these. The second line is a pentameter made up of two repeated sections of two-and-a-half feet each. (See video explanation here).

If I had followed this definition in my previous article, it would have been impossible to find a modern elegist. Adele’s work aligns well with Latin elegy, but no matter what she sings about, she cannot be a Latin elegist in terms of form, because she writes in English, not Latin, and cannot use elegiac couplets (English rhythms do not fit well with this meter). Due to the barriers of language and meter, there remains a gap between ancient and “modern” elegy.

It would be quite challenging to find a modern poet or musician who deals with elegiac themes and convince them to write in Latin. But what about the next best thing? Would it be possible to narrow the gap by recreating one of Adele’s songs in Latin? Keith Massey’s Latin version of Adele’s ‘Hello’ is a good attempt, but it follows the original tune of the song. What would be the effect of her songs if they were conveyed in elegiac couplets?

As I pondered these questions, I translated the chorus from Adele’s song, ‘All I Ask,’ into Latin elegiac couplets. Would the result resemble ancient Roman elegy?

Here is the chorus in English:

All I ask is…
If this is my last night with you
Hold me like I’m more than just a friend
Give me a memory I can use
Take me by the hand while we do
What lovers do
It matters how this ends
’Cause what if I never love again?

Here is my attempted translation into Latin:

tu, oro modo, si haec nox nunc erit ultima tecum,
me, quasi amica maior sim, teneas;
praebe aliquid mihi utile quod possim meminisse;
tange manu me, cum qualia agemus agant
nos amatores; interest mei quo haec finienda;
quod, quid si foveam non iterum umquam amorem?

Many of you will not be able to read this, so I am not going to discuss all the specific details of this translation. Rather, I’m going to discuss what I learned while writing it.

I have to be proud of the fact that I produced written Latin and managed to convey some of Adele’s themes, because I have little training in Latin composition. Translating Latin into English is hard enough; going the other direction is even more difficult, so I need to give myself some credit. For the most part, however, I encountered difficulties with this exercise:

Vocabulary and Grammar

My Latin training has revolved around reading, and so, I have been depending on a passive memory of Latin vocabulary: recognizing a word and being able to remember its definition. This means that my knowledge of vocabulary is somewhat transitory: I retain memory of the word for as long as I need it to understand the passage.

To recall a Latin word and write it down, however, requires an active memory of vocabulary: retaining a word and its definitions in one’s mind, and being able to summon that knowledge at a moment’s notice. This challenge of conjuring Latin words from memory (and having to look up the ones I could not remember) forced me to exercise my vocabulary skills more actively.

Similarly, I am used to recognizing Latin grammatical forms and sentence constructions, but I have less experience coming up with them myself. To read a Latin conditional clause, all I need to do is recognize “si”(if) followed by a verb, but remembering how to conjugate the verbs into different forms (imperfect, future, subjunctive, etc.) depending on the type of Latin condition I want to write is not as easy.

Latin composition asks students to exercise their skills in vocabulary, definitions, and grammatical structures, and to commit their knowledge of these things into active memory. By improving their grasp of Latin in this way, it would help them to become more comfortable with other aspects of the language, like reading. Latin composition might not be the “goal” of learning Latin for me, but because of this experiment, I’ve realized that it facilitates that goal to a greater degree than I had thought.

Meter and the Elegiac Couplet

A significant challenge was writing Latin in elegiac couplets. I had to keep track of the length (long or short) and number of syllables in the words I used, and make sure that those words were placed in the correct metrical positions. This tended to disrupt the vocabulary and grammatical constructions I had come up with. I often could not translate Adele’s lyrics literally and had to adjust word order, grammar, and meaning to accommodate the meter.

The third line of my translation literally says, “Provide to me something useful which I would be able to remember,” unlike Adele’s English which says, “Give me a memory I can use.” I readjusted this sentence because 1) Latin memoriam (“memory”) proved challenging metrically; 2) the infinitive meminisse (“to remember”) fits the meter better than uti (“to use”); and 3) uti takes the ablative case, which would have complicated the grammar.

