Friday, 18 February 2011

Modeste, strenue, sancte

Following the thread of school songs, here's another literary question. A while back I briefly mentioned correspondence with a Yahoo! Answers contact, Eric Schonblom, who is conducting biographical research on the prolific children's author Constance Winifred Savery (1897-1999 - see the Independent obituary). Last year he visited Great Torrington with the enviable opportunity to examine a large collection of materials, including unpublished works, and the partial results are now on his much-expanded biographical site,

Eric just contacted me with a puzzle. Among Constance Savery's unpublished verse is the following poem:

William Rutlish's Song

Ask little; greatly give, / Ye who would truly live / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Fight cruelty and wrong; / Meet sorrow with a song / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Shun all ungentle ways; / Love beauty all your days / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
Stand firm against the tide; / Fear sin and naught beside / Modeste, strenue, sancte.
In your appointed place / Serve God and seek His face / Modeste, strenue, sancte.

© - reproduced by permission of E.C.W. Hummerstone

As Eric says, Modeste strenue sancte ("Be modest, be thorough and pursue righteousness") is the motto, adopted in 1901, of Rutlish School. Wiliam Rutlish was the benefactor, embroiderer to Charles II, who left a bequest that had appreciated sufficiently by the late 1800s to fund the school's founding in 1895.

Constance Savery incorporated the poem in her novel The Quicksilver Chronicle, but is ambigious about where the verses came from. Her work diary for June 20, 1952 says 'Wrote verses ("William Rutlish's Song")' but in a tape recording in 1994 she said it was "translated from a Latin poem, except for the Modeste strenue sancte refrain that resisted translation". Eric is well aware that the 1994 statement (made when she was 97) could be a misrecollection, but he would nevertheless like to track the attribution if any exists. Rutlish School hasn't replied.

So, the question is: is William Rutlish's Song actually a translation of a Latin poem, or written in 1952 as a work retrofitted to the Rutlish school motto? Eric will pay a finder's fee of £20 if anyone can find a reliably-attributed Latin original.

- Ray


  1. Sounds like the oft-repeated praise of Cato the Younger: cum strenuo virtute, cum modesto pudore, cum innocente abstinentia. Is there a common ancestor or a missing paraphrase?

  2. I just rescued that one from the spam bucket; I guess Blogger didn't like "cum".

  3. Savery may have known the Cato phrase, but she called her poem William Rutlish's Song, so the Rutlish motto is a more likely source than Cato.