John Owen (c.1564 – c.1622/1628) was a Welsh epigrammatist, best known for his Latin epigrams, collected in his Epigrammata. He was born at Plas Du, Llanarmon, a member of the Welsh gentry, and he was educated at Winchester College and later at New College, Oxford, from where he graduated as Bachelor of Civil Law in 1590. All that he ultimately derived from that degree was an abiding dislike of law and lawyers, which colors a large number of his epigrams. He was a fellow of his college from 1584 to 1591. He supported himself as a schoolmaster, first at Trelleck, near Monmouth, until he was appointed headmaster of Henry VIII’s school at Warwick around 1595. His salary was doubled to £20 per year in 1614. After ceasing to be master at Warwick, he seems to have been in financial difficulties, and, in the latter part of his life, he owed his support to the kindness of his countryman and relative, Bishop Williams of Lincoln. He made no secret of his eagerness to be patronised and was outspoken in his desire to receive pecuniary help, a weakness which he shared with the Latin master of the epigram, Martial. On his death in 1622, Owen was buried in the old St Paul’s Cathedral, London, memorialised with a Latin epitaph.
The Latin Epigrams
Owen became distinguished for his perfect mastery of the Latin language, and for the humour, felicity and point of his epigrams. These Latin epigrams, which have both sense and wit in a high degree, gained him much applause, and were translated into English, French, German, and Spanish. He had started writing epigrams while at Winchester – indeed, education there was largely devoted to the production of them – and his were good enough by the time he reached 16 years of age to be used in a ceremony held when Queen Elizabeth I paid a state visit to Sir Francis Drake on his ship at Deptford, on his return from sailing around the world. In 1606 he published the first of a series of volumes of Latin epigrams, which earned him an enduring reputation as “England’s Martial” both at home and abroad.
Owen’s Epigrammata are divided into twelve books, of which the first three were published in 1606, and the rest at four different times (1607, 1612, c. 1613, 1620). These epigrams were repeatedly reprinted in England: in 1618, 1622, 1633, 1634, 1653 (twice), 1659, 1668, and 1671. European editions also appeared rapidly and frequently. His epigrams proved popular for centuries after his death, appearing in numerous reprints, editions and translations.
The epigrams were not universally popular. Ben Jonson called him a pure Pedantique Schoolmaster sweeping his living from the Posteriors of little children, having no thinge good in him, his epigrames being bare narrations. As a former schoolmaster, I detect a note of snobbish condescenstion in that remark.
According to Dana F. Sutton in his Hypertext Critical Edition of the epigrams, His variety of subject-matter is in fact so great that it may seem problematic to a modern reader. Poems that are moralizing or pietistic do not only coexist with ones that are pert and playful. Some, although admittedly not a large number, are spectacularly obscene. This stretch of subject may strike a modern reader as somehow “schizophrenic,” although it may not be entirely clear whether such evident contradictions are to be credited to the man or to the age in which he lived… Less ambiguous, however, and much less explicable by reference to classical precedent, is Owen’s outspoken misogyny. Often pitched in biblical terms, with reference to Eve being seduced by the serpent, women are frequently portrayed as innately vicious and therefore as dangerous. Even in an age where cuckoldry and its consequences provided a standard source of humor, the number of Owen’s epigrams about dysfunctional marriages (involving adultery, supposititious children, shrewish wives, and so forth) is remarkable. Others frankly praise batchelorhood, and Owen often congratulates himself and others on escaping the pitfalls of married life. In all this, he sounds like an Elizabethan version of Philip Larkin.
Translations of the Epigrams
Owen’s popularity as an epigrammaticist is not solely measured by the number of editions of his epigrams in Latin. He has found a number of English translators: there are partial ones by John Vicars (1619), Henry Harflete (1653), Thomas Pecke (1659), and even a modern translation of sixty epigrams by the contemporary American poet David R. Slavitt (1997). J. V. Cunningham has also translated one of the epigrams. (See below.) Owen’s epigrams have also been translated into French by Lebrun (Brussels, 1709), De Pommereul (Ixelles, 1818), and De Kérivalent (Lyons, 1819), into German by Löber (Hamburg, 1653, reprinted Jena, 1661), and Castilian by F. de la Torre (Madrid, 1674 – 82, reprinted 1721). There is only one English translation of the complete epigrams, or at least those of Books I – X, John Owen’s Latine epigrams Englished by Tho. Harvey, Gent. (London, 1677). According to Dana F. Sutton, Harvey’s versions are usually clear and serviceable and on occasion the translator displays flashes of wit that match Owen’s own. These are the versions I have used below.
Brief Poems by John Owen
Forma tibi famam peperit: sed filia matrem
Occidit, formam non bona fama bonam.
Of a certain Woman.
Thy Form brought forth thy Fame: But O the Child
Did kill the Mother: fair Form; Fame defil’d.
Illi de rebus praedicere vera futuris;
Hi de praeteritis dicere falsa solent.
Prophets of Things to come the Truth predict:
But Poets of Things past write false and fict.
