Rivers to Sea – Brief Poems by John Owen

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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 epigramsHis 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, Poets.

Prophets of Things to come the Truth predict:
But Poets of Things past write false and fict.




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.

The Husband.

I have A wife, others her Love: so rather
For Others not Themselves Bees Honey gather.

The Adulterer.

This Seed I rais’d, but in Anothers Field:
So Birds for Others, not Themselves do build.



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.

J. V. Cunningham



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.

Of Death.

Thieves shall restore their Theft, Robbers their Prey,
But Nothing Death; For Death takes All away.



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.



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.



Latus ad occasum, unquam rediturus ad ortum,
Vivo hodie, moriar cras, here natus eram.

Lifes Dyal.

From East to West without return am I,
Born yesterday, live this day, next day die.



Aufert arboribus frondes Autumnus, et idem
Fert secum fructus: nos faciamus idem.

Of Autumn.

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.



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.

Socratical Wisdome.

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.

The Swan.

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.

Hot Cold.

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.



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.



Carpimus extremas voces et verba priorum.
Priscorum, qui nunc scribimus, echo sumus.

Modern Writers.

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 Wikipedia entry for John Owen.

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.


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Frost-Crisp’d Leaves – Cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey

A_crapseyAdelaide Crapsey (1878–1914) was born and raised in New York city and attended public school in Rochester, New York and, later,  attended a girls’ preparatory school in Kenosha, Wisconsin before entering Vassar College. She became a teacher for a short while and, in 1904, spent a year at the School of Classical Studies in Rome. Later she taught for two years at a college in Massachusetts.

Crapsey was in poor health which was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. She withheld the news from her family and continued to teach. She collapsed in the summer of 1913, after which she then moved to a private cure home in New York where she stayed for a year. In August, 1914, Crapsey returned to Rochester, where she died on October 8, 1914, at the age of 36.

She wrote many of the poems that appeared in her only volume, Verse, a posthumous selection of her cinquains and other verse forms, in the last year of her life, and in the knowledge that she was dying of tuberculosis. Their publication in the year following her death led to critical acclaim, particularly for those poems she called Cinquains.  The New Republic review of Verse in 1916 claimed that Crapsey’s “emotion was true and poignant, her craft exacting, her spirit the artist’s. She should be reckoned and warmly cherished as a poet.” Her entire poetic oeuvre comprises fewer than one hundred poems, but she wrote them up to the end, even from her cure home in New York. Perhaps because of her lingering illness, her work centered primarily on her confrontation with mortality. The subject of death took on more than usual significance to a poet who knew she would not live long. Revised editions of Verse were published in 1922 and 1934 and contain earlier unpublished work.

Also published posthumously in 1918 was the unfinished A Study in English Metrics, a brief book of only eighty pages, which she began during her three-year stay in Europe, and which she described in the prefatory note as ‘a laborious analysis dictated by an acute sense of beauty of verse by an aesthetic experience of unusual intensity.’  While in London she had studied English prosody at the British Museum in 1910.  Her small but meticulously researched study of English metrics garnered the praise of several contemporary reviewers. She thought of her researches as her “only serious work” stated Susan Sutton Smith in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and regarded some of her verses “mere by-products” of her metrical studies. Smith has summarised Crapsey’s theory as an attempt “to classify poets by comparing the percentage of one—or two—syllable words with the percentage of polysyllabic words in their poems. She hoped to develop a theory of the relation between natural accent and poetic accent in English verse.”





Adelaide Crapsey may be said to have invented, if that is the right word, the cinquain. In her collection titled Verse, published one year after her death, she included 28 cinquains.The five unrhymed lines of the cinquain follow strict accentual-syllabic requirements and rely heavily on the iambic foot. The lines consist of two, four, six, eight, and two syllables (or accents), respectively. The accumulation of energy in lines one through four are followed by an inevitable collapse in the fifth line. In contrast to the Japanese forms upon which she based them, Crapsey always titled her cinquains, effectively utilizing the title as a sixth line. Her cinquains depend on strict structure and intense physical imagery to communicate a mood or feeling. Crapsey was acquainted with several books of Japanese poetry in translation. She admired the Japanese poets for their compressed language and formal aesthetics. It is not very clear how well she understood the complexities of the Japanese tradition of haiku and tanka, but the influence of these forms is evident in her work.

