It’s never too late when it comes to the grammar questions

Have I mentioned that this month is busy? For a few days it seemed like every time I picked up my smartphone there was a new message from an anxious parent seeking last-minute support for their child. GCSE Latin may be somewhat niche, but it is still sat by thousands of students across the UK every year, and many of them are feeling uprepared.

Last week I wrote about how many of the students that have approached me are woefully ill-informed about how to go about the process of learning their set text. We are rapidly hurtling towards a time when fixing this within the available time-frame will be a real challenge. Despite this, some students who have approached me for help only recently are rising to it; but their lives could have been made so much less stressful had they been taught these techniques in the first place and tested on the text regularly.

In the last week, however, I have been approached by students presenting with concerns across the whole specification. While at this stage it is not realistic to promise a dramatic turnaround, there are things that can be done to improve a student’s grade at this late stage. Many students present with concerns about the language paper, quoting a grade 3/4 in this element and a grade 7 in the literature. They express surprise when I tell them that more work on the literature might actually help them the most. At this stage, improving a child’s grade is little more than a numbers game. For example, if I can teach them some techniques which will help them to gain full marks in the 10-mark question (which is worth 20% of their literature grade and therefore 10% of their mark overall) I can make a difference. Students who know the text well should be able to achieve a grade 8/9 in the literature papers, which will pull up their overall result, even without any improvement in their language grade.

So is there anything that can be done at this late stage to improve a child’s performance in the language paper? Well, with five weeks to go, there is little to be gained by delving in and analysing how much basic grammar is missing from a student’s knowledge bank – that can’t be fixed in five weeks, especially given the plethora of other subjects that students are studying at GCSE: it’s not like they can dedicate the majority of time to their Latin. More realitically I can focus on one element of the examination and improve their performance in that. The easiest win is the grammar questions, worth 10% and gloriously predicatable.

I teach students a series of rules and show them dozens of past and practice papers one after the other, focusing entirely on this question; as a result, students are able to identify how predicatable the examiner tends to be and at this stage that can really help. It also empowers them by enabling them to understand the language used in the questions and to identify what it is that the examiner is looking for.

Most students, in my experience, have not been prepared well for this question and there’s a reason for that. Grammar questions are a relatively new thing at GCSE level. They were introduced to the syllabus in 2018 and most teachers saw them as an entirely new phenomenon. But grammar questions have been a feature of the Common Entrance syllabus for decades and guess what? Some of the same people involved in setting those are also involved at GCSE. If anything, the GCSE questions are easier – I would place them at between Level 1 and Level 2 at Common Entrance – Level 3 grammar questions go way beyond the expectations at GCSE. As someone who has tutored the Common Entrance for years, the “new” grammar questions introduced in 2018 looked entirely familiar to me and I was immediately able to predict how they would work. In addition, Taylor & Cullen have published a series of practice papers in their books that accompany the OCR GCSE, as well as further practice with the grammar questions. Teachers now have a minimum of 10 practice, specimen and past papers to model for them how the questions work – and they are consistently repetitive.

The best way to prepare students for this element of the examination is to show them as many examples as you can in quick succession – select just this part of each paper and do one after the other. That way, students are able to spot how certain words, phrases and expectations are repeated time and time again. I usually find that within two half-hour sessions I can take a child from one who was previously mystified as to what to do and guessing wildly to one who is able to score 8, 9 or – on a good day with the wind behind them – 10 out of 10 consistently on the grammar questions.

The first-letter technique

Yesterday I was reminded during one of my sessions that revisiting the best ideas and the best advice is important.

In today’s blog post I want to share the best and most effective methodology of learning a piece of text off by heart. The method is one used by many actors to learn their lines, and is certainly one that can be used if you or your child takes on a large part on stage. I teach the same method to my tutees as a means of learning the translation of their Latin set texts off by heart, the purpose of which is to make the literature element of the examination super-easy.

Let us take for example the first few lines of Sagae Thessalae, the most commonly-studied prose set text for the current OCR specification for GCSE Latin. Below is the first section of the Latin text, with a suggested translation underneath. It is the translation that your child will need to learn off by heart (not the Latin – that really would be a nightmare!)

iuvenis ego Mileto profectus ad spectaculum Olympicum,  cumhaec etiam loca provinciae clarae visitare cuperem,peragrata tota Thessalia Larissam perveni. ac dum urbem pererrans tenuato viatico paupertati meae fomenta quaero.

