Carmen Possum is a popular 80-line macaronic poem written in a mix of Latin and English. Its author is unknown, but the poem's theme and language enable one to surmise that he or she was from the United States of America and was either a teacher or at least a student of Latin.
The title is a multilingual pun: it could be taken to mean "I Can Sing" in Latin, but, as revealed in the text, it is supposed to mean "Song of the Opossum". However, both interpretations violate Latin grammar.
The poem can be used as a pedagogical device for elementary Latin teaching. The language mix includes vocabulary, morphology (turnus) and grammar (trunkum longum).
An early version of the poem, with different words, a couple extra lines, and divided into four sections and titled Tale of a 'Possum, appeared in a Michigan University publication dated 1867, where it is attributed to Wheaton College. That same version later appeared in an 1886 issue of the University of Virginia magazine Virginia Spectator, with the title The Tale of a 'Possum; the editors inquired of readers as to the poem's authorship.
A version closer to the modern version, attributed to a "Prof. W. W. Legare" of northern Georgia and dated to the 1850s, was featured in a 1914 periodical.
^The earliest versions have "vehit hellum" instead.
^An allusion to the Thomas Campbell poem Hohenlinden, which features the line "Combat deepens; on ye brave"; early versions have bravus rhyming with stavus instead of braves and staves.
^In the earliest versions, this line is followed by
Ain't his corpus like a jelly?
Quid plus proof ought hunter velle?
The poem chronicles the adventures of two boys who go out hunting for an opossum or raccoon on a snowy night, with their Dachshunddog. Although the dog was often mocked for its disproportionate length ("eight spans", or seventy inches) and love of chasing rabbits, cats, and rats, it performs flawlessly on the night, chasing an opossum into a long, hollow log.
The boys run quickly to secure their prey, chopping away at the log to get hold of it. They go back home, leaving the dead opossum on the ground. They proudly tell the story, which is said by the author to dwarf the feats of Pompey, Samson, Julius Caesar, Cyrus the Great, and other great military leaders of antiquity, as well as of American Indian chief Black Hawk; winning the praise of their parents and admiration of their younger brother. They go to sleep, dreaming of opossums as strong as bears and as large as cattle. Early the next morning, the two boys go to see their catch, but cannot find it. The "vile possum" had tricked them by playing dead -- as opossums do when threatened and cornered. The kids never find the opossum again, and feel dejected.
While carmen possum may sound like a Latin phrase, it is grammatically incorrect. The closest interpretation, satisfying (if only barely) the requirements of syntax, would be "I am capable of song" (with "of" here constituting not a stand-alone preposition but rather a portion of an English phrasal verb).
However, as the text reveals ("Up they jump to see the varmin / Of the which this is the carmen"), the title itself is a macaronic mix of Latin and English, and should be understood as "Song of [the] Opossum". Yet, the noun "possum", if it were a Latin word, should be in the genitive case (possi) rather than the nominative (possum). Although one could assume that possum is an indeclinable noun.
^University of Colorado at Boulder, Guide to the Normand Lockwood Collection, 1921-1996, Subseries C: Miscellaneous Music by Normand Lockwood, Box No. 5. Online version Archived 2009-10-22 at the Wayback Machine accessed on 2009-06-25.
^University Chronicle, Volume 2, Issue 9, November 1867