Ancient Poetry for World Poetry Day

Posted: 20th March 2017

By Miss Jenny Jones, Head of Classics


Happy World Poetry Day!

To celebrate World Poetry Day, this week we thought we’d introduce or reintroduce you to some of our favourite lines of Ancient Poetry. At Burgess Hill Girls we fully understand the beneficial aspects of poetry and although you may find yourself enhancing your emotional and intellectual well-being, exercising a range of cognitive skills or exploring cultural, philosophical or religious ideas, our main hope is that there is something in here that will pique your interest or make you smile.


As an academic and cultural school, Burgess Hill Girls embraces Classics and we are proud to offer subjects which, although universally recognised as rigorous and intellectual, are less often available in schools. The poetry selections we offer you in this text have been chosen (and in some cases translated) by Classicists in Year 11 and 12. Some of them celebrate women; others reflect what we have been studying as part of our courses and some are chosen because we feel they reflect the school’s ethos. We hope you enjoy!


Like the sweet-apple reddening high on the branch,

High on the highest, the apple-pickers forgot,

Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach…


Why we like it: Burgess Hill Girls champions young women’s educational, spiritual and emotional development and so we had to include the poet Sappho. Sappho (c.630-570 BCE) was a woman and a poet at a time when most women were not educated and enjoyed very little freedom. Her poetry feels contemporary and has been hugely influential. If some of her similes sound hackneyed, it is because she has been worked and reworked by later poets. Is this girl, whose beauty now starts to blossom, overlooked or unattainable?


I hate and I love.

Why do I do it, perhaps you ask?

I don’t know why, but I feel it happening and am torn apart.

(Translated by Year 11 Latin)

Why we like it: this short, perfectly styled love poem captures Catullus’ confusion and anguish. The raw emotion cuts through the millennia and exposes Catullus’ pithy, urbane style as much as his pain.

Ovid: Ars Amatoria

Use your eyes to find a suitable girl. The hunter knows well where to spread his nets for stags; he knows in which valley the gnashing boar delays. Bushes are well known to bird catchers; he who holds the fish hook knows which waters teem with many fish. You who are looking for material too for a lasting love, first learn the place where numerous girls are.

Why Niamh likes it: this is a really good example of Ovid’s tongue in cheek style. The way that Ovid plays with the abstract concept of love and tries to turn it into logical pragmatism is really funny. His practical advice is full of flamboyant imagery and this is an essential guide for any would-be lover. We don’t advise him to visit Burgess Hill Girls though- he may find we are less biddable than your average Roman woman!


Now, wake from this woman’s mouth of mine,

The warning of my take, pray with me,

Luck sway the scale, with no uncertain poise,

For my fair hopes transformed to fairer joys.
From a speech by Clytaemnestra in ‘Agamemnon’ translated by Ruby Eastwood

Why Ruby likes it: Greek Tragedy is one of my favourite subjects at Burgess Hill Girls and people often forget that Greek tragedy is poetry. This short speech shows Clytaemnestra’s fierce power and defiance, which stands in such stark contrast to Greek ideals of femininity. The strength of Clytaemnestra’s character has the power to mesmerize as well as repulse the audience, and this is on the reasons why Aeschylus ‘Agamemnon’ still endures today.


‘Thus did the two parents with many tears implore their son, but they moved not he heart of Hector, and he stood his ground awaiting mighty Achilles as he drew nearer towards him. As a serpent in its den upon the mountains, full fed with deadly poisons, waits for the approach of man – he is filled with fury and his eyes glare terribly as he writhes round his den – just do did Hector lean his shield against a tower that jutted out from the wall and stand there he was, undaunted.’ Iliad 22


Why the Class. Civvies like it:  The pathos of the parents begging their implacable son not to fight the hero who spells his doom is moving in the extreme. The Homeric simile of the serpent reminds us that Hector, although he will die, is also a mighty hero, dangerous and fearsome. His blood is up and he is not afraid.


‘Antinous had just reached for his fine cup to take a draught of wine, and the golden, two-handled beaker was balanced in his hands. No thought of bloodshed entered his head. For who could guess, there in that festive company, that one man, however powerful he might be, would bring evil death and black doom on him against such odds? Odysseus took aim and shot him in the neck. The point passed clean through his tender throat. The cup dropped from his hand as he was hit and he lurched over to one side. His life-blood gushed from his nostrils in a turbid jet. His foot lashed out and kicked the table from him; his food was scattered on the ground, and bread an meat lay there in the dirt.’ Odyssey, 22.


Why Alex likes it: Although gory, this passage very effectively uses the spoken word of Homer’s poetry to focus the listener in on the exact movements of the suitor Antinous right before he dies. He is drinking, oblivious and unsuspecting. We see the femininity of his ‘tender throat’ through which the arrow glides so gracefully and the blood that ‘gushes’ from him as he crashes onto the palace floor. His food, like him, now lays scattered on the ground – the meat now dirtied and rejected – as if to indicate Antinous’ fall from grace. The start of the passage ironically and almost sarcastically describes the last moments of peace and luxury in Antinous’ life before Odysseus hits him with a steady shot, ending his life in a matter of seconds which are slowed down here to become both grotesque and beautiful at the same time.


O, ask not what tomorrow will bring,

But count as gain each day that chance

May give you; sport in life’s young spring,

Nor scorn sweet love, nor merry dance,

While years are green, while sullen age

Is distant. Now the walk, the game,

The whisper’d talk at sunset held,

Each in its hour, prefer their claim.


Horace, Odes 1


Why we like it: It is easy to forget, when we are oppressed by examinations, tests and independent study, that life is for the living. An early form of mindfulness or just good advice, Horace urges us to enjoy our pleasures and to ‘take as a gift whatever the day brings forth’. We’ll never have that day again.

At Burgess Hill Girls we make the most of our opportunities. Now is our time! Nunc est vivendum!