Tag Archive | Latin

Alma mater

It can’t be claimed that Irene Frude’s memorial has a very pretty setting.

Off the south side of Little Clarendon St, just north of the centre of Oxford, is a covered entrance serving 25 Wellington Square. This building has graduate flats on the upper storeys and shops on the ground floor. The covered space is used for parking and for the rubbish bins.

On the eastern wall of this unappealing space, very easily missed, is a small cast-iron plaque, 27” x 7”, with the following text:


OCTOBER 29 A.D. 1976

A bin fire “around 2008” has caused the plaque to buckle slightly, and one side is discoloured. Vehicles are constantly parked close against the wall to which it’s attached, and it’s consequently very hard to find it when you’re first looking for it, and to get a decent photo when you do.

I’m indebted to Antigone Magazine for drawing my attention to something that I’ve ridden past unknowingly countless times. I am also more grateful than words can express to the Oxford University Archives, especially Anna Petre, for information both about the inscription and the circumstances of its installation. It is described in R. H. Adams, Latin inscriptions in Oxford, a useful book vitiated by occasionally dodgy Latin, and on this excellent page which I nevertheless think gets a bit confused about Bedford House School and the site of Mrs Frude’s lodging house.

Let’s clear that up first.

Mrs Frude’s lodging house, which she ran from 1936 until 1972 and which was an example of a licensed lodging house for students, a phenomenon now long since extinct, was at 130 Walton St., just around the corner from Little Clarendon St. Some years before, 130 Walton St had briefly accommodated Bedford House School, run by John H Thorogood, before he had a purpose-built school built a little way up Walton St at 122, where it still stands.

While running the school at 122, Thorogood lived at 135 Walton St (he was there with his family in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, and his wife was still there in 1901; he died in 1902). He called 135 Walton St. Bedford House (the name is over the front door), and that is the house pictured on the webpage about Mrs Frude that I mentioned earlier. In the 1881 census it is clearly a “school house” for boarders: lots of “scholars”, schoolboys, are listed as living there alongside the family. But Thorogood no longer had anything to do with 130 Walton St., and there can be no glimpse of it on Google Maps because 130 Walton St. no longer exists.

Behind Little Clarendon St. and Walton St. lies Wellington Square, where the offices of Oxford University stand, and which was previously the location of the city workhouse. The University bought the site in 1865 (information gleaned from this interesting document), and it was developed on 99-year leases which fell in around the mid-1960s, at which point the University commissioned the architect Leslie Martin to replan the entire area. In the event, the University Offices and the graduate accommodation in 25 Wellington Sq. were all that was realised of Martin’s plan, but the latter building did for 130 Walton St.

Before the new buildings Walton St. (itself in this stretch the product of those 99-year leases) began south of Little Clarendon St. at No. 128, and 128-31 inclusive, four houses, were demolished to make room for the west end of 25 Wellington Sq. (and another space for bins and parking). A detail below of an aerial photo that predates the demolition, from the Oxfordshire County Council image collection, shows the corner of Walton St. and Little Clarendon St. The last four houses on the left are no longer there (compare with the image above), and third from the end of the row is 130.

The construction of 25 Wellington Sq. was supposed to run from the spring of 1973 to the middle of 1975, but there were the inevitable delays, and it was only finally completed in July 1976, receiving its first residents the following month. This last information is from Anna Petre in the University Archive, and she also found letters indicating that Mrs Frude moved out of 130 Walton St. and “into alternative accommodation … provided by the University” on November 8 1972 (apparently a flat in Divinity Rd.), in advance of the demolition of the building in January 1973. The minutes of the Buildings Committee make reference in September 1974 to a letter from a graduate student at Keble by the name of John Findon requesting permission, along with other ex-lodgers of Mrs Frude, to install “on the wall of the building that will eventually replace her house” a plaque in honour of someone who had a “reputation … second to none among Oxford landladies”. By November it had been agreed that an inscription, in Latin, would be placed “in the undercroft through which those entering the building from Little Clarendon Street will pass”, and a provisional text had been proposed. The text given is at some remove from the final text, and the committee also decided to send the submitted text to the Corpus Christi Professor of Latin “for an opinion”, which means that we can safely credit Robin Nisbet, Professor from 1970 to 1992, for some, at least, of the elegance of the final product.

It was evidently at the earliest possible opportunity after the opening of the new building, October 1976, that the inscription was actually inaugurated. It sits some little distance from the site of Mrs Frude’s house, it’s fair to say: the satellite image above marks 130 with a blue arrow and the plaque with a red. A location for it near the entrance to the flats at their west end would have expressed hoc in loco more faithfully, but the Buildings Committee minutes imply that it was deemed preferable to place it inside the building, and where it might be seen by anyone using one of the entrances to the flat complex–and it might be so seen if there weren’t vehicles constantly parked up against it.

It deserves to be noticed, as it is charming, in content if not, after the fire, in physical appearance.

I like its Roman date, literally “four days before the Kalends of November”, with a wry A.D. just in case we’re misled. I like the play on the word alumnus, meaning a pupil as well as an old member of the college (this last a US usage but familiar enough in the 1970s). It hovers between these two senses in its two appearances, but also, in its basic sense of nursling, connects with altrix for Irene, a nurse and her foster-children—as Armand D’Angour suggests, the root in alo, “feed, nourish”, brings in the food dimension: she feeds, altrix, and they get fed, alumni. Meanwhile ingentissima ientacula is just superb, so funny yet so full of affection. A shabby old memorial in a shabby location, but such warmth.

