Saturnalian Poems

Here is a collection of verses about the Saturnalia that Senex has written over the years. They take various forms: villanelle, sonnet, rondeau, than-bauk, triolet, rubai, tyburn, madrigal, lai, double-dactyl, ballade, yadu, blank verse, epyllion, limerick, redondilla, zejel, ode, quatern, rondel], sapphic, terzanelle, and chastushka. Read them at leisure, or click on a particular verse form.

 
The villanelle is a French adaptation of the Italian "country song." It contains 19 lines arranged as five tercets and one quatrain. It is usually written in iambic tetrameter or pentameter, but iambs and trochees are sometimes combined. The rhyme scheme is A1bA2   abA1   abA2   abA1   abA2   abA1A2, where A1 and A2 are repeated refrains.

A Saturnalian Villanelle

The cry of "Io!" resounds in Rome.
December's chill is in the air.
All toil has ceased; relax at home.

The time has passed for tilling loam,
And holidays should brook no care.
The cry of "Io!" resounds in Rome.

Adorn the hall with fir and holm.
Prepare a feast for all to share.
All toil has ceased; relax at home.

Beyond the door the slaves won't roam
For soon they'll sample finer fare.
The cry of "Io!" resounds in Rome.

Receive a gift of polished pome,
Or roll the dice if you so dare.
All toil has ceased; relax at home.

Catullus claimed in his great tome
The "best of days" was this affair.
The cry of "Io!" resounds in Rome;
All toil has ceased; relax at home.


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The word rondeau was originally the generic term that the French used for all fixed patterns of verse that derived from dance-rounds, in which music was accompanied by call-and-response singing. A leader usually sang a verse, and everyone joined in on the refrain. The standard literary
rondeau consists of 15 lines in 3 stanzas of 5-4-6 lines. The first phrase of line 1 repeats as the refrain [R] in lines 9 and 15. Other lines are of any equal length, usually 8 to 10 iambic feet. The rhyme scheme is AABBA AAB [R] AABBA [R].

A Saturnalian Rondeau

With cries of "Io!" at dawn's first ray,
They welcome Saturn's holiday.
Both slave and master hail the feast
With joy because all toil has ceased,
But know full well it cannot stay.

The master serves the slave today,
Reversing roles in life's great play,
And plays along awhile at least
With cries of "Io!"

The slave who rules the roost today
May call the tune the pipers play,
But knows for sure the crown is leased
And not to goad a docile beast...
All hail the king with feet of clay
With cries of "Io!"


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The sonnet is a poetic form of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter. The form typically consists of an octave and a sestet embodying the statement and the resolution of a single theme. It usually takes one of two general forms: Italian (Petrarchan) or English (Shakespearean). In the Italian sonnet, the rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDECDE. In the English sonnet, the rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

A Saturnalian Sonnet

Before the reign of Saturn's Golden Age,
Before the vine was grown, or fields were tilled,
The lives of men were harsh and filled with rage;
At agriculture, they remained unskilled.
The welcome Janus gave to Saturn brought
A welcome change to every Roman's life.
With one another they no longer fought;
Prosperity replaced their constant strife.
Then Saturn disappeared from earthly view,
His work in Latium completely done.
The Golden Age of Saturn we renew
With shouts of Io! from each and everyone.
    December's here; the time has come for sure.
    In Latin: Gaudeamus igitur!


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The triolet is a poetic form of eight lines that dates to the 13th century in France. Its name comes from the fact that the first line of the poem is used three times (lines 1, 4, and 7). The second line is used twice (lines 2 and 8), and the rhyme scheme is ABAA ABAB.

A Saturnalian Triolet

It's Saturnalia in Rome.
These are the best of days for me.
Work is over and harvest home;
It's Saturnalia in Rome.
The time has passed for tilling loam,
So let's relax and be carefree.
It's Saturnalia in Rome...
These are the best of days for me!

Payback's a Stitch

The Lord of Misrule has his day at last.
A topsy-turvy world sets things aright.
Although the reign of Saturn long has passed,
The Lord of Misrule has his day at last.
Prepare to play the rôle in which you're cast ...
The slave is master only this one night.
The Lord of Misrule has his day at last;
A topsy-turvy world sets things aright.


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The rubai is a Persian verse consisting of a quatrain written in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme AABA. A collection of such verses is called a rubaiyat.