“As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province. Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa.  And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished, I was looking for remedies for my poverty.”

To go about learning a section like this, the best thing to do is to break it up into sections and learn it using the first-letter technique. The passage breaks up quite nicely into five short chunks as follows:

As a young man I set out from Miletus for the Olympic Games, 

since I also wanted to visit these areas of the famous province.

Having travelled through the whole of Thessaly, I arrived at Larissa. 

And while wandering through the city, with my travelling allowance diminished,

I was looking for remedies for my poverty.

Below is a representation of the first-letter technique for these lines. A student writes down the first letter of each word, spaced out in short chunks. Notice that I have used the punctuation – making use of capital letters, commas and full-stops acts as a further trigger for the memory:

While most people will struggle to learn these five sections of prose off by heart, the use of chunking combined with the first-letter technique enables most people to do so within a couple of minutes. Once a student has written out the first chunk in first letters, they should find that they are immediately able to recite the first chunk merely by looking at the letters. They should then repeat the process with the remaining chunks, then try to recite the whole thing, using the letters as a prompt. Within a couple of minutes, their ability to recall the entire passage will be notable. Students can then go on to repeat the process with the remaining text – not too much at once though!

Once a student has mastered the translation of a reasonable amount of text, that’s the time to turn to the Quizlet flashcards. It’s important not to wait too long to do this, as the rote-learning of the English translation will not be much use to a candidate without at least some grasp of how it relates to the Latin. A child who has learnt the translation off by heart should be able to use the flashcards to prompt themselves on each section as follows:

You will notice that I have divided the flashcards into smaller chunks – this is to assist the student in recognising which Latin words and phrases map onto which sections of the translation. There will be some hesitation as a student learns to map their rote-learned translation onto the Latin as represented on the flashcards – but that’s fine. Remember, the rote-learning is merely a prop to assist them in coping with the set text in an examination. It’s very important to move onto the flashcards swiftly, in order to begin the process of making the rote-learned translation do its job of supporting the student in recognising the Latin text.

A student should repeat the flashcards in chronological order until they are fully confident with the translation for each. Once confidence has been gained, it’s then time to hit the shuffle button and see if they can recognise and translate small chunks in isolation – that’s when they can really prove to themselves that they are recognising individual Latin words and phrases and can render them into English.

The whole process might seem arduous when a student first begins, but I have yet to find a student that is not converted to the the system once they realise how effective it is and how much power it gives them over the text. Knowing the text thoroughly is 80% of the battle – and I mean that sincerely. A student should be able to score a pretty good grade in the literature element of the examination simply on the basis of knowing the text really well; many of the questions are comprehension and ask for nothing more than for the student to explain what the text means. Once a student has gained mastery with a section of the text and can perform well on basic comprehension questions, then time can be spent on fine-tuning their response to the text and training them in how to answer the more complex questions, something which I have addressed in other posts.

10-mark literature questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

Last week I examined style questions in the set text examination, including the 8-mark question. Such questions are without doubt the most challenging element of the literature exam. The 10-marker, by contrast is remarkably easy, yet students – if not given specific guidance and a good deal of practice – tend not to score as highly as they could.

It took me a while to realise that students needed a good deal more preparation for this element of the exam than I had been giving them. At first I assumed that because the question seemed so straightforward, I only had to tell students what to do and they’d smash it out of the park. The reality, of course, is that students actually need a great deal of modelling as well as practice before they can achieve top marks in any extended answer. The process is definitely worth it, not least because this question is worth a whopping 20% of the student’s performance in that paper.

A key thing to remember about the 10-mark question is that the examiner is using it to test the student’s knowledge of the whole prescription, going beyond the small handful of passages that can be included on the paper. This means that – in order to score highly – students must reference the whole prescription. Students should quote the text in English translation (not in Latin – this will only waste their time and risk errors). Students do not (of course) have to quote the translation word for word – how would this be possible when the examiner will not be privy to the particular translation that they or their teacher has produced? Rather, a clear reference to the text is enough: the rule of thumb is that if the examiner can recognise the line or lines of the text being referred to then it counts as a reference. For example, from Sagae Thessalae I might mention the moment when the weasel appears and stares Thelyphron straight in the eye; this is not a quotation from the text but it will be very clear to the examiner which section of the text I am referring to.

Students need to make as many such references to the text as they can for their answer to qualify as “wide-ranging” enough for a high mark. They should make sure to quote from the beginning, the middle and the end of the text for the same reason – answers that focus on just one part of the text will be capped. Other than that, so long as they write in paragraphs and address the question, the process is very simple.