MARITUS ET MOECHUS
Hanc ego mi uxorem duxi; tulit alter amorem;
Sic vos, non vobis, mellificatis apes.
Hos ego filiolos feci, tulit alter honores.
Sic vos, non vobis, nidificatis aves.
An Husband, and an Adulterer.
I have A wife, others her Love: so rather
For Others not Themselves Bees Honey gather.
This Seed I rais’d, but in Anothers Field:
So Birds for Others, not Themselves do build.
DE VITA ET MORTE
Ad mortem sic vita fluit, velut ad mare flumen.
Vivere nam res est dulcis, amara mori.
Of Life and Death.
Life tends to Death, as Rivers to the Seas:
For Life is sweet, Death bitter, doth displease.
Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.
Arboribus redeunt crines, et gramina campis,
At capiti frondes non rediere tuo.
To one Bald.
Leaves to the Trees, and Grass returns to Ground:
But not one hair on thy bald pate is found.
Restituunt furtum fures, vi rapta, latrones.
Omnia mors aufert, restituitque nihil.
Thieves shall restore their Theft, Robbers their Prey,
But Nothing Death; For Death takes All away.
IN FUTILEM FLORAM
Cum quocunque cois, rem factam, Flora, fateris,
Plusque fatendo mali quam faciendo facis.
Of Flitting Flora.
In thy Coition thou didst boast thine Act,
Thy boasting was more sinful than thy Fact.
ADULTERIUM ET FORNICATO
Ignavus moecho tandum distare videtur
Scortator, quantum comicus a tragico.
Adultery and Fornication.
What differs base Adulterers from vile
Fornicators? Tragick as from Comick stile.
HOROLOGIUM VITAE. AD D. IOANNEM WEST, AMICUM SUUM
Latus ad occasum, unquam rediturus ad ortum,
Vivo hodie, moriar cras, here natus eram.
From East to West without return am I,
Born yesterday, live this day, next day die.
DE AUTUMNO. AD AMICUM SUUM D. RICARDUM CONOK
Aufert arboribus frondes Autumnus, et idem
Fert secum fructus: nos faciamus idem.
Autumn shakes off the Leaves, and for man’s use
Produceth fruit: let us the like produce.
Discordes nos tota domus non continet ambos.
Concordes lectus nos tamen unus habet.
Man and Wife.
The total House us holds not, when we chide,
But one Bed serves us both when pacifi’d.
Saepe quiescit ager, non semper arandus. At uxor
Est ager, assidue vult tamen illa coli.
To One Uxorious.
The Field’s not always plough’d: Thy Wife’s a Field,
Yet she loves dayly to be duly till’d.
AD COELIBEM G. R.
Est bona res uxor, melior bona, optima nulla.
Contigat nobis optima, nulla tibi.
To G. R., A Batchelour.
A wife is good, a good Wife better; best
No Wife; I wish thee this; me that, at least.
Omnia me, dum iunior essem scire putabam.
Quo scio plus, hoc me nunc scio scire minus.
All things I thought I knew; But now confess
The more I know, I know, I know the less.
Cum me fata vocat, ad amoeni fluminis oram
Me moriens moesto carmine solor olor.
When Fates me call, the Rivers Bank close by,
I sweetly sing my Requiem, and die.
Est mare frigidior mulier, tamen urit amantem.
Sic calx in gelidam iacta calescit aquam.
Women, though cold, their lovers yet inflame;
So Lime in water cast, doth heat the flame.
Ne siccus volvente rota crepet, unguitur axis.
Causidicum mos est ungere, ne taceat.
Men grease their Axle-trees lest Wheels should creak:
But Lawyers must be greas’d to make them speak.
AD AMICUM COELIBEM
Ureris? Uxorem ducas, non expedit uri.
Coniugis in gremio mortificanda caro.
To His Friend, A Batchelor.
Dost burn with lust? ’Tis sin: Espouse a Bride:
The flesh will be the better moritifi’d.
SCRIPTORES HUIUS SECULI
Carpimus extremas voces et verba priorum.
Priscorum, qui nunc scribimus, echo sumus.
We carp at former Works, and Words; yet we
Now writers but the formers Echoes be.
All poems in Latin are by John Owen.
The translations are by Thomas Harvey from John Owen’s Latine epigrams Englished by Tho. Harvey, Gent. ; dedicated by the author Mr. John Owen unto the Lady Mary Nevil, daughter of the Earl of Dorset.
A Hypertext Critical Edition of the Epigrams of John Owen, edited by Dana F. Sutton.
The complete text of John Owen’s Latine epigrams Englished by Tho. Harvey, Gent.
John Owen poems with vocabulary explained and Thomas Harvey translations included on the Bestiary Latina: Brevissima site.
The Bartleby.com page on John Owen’s Epigrams.
Seven Poems from the Latin of John Owen translated by Charles Martin.
The Wit of a Wykehemist Welshman: Stephen Coombs on the Latin epigrams of John Owen.