Her interest in Japanese poetry has also led some critics to link her to the Imagist movement that became popular shortly after she died and was led by the likes of Ezra Pound, H. D., and Amy Lowell. Like Ezra Pound, she admired the Japanese poets for their compressed language and formal aesthetics. Louis Untermeyer called her “an unconscious Imagist.” Although her untimely death precluded any chance for her to collaborate with these poets, Crapsey was undoubtedly influenced by some of the same factors that fomented their movement including a desire to pull back from some of the excesses of the Georgian poets. Like Crapsey’s cinquains, Imagist poetry is characterised by the precise use of imagery and economy of language.

Although not as popular as the haiku, the cinquain continues to be used today. The Scottish poet William Soutar  wrote over one hundred cinquains between 1933 and 1940. The contemporary poet George Szirtes has experimented with the form and written about those experiments in his blog. He has used his Twitter account  @george_szirtes to publish his cinquains, including a fascinating “translation” of Sappho’s famous Moon and Pleiades poem in his Ten Cinquain Variations on Sappho.



Cinquains – Brief Poems by Adelaide Crapsey


With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.



With swift
Great sweep of her
Magnificent arm my pain
Clanged back the doors that shut my soul
From life.



These be
Three silent things:
The falling snow…the hour
Before the dawn…the mouth of one
Just dead.



Look up…
From bleakening hills
Blows down the light, first breath
Of wintry wind…look up, and scent
The snow!



Keep thou
Thy tearless watch
All night but when blue-dawn
Breathes on the silver moon, then weep!
Then weep!



Well and
If day on day
Follows, and weary year
On year…and ever days and years…



Still as
On windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
Am dead.



“Why do
You thus devise
Evil against her?” “For that
She is beautiful, delicate;



But me
They cannot touch,
Old Age and death…the strange
And ignominious end of old
Dead folk!



If it
Were lighter touch
Than petal of flower resting
On grass, oh still too heavy it were,
Too heavy!



The cold
With steely clutch
Grips all the land…alack,
The little people in the hills
Will die!



The old
Old winds that blew
When chaos was, what do
They tell the clattered trees that I
Should weep?



Not Spring’s
Thou art, but her’s,
Most cool, most virginal,
Winter’s, with thy faint breath, thy snows



The sun
Is warm to-day,
O Romulus, and on
Thine olden Palatine the birds
Still sing.



“He’s killed the May and he’s laid her by
To bear the red rose company.”

Not thou,
White rose, but thy
Ensanguined sister is
The dear companion of my heart’s
Shed blood.



I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.



On red rose,
A golden butterfly…
And on my heart a butterfly



Blue aconite,
And thistle and thorn…of these,
Singing, I wreathe my pretty wreath
O’ death.



Just now,
Out of the strange
Still dusk…as strange, as still…
A white moth flew. Why am I grown
So cold?



Guardian of the Treasure of Solomon
And Keeper of the Prophet’s Armour

My tent
A vapour that
The wind dispels and but
As dust before the wind am I



As it
Were tissue of silver
I’ll wear, O fate, thy grey,
And go mistily radiant, clad
Like the moon.



And coral! Oh, I’ll
Climb the great pasture rocks
And dream me mermaid in the sun’s
Gold flood.



Seen on a Night in November

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.



By Zeus!
Shout word of this
To the eldest dead! Titans,
Gods, Heroes, come who have once more
A home!



No guile?
Nay, but so strangely
He moves among us…Not this
Man but Barabbas! Release to us



Oh me,
Was there a time
When Paradise knew Eve
In this sweet guise, so placid and
So young?



Thou hast
Drawn laughter from
A well of secret tears
And thence so elvish it rings,—mocking
And sweet:



In your
Curled petals what ghosts
Of blue headlands and seas,
What perfumed immortal breath sighing
Of Greece.





A scholarly exploration of the American cinquain as popularized by Adelaide Crapsey.

The Adelaide Crapsey page on the Terebess site.

The Adelaide Crapsey page on the Poetry Foundation site.

Verse, the posthumous collection of Adelaide Crapsey’s poetry.