Below is a video from my YouTube channel in which I explore the 10-mark question in detail:

It is crucial to get students to practise this style of question from early on and the process of doing so can be a really useful way of reminding them that they should be revisiting sections of the text that they have already learned. My methodology in recent years has been to include a question of this style at the end of every test I give them; in the early stages, when they have only learned one or two sections, I might make it worth fewer marks, but I still train them in the process of how to approach this kind of question. As they progress further through the text the questions can become full 10-markers. This method has worked really well and has enabled students to practise until they find the process as straightforward as it should be – there really is nothing difficult about this kind of question, but it’s amazing how many good students miss out on the marks because they’re not sure what’s required of them.

Like with the style questions, it will be necessary to remind students not to use the same approach as they have been prepared for in their English literature examinations; they are not expected to explore individual quotations in detail (arguably, what would be the point of doing this in translation anyway?) and they should remember that the examiner’s goal is to check their knowledge and understanding of the text as a whole. In addition, it is also crucial to keep reminding them that the examiner is looking for volume – he cannot reward an answer that gives only three or four textual references that are explored in detail, no matter how well-argued the answer is: he needs evidence that the student knows the whole of the text and knows it really well.

More than one examiner has expressed frustration that they are sometimes presented with highly intelligent and extremely well-argued answers that they cannot reward with a top-band mark because the student’s answer does not fit the mark scheme. This is, of course, the eternal problem with examinations at this level, and the only way to give our students the best fighting chance of success is to inform ourselves by reading the examiners’ reports and attending the training sessions put on by OCR or by Keynote, whose courses are run by examiners – sometimes the Chief Examiner – and which I have found invaluable in the past. I would also highly recommend to any teacher that they apply at least once to be a professional marker, as the best way to have a mark scheme properly demystified for you is to attend the training laid on for the examiners themselves.

Literature style questions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Texts

The questions that students struggle with the most in the OCR literature examinations are the style questions. In each literature examination, students will face a variety of short-answer questions that focus on style. Most challengingly, they will need to answer an 8-mark question on one selected passage, which will direct them to “refer to the Latin and discuss a range of stylistic features such as choice, sound and position of words.” By “refer to the Latin” the examiner means that they must quote it in their answer – it might seem strange to labour that point but students don’t always understand that this is actually what it means. In addition, it is important for the examiner to have evidence that the student understands the meaning of the word or words that they have quoted, so including a translation in brackets afterwards is a useful habit for them to develop.

One of the reasons that students struggle with style questions is – in my opinion – an excessive reluctance to develop their own response to the text and an over-zealous reliance on style notes provided by the teacher. For this reason, I radically changed my approach. In recent years, I have resisted all pleas to provide printed, written style notes to students. There are many reasons for this and none of them relate to workload; style notes are actually pretty easy to churn out and many teachers (including myself in the past) have always used them as a simple solution to ensuring that students have everything they need to prepare for the examination. Printed style notes can form a kind of security blanket both for us and for them – we feel we’ve given them every possible detail, they feel like they’ve got the information at their fingertips. But have they really got what they need?

In my experience, printed style notes are used poorly and students can often have a very limited understanding of the contents within them. Furthermore, they are nigh-on impossible to learn off by heart. This statement may surprise followers who are aware of my recommendation that GCSE students do learn the translation of the set text off by heart and it is true to say that I am a huge fan of learning by rote in the right context. Learning things off by heart – so long as you use the right techniques – is something any student can do, and it can provide them with a huge sense of advantage in the examination. However, whilst this process is easily done for the translation of a text using the first-letter technique and electronic flashcards (for advice on this see a previous blog post), it is a Sisyphean task to learn all the style notes. Whilst it’s what students say they want to do, in reality I’ve never had a student manage it successfully; there is simply too much material of too abstract a nature, so I do not believe that rote-learning is the best approach in this instance.

So what do I do instead? Well, I model the process of looking at a passage of Latin (one which they have already learned) and finding something to say off the top of my head. I then make students do this themselves on a regular basis, to mimic the kind of situation in which they will find themselves in the examination. Not only does this put the onus on them to be taking notes as they prepare and practise, it makes them much better prepared for the same process at A level.