A Saturnalian Rubaiyat

December's chill is in the air once more,
And Saturn's ship is seen approaching shore.
Thus Rome will ring anew with cries of "Io!"
Her people know full well what lies in store.

The time to sow and reap is now behind;
To cares of past and future all are blind.
Remember now the Golden Age of yore;
Enjoy the simple pleasures you may find.

Relax the rules and social strata blur.
Play host to friends; to slaves, for now, defer.
This time will pass and all too soon be o'er.
The best of times is now ... Don't you concur?


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The poetic form called a Tyburn consists of six lines containing 2, 2, 2, 2, 9, 9 syllables. The first four lines are two-syllable descriptive words that rhyme, and they appear as syllables 5-8 in each line of the couplet.

Three Saturnalian Tyburns

Io! Saturnalia!

Airy,
Glary,
Very,
Merry...
In December's airy, glary days,
Romans feast in very merry daze.



A Topsy-Turvy Time

Rightly,
Slightly,
Nightly,
Brightly
Slaves at masters rightly, slightly sneer;
Saturn's feast they nightly, brightly cheer.



The Ties that Bind

Tethered,
Fettered,
Harbored,
Sheltered,
Saturn's statue tethered, fettered so,
Rome's assurance harbored, sheltered, lo.



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The term madrigal presents some confusion because it is shared by two distinct genres of vocal music. The first genre of madrigal emerged in Italy in the 14th century. It was an unaccompanied vocal composition for two or three voices in simple harmony, following a strict poetic form. The second, far more important genre, emerged in 16th century Italy. It was a polyphonic part song, usually unaccompanied and with parts for four to six voices using a secular text. It was sometimes accompanied by strings that either doubled or replaced one or more of the vocal parts. The term also applies to a poetic form. The 16th century madrigal as a poetic form was a one-stanza poem using a free rhyme scheme and a fairly even mix of seven- and eleven-syllable lines.

A Saturnalian Madrigal

Amid the merriment of Saturn's feast,
We Romans should remember
That though the time to toil for now has ceased,
It's midway through December.
The slave will have his day;
A crown he may assume.
The master, too, will play,
And then his role resume.


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The than-bauk is a three-line "climbing-rhyme" poem of Burmese origin. Conventionally it is a witty saying or epigram containing four syllables per line. The rhyme is on the 4th syllable of the first line, the 3rd syllable of the second line, and the 2nd syllable of the third line.

A Saturnalian Than-Bauk

Their cries of Io!
Clearly show that
Slaves know the date!

At Saturn's feast,
Slaves have ceased, now
At least, to serve.

The day will end,
Rules unbend, then
Rescind their play.

But never fear,
Come next year, it'll
Appear once more.


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The lai is a lyric poem which flourished in medieval France. It is composed of three-line units containing 5, 5, 2 syllables respectively. Lines 1 and 2 rhyme with each other and with similarly placed lines in the next unit, while line 3 rhymes only with the short line in the next unit. Stanzas may be of any length provided that each unit within it follows the rhyme scheme.

A Saturnalian Lai

December is here...
Saturn's feast draws near,
And so
Let's be of good cheer
At this time of year.
Cry "Io!"

Masters trade places;
Slaves' happy faces
Bear grins.
Dice box rolls aces;
Children run races.
Who wins?

Lord of Misrule reigns,
Source of fun and games
For all.
Candles flicker flames;
Greenery soon frames
The hall.

Gifts are sent to friends,
Each of whom attends
Repast.
Merriment suspends;
Season wanes and ends
At last.


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The double-dactyl is a short verse form invented by the American poets Anthony Hecht and John Hollander in 1966. The poem consists of one sentence containing forty-four syllables that are distributed over eight lines and fall into two four-line stanzas. The first three lines of each stanza are dactylic dimeter; the last one is a choriamb. The two stanzas end with a masculine rhyme on the last syllable of the choriamb. The final feature of the form is found in line six of the poem: a single, six-syllable word which is a double-dactyl.

A Saturnalian Double-Dactyl

"Io! Saturnalia!"
Rings in the holiday,
Beckons the Golden Age
Era once more;
Manners and mōrēs are
Topsily-turvily
Altered to capture the
Aura of yore.


