“There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”

While I was writing Becoming Charlemagne, I spent a fair amount of time skimming the works of Theodulf of Orleans, the witty bishop who left behind a significant corpus of poetry. Most of his longer works about religious doctrine are a bit boring for the modern reader and way beyond my ability to parse, but a few of his shorter poems are gems—and a pleasure to translate.

Here’s one such poem, first in the original Latin, and then in my own translation (in rhymed couplets, an arbitrarily chosen form).


Saepe dat ingenium quod vis conferre negabat.
Compos et arte est, qui viribus impos erat.
Ereptum furto castrensi in turbine quidam.
Accipe, qua miles arte recepit equum.
Orbus equo fit, preco ciet hae compita voce:
“Quisquis habet nostrum, reddere certet equum.
Sin alias, tanta faciam ratione coactus,
Quod noster Roma fecit in urbe pater.”
Res movet haec omnes, et equum fur sivit abire.
Dum sua vel populi damna pavenda timet.
Hunc herus ut reperit, gaudet potiturque reperto,
Gratanturque illi, quis metus ante fuit.
Inde rogant, quid equo fuerat facturus adempto,
Vel quid in urbe suus egerit ante pater.
“Sellae,” ait, “adiunctis collo revehendo lupatis
Sarcinulisque aliis ibat onustus inops.
Nil quod pungat habens, calcaria calce reportans,
Olim eques, inde redit ad sua tecta pedes.
Hunc imitatus ego fecissem talia tristis,
Ni foret iste mihi, crede, repertus equus.”


Brains can defend you where brawn can’t assist;
Often a weakling on wits can subsist.
So hear how a soldier, employing no force,
In his encampment retrieved his lost horse.
He stood at the crossroads and made this decree:
“If you stole my horse, then return it to me!
For if you should fail, I’ll be forced to proceed
Like my father before me in Rome—so take heed!”
The men all grew nervous; the thief felt remorse:
Fearing for all, he returned the man’s horse.
The owner rejoiced; celebration was made
By all of the men who had been so afraid.
At last they inquired of him, every one,
Just what it was that his father had done.
“His bridle, his saddle, his old traveling-sack
He flung ’round his neck, the poor man, and walked back.
So useless his spurs; on his heels they stayed put.
Once a great horseman, he came home on foot.
Believe me, I almost pursued his sad course:
I’d have done the same thing had I not found my horse.”

5 thoughts on ““There were plants and birds and rocks and things…”

  1. Jeffery and Jen: Never let it be said that I discouraged a singalong in my comments section!

    Matt: I’ve looked at Theodulf’s “Battle of the Birds.” In fact, because my Latin is rapidly rusting, I drove to Hopkins last winter to look at an unpublished dissertation in which Theodulf’s entire poetic corpus was translated into dull, literal prose, just in case I missed something. I had high hopes, but alas, nothing. My current theory about the quote is that if it was not, in fact, entirely made up by the screenwriter, then perhaps it’s from some adolescent storybook, the rare one that wasn’t derived from Bulfinch. I’m keeping an eye out as I browse used bookstores. I wonder if we’ll ever know? (I’m even left wondering: if a screenwriter during the 1980s was misremembering Theodulf, then where and how would he have encountered such an obscure text in the first place? It’s lovely mystery, isn’t it?)


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