An old postcard of Clovelly. The Red Lion Hotel is the white building on the right-hand side.

This article has been submitted by James Kierstead (Abbeylands).  James is a former editor of The Shirburnian and winner of the Marson Greek Prize, and is now a Lecturer in Classics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand:

Not long ago I received an email from my old guitar-teacher (and keen local historian), George Tatham. Attached was a page from the April 1889 edition of The Shiburnian featuring the following poem in ancient Greek beneath the words, ‘The following was written in the visitors’ book of the Red Lion Hotel at Clovelly.’

ΛΕΩΝ Ο ΕΝ ΚΛΟΕΛΛΑΙΣ ΕΡΥΘΡΟΣ
Λόγος μέν ἐστ᾽ ἀρχαῖος, ὡς καθ᾽ἡμέραν
πολλ᾽ ἐστ᾽ ἀνάγκη θαύματ᾽ ἐκβαίνειν νέα.
τίς δ᾽ἄν ποτ᾽ἤλπισ ὥδ᾽ ἄτοπον ἰδεῖν τέρας,
λέοντ᾽ ἐρυθρὸν ἄγριον βροτοστύγη,
πάντων, ὅσ᾽ ἐστὶ, δυσμενέστατον δάκος,
τοῦτον Κλοέλλαις ναυλόχοις ἕδραις πάρα
κευθμῶνος ἔνδον τὸν πλανώμενον ξένον
πράως ἀτάλλαντ᾽; ἴσθι δ᾽ ὡς τοιαῦθ᾽ ὅμως
αὐτός ποτ᾽ εἶδον. ἔνθα τοὐπιχώριον
ἄνθος γάλακτος ἰχθύας καλοὺς φαγὼν
εὔδοις ἄν, ὦ ξέν᾽, ἡδέως. ἐξω δ᾽ἀεὶ
νύκτωρ καχλάζει κύμαθ᾽ ὑπνῶδες μελος.

I have rendered the poem’s iambic trimeters (a standard metre of Greek drama) in iambic tetrameters, as follows:

The Red Lion at Clovelly
An old saying goes, that every day,
Several new marvels have to come to light.
But who’d ever hope to see such a strange beast
As a savage red lion of the sort that hates men,
Of all the wild animals the most bad-natured,
Gently feeding a visitor on a jaunt
In its lair next to Clovelly’s harbouring pier?
Yet I have seen it. You’d sleep well there, Traveller,
Dining on fine fish in a creamy sauce –
As outside your window, all through the night,
The waves crash, a sleepy song.

This is a charming little poem. It is also an extremely well-written piece of ancient Greek, of a standard that few PhD students could hope to match today. It is hard to believe that its author really dashed it off in the visitors’ book, without a moment’s thought. It is just about believable that he composed it over a few hours the previous night (with the waves crashing in the background) and copied it into the visitors’ book the next day.

Whatever the poem’s story is, that a boy at Sherborne would think to compose an original piece of verse in ancient Greek on a whim during a holiday, and carry it off with such aplomb, is nothing short of astonishing. It is also a reminder of the great tradition of the teaching of the classical languages at Sherborne, one that began before the school’s re-founding and continues to the present day.

The education of the boy who wrote this, in fact, probably consisted mainly, if entirely, of training in Latin and Greek. This is not, of course, an education that anyone (even Lecturers in Classics) would think suitable in our day. All the same, these languages hold the keys to the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, which inaugurated our traditions of philosophy, democracy, and jurisprudence (among so much else).

So if today’s Shirburnians are not spending hours learning how to compose charming little jeux d’esprits in ancient Greek, that is probably all to the good. At the same time, it would be a shame if the school, in its ongoing drive for modernization, threw the baby out with the bathwater. Only about 2000 students a year have any exposure to ancient Greek at schools in the UK these days. Shirburnians are fortunate to be among them.

As a postscript, my online research has revealed that the Red Lion Hotel and Restaurant is still in business. Its website boasts of its ‘nautical atmosphere’ (those crashing waves), and its menu offers several seafood dishes, though the salmon and cream cheese sandwich is the closest item I could find to ‘fine fish in a creamy sauce.’ Curiously, considering its obvious potential as a marketing tool, our poem is nowhere to be found. Shirburnians who are looking for a relaxing weekend getaway should remember to write something in the visitors’ book.

Visit Sherborne School Archive News for more stories from the archives.

Posted 23 November 2017 by Sherborne School Archives.

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