Saturday, December 10, 2016


Such Is Human Life

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), "Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia," lines 21-38 (tr. Jonathan Galassi):
Little old white-haired man,
weak, half naked, barefoot,
with an enormous burden on his back,
up mountain and down valley,
over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken,        25
through wind and storm,
in burning, freezing weather,
runs on, running till he's out of breath,
crosses rivers, wades through swamps,
falls and climbs and rushes on        30
ever faster, no rest or relief,
battered, bloodied; till at last he comes
to where his way
and all his effort led him:
terrible, immense abyss        35
into which he falls, forgetting everything.
This, O virgin moon,
is human life.
The Italian:
Vecchierel bianco, infermo,
Mezzo vestito e scalzo,
Con gravissimo fascio in su le spalle,
Per montagna e per valle,
Per sassi acuti, ed alta rena, e fratte,        25
Al vento, alla tempesta, e quando avvampa
L'ora, e quando poi gela,
Corre via, corre, anela,
Varca torrenti e stagni,
Cade, risorge, e piú e piú s'affretta,        30
Senza posa o ristoro,
Lacero, sanguinoso; infin ch'arriva
Colà dove la via
E dove il tanto affaticar fu volto:
Abisso orrido, immenso,        35
Ov'ei precipitando, il tutto obblia.
Vergine luna, tale
È la vita mortale.
The same, tr. Geoffrey L. Bickersteth:
A hoary, weak, old man,
Half-clothed, with naked feet,
A load exceeding heavy on his shoulders,
O'er hill, o'er dale, o'er boulders
Sharp-pointed and deep desert-sand and brambles,        25
In wind and storm, beneath the raging heat
And later when 'tis chill,
Runs, runs on, never still;
O'er pools and torrents scrambles
Breathless; falls, rises, more and more doth haste,        30
Without pause, without rest,
Mangled and bleeding; till at length he comes
Where is the limit set
Unto his journey and so great distress:
A gulf, dread, bottomless,        35
Wherein he plunges and doth all forget.
Moon-maiden, such the way
We mortals live our day.
Related post: What Is Life?


God Mend Their Ears

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), "The English Language," Unpopular Opinions (1946; rpt. London: Victor Gollancz, 1951), pp. 89-97 (at 95):
There are pedants, God mend their ears, who, having read some cheap-jack, rule-of-thumb, cramp-wit folly in a sixpenny text-book, would like to break our free idiom to the bit of an alien fashion. These are not the Latinists (who know better), but the Latinisers; they remember the Latin bones of language, and will have them dry bones. These are the pinching misers, who will hoard their gold, but will not put it out to gain. Of such are the dreary little men who write to the papers protesting—in the teeth of Chaucer, Bacon, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, the English Bible, Milton, Burton, Congreve, Swift, Burke, Peacock, Ruskin, Arnold and the whole tradition of English letters—that a sentence must not end with a preposition. This is no matter of syntax; it is a matter of idiom; and the freedom to handle our prepositions is among the most glorious in our charter of liberties.

Friday, December 09, 2016


The Harvester of Mactar: A Self-Made Man

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 8.11824 = Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 7457 (Mactar, Tunisia, 3rd century A.D.), tr. Tim G. Parkin and Arthur J. Pomeroy, Roman Social History: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 39-40 (line numbers added in brackets by me):
I was born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father, who had no property or household. [5] From the time of my birth, I lived in the country looking after my business; there was no time off in the countryside and none for me at any time. And when the time of year had brought forth the grain ready for harvest, then I was the first reaper of the stalks. When the sickle-bearing gangs of men had made their way to the fields, [10] whether heading for The Nomads of Cirta or The Fields of Jupiter, as harvester I preceded them all, first into the fields, leaving the packed bands behind my back. I reaped twelve harvests under the raging sun, and afterwards became a work gang leader instead of a labourer. [15] We led the gangs of harvesters for eleven years and our band cut down the Numidian fields. This effort and my frugal lifestyle brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home itself lacks nothing. [20] And my life gained the rewards of office: I was myself enrolled among the conscript councillors. Elected by the order [of the decurions], I had a seat in the order's temple and, starting out as a humble country boy, I too became censor. I produced children and saw them grow into young men and saw their children too. [25] In accord with our services in life, we have enjoyed years of fame, which no bitter tongue has hurt with any reproach. People, learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach. The man who has lived without deceit has earned meeting his death in such a manner.
The Latin (first two fragmentary lines omitted):
paupere progenitus lare sum parvoq(ue) parente
   cuius nec census neque domus fuerat.
ex quo sum genitus, ruri mea vixi colendo;        5
   nec ruri pausa nec mihi semper erat.
et cum maturas segetes produxerat annus,
   demessor calami tunc ego primus eram.
falcifera cum turma virum processerat arvis,
   seu Cirtae Nomados seu Iovis arva petens,        10
demessor cunctos anteibam primus in arvis,
   pos(t) tergus linquens densa meum gremia.
bis senas messes rabido sub sole totondi,
   ductor et ex opere postea factus eram.
undecim et turmas messorum duximus annis,        15
   et Numidiae campos nostra manus secuit.
hic labor et vita parvo con(ten)ta valere
   et dominum fecere domus et villa paratast,
et nullis opibus indiget ipsa domus.
   et nostra vita fructus percepit honorum;        20
inter conscriptos scribtus et ipse fui.