An Unfashionable Poet: A D Godley


     An Unfashionable Poet: A D Godley


     AS A SCHOOLBOY in the 1960s and 1970s, I had no choice but to learn Latin, and once even passed an exam in it. I could have been taught Greek too if I had felt like it. In those – I insist not very distant – days, some knowledge at least of the Classics was still seen as an essential part of a good education. In this country the Latin language was then commonplace as the language of ceremony: after all, it was heard by most of the Irish population once a week in the Roman Catholic Mass. In more Protestant surroundings, it was used during my time in Trinity College, Dublin, for a wide range of official pronouncements, such as the conferring of degrees and the Graces recited before and after Commons, the collegiate evening meal. Since then I have found that my Latin has occasionally been useful when puzzling out the meanings of obscure words, but for not very much else.


     The speed at which the language has disappeared from general understanding beats into a cocked hat the decline of Irish. Hardly any schools in Ireland today offer either Latin or Greek as subjects – though an oddly mispronounced Latin for use in court is I believe still part of a barrister’s training. In the universities, the tiny Classics Departments now have to accept students who know nothing of either language whatsoever, and are forced to teach them (no doubt highly rewarding) courses with titles along the lines of ‘Classical Civilization’.


     I suppose the death of Latin and Greek is not really worth weeping too much over, and it can surely only be a good thing that English grammar is no longer taught as if it were a debased form of Latin grammar. The example of this foolishness that is usually cited is the injunction not to recklessly split infinitives in English, on the grounds that you CAN’T split them in Latin. (That English grammar isn’t taught at all any more is another matter entirely – how many people even know what an infinitive is these days?)


     All this guff is merely a preamble to today’s piece displaying the talents of the once eminent Irish classical scholar Alfred D Godley (1856-1925), who (and here I quote Wikipedia) ‘from 1910 to 1920 … was Public Orator at the University of Oxford, a post that involved composing citations in Latin for the recipients of honorary degrees. One of these was for Thomas Hardy who received an Honorary D. Litt. in 1920, and whose treatment of rural themes Godley compared to Virgil.’ Though Godley’s dual-language version of Herodotus’s Histories remains in print 87 years after publication, he is probably now best known (but for how long?) for the following grammatical aide memoire, which ingeniously leads the reader through all the singular and plural case endings for regular second and third declension masculine nouns in Latin (or I think that’s what it does!):




What is this that roareth thus?

Can it be a Motor Bus?

Yes, the smell and hideous hum

Indicat Motorem Bum!

Implet in the Corn and High

Terror me Motoris Bi:

Bo Motori clamitabo

Ne Motore caedar a Bo –

Dative be or Ablative

So thou only let us live:

Whither shall thy victims flee?

Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!

Thus I sang; and still anigh

Came in hordes Motores Bi,

Et complebat omne forum

Copia Motorum Borum.

How shall wretches live like us

Cincti Bis Motoribus?

Domine, defende nos

Contra hos Motores Bos!


     Tootus tootus! Long before Godley became a fixture at Oxford, he was a boyhood friend of Percy French, and he seems to have imbibed some of the same spirit for light verse that made French famous. Godley had a sprightlier line than his friend in satirical verses on political matters, some of which, if you can take the cloth-eared ‘Oirish’ respellings, are highly entertaining. Here’s one from the time of Parnell that’s NOT in Ireland’s Other Poetry. It’s taken from his 1899 collection, Lyra Frivola:





Oh, wanst I was a tinant, an’ I wisht I was one still,

With my cow an’ pig an’ praties, an’ my cabin on the hill!

‘Twas plinty then I had to drink an’ plinty too to ate,

And the childer had employment on the Ponsonby estate.


It was in Tipperary town, as down the street I went,

I met with Mr Blarnigan, that sits in Parliament:

‘Tis he that has the eloquence!  An’ ‘Pay no rint,’ says he,

‘For that’s the way you’ll get your land, an’ set the country free.’


I’d paid my rint – sure, ’twas rejuiced – before the rows began,

An’ the agent that was in it was a dacent kind of man;

But parties kem by moonlight now, and tould me I must not,

And if I paid it any more they’d surely have me shot.


The agent said he’d take the half of all the rint I owed,

Because he’d be unwilling for to put me on the road:

I said, ‘I thank your honour, and in glory may you be!

But that is not the way,’ says I, ‘to set ould Ireland free.’


They kem an’ put me out of that, and left me there forlorn,

Beside the empty ruins of the house where I was born:

I’m indepindent now myself, and have no work to do,

Until the day when Ireland is indepindent too.


‘A day will come,’ says Blarnigan, ‘when tyranny’s o’erthrown –

Just hould the rint a year or so, and all the land’s your own!’

Well, ’tis not for the likes of me to question what they say,

But it’s starved we’ll be before we see that great and glorious day!


This fighting against tyranny’s a splendid kind of thrade,

For thim that goes to London for’t, and gets their tickets paid!

I’m loafing on the road myself, an’ sorra know I know

What way I’ll live the winter through, an’ where on earth I’ll go.


Oh, wanst I was a tinant, an’ I wisht I was one still,

With my cow an’ pig an’ praties, an’ my cabin on the hill!

Now it’s to New York City that I’ll have to cross the sea,

And all because I held my rint to set the counthry free.



     O tempora, o mores!

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One Response to An Unfashionable Poet: A D Godley

  1. David says:

    HiHere is a video of my setting of Motor Bus – great fun. regardsDavid

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