It is worth remembering that students at GCSE level do not need to know a single piece of stylistic terminology in order to get top marks in the literature examination. Personally, I quite like technical terms, but a lot of students are put off by words like metonymy and polyptoton. I do teach them the terms as I go but I reassure them again and again that recalling the definitions of those terms and regurgitating them in the examination is not necessary – for this reason, again, I have stopped printing off a lexicon of stylistic terms, which some students find nothing but intimidating. Instead of this, I teach them some basic principles of things to look out for, using a ludicrously straightforward acronym: MRS VP:

Vivid (historic) present

Below is a video from my YouTube channel detailing what I mean by these different terms and how they can be applied to the 8-mark question in the OCR examination:

The advice in the video is based on more than one training course I have been to, at which examiners explained how the 8-mark questions are judged. Equally challenging are the shorter-answer style questions, which often demand the same kind of quality points; however, these do specify clearly how many points are required and much of a student’s answer can be based on the meaning of the Latin in front of them, so long as they say something insightful about it.

Teaching students the MRS VP acronym is the first step. You then need to model the process for them by putting a passage of the text up onto the board using a projector or a visualiser and showing them how to use those basic principles to find things to say. I usually make it clear to students that I have not “prepared” the passage beforehand, i.e. that I am relying on my skills to think of things to say on the spot – this is, after all, what they will have to do in the examination. Likewise, I teach them other simple tricks such as running their finger down the first word in every line of a piece of verse and considering whether they could say something about it – an immediate guaranteed style point because it will focus on the position of words.

I have found these kinds of methods much more effective in the long-term and I cling to the fact that this part of the examination requires students to have developed some skills rather than acquired lots of knowledge: let’s face it, there is quite enough content in the literature examination that relies on rote-learning and we really don’t need to add to it.

A final point that few teachers realise is that it is extremely important to acknowledge to students that the way they must write about literature in their Latin examination will differ from how they are being trained to write about it in their English lessons. I am at a slight advantage here having taught English up to GCSE level for several years during my career. In my experience, it is important to teach them explicitly not to mention punctuation, which they will be in the habit of remarking upon in their English literature, especially in the process of studying modern poetry. However, this is not the only area of caution. In English literature, students are taught to “say a lot about a little” – in other words, to unpack and explore each individual quotation in enormous detail before moving on to the next one. In the Latin examination, by contrast, the examiner is looking for volume, so students really don’t need to explore the quotation in anything like as much depth: quote the Latin, tell the examiner what it means, say something reasonably intelligent about it (e.g. the verb is promoted to the beginning of the line and in the historic present, making its meaning vivid) then move on. Latin examiners may believe that they are asking students to write “in depth” but the reality is that they are not required to develop their ideas in the same level of detail as they need to in order to gain top marks in an English literature examination; this seems only right and fair given that they are being tested on similar skills but applying them to a text in an ancient language rather than their own.

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep is the nickname given to a sonnet by Petronius in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. Petronius was a poet, an author and a courtier during the reign of the emperor Nero and is widely believed to have been the author of the Satyricon during the 1st century AD. He seems to have been the author of numerous short poems, including this one. We have around 30 of hia surviving.

lecto compositus vix prima silentia noctis
carpebam et somno lumina victa dabam,
cum me saevus Amor prensat sursumque capillis
excitat et lacerum pervigilare iubet.
‘tu famulus meus’, inquit, ‘ames cum mille puellas,
solus, io, solus, dure, iacere potes?’
exsilio et pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta
omne iter impedio, nullum iter expedio.
nunc propero, nunc ire piget, rursumque redire
paenitet, et pudor est stare via media.
ecce tacent voces hominum strepitusque viarum
et volucrum cantus turbaque fida canum:
ego solus ex cunctis paveo somnumque torumque,
et sequor imperium, magne Cupido, tuum.

“Settled on my bed, I was beginning to enjoy the first silence of the night scarcely yet begun, and was yielding my drooping eyes to sleep, when fierce Love laid hold of me, and hauled [me] up by the hair and ordered [me], shattered [as I was] to wake up. He said, ‘can you, my servant, when you love a thousand girls, lie alone – hey! – alone! [and] hard?’ I leapt up and, with bare feet and dishevelled robe, started on my journey, yet never accomplished it. Now I hurry forward, now am loathe to go; and again I regret that I have returned, and it shames [me] to stand in the middle of the street. So the voices of men and the hum of the streets and the song of birds, and the trusty crowd of watchdogs all are silent: I alone out of all [of them] dread both sleep and the couch and follow your command, great Cupid.”