In the last line, I initially used amam — the first-person singular, active, subjunctive form of “to love” — to say, “What if I should never love again?” To accommodate meter, though, I changed the verb to foveam, a more difficult vocabulary term, and added the noun amorem, so that it now says literally, “What if I should never warm a love again?”

The challenges of writing in meter enhanced my appreciation for the ancient poets who wrote Latin elegy. It is impressive enough that they used beautiful language and images to deal with such complex themes of love, relationships, society, and politics. I already understood that they did so while constrained by the strict structure of the elegiac couplet, but the difficulties of meter made me realize the monumental scale of the task they faced.

Having students attempt their own elegiac compositions in meter would remind them to not take the technique and structure of ancient elegy for granted. By drawing attention to meter, this type of exercise would facilitate discussions of elegiac form and rhythm, which are often ignored in favor of themes, yet are, by some accounts, what defines the genre in the first place.

Language and Style

Finally, I tried to ensure that my word choices and language were in-line with the style of elegy. Would a real elegist like Ovid or Propertius have used a particular word? Is this word or construction appropriately elegiac?

I originally used proda in line 3 to mean “provide.” However, when I consulted Latin professor Lissa Crofton-Sleigh, she said that this word was not typically used in elegy; she recommended praebe instead. She also noted that perficienda was generally not an elegiac word, so I switched to finienda for “end” in line 5.

With my word choices, I attempted to convey themes familiar from elegy. The reference to nox (“night”) as the time for romantic encounters is fitting. The suggestion of force and possession in teneas (literally, “may you hold me”) is appropriate: love in Latin is often described in aggressive or even militaristic terms (think Cupid’s bow and arrow). Using foveam … amorem (“I warm … a love”) makes sense, since fire and heat are metaphors for emotions, in both Latin and English. Ovid’s Amores 1.2 contains excellent examples of these ideas (see Amores 1.5 and Tibullus 1.2 as well).

Written for Latin students, this book contains poems from all the major Roman elegists, plus commentary and secondary scholarship.

These choices concerning language and style would not seem extremely out of place in Latin elegy. Seeing Adele’s lyrics like this makes it feel as if ‘All I Ask’ might have been an elegiac poem from ancient Rome all along.

Students are taught to interpret the language of elegy. Why did Ovid use a certain word in this particular context? Latin composition of elegy would require students to confront similar choices regarding which words to use. It would naturally lead to a discussion of elegiac language and style and ultimately would enhance the students’ understanding of the genre.


Based on my experience with this translation exercise, I have observed that Latin composition carries two major advantages for Latin learners.

First, it helps students enhance their grasp of the essential nuts and bolts of Latin — grammar, vocabulary, etc. —through an active process of memory retrieval. It thereby improves their comfort with Latin to a level that just reading it would not.

Second, by placing students into the perspective of a Latin author, Latin composition would increase their understanding of the writing process and aid in their interpretations of theme, style, and language. This applies to any genre, not just elegy; attempting to write in the style of Caesar or Vergil facilitates discussion of the stylistic and rhetoric choices made by those authors.

Therefore, I believe Latin teachers and professors could make excellent use of Latin composition in an instructional setting. Of course, there are barriers to its classroom implementation. First is the basic challenge already faced by students of understanding the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Latin: why add to their overloaded plates?

In a ten-week Latin class on Seneca’s Phaedra that I took a few years ago, we were only able to read through 2/3 of the play.

Second is the issue of time. In an undergraduate Latin course of 10–15 weeks, there is generally not enough time to read through the entirety of one major text, not to mention the time spent providing further information through lectures, secondary readings, or other works of the author in translation.

