Daily Express, Tuesday, November 3, 1903

Poem 30

(By P. G. Wodehouse)



  [Most of the dons at Oxford are free-traders.1]

Up at Oxford, wrapped in slumber,
Sits a parrot, and a number
Of enormous dictionaries
On the tables and the floor
Are the treasures which surround him.
He was dozing when I found him,
But he opened one eye slowly,
Saying “Food will cost you more.

And I said: “Your classic knowledge
Is a credit to your college;
In an Æschylean chorus 2
None deny that you can score;
Make some sensible suggestion
On the vexed Homeric question. 3
But don’t touch that other problem
Of ‘Your food will cost you more.

“Spend your time on quaint optatives, 4
Doubtful readings, ethic datives; 5
Bear in mind that well-known tag, ‘Ne
Ultra crepidam sutor.’ 6
For your grip of fiscal matters
Would disgrace the maddest hatters,
As is shown by your contention
That Our food will cost us more.”

But my arguments were fruitless,
My ingenious logic bootless;
All my kindly-meant remonstrance
He continued to ignore.
So at last I ceased to pester,
And, resuming his siesta,
He then closed our conversation
With “Your food will cost you more.



It is not clear whether this derived from a specific news report or was an inference drawn from the election, on 31 October 1903, of a new Chancellor of Oxford University. Only two nominations had been submitted for the vacant chancellorship, both on behalf of confirmed free traders, Viscount Goschen and Lord Rosebery, and, after Rosebery indicated his unwillingness to stand, Goschen—a vice-president of the Unionist Free Food League—was elected unopposed.


Æschylus (c. 522–455 BC) was a Greek playwright; although he is thought to have written between 70 and 90 plays, only seven have survived. The chorus was a unbiquitous feature of ancient Greek drama; it consisted of a dozen to several dozen members who, acting collectively, never individually, provided a commentary on the actions, thoughts and motives of the principal characters, either to further the understanding of the audience or to inform other characters in the the play. As a classical scholar, Wodehouse would have been well-acquainted with the works of Æschylus.


The ‘Homeric question’ refers to the debate among classical scholars as to whether ‘Homer’ was an historic personage and, if so, whether he was the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, two of the oldest works of Western literature. The debate was particularly vigorous during the second half of the 19th century.


In the grammar of Ancient Greek, the optative is a verb mood, used to express wishes and future possibilities. The English language has no optative mood and instead uses modal verbs—eg ‘can’, ‘shall’, ‘will’—as in the expressions “Would that I could . . .” and “I would be pleased to . . .”.


The ethic dative is another term used in Ancient Greek grammar, where it is employed almost exclusively as an inflection of a pronoun to indicate that the person or thing signified by the pronoun is of especial interest to the speaker. There is no direct English equivalent.


A Latin proverb: literally, “not above the sandal, shoemaker”, which expresses the same sentiment as the English proverb, “a cobbler should stick to his last”—or, in the less colourful phraseology of today, “people should mind their own business”.

The origin of the proverb is explained in the Naturalis Historia of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD). In Book 35, chapter 36, Pliny relates how an ancient Greek painter, Apelles of Kos, was in the habit of exposing his paintings to public view, while he hid from sight to listen to the criticisms of passers-by. One day, a shoemaker criticised Apelles’s depiction of a sandal because one tie-string was shorter than the other. Apelles corrected the defect and the following day the shoemaker, delighted to find that his criticism had been acted upon, began to criticise Apelles’s rendering of the leg, whereupon the indignant Apelles advised him that a shoemaker should not judge above the sandal (ne supra crepidam sutor iudicaret), a piece of advice which, Pliny observed, had become a proverbial saying.