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Carmen Possum: Latin Student Humor From the 1800s

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My photomanip based on several magnificent opossum photos by "Jess Beemouse" on Flickr.

My photomanip based on several magnificent opossum photos by "Jess Beemouse" on Flickr.

Carmen Possum: "Song of the Possum"

When I studied Latin, Carmen Possum was one of those nerd jokes like semper ubi sub ubi (literally, "always where under where") floating around classics departments. Copies of Carmen Possum were often posted in Latin teachers' offices. It's a silly poem about two boys and their dog, written in a crazy patchwork of Latin, pseudo-Latin and English that even beginning students can chuckle over.

I was surprised to discover that this great poem is not widely circulated on the web. I wish to correct that. Also, I wish to find out the origins of this widely-read text! I haven't entirely solved the mystery of Carmen Possum's origins, but first, here's what you really want: the poem.

Vocabulary List

  • carmen, "song, poem."
  • nox, "night."
  • lux, "light."
  • luna, "moon."
  • nix, "snow."
  • mundus, "world, earth, ground."
  • non, "not."
  • profundus, "deep."
  • sic, "such, so, thus."
  • canis, "dog."
  • unus, "one."
  • corpus, "body."
  • bonus, "good."
  • octo, "eight."
  • brevior, "shorter."
  • quam, "than."
  • hic, hoc, "this."
  • et, "and."
  • stultum, from stultus, "foolish, silly."
  • jocum, from iocus "joke." (Grammar slightly abused for the sake of the rhyme.)
  • quod, "that, because."
  • locum, "place."
  • circum, "around."
  • ad, "to, towards, at."
  • duo, "two."
  • puer, "boy."
  • Nunquam, unquam, "never, ever."
  • fuit, "was." (past tense of est.)
  • amabat from amo, "love." Imperfect tense can mean "used to [verb]"
  • plus, adv. "more."
  • bene, adv. "well."
  • cucurrit, perfect (past) tense of curro, "run, hasten."
  • intentus, "eager."
  • bellum, "war."
  • terra, "earth, land."
  • venisse, perfect infinitive of venio, "[to have] arrive[d], come."
  • mors, "death."
  • cum, "when."
  • venerit, perfect of venio, "he arrived."
  • quisque, "any."
  • per, "through, thoroughly."
  • staves: This word stumps me. It may be English "stave," archaic for "staff," perhaps a poetic way of referring to the axe? I can find no classical Latin equivalent of staves or stavus. Older versions of carmen possum have "on ye bravus" and "canis, puer, bite et stavus." et can also mean "also."
  • longius, comparative of longus, so "longer."
  • potest, "be able, is able."
  • pugnare, "to fight."
  • quid, "what."
  • velle, "to want, to wish."
  • pater, "father."
  • domo, should be domus, "home."
  • homo, "man."
  • certe, "surely, for certain."
  • narrabunt future of narro, "tell."
  • plenus, "full of."
  • sanguine, "blood."
  • gloria, "glory."
  • victoria, "victory."
  • mater, "mother."
  • frater, "brother."
  • somniunt, "dream."
  • ursae, plural of ursa, "bear."
  • albam, from albus, "white."
  • resurrectum, from resurgo, "rise again."
  • ecce, "behold!"
  • dejectum from deicio, "to cast down."
  • linquit, "left behind."
  • sed, "but."
  • bestia, "beast."
  • tu, "you."
  • Orcum, another name for Hades.
  • cum, "with."
  • iste, "that, that very one."

Carmen Possum

edited by E. Brundige

An anonymous poem from the 1800s, Carmen Possum is definitely public domain. My edition restores a few lost lines from older versions of the poem not usually found in modern editions. I've also fixed a couple of errors that have crept in during the process of transmission. As usual, you'll get two points of extra credit if you can spot my typo since I always seem to make one!