Let us take a closer look at this wonderful poem in a little more detail, examining some of the sorts of stylistic features which students should be taught to look out for. (I will be examining the process of how to go about teaching them to do this in next week’s blog post).

In the first line, sibilance creates a sense of night-time and the juxtaposition of vix prima (“scarcely” and “first”) stresses that the poet is only just at the point of dozing off. In the second line, sound play of the letters m and n continues the soporific tone and we have the metaphor of lumina victa – a metaphor for the poet’s eyes becoming heavy (lumina – literally “lights” or “lamps” was often used in poetry to represent the eyes). The framing of that line with two imperfect verbs carpebamdabam completes a clear picture of the poet just easing into sleep and justifies the translation of “beginning to …”. A sudden change of pace occurs in the third line, which is packed with a greater number of syllables, creating a sense of sudden shock as if jerking awake. The sibillance this time creates a threatening tone, with the oxymoron of saevus Amor (fierce Love) emphasised by the juxtaposition.

In lines 3-4 Petronius switches into the vivid or historic present and uses a tricolon of three verbs in quick succession, adding to the sudden sense of action after the imperfect verbs and soporific tone of the previous lines. The aggresive shift in tone is notable in Petronius’ violent choice of words: saevus (“fierce” or “savage”), prensat (laid hold of me), lacerum (“shattered” or “lacerated”).

The use of the word famulus in line 5 is also deliberate. The word was used of a slave whose role was as a personal attendant, suggesting that Petronius must fulfil Cupid’s every whim. In lines 5-6 the assonance of the letter u, sibilance, and the emphatic placement of cum (usually the first word in clause), the hyperbolic mille puellas (a thousand girls) placed at the end of the line and the soundplay of the repeated -ll– which draws attention to it, the repetition of solus, the exclamation io and the humorous use of dure (hard) to describe the author and his predicament all create a tone of exasperation on the part of Cupid and craft an amusing image of the poet rudely awakened by his desires.

The use of the vivid present and the placement of exsilio at the start of line 7 show the author’s instant reaction and obedience to Cupid. The fact that he sets out pedibus nudis tunicaque soluta (with bare feet and dishevelled robe) paints a vivid and comical picture of the unkempt author roaming the streets in his night attire. In lines 7-8, three elisions in two lines add to the sense of haste and in line 8 the use of the opposites omne and nullum, the repetition of iter and the use of figura etymologica (two words which share the same root i.e. impedio and expedio) all stress that the author has explored every place and means possible of finding a girl. omne iter impedio can be interpreted as the author’s clumsy and desperate attempts to accost girls in the street, quite literally blocking their way. By the same token, nullum iter expedio (literally “I free up no route”) can also be interpreted as a double entendre referring to his lack of success.

In lines 9-10 the use of plosives and rolling r sounds add to the image of the stumbling and vacillating poet, rushing one minute to find a girl, then feeling confused, exhausted and ashamed of himself the next. The ascending tricolon of nuncnuncrursum portrays the author’s turmoil, dismay and increasing despair. The tricolon of plosive negatives in line 10 highlight his regret: piget paenitetpudor est.

At the start of line 11 the use of the emphatic imperatives ecce and tace, further emphasised by the allieration of k sounds along with voces, redirect our attention from the disordered author to his surroundings and the lateness of the hour. The jumbled word order of lines 11-12 mimics the confused sounds which they describe as being notable by their absence. In line 13 the use of the opposites solus and cunctis along with the emphatic placement of solus at the start of the line, juxtaposed with ego, all highlight the absurdity of the poet finding himself here alone in the street in the middle of the night when he should be in bed and asleep.

In line 13 we return to soporific soundplay emphasising the pleonasm of somnumque torumque (sleep … bed), all of which stresses author’s insomnia, as does use of the strong verb paveo (dread). Any insominiac will understand the poet’s torturous relationship with his bed, which he both craves and fears in equal measure. The vocabulary of the last line takes us back to the imagery of the poet as the slave to Cupid’s mastery, with sequor imperium … tuum (I follow your command). The prayerlike address to magne Cupido (great Cupid) and the emphatic postponement of tuum to the end of the line again stresses the author’s complete obedience to Cupid’s command.

Conflicting Emotions

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Conflicting Emotionas is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 85 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. At only two lines long it is quite remarkable how influential this short elegiac couplet has been. It is a masterpiece in brevity and exceptionally effective

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Why do I do this, perhaps you enquire?
I have no idea, but I sense it happening and I am in torment.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

odi et amo is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. The tone is quite different from How Many Kisses? which I discussed in last week’s blog post, and where Catullus appears to enjoy being at the mercy of his lover. There is an underlying rage in this bitter, terse two-liner that bubbles with unanaswered questions.

