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Mother Moo’s Nursery Poems

In a recent post titled Texan Eclogues I reminisced over my first poetry composition assignment, one that involved the imitation of a distinctly classical poetic style. By that I mean involving the meters and literary style of those poets from the Golden Age of Latin Literature. In that assignment I asked my students to imitate Vergil’s pastoral poems. In this assignment we put a modern twist on classical style. I have been given the sweet appellation of Mother Moo by my Latin students. It is a title I treasure for many of these students I have known since their grammar school days. They have been my students and my daughter’s friends for many years. So as is not uncommon with teachers, they become “my kids” and I become a bit of a mother hen, or rather a mother goose. During the course of the year they asked me if they could compose a little book of Mother Moo’s Nursery Rhymes (reminiscent of Mother Goose).  While Latin poetry doesn’t exactly rhyme, I loved the idea. So with great delight I am able to present in this blog post the first edition of Mother Moo’s Nursery Poems.


Before you enjoy the poems, however, here are the parameters of the assignment:

  1. Poem must be a minimum of 4 lines long.
  2. Standard spelling and grammar rules apply (always).
  3. Poem must be composed in one of three Latin meters:
    • dactylic hexameter
    • elegiac couplet
    • hendecasyllabic
  4. Each poem is allowed 1 example of hiatus without penalty (the deliberate avoidance of an elision).
  5. Poem must include at least one rhetorical device (hiatus is not included).
  6. Poem must be based on a classic nursery rhyme such as those found in the canon of Mother Goose.


Poetry Preparation:

  1. The poetry composition assignment is given at the end of a semester on poetry study. Students have by this time read numerous Latin poems, both Classical and Medieval, using the meters listed above.
  2. Students have also learned how to scan all three metrical styles.
  3. Students have by this time been studying rhetorical devices in both their English Literature and Latin Literature classes. They are well versed in the most common devices. For an excellent list with copious examples visit University of Kentucky Glossary of Rhetorical Terms.
  4. For this project I place the students in pairs and together they select a short nursery rhyme.  The project takes approximately one week.

After reviewing all of the above it is important to remind the students that we are not translating so much as interpreting a classic English poem into a classical Latin poetic form. We cannot do that with a literal translation style. Instead, we ought to focus on transferring meaning from one art form into another. That means we have to break a few perceived rules (such as rhyme) in order to achieve our creation. Or in the case of Humpta Dumpta, we break a few eggs. The result is delightful. The students begin with a great excitement to engage with childhood nostalgia. Excitement becomes a frustrated determination as they encounter the difficulties presented in ancient meter. Determination through these difficulties gives way to triumph as their work takes shape. At last, when their little poems are finally complete, they gain a real sense of awe as they gain a deeper appreciation for the skill of poets such as Vergil and Ovid who wrote entire epics in this beautiful art form. They are very proud of their little poems, and so is Mother Moo.


I. Parva Stella (hendecasyllabic)

Parva stella mica, mica supra me

Nescit mens meus ipse cuius heu fis

Supra terram et ultra mollem album

non diversus abiecta gemma caelo

Parva stella mica mica supra me

Nescit mens meus ipse cuius heu fis

Twinkle, twinkle little star above me
Alas my mind itself does not know of what you are
Above the earth and beyond the fluffy white
not unlike a gem thrown in the sky
Twinkle twinkle little star above me
Alas my mind itself does not know of what you are


* * * * *


II. Cimex Parvissima (dactylic hexameter)

Presterem cimex grandem parvissima scandit

Imber aesuper interdum abluet evenit cimex

Sol exit, pluviam interdum restinquet totam

Presterem cimex rursus parvissima scandit.

The smallest bug climbs the bit waterspout
The rain comes forth from above and then washed out the bug
The sun comes out, meanwhile it quenches all the rain
The smallest bug climbs the waterspout again.


* * * * *

III. Humpta Dumpta (hendecasyllabic)

Humpta Dumpta sedet vertice muri

Humpta Dumpta cadit vertice muri

Toti huius equi virique regis

Humptam ponere possunt una rursus

Humpty Dumpty sits on top of the wall
Humpty Dumpty falls from the top of the wall
All of the king’s horses and men
are not able to put Humpty as one again


For additional posts on Latin poetry visit:

Texan Eclogues

Latin Haiku

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