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News > OW Memories > Poetical Memories from OWs C.1941-42

Poetical Memories from OWs C.1941-42

This is a short story about poetry, memory, and a bit of detection. It is written by M D (Michael) Sibly, son of W A (Bill) Sibly, who left the School in 1941, at the height of the Second World War.
Bill pictured at his retirement presentation in 1983, aged 60 years.
Bill pictured at his retirement presentation in 1983, aged 60 years.

Poetical memories from two Old Wulfrunians c.1941-42: W A Sibly & B P H Housiaux

Catullus Poem V, rendered into English in the style of A E Housman.

My father W A Sibly (born 26 April 1923) was a pupil at Wolverhampton Grammar School from 1931 to 1941. Many years ago he shared with me a poem (which he knew by heart) which he said had been written by a friend and contemporary of his at Wolverhampton Grammar. It was a version of a famous poem by the classical Latin poet Catullus, known as “Poem V”, which had been rendered into English in the style of A E Housman, author of the ever popular collection of poems called A Shropshire Lad (1895). At the time (this was the early 1970s) I was at school studying Catullus for my A Levels, and had also just become familiar with Housman. The opening line of the original Catullus poem (vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus…) may be familiar to a few readers.

My father had always remembered his friend’s translation of the original poem from his schooldays, and we both thought it was extremely good. He told me the name of his friend, the translator, but I never saw it written down. I am now retired, and one of the things which I wanted eventually to get round to doing was to try and track down the identity of the poetical young man of WGS who made the translation. My intention was (and remains) to pass it on to the Housman Society, which promote interest in A E Housman’s life and work, so that it is not lost.

So, I contacted the Development team at WGS, explaining that I was trying to find out if a pupil whose surname I had as “Hosio” had been at the school around 1940. Within a short time all was revealed. The author from those far off days was identified as one B P H Housiaux, a pupil at the School from 1936-42. Not only did we now have his proper name, but the Archives revealed that several of Mr Housiaux’s poems had been published in the Wulfrunian magazine in November 1943. One of them was a longer and slightly different version of the one handed on to me by my father. Whether the shorter version remembered by my father was an early draft from a year or two prior to 1943, an alternative version, or was simply imperfectly recollected, is unclear.

Whatever the case, I thought that it was worth sharing the poems (in both short and longer versions) with a later generation of Wulfrunians, and readers can judge for themselves whether they are as good as my father and I always thought they were. Both are given below at the end of this note, together with the Catullus poem in its original Latin and in a fairly literal translation.

For my own part, I think that the short version which I inherited is at least as good as the longer one originally published in the Wulfrunian, and indeed in its greater simplicity has a lot going for it. But given how long I have known it, I may not be the best judge, so readers who have persevered this far can make up their own minds.

Finally, a little more, for the record, about my father, W A Sibly. At WGS he had a very successful academic career, ending up in the Classical Sixth (as then was). The records unearthed by the Archivist also reveal that amongst other things he was a prefect, was editor of the Wulfrunian 1939-40, and (to my amazement given that he had little interest in sport) that he was Secretary of the Games Committee 1940-41; or perhaps it was just that nobody else would do the job.

On leaving the School in 1941 he won a Wolverhampton Major Scholarship and went up to Balliol College Oxford as a Domus Exhibitioner to read Literae Humaniores (Classics, Ancient History and Philosophy). After about a year he was taken away from Oxford to Bletchley Park to work on top-secret decoding work which formed so crucial and remarkable a part of the war effort. In his case the work was on Japanese codes, not the better known German Enigma codes, and this required him to learn Japanese from scratch. Like all the others working at Bletchley, he never said a word about what he had done there, even to his closest family, but what he had done in the war came out when the story of Bletchley began to emerge in the late 1970s. The world of Bletchley was the basis of 1995 Robert Harris novel Enigma, made into a popular film in 2001, but even in his later years my father never said much about life in the now famous Bletchley huts: the habit of secrecy was ingrained, although he did sometimes comment on the awful food they had to endure in wartime.