Carmen Possum

The nox was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.
The corpus of this bonus canis
Was full as long as octo span is,
But brevior legs had canis never
Quam canis hic bonus et clever.
Some used to say, in stultum jocum,
Quod a field was too small locum
For sic a dog to make a turnus
Circum self from stem ad sternus.
Unus canis, duo puer,
Nunquam braver, nunquam truer,
Quam hoc trio unquam fuit.
(If there was I never knew it.)
This bonus dog had one bad habit:
Amabat much to tree a rabbit,
Amabat plus to chase a rattus,
Amabat bene tree a cattus.
But on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam treed a starving rattus,
Nunquam chased a starving cattus,
But cucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
On terra seemed venisse hellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.
Cum venerit, one began
To chop away like quisque man.
Soon the axe went through the trunkum
Soon he hit it per kerchunkum;
Combat deepens, on ye braves!
Canis, pueri et staves.
As his powers non longius tarry,
Possum potest non pugnare.
On the nix his corpus lieth;
Down to Hades spirit flieth.
Joyful puers, canis bonus,
Think him dead as any stonus.
"Aint his corpus like a jelly?"
Quid plus proof ought hunter velle?
Now they seek their pater's domo,
Feeling proud as any homo,
Knowing certe they will blossom
Into heroes, when with possum
They arrive, narrabunt story,
Plenus blood et plenior glory.
Pompey, David, Samson, Caesar,
Cyrus, Black Hawk, Shalmanezer,
Tell me where est now the gloria,
Where the honors of victoria?
Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus.
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which hoc est the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Possum linquit track behind him,
Sed the puers never find him.
Cruel possum! bestia vilest!
How the puers tu beguilest!
Puers think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since iste possum is a goner!

Origins/Variants of Poem

The whole poem is a macaronic pastiche of Latin and English, and part of its humor lies in the fact that possum is a very common Latin word for "be able, can," creating a certain amount of mental feedback for any Latinist trying to read it and make sense of it. (We know what it means, but our brain keeps fritzing on carmen possum as it jumps from one language to the other.)

The earliest edition I can find is from an old school newsletter, The Oriflamme, journal of the senior class of Franklin and Marshall College, 1883. There are some significant departures from the version familiar to most of us. The Oriflamme text has much more Latin — from a time when most people knew more Latin — and it's a little vague about the moment when the tree falls, which the later "per cher chunkum" attempts to correct.

A 1902 edition published in Current Literature vol 31, a publication of Harvard, ascribes the poem to one Whealen College, Illinois, but I suspect that's simply where the editor found the poem. The 1902 edition is closer to the modern version but has a number of typos and mistakes, suggesting less familiarity with Latin by the typesetter.

Modern editions usually subtitle Carmen Possum "Tale of a Possum," although carmen actually means "song, poem."

If I were still teaching, I'd be tempted to use Carmen Possum as a fun introduction to manuscript traditions, transmission and scribal error. I'd make copies of each edition and let students try to guess which is the earliest version.

If you've run into any earlier versions of the poem than 1883, please let me know.

For Teachers and Students

Feel free to print out, distribute, and use these as handouts! Please keep the "edited by" + link back to this page on them if you decide that you'd like to copy them. The final item in the list is a fun book of funny and quirky Latin phrases!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Valene from Missouri on August 27, 2016:

I only studied Latin for a year in high school because the teacher passed away and they couldn't find anyone to replace him. But I really enjoyed it and even though I didn't continue to study it, I did go on to take Spanish all through high school and minor in it in college. Latin based language is so fascinating!

Ellen (author) from California on May 21, 2012:

Your professor obviously didn't make terribly embarrassing double entendres as often as I did during the two years when I was a teaching fellow. The worst was when I put the future participle of the verb "to come" on the blackboard and asked my students to translate. After a dead silence, I asked, "Oh, no, what have I written this time?" Following some tittering: "Let's just translate that as 'about to arrive,' shall we?"

I'm glad the nerdiness was amusing. Latin should be made amusing; it's as dead as a Monty Python parrot!

TomBlalock from Hickory, NC on May 21, 2012:

Articles like this are so ridiculously nerdy that they make my entire day more complete. Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I wish I could say I remembered my Latin days as fondly as I will this article, but my professor was less than excellent.

Ellen (author) from California on April 30, 2012:

Hee! Great minds think alike. Originally, I was going to create an entire apparatus criticus with notes on the variant texts, but my attack of OCD was suddenly overcome by a fit of laziness. :)

Oo, now I have to find that song; I sense another woeful gap in my education!

Brainy Bunny from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania on April 30, 2012:

Just a commentary and vocabulary? I was looking forward to a whole apparatus criticus! ;-)

This is very funny. I can't believe I've never seen it before. Maybe my mother knows it; when she was in high school her Latin club did all sorts of silly stuff, including singing a song about Julius Caesar sung to the tune of "Davy Crockett."