Whilst I provide a translation above for the uninitiated, it is best to forget about translating it word for word. The structure of the poem is almost as important as the words themselves. Noting how and where certain words are placed allows you to see what the poet was trying to achieve. In a language where poetry doesn’t rhyme and where word order is more flexible than English, these are some of the elements that separate mundane writing from the truly exceptional.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The first word is a verb, the second a conjunction, the third a verb. Go to the end of the couplet to see the same construction. Now note the meanings of these four verbs: (odi) hate, (amo) love, (sentio) feel, and (excrucior) – which literally means “I am being crucified”: two negatives and two positive emotions. Not only are there two very strong negative emotions, but they’re competing for prominence in this poem by taking first and ultimate place. This forms a cross-shape called a chiasmus.

The chiasmus is much easier to construct in Latin, but it can be used to good effect in English. The method involves using a simple ABBA structure and can be created through the repetition of individual words or types of words. Here is a famous example:

“It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” (Mae West).
Here the words men-life-life-men are used in a chiastic structure.

In Catullus’ poem, he uses different words and a more complex structure to create a pattern of conflicting emotions: negative-positive-positive-negative. It encapsulates the whole conceit of the poem.

It is worth mentioning Catullus’ use of the word excrucior, since the Romans were very much in the business of crucifixion, something which I have discussed in detail before. It was arguably the cruelest punishment used by the Romans, who were experts in torture and death. The length of time it took to die ranged from a matter of hours to a number of days, depending on exact methods, the health of the crucified person and environmental circumstances. The Latin words for crucifixion are the origin of our adjective “excruciating”, the full meaning of which is the idea that Catullus is trying to capture here. He is being metaphorically crucified by the state of his emotions and is in extreme agony; the fact that crucifixion involved stretching out and stringing up the body develops the image, since Catullus wants us to imagine him beiing pulled in all directions against his will.

odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

The word patterns continue with the verbs of doing, faciam and fieri. In the first doing verb (faciam), Catullus is doing it, and in the second (fieri), it is being done to him: just like the active verb odi vs. the passive excrucior. There is also a third parallel construction. requiris (you ask) matched by the answer nescio (I don’t know).

The poem is usually nicknamed odi et amo and this minimalist opening in many ways sums up Catullus’ entire condition. He hates and he loves, in equal measure. His decision to place odi first overshadows the tone of the poem, which opens with the fact of his hatred and closes with the excruciating pain being inflicted upon him by his affair with Lesbia.

Students tend to respond well to this poem and it is a good, manageable opportunity to teach them the very limits of translation and to develop their understanding of how much more can be gained from studying a work in the original language. Thanks to its extreme brevity, students can quickly get used to working on this poem without the prop of an English translation underneath; this is a great way to teach them how to engage with the Latin as a language in its own right. By the same token, the poem is also a great place to start in order to teach students about the critical importance of word placement when it comes to all Latin literature, but particularly verse. If they can grasp this, it will really help then to engage with the style questions at GCSE and then with the whole approach to literature at A level, when reliance on a word-for-word translation will become less and less important or indeed an effective method of preparation for the examinations.

In next week’s blog post I will be examining the final short poem included in the 2023 and 2024 selections, which is an extract of Petronius nicknamed Love Will Not let the Poet Sleep. It will then be time to take a closer look at approaches to style – just how do we teach it effectively help students to engage with the process rather than rely entirely on trying to learn hundreds of individual style notes off by heart?

How Many Kisses?

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

quaeris quot mihi bastiones
tua Lesbia sint satis superque.
quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae
lasarpiciferis iacet Cyrenis
oraclum Iovis inter aetuosi
et Batti veteris sacrum sepulchrum;
aut quam sidera multa cum tacet nox,
furtivos hominum vident amores:
tam te basia multa basiare
vesano satis et super Catullo est,
quae nec pernumerare curiosi
possint nec mala fascinare lingua.

“You ask, Lesbia, how many [of] your kisses are enough and more than enough for me. As great a number as [the grains of] Libyan sand [that] lie in silphium-producing Cyrene between the oracle of sultry Jove and the sacred tomb of ancient Battus. Or as many as the stars [which], when night is still, observe the secret love-affairs of men. To give you this many kisses is enough and more than enough for a feverish Catullus: so many that prying people cannot count them, and wicked tongues cannot bewitch them.”