My father returned to Oxford in 1946 to complete his degree, and then worked in the insurance business (for the Legal & General Assurance Society, with whom he remained throughout his working life). In 1951 he married my mother, Mary Morrison, second daughter of Thomas Morrison, then Head Postmaster of Wolverhampton. Morrison was a native of Inverness, as was his wife Mary, née McIver, and my father had a great affection for Scotland all his life. Thomas Morrison featured in one or two wartime articles in the Wolverhampton Star newspaper.

My mother and father lived in London until 1956 when, just before I was born, my father was posted to Manchester, and we lived just south of Manchester, near Cheadle in Cheshire. My father's own parents retired to Wellington in Shropshire, not far from Wolverhampton. In 1969 my father's job was moved back to London, and we lived in Watford in SW Hertfordshire. After a successful career he retired in 1983, and died in July 2003, aged 80.

As a final point I would add that my father was clearly very well-taught at WGS. He was able to sight read both Latin and Ancient Greek until his dying day, his favourite authors being Homer and Herodotus (in Greek) and Virgil (in Latin). When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1970s reading History, he used to help me with translating Latin texts required for my studies. Later, after he retired, the two of us collaborated in producing full translations of two medieval Latin chronicles which I had first encountered at Cambridge, and these were published under our joint names by Boydell and Brewer, in 1998 and 2003. The two books are W A & M D Sibly, The History of the Albigensian Crusade: Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay's Historia Albigensis (1998); and W A & M D Sibly, The Chronicle of William of Puylaurens (2003). My father was very proud of these and would I am sure be pleased to see his work mentioned in the Wulfrunian, being quite a testament to the teaching he received at the school; they are not exactly best sellers, but they are used by specialists and by those teaching medieval French history in universities.

That it can be written at all is thanks to the help of the Development and Engagement Team at the School, who responded so helpfully to my queries, and to the tenacity of the Archivist in tracking down many of the details in it. 

M D Sibly

September 2022

[A] This first rendering of the Catullus poem handed on by W A Sibly is accomplished in two short stanzas with great economy of language. The author captures the meaning and spirit of the original Catullus, but entirely in Housman’s style, using his syntax and some of his characteristic idioms.

Let life and love be one, lass

And let the greybeards frown,

Death snuffs for good our candle

And then the night comes down.


So count we out our kisses

In hundred, thousand lots,

Till - not to mar our blisses -

We blur the tale with blots.

[B]. This second longer version is the one which was published in the school magazine, the Wulfrunian, in November 1943.

Let life and love be one, lass

And let the greybeards frown;

For both will soon be done, lass,

And then the night comes down.


Too brief for farthing scandal

The light of mortal men:

Death snuffs for good our candle -

The sun can rise again.


So count me out your kisses

In hundred, thousand lots,

Till, not to know our blisses,

We blur the tale with blots.


For all those myriads spoken

Might bring us witchery,

And Envy’s heart unbroken

When the eye cannot see!

The original poem, Catullus V

Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus

Rumoresque senum severiorum

Omnes unius aestimemus assis

Soles occidere et redire possunt

Nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux

Nox est perpetua una dormienda

Da mi basia mille deinde centum

Dein mille altera dein secunda centum

Deinde usque altera mille deinde centum

Dein cum milia multa fecerimus

Conturbabimus illa ne sciamus

Aut ne quis malus invidere possit

Cum tantum sciat esse basiorum

A fairly close translation

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love

And let us count the gossip of too-strict

old men as worth but a penny.

Suns can set and rise again;

Once our short day has gone

We must sleep through one eternal night.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then yet another thousand, then a hundred.

Then, when we have kissed many thousand times,

We will upset the accounts, so that we confuse the totals,

And no ill-wisher can bring us misfortune through his evil eye

When he knows how much we have kissed.

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