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The ballade is a French form composed of three stanzas of eight lines and an envoy of four lines, with the last line of each stanza being a refrain. It is usually iambic tetrameter or pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ababbcbC ababbcbC ababbcbC bcbC. The envoy is usually addressed to "Prince," or patron, or person referenced in the poem.


A Saturnalian Ballade

December's chill is in the air,
And Saturn's feast holds much in store.
The Golden Age has left an heir
Whose rightful reign we may restore,
Though briefer than the one before.
For seven days the fun abounds,
And even slaves enjoy the roar.
In Rome the cry of "Io!" resounds.

This topsy-turvy world affair
Creates a break from rank and chore,
And even winter's icy glare
Diminishes to frosty hoar
That decks the wreath on domus door.
The hall within is filled with sounds
Of laughter as the spirits soar.
In Rome the cry of "Io!" resounds.

As all may gamble if they dare,
The pips on dice display the score.
The room is bright from candle flare,
And banquet tables fill the floor.
The festive meal is roasted boar,
With other dishes heaped in mounds,
And goblets filled in rounds galore.
In Rome the cry of "Io!" resounds.

O Prince, your reign concludes once more,
But true to form, it still astounds
And harkens back to days of yore...
In Rome the cry of "Io!" resounds.


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The yadu is a Burmese climbing-rhyme verse. Each of the stanzas —up to three in all— has 5 lines. The first four lines have 4 syllables each, and the last one can have 5, 7, 9, or 11 syllables. The last two lines rhyme in the usual way. The climbing rhymes occur in syllables four, three, and two of both the first three lines and the last three lines of a stanza. There should be a reference to the seasons since the word yadu means "the seasons."

A Saturnalian Yadu

Winter is drear,
So we cheer the
Feast near at hand.
It's a grand meal
That's planned to meet everyone's appeal.

Masters serve slaves,
And each craves role
Which staves off dross
As the boss of
Chaos, that is, Misrule's Lord thereof.

Gambling thrives,
And each strives to
Roll fives with dice
And play nice, too:
Advice that's meant for both me and you.


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The development of blank verse may be the result of Renaissance poets imitating classical Latin and Greek poetry where meter was a feature, but rhyme was not. It was introduced into English poetry by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Blank verse is usually written in iambic pentameter, and the lines may be stop-ended or exhibit enjambment. The structure of blank verse differs from that of rhymed verse. Poems written in blank verse are often divided into "verse paragraphs" of varying lengths, as distinct from stanzas, which usually have regular lengths and are defined by their rhyme scheme and metrical pattern.


A Saturnalian Blank Verse

The feast of Saturn starts with cries of "Io!"
And follows topsy-turvy for a week.
A master plays the slave for just one day;
The dice box rattles freely all week long.
Presiding over revels is a king
Whose rule is absolute but not long lived.
A host distributes gifts among his guests,
And clients gift their patrons in return.
The merriment subsides, and toil resumes.
The golden age of Saturn bids farewell.


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The term epyllion refers to a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The name means "little epic," and Ovid was a master of the form. Catullus's poem on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis could be termed an epyllion, although the term was not used to describe classical poems until the 19th century.

Trochaic verse is well-known in Latin poetry, especially of the medieval period. The stress never falls on the final syllable in Medieval Latin, so the language is ideal for featuring the trochee, a metrical foot with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. The dies irae of the Requiem mass is a perfect example: Dies irae, dies illa. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem Song of Hiawatha is written in trochaic tetrameter and fits the definition of an epyllion very well.

A Saturnalian Epyllion
in Trochaic Tetrameter

In the chill of gray December
Comes the reign of old Saturnus,
Comes a time of merrymaking,
Comes a wealth of gifts and feasting
While a topsy-turvy princeps
Rules the roost within the domus.
Lo, the sound of "Io!" is ringing
Through the villa, in the via.

Loose the woolen bonds from Saturn
As his Golden Age we welcome,
As we celebrate the harvest,
As we rest from daily labor
And prepare a meal for feasting.
Let the dice box shake and rattle
And Fortuna smile upon us
Now as well as in the future.

Give your kinsmen and your clients
Gifts of gratitude and kindness,
Gifts of whimsy for the children,
Gifts of money for the needy,
Which reflect upon you kindly.
You will garner much in casting
Bread on waters in this season
Though it may be slow in coming.

