The Rubaiyat of Mods
I haven’t blogged in far too long, and what’s mainly to blame is the examining I’m currently doing. In March every year Oxford Classics students take their notoriously challenging first examinations, Honour Moderations in Classics (or Classics Mods for short).This is the last year of my three-year stint as a Moderator, an examiner of Mods, and tomorrow is the final day of two weeks of examinations. Students will celebrate; and I and my fellow Moderators will get down to grading it all.
Well, to mark this important day, a very rare thing: a poem on the subject of Honour Moderations in Classics. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century by one of my predecessors as a Moderator, A. D. Godley.
Godley was a Classics don at Magdalen College, Oxford from 1883 to 1912, and although he produced some works of scholarship (Socrates, and Athenian Society in his Age, and you’re reading Godley if you’re reading the Loeb translation of Herodotus), he’s best known as the author of humorous verse, which he published in the Oxford Magazine and elsewhere, and issued in collections such as Verses to Order (1892 & 1904) and Lyra Frivola (1899). His most celebrated poem is “The Motor Bus”, in which he treats the words “motor” and “bus” as if they’re third and second declension Latin nouns: What is this that roareth thus?/ Can it be a Motor Bus?/ Yes, the smell and hideous hum/ Indicat Motorem Bum! etc.
But from Lyra Frivola comes the Rubaiyyat of Moderations, another extremely donnish (but also at times rather funny) parody of what was perhaps the most popular (and most parodied) poetic collection of the nineteenth century, Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, his version of the poetry of this eleventh/twelfth-century Persian polymath.
So you’ll find here Godley’s parodies of Fitzgerald’s
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
There’s quite a lot of late nineteenth-century university slang here, so here’s a short glossary before you start:
“Schools”: the Examination Schools in Oxford, where students sat Mods in 1899 and still do today;
“plough”: a fail;
“gulf”: an unclassified result, i.e. below a third but not a fail: a “pass”;
“mucker”: a heavy fall; “to go a mucker” is to come a cropper, to come to grief;
In stanzas II and III I think the joke hangs on the examination fee paid by candidates in order to enter the exam, but I’d welcome any better ideas.
RUBAIYYAT OF MODERATIONS, by A. D. Godley
Wake! for the Nightingale upon the Bough
Has sung of Moderations: ay, and now
Pales in the Firmament above the Schools
The Constellation of the boding Plough.
I too in distant Ages long ago
To him that ploughed me gave a Quid or so:
It was a Fraud: it was not good enough;
Ne’er for my Quid had I my Quid pro Quo.
Yet–for the Man who pays his painful Pence
Some Laws may frame from dark Experience:
Still from the Wells of harsh Adversity
May Wisdom draw the Pail of Common Sense–
Take these few Rules, which–carefully rehearsed–
Will land the User safely in a First,
Second, or Third, or Gulf: and after all
There’s nothing lower than a Plough at worst.
Plain is the Trick of doing Latin Prose,
An Esse Videantur at the Close
Makes it to all Intents and Purposes
As good as anything of Cicero’s.
Yet let it not your anxious Mind perturb
Should Grammar’s Law your Diction fail to curb:
Be comforted: it is like Tacitus:
Tis mostly done by leaving out the Verb.
Mark well the Point: and thus your Answer fit
That you thereto all Reference omit,
But argue still about it and about
Of This, and That, and T’Other–not of It.
Say, why should You upon your proper Hook
Dilate on Things which whoso cares to look
Will find, in Libraries or otherwhere,
Already stated in a printed Book?
Keep clear of Facts: the Fool who deals in those
A Mucker he inevitably goes:
The dusty Don who looks your Paper o’er
He knows about it all–or thinks he knows.
A Pipe, a Teapot, and a Pencil blue,
A Crib, perchance a Lexicon–and You
Beside him singing in a Wilderness
Of Suppositions palpably untrue–
‘Tis all he needs: he is content with these:
Not Facts he wants, but soft Hypotheses
Which none need take the Pains to verify:
This is the Way that Men obtain Degrees!
‘Twixt Right and Wrong the Difference is dim:
‘Tis settled by the Moderator’s Whim:
Perchance the Delta on your Paper marked
Means that his Lunch has disagreed with him:
Perchance the Issue lies in Fortune’s Lap:
For if the Names be shaken in a Cap
(As some aver) then Truth and Fallacy
No longer signify a single Rap.
Nay! till the Hour for pouring out the Cup
Of Tea post-prandial calls you home to sup,
And from the dark Invigilator’s Chair
The mild Muezzin whispers “Time is Up”–
The Moving Finger writes: then, having writ,
The Product of your Scholarship and Wit
Deposit in the proper Pigeonhole–
And thank your Stars that there’s an End of it!