John Findon informs me that by the time he was Mrs Frude’s lodger (I think in 1971-72) she wasn’t able to conjure up the “huge breakfasts” any more, but did produce “magnificent Victoria sponges for us as a treat.” Irene Frude died in April 1977 at the age of 78. I expressed the hope in an earlier version of this blog that this gave her time enough to learn how much her alumni loved her, and I learn from John that he and his friends took her to see the plaque, so she did.

Spot the memorial

Horace on living

A rapid post, this, and topical in a way I wouldn’t have chosen.

I love the Latin language. I struggle to explain why. Something to do with its brevity, and the scope an inflected language gives to shift words around for maximum effect.

No Roman poet exploited these inherent characteristics of Latin more effectively than Horace, and a poem like Horace, Odes 3.29 has it all for me, and not just for me: formal beauty allied to profound ethical truths. I like this poem so much that when I fell over an inscription of a line of it at a charity auction once, I parted with rather a lot of money. Latin and stone go so well together.


There is so much that’s great about 3.29: the way Horace expresses the unpredictability of life through an image of a river in spate, his description flowing river-like from stanza to stanza; the image he uses to express a proper indifference to misfortune: “I wrap myself in my virtue,” he says, mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, as if virtue were a warm and waterproof coat.

But my very favourite thing in 3.29 is a single word, uixi, “I have lived,” at line 43. It is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, and it represents the key principle of the poem’s philosophy.

Here are the two stanzas around it, with a translation much indebted to David West. Horace is explaining that what matters is the present moment, living life in the here and now. We cannot influence what the future will bring, but if we have lived life to the full when we can, what happens in time to come is of no significance.

… ille potens sui                                                  41
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “uixi.” cras uel atra
nube polum pater occupato

uel sole puro. non tamen irritum                     45
quodcumque retro est efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet
quod fugiens semel hora uexit.

A man will be in control of his life
and happy, if he can say at each day’s end
“I have lived.” Tomorrow Jupiter can
fill the sky with black cloud

or with pure sunlight, but he will not cancel
whatever is behind,
nor reshape or unmake
what once the fleeting hour has brought.

Horace’s poem is written in a verse form called alcaics, a metre in four-line stanzas which Horace had inherited from the archaic Greek poet Alcaeus, but given a character all his own. Horatian alcaics have a very clear dynamic: in broad terms, there are two identical lines followed by a third that slows the flow of the poetry, and a much faster fourth. What creates the impression of drag in the third line is mainly its contrast with the previous two. The first two lines normally have a word break, a pause or caesura, after the fifth syllable, but while the third line starts off as if it is going to follow the same pattern, it then pushes on without a break. The second stanza here is typical: uel sole puro//, quodcumque retrost// in the first two lines, but diffinget infectumque in the third, no break until after the seventh syllable.

In slightly more technical terms, here is an alcaic stanza, with _ marking a long syllable, u marking a short, and // marking the normal/expected location of word breaks:

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ // _ u u _ u _

_ _ u _ _ _ u _ _

_ u u _ u u _ u _ _

The things to notice are the identical shape of the first two lines, and the way the third line also begins the same way, but has no break after the fifth syllable. Horace has a habit of placing in the middle of the third line a word needing emphasis, or suiting in other ways this expansive position. Here is an example from earlier in Odes 3.29 (ll. 9-12), where Horace urges Maecenas to abandon his obsession with the city of Rome, and join him for drinkies in the country:

fastidiosam// desere copiam et
molem propinquam// nubibus arduis,
omitte mirari beatae
fumum et opes strepitumque Romae.

Leave behind cloying abundance and
that pile that reaches to the high clouds,
stop admiring
the smoke and riches and racket of wealthy Rome.

In the first two lines there are word breaks after the fifth syllable. The word set in that expansive centre of the third line is mirari, “admire,” “wonder at,” and the placement is very effective: we dwell on Maecenas’ obsession with the city as he indulges his obsession. Meanwhile the frantic fourth line well suits the distracting sensory chaos of the big smoke. Given that practically all of Horace’s alcaic stanzas follow this dynamic of expansive third line and skittery fourth, of course, any exception becomes eye-catching.

At l. 43, dixisse uixi. cras uel atra, there is just such an exception to the rule, and it’s gorgeous. What we have in 43 is a third line that doesn’t expand, but stops short just like the first and second line. The word uixi not only introduces a pause after the fifth syllable, where we don’t expect it, but brings a very strong pause: Horace ends a sentence where we were anticipating continuation. The effect on the word uixi is to underline and isolate it.

I’ve suggested that “I have lived” is the essence of this poem. If you can say this to yourself today, Horace tells us, it simply doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow. I find that a beautiful sentiment in itself, but Horace has made it more beautiful, in the subtlest of ways, by detaching it from the rest of the poetic line by means of that unexpected pause. Vixi, “I have lived,” stands alone. Because there is nothing else that needs to be said.

Charlotte Easton died far too young. I only met her once, though we chatted from time to time on Twitter. She lived life to the full, with her love of cycling, her delight in teaching, her passion for Latin and Greek. If I love Latin, its chiselled clarity, the people I rate highest in the world are those who keep the study of this language I love alive, sharing my enthusiasm for it, but possessed of a precious capacity to communicate the joy of it that I can only wish I had.

Charlotte, uixisti.