Once the holidays are over,
We replace the bonds on Saturn,
We resume our daily dealings,
We return to fields and farming.
When the year completes its cycle,
We shall welcome Saturn reigning
Once again in gray December...
Felix sit per annum novum!


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The limerick is a nonsensical or humorous poem of five anapestic or amphibrachic lines, usually with the rhyme scheme AABBA. The content is often ribald, or bawdy.

A Saturnalian Limerick

There once was a princeps in Rome
Who ruled for a week in the home,
But after the feast,
The crown he released,
And now he's back tilling the loam.

A Saturnalian Limerick

There once was a slave with a pilleus
Whose attitude grew supercilious;
On Saturn's feast day,
Forgot it was play...
So the master's reminder was bilious.


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The redondilla, Spanish for "round," is a stanza form that appears in Castilian and Portuguese poetry since the 16th century. It contains four lines of trochaic ( ˘ ) tetrameter, and the rhyme scheme is abba. (According to one expert, it could also rhyme abab or aabb, but the abab schematic is usually called a serventesio.) Authors like Lope de Vega and Sá de Miranda used the form.


A Saturnalian Redondilla

Saturn's reign we welcome gladly,
Brief, perhaps, but also golden.
Like those glory days so olden,
We shall celebrate it madly.

"Io!" is ringing in the domus;
Smiles appear on all our faces.
Slave and master switch their places.
Who will win the princeps bonus?

Wager on a dice box rattle;
Watch a youngster play with marbles.
While an entertainer warbles,
Laugh at neighbors' idle prattle.

When the holidays have ended,
Life resumes its normal pattern.
Though we bid farewell to Saturn,
All agree his reign was splendid.


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The zejel, pronounced "seh-HELL," is a Spanish verse form, and it was made popular by the Andalusian poet Ibn Quzman. The opening stanza, called the cabeza, presents the theme and is either a rhymed couplet (AA) or a rhymed tercet (AAA). Successive stanzas are quatrains that consist of a tercet called a mudanza and a line called a vuelta that rhymes with the cabeza. Thus, successive quatrains rhyme BBBA, CCCA, DDDA, and so forth. The lines are usually eight syllables long and often employ colloquial language. Common themes include love, drink, and friendship.

A Saturnalian Zejel

Rejoice, for Saturn's feast is here!
We eagerly await all year
Those cries of "Io!" we long to hear.

We're free for now from tilling loam
And gladly spend our time at home,
Or on the farm not far from Rome,
With guests and neighbors who live near.

The slave and master switch around
As fun and merriment abound
With princeps pranks that might astound,
But never dampen festive cheer.

Too soon we'll end our carefree play
And put the dice and games away
For Saturn's season doesn't stay,
But its return we still hold dear.


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The ode is a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often elevated in style or manner and written in varied or irregular meter. The classic ode was structured in three major parts: strophe, antistrophe, and epode.

There are three typical forms of the ode: Horatian, Pindaric, and irregular. The Roman poet Horace used an ode of several stanzas, each having the same metrical pattern. An ode in the form used by the Greek poet Pindar consisted of a series of triads in which the strophe and the antistrophe had the same stanza form, and the epode had a different form. Irregular odes rhyme, but they do not employ the three-part form of the Pindaric ode nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

A Saturnalian Ode

As Saturn's feast is drawing near,
Those cries of "Io!" we soon shall hear.
Then slave and master switch,
And dice relieve an itch.

A princeps rules the roost that day;
His pranks proceed without delay.
The guests are well amused;
No prank may be refused.

The holidays will end quite soon,
And pipers cease their lively tune,
But we have had our fun
When all is said and done.

Who knows what lies in store for us?
We'll work all year without a fuss...
Until December comes,
We dare not twiddle thumbs.


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The quatern is a French verse form. It is comprised of sixteen lines divided into four quatrains. Each line is eight syllables long. The first line is repeated as a refrain in a different position in subsequent quatrains: second line in the second, third line in the third, and fourth line in the fourth. There is no fixed meter or rhyme scheme.

A Saturnalian Quatern

It's Saturnalia in Rome.
These are the best of days for me.
The time has passed for tilling loam,
So let's relax and be carefree.

Smiles appear on children's faces...
It's Saturnalia in Rome.
Slave and master switch their places.
Work is over and harvest home.

It's time for gifts like weighty tome
Or other presents for one's friends.
It's Saturnalia in Rome,
And what one gets... It just depends.