How Many Kisses is the nickname given to Catullus Poem 7 in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. It is one of the numerous poems that the poet Catullus dedicated to a woman he named “Lesbia”, widely accepted as a pseudonym for the notorious Clodia, an aristocratic and educated woman whose conduct and motives are famously maligned in Cicero’s surviving speech On Behalf of Caelius, delivered in 56 BC. Catullus’s style was deliberately personal and avant-garde, in stark contrast to traditional poetry in the grand style; he wrote passionate, irreverent and sometimes lewd dedications to a string of lovers but most famously to Lesbia. His work is highly individualistic, humorous and emotive.

This poem is included in the list of OCR’s verse set texts (selection A) for 2023 and 2024. It is also on the list of Catullus texts for A level in the same years, as part of the Catullus grouping.

Unlike the GCSE set texts that I have examined in my three previous blog posts, Catullus 7 is extremely short, which means that we have the space to examine it in some considerable detail.

Catullus addresses Lesbia directly, purpotedly in answer to a flippant question on her behalf. Is Catullus insatiable? So it seems. Catullus’ tone in the whole poem places Lesbia firmly in control: he is at the mercy of her charms and his desire for them is prodigious. This is a theme that is repeated across much of his poetry.

Catullus invents the word basationes for humorous effect: the 2nd declension neuter noun basium (picked up again in line 9) was the colloquial term for a kiss, but here he adjusts its composition to mimic the more formal 3rd declension noun osculatio (plural osculationes). So how many of these basationes will satisfy Catullus?

This kind of hyperbole is a poetic feature that students may have met before; many of them will have studied To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell, as it is included in the AQA Anthology for English literature, and if they are familiar with it this should make an excellent point of comparison since it uses both Classical imagery and hyperbole in the same way that Catullus is doing here. The first half of Marvell’s poem is a classic example of this kind of hyperbolic conceit:

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

The metaphysical poets such as Marvell aped a similar style to that of Catullus; their works were both humorous and intellectual, designed to tease and cajole the object of their affections into bed. In our poem, Catullus exaggerates the number of basationes that he requires from Lesbia by comparing them to uncountables: the fact that the sand is Libyan and lies between the two famous sites of the tomb of Battus and the oracle of Jupiter in Cyrene adds colour and vibrancy and is an acknowledgement of Lesbia’s education and culture: she is a docta puella, a girl of education and discernment.

Silphium is somewhat mysterious to us. We know it was a strongly-flavoured and highly-prized herb that was sought-after in Roman times but we have failed to identify exactly what it was: we do not even know whether it still exists. We do know, however, that it was used either as an aphrodisiac or as a form of contraception, hence it is an appropriate reference for Catullus to use in his sexually-charged address to his mistress.

Catullus continues his hyperbole. Having compared the number of kisses he craves to grains of sand, he now compares them to the number of stars in the sky, then enriches this with the image of those same stars silently watching lovers in the silence of the night. Note that these liaisons are illicit (furtivos), all adding to the atmosphere of highly-charged excitement.

In line 9 Catullus uses both the noun basia and the verb basiare, overwhelming us with this vocabulary in the same way as he wishes to overhwlem Lesbia with his kisses. The word pernumerare is a compound verb, exaggerating the imagined difficulty with counting the kisses. vesano, which I have translated as “feverish” can also be translated “mad” or “insane” – it acknowledges Catullus’ apparent lack of control in Lesbia’s presence. There is a nod towards traditional beliefs in the close of the poem, as it was a common superstition that to count one’s blessings was bad luck; Catullus and Lesbia are safe, however, because Catullus is so passionate that no-one will ever be able to count up the number of their kisses. In this way, Catullus concludes his poem with an amusing argument as to why Lesbia should be happy to put up with his voracious appetite for her affections.

Echo and Narcissus

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Echo et Narcissus is an extract from the third book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Transformations), published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The Metamorphoses was a complex and unusual epic poem, which chronicled more than 200 myths from the ancient world. Many scholars argue that it defies classification altogether, since it does not really fit in to the usual parameters of a traditional epic. The Metamorphoses was written at the start of the 1st century AD and its central theme – as the title suggests – is change and transformation.

The tales of both Echo and Narcissus resonate throughout Western art and literature and indeed Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a whole was a huge influence on key literary figures such as Keats, Dante and Shakespeare. It has also inspired numerous 19th and 20th-century works of art and music.

