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.



  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!

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

5 responses to “The Rubaiyat of Mods”

  1. Allan Girdwood says :

    Always nice to be reminded of the Motor Bus. I’d love to have it on my classroom wall, particularly with Tolkein’s illustration, but, of course, it only works in the old Public School pronunciation. I have often wondered if Godley meant it as a protest against the Reformed Pronunciation, given that he was so grumpily resistent to innovation:

    YE Somervillian students, Ye ladies of St. Hugh’s,
    Whose rashness and imprudence Provokes my warning Muse,
    Receive not with impatience, But calmly, as you should,
    These simple observations — I make them for your good.

    Why seek for mere diplomas, And commonplace degrees,
    When now — unfettered roamers — You study what you please,
    While man in like conditions Is forced to stick like gum
    Unto the requisitions Of a curriculum?

    As far o’er field and fallow In flood-time spreads the Cher,
    So wide (yet not so shallow) Your ample studies are;
    As Cherwell’s wave returning Flows from a scantier source,
    So Man’s restricted learning Is narrowed to a Course.

    As when the sphere is fleeting Across th’ extended net,
    And Somerville’s competing With Lady Margaret,
    As players at lawn-tennis Return alternate balls,
    E’en such the lot of men is Who read for Greats and Smalls!

    We bid them try — poor suitors — Yet still to fail condemn:
    Examiners and tutors Make shuttlecocks of them:
    Would you, as some of them are, Be constantly betwixt
    The horns of a dilemma Uncomfortably fixt?

    When Proctors fine and gate you, If walking through the town
    In pupillari statu Without a cap and gown;
    When gauds that now delight you Away you have to throw,
    And sadly go vestitu In academico;

    When your untried impatience Is tested every day
    By rules and regulations: When academic sway
    Your study’s space belittles, You’ll find that life, I fear,
    Is not completely skittles, Nor altogether beer.

    What boots that countless letters Unto your name you add,
    And strive to gild the fetters That cramp the undergrad?
    Doomed to a Course that’s narrow Your recklessness you’ll rue:
    The toad beneath a harrow Will happier be than you!

    Which of course provoked the famous rejoinder:

    You horrid A. G. ! You unnatural man !
    I don’t like your verses a bit\
    Our JUST ASPIRATIONS you ruthlessly ban,
    And this, Sir, you fancy is wit!

    I’m sure you are cross, morose yes, and old,
    If to vote for our hoods you refuse ;
    I’m positive too you would not be so cold
    If you dropped in to tea at St. Hugh’s.

    I had an idea for my Bachelor Frock,
    Tailor-cut not too full in the skirt
    Which has brightened my study of Hume* and of Locke,
    But you think I ‘m fit only to flirt.

    I had carefully planned, when I got the M.A.
    For / don’t think the B.A.’s enough
    Not like you poor men, to throw old hoods away,
    But to trim such a dote of a muff.

    I scorn your contempt, and disdain your advice ;
    I don’t see your logical ergo ;
    And though I could be most uncommonly nice,
    I am now most indignantly


    What struck me, looking at this again, is the use of ‘dote’ as a noun, meaning ‘something to be doted on’. This is still current in Ulster where the reaction to our daughter, when she was a baby was ‘Oh, she’s such a dote.’

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Thank you! Godley was nearly an Ulsterman, wasn’t he, born in Cavan, brought up in Leitrim. I’ve just gone mad and bought Q Horati Flacci Carminum Liber Quintus just for Godley’s Latin introduction…

  2. thomaswischer says :

    Reblogged this on thomaswischer.

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