Those cries of "Io!" from merry throng
Begin at dawn and last till gloam.
The dice will rattle all week long...
It's Saturnalia in Rome!


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The
rondel is a shortened form of rondeau that contains thirteen lines in three stanzas: 4-4-5. It contains two rhymes and a refrain that consists of the first two lines of the first stanza. The refrain recurs at the end of the second quatrain and the concluding quintain. (When both lines of the refrain are used to complete the last stanza, the verse is called a prime rondel, or a French sonnet, and will contain fourteen lines.) If A and B are the lines of the refrain, a rondel will have a rhyme scheme of ABba abAB abbaA and contain thirteen lines. The meter is open, but typically each line has eight syllables.

A Saturnalian Rondel

Now is the time to take it slow
And leave the fields in spirits high.
Saturn's season will soon draw nigh,
A golden age from long ago.

A respite from the status quo
Merits the joyful "Io!" we cry.
Now is the time to take it slow
And leave the fields in spirits high.

Strictures are eased a bit, and so
Rules will bend, and the dice will fly;
All appetites we'll satisfy.
Too soon we'll start to plow and sow;
Now is the time to take it slow.


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The sapphic dates back to ancient Greece and is named for the poet Sappho. She left behind many fragments of poems written in an unmistakable meter. The form consists of any number of four-line stanzas. The first three lines contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The fourth line contains one dactyl followed by one trochee. The short fourth line, called an adonic, offers either a rest or quick turn to the poem, or even a conclusion. Although the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees ( ¯ ˘ ) and dactyls ( ¯ ˘ ˘ ), there is some flexibility with the form as when a spondee ( ¯ ¯ ) replaces both the second and last foot of each line.

A Saturnalian Sapphic

Saturn's lectisternium sets the tenor;
Loosened bonds are license to wager, revel.
Cries of "Io!" resound in the city's households.
Master is servant.

Princeps' playful pestering musters laughter;
Dicing, feasting, boisterous drinking heighten.
Soon enough the merriment wanes and ceases.
Saturn's departed.


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The terzanelle is a combination of a terza rima and a villanelle. (It uses the interlocked rhyme pattern of a terza rima and the form of the villanelle: five triplets and a quatrain.) It consists of 19 lines of uniform length, but unspecified meter. The rhyme scheme is A1BA2  bCB  cDC  dED  eFE and either fFA1A2 or fA1FA2.

A Saturnalian Terzanelle

December's chill is in the air once more,
And cries of "Io!" will soon resound in Rome
As Saturn's ship is seen approaching shore.

The time has drawn to close for tilling loam;
All toil has ceased as we relax awhile,
And cries of "Io!" will soon resound in Rome

The Princeps' reign, though brief, will still beguile;
A topsy-turvy time will soon ensue.
All toil has ceased as we relax awhile.

The roll of dice won't cause a big to-do,
And slave and master roles are overturned.
A topsy-turvy time will soon ensue.

Most social strictures readily are spurned.
The festival of Saturn cannot last,
And slave and master roles are overturned.

Enjoy the respite now as in the past;
The festival of Saturn cannot last.
December's chill is in the air once more
As Saturn's ship is seen approaching shore.


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The traditional Russian folk poem called a
chastushka (частушка) is a quatrain of trochaic tetrameter that can rhyme several ways: abab, abcb, or even aabb. The last foot of a chastushka line is often a single stressed syllable rather than a full trochee. (Think "Lizzie Borden took an ax...") Usually humorous, satirical, or ironic in nature, the chastushka is often put to music, usually with the accompaniment of a balalaika or an accordion.

Sometimes several chastushki occur in sequence to form a song. Chastuski cover a very wide spectrum of topics, from lewd jokes to political satire, including such diverse themes as love songs and Communist propaganda. After each chastuska, there is a full musical refrain without lyrics to give the listeners a chance to laugh without missing the next one.

A Saturnalian Chastushka

Saturn's feast days hit the spot;
Celebrate with all you've got.
Revels do not last for long,
Shout "hurrah!" and join the throng.

Saturn's ship approaches shore...
Wager walnuts, coins, or more.
Slaves and masters switch around;
Pranks and merriment abound.

Chill December's days are dark...
Lighted tapers add a spark,
Gladden hearts, and gloom dispel.
Bid the "best of days" farewell.


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