Painting by John William Waterhouse (1903), viewable at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Echo was a nymph who endured Juno’s wrath for a trick she played on her. Juno’s husband Jupiter, the king of the gods, enjoyed regular visits to the beautiful nymphs down on earth. Eventually, the ever-jealous Juno becomes suspicious and follows him in an attempt to catch him in the act. Echo (at the behest of Jupiter) keeps Juno talking, flattering her and drawing the goddess away from her fellow-nymphs, thus allowing Jupiter to slip away from the scene of the crime. Enraged that her revenge has been thwarted by the talkative nymph, Juno curses Echo by rendering her able only to repeat the final words of another’s sentences; Echo, completely unable to say anything further on her own, suffers a harsh but apt fate in return for her loquaciousness.

Sometime after she is cursed by the queen of the gods, Echo catches sight of the beautiful young Narcissus while he is out hunting with his companions. Immediately infatuated, she follows him quietly, for of course she is unable to speak. During the hunt, Narcissus becomes separated from his companions and calls out. Hearing his words repeated back to him, as Echo is cursed to do, Narcissus is startled and calls out again, several times. Echo can only repeat what he says yet again. Eventually, she rushes towards her beloved but he rejects her on sight. All Echo can do is repeat his final words one last time before she flees in shame. Despite the harshness of his dismissal, Echo’s love for Narcissus continues to grow. Heartbroken, she spends the rest of her life wandering the hills until nothing but her echoing sound remains of her.

But Nemesis, goddess of revenge, decides to punish Narcissus, for Echo was not the only individual that had been rejected by this remarkably beautiful youth. Narcissus went through all of his life spurning the numerous advances of others, all hypnotised by his beauty. His fate was foreshadowed by the prophet Teiresias, who predicted at his birth that Narcissus would only live to a ripe old age if he never discovered own reflection. This is how Nemesis ensures his punishment: she lures him to a pool, where he leans in to drink the water and – upon seeing his own remarkably beautiful face – he at once falls deeply in love with it. Unable to tear himself away from the enchantment of his own image, Narcissus slowly wastes away, a fire of unrequited passion burning inside him. Echo laments his passing. At last, he turns into a flower with white petals surrounding a golden centre. Even in the Underworld, his spirit is doomed to gaze at himself in the Stygian waters.

The OCR set-text prescription consists of 82 lines published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology, plus a section of the text in translation between lines 57 and 58, which students will also need to study so that they understand what happens in the section of the text that has been redacted. As ever, the way the text is presented in the Anthology is entirely and infuriatingly unsuitable for teaching and therefore the classroom teacher is left with the usual challenge of how to present the work to their students. I sometimes feel quite dizzy at the thought of so many Latin teachers across the country, all spending hours producing their own workable versions of the text.

Last time I taught this text, which was many moons ago, I was still making use of the numbered method and found this in my archives:

I have the whole 82 lines presented in this way, which will prove useful should any of my clients who approach me find themselves studying this prescription. Personally, I have almost always chosen to teach the Virgil selection and this remains the more popular choice in most schools; with a text as lengthy as Echo and Narcissus, you also lose one of the advantages of choosing the verse selections over the Virgil, which is that the shorter poems can prove more manageable for students to learn.

Students generally respond very well to the story of Echo and Narcissus and indeed I have found that most of then love mythological stories that seek to explain natural phenomena such as the tale of Ceres and Proserpina (or Demeter and Persephone). The story of Narcissus should also spark considerable discussion in relation to the modern definition of narcissism (both the medical definition of the personality disorder and the one used in common parlance). It will also be great fun to explore with students the modern trend of filtered selfies and how they feel this relates to the myth.

Prehistoric Mojo on Twitter: "Good old one - Oh no, not again! It's another  selfie from Narcissus! #joke #Greeks #selfie #firstselfie #Narcissus" / Twitter

Cartoon by Bill Whitehead.

Echo and Narcissus is not the only text that makes up the Verse Literature A selections for 2023 and 2024, as the board have also included three much shorter texts from the section of the Anthology named “Amor“: two poems by Catullus: How Many kisses? and Conflicting Emotions, plus a fragment of Petronius named Love Will Not Let the Poet Sleep. I shall look those in three separate blog posts over the next three weeks and that will involve some serious frisking of the archives! As the poems are very short, it will also be an opportunity to look more closely at the texts, which has not been possible with the longer texts.