In 1939 Rolfe Humphries was asked to write a poem for Poetry. He was given the title (“Draft Ode for a Phi Beta Kappa Occasion”), the meter (unrhymed iambic pentameter), and a request that the poem contain one classical reference per line. The poem appeared in the June issue, and in August the magazine printed an outraged editorial note banning Humphries from the magazine for writing “scurrilous” material. Here’s the poem; see if you can figure out what they were so upset about. The explanation’s in the extended entry.
Niobe’s daughters yearn to the womb again,
Ionians bright and fair, to the chill stone;
Chaos in cry, Actaeon’s angry pack,
Hounds of Molussus, shaggy wolves driven
Over Ampsanctus’ vale and Pentheus’ glade,
Laelaps and Ladon, Dromas, Canace,—
As these in fury harry brake and hill
So the great dogs of evil bay the world.
Memory, Mother of Muses, be resigned
Until King Saturn comes to rule again!
Remember now no more the golden day
Remember now no more the fading gold,
Astraea fled, Proserpina in hell;
You searchers of the earth be reconciled!
Because, through all the blight of human woe,
Under Robigo’s rust, and Clotho’s shears,
The mind of man still keeps its argosies,
Lacedaemonian Helen wakes her tower,
Echo replies, and lamentation loud
Reverberates from Thrace to Delos Isle;
Itylus grieves, for whom the nightingale
Sweetly as ever tunes her Daulian strain.
And over Tenedos the flagship burns.
How shall men loiter when the great moon shines
Opaque upon the sail, and Argive seas
Rear like blue dolphins their cerulean curves?
Samos is fallen, Lesbos streams with fire,
Etna in rage, Canopus cold in hate,
Summon the Orphic bard to stranger dreams.
And so for us who raise Athene’s torch.
Sufficient to her message in this hour:
Sons of Columbia, awake, arise!

Well, it seems Humphries had been a student of Nicholas Murray Butler, the famous president of Columbia from 1902 to 1945, and as the article on Butler puts it, “great success usually comes with great arrogance as well.” A lot of people resented Butler, and Humphries was clearly one of them; if you read down the first letters of the lines, you will get a clear statement of his attitude. The editorial note ran thus:

Not being accustomed to hold manuscripts up to the mirror or to test them for cryptograms, the editors recently accepted and printed a poem containing a concealed scurrilous phrase aimed at a well-known person. This was not called to their attention until several weeks after the issue had been published. The phrase in question is puerile and uninteresting, and would not be referred to except that it is necessary to disclaim editorial responsibility. Apparently it is also necessary to state a principle which one would have though obvious; namely, that any contributor who allows such matter to be printed without the editors’ knowledge is guilty of a serious breach of confidence, and will automatically disbar himself from the magazine.

The ban lasted less than a year (he had three poems published in 1941, as you can see here), and I’m sure the joy of the prank was well worth it. (Via MonkeyFilter.)
Incidentally, Humphries is best known for his translations from the Latin poets, notably Ovid, from whom most of the imagery in the poem comes; Actaeon and the list of dogs who hunt him (“Laelaps and Ladon, Dromas, Canace”), for instance, are from Book 3 of the Metamorphoses.


  1. Great success comes with great arrogance as well:
    Are you sure they were not talking about architects?

  2. Or engineers at Columbia? I just learned (though I am not sure how much of it is based on fact) that students at Columbia have to pass a swimming test to graduate — all of them, except the engineering students. The story goes that back when the British were still a threat, in case they British attacked, students needed to swim across the Hudson — except the engineers, who, of course, would know how to build a bridge…

  3. An aquaintance who graduated from Columbia (majoring in Classics) had to do the swimmning, although she didn’t claim there was a point to it.

  4. Wonderful. Thanks for posting this. It just proves that even the greatest literary minds aren’t above a little immature pranking every now and then.
    You have an entertaining, informative blog here!

  5. Heh, heh! I can’t (am too lazy to) find the original but, it must be around the same time, the Australian magazine The Bulletin published a poem with a similar steganographic message – but it was “F**K ALL EDITORS”.

  6. Well, since he’s writing it for a frat, it’s only appropriate, anything else would’ve been poor form.

  7. last-letter acrostics are more elegant, but maybe he was wanting to be found out.

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