Third is the limited number of Latin or Greek students at many schools that makes it difficult to create separate courses accounting for differences in ability. Students whose skill levels vary drastically end up taking the same language courses, which therefore must contain content accessible to a range of students. Composition, as a more challenging aspect of Latin, would likely be helpful only for the most advanced students (perhaps why composition courses are generally offered only at the graduate level).

Nevertheless, the point remains that treating Latin as more than a “dead” language can confer significant benefits to the Latin student, and so, despite some practical issues, I recommend that Latin instructors make an effort to implement some living language practices within the classroom. Full class periods dealing with composition would be excessive, given time constraints, but assigning a short composition exercise like the one I attempted, perhaps for extra credit, should prove edifying for the interested student. In addition, encouraging students to use basic conversational Latin in the classroom would improve their overall comfort with the language; anything more advanced would be fitting for extra-credit assignments.

In this 18th century painting, Vergil recites his Aeneid to emperor Augustus, whose sister, Octavia, is said to have fainted due to the emotional impact of the poem–the power of the Latin language at work!

When studying the literature and language of the ancient Romans, if we focus on reading texts only, we run the risk of forgetting that this is not all that Latin was for the Romans. In its day, it was a beautiful, wonderfully living language, just as English is for us today, and so, some attempts must be made when possible to treat it as such, in order to create a more cohesive understanding of it and the people who spoke it.

Special thanks to Lissa Crofton-Sleigh, Classics professor and Latin scholar at Santa Clara University, for looking over my translation and for providing input on the article.


2 thoughts on “Latin — Wanted, Dead or Alive? (Latina — Desiderata, Vivens Mortuave?): Elegiac Experiments in Latin Composition

  1. Brian, thank you for this well-written and thoughtful post! Much to ponder…

    Latin as a living language: I think it depends on what you want to get out of it. Yes, for a few eccentrics there will always be the temptation to make Latin into a living language. And for students who like the social aspects of language, it can make Latin more enjoyable. Even in modern languages different students are into different things; some of Michelle’s Spanish classmates love to learn slang and take all the culture classes, while others excel at grammar and focus on literature courses. (Michelle is in the latter group.)

    Living Latin? A few thoughts. First, certainly it would cement some of the idioms and grammar in your head a lot better. However is it useful to try to reconstruct the Latin of the street from our limited corpus of the Latin of literature? Further, the vocabulary used in everyday life might not be so helpful when reading literature. So in several ways the idea of “living Latin” might actually detract from the goal of reading literature.

    Second, yes, if one is reading only, it is slower. But that slowness makes you read closer and absorb the nuances more. When I’m doing Bible reading, I find I might skim a passage in English, but in Greek/Hebrew I read more slowly and think about the nuances more. This makes me a better reader.

    Third: when I was studying Arabic last summer, my class used a communicative approach. The idea there is that you get students to *use* the language as much as possible rather than teaching students *about* the language. What this means in practice is minimal grammar explanations. Personally I found this frustrating: my goal in Arabic is to read Qur’an, which means I want to know the technicalities of how the language works so I can better understand the technicalities of Qur’anic Arabic. So lots of explicit grammar is necessary to engage in close studies of texts; especially when those texts are considered the word of God, which means *every* nuance is revelatory and important!!

    The tough thing about language instruction is that there is only so much time. You make a good argument for composition. Personally I would have liked more culture lessons and less grammar when I was taking Greek. But that might just be me.

    1. Your description of the various cons of living Latin is pretty much why I emphasize the advantages composition, as opposed to conversational Latin. Composition asks you to focus in on the language and style of the literature you are studying and helps to expose the nuances of the text similar to the way that close reading does (as you basically say in your post). I suppose, however, that trying to write in “the style of” the Qur’an or the Bible does not make as much sense!

      To your last point of preferring culture lessons to grammar… I think composition can emphasize either one of them: on one hand, getting the grammar correct, versus on the other hand, attempting to emulate the language and style of a text or genre in the context of its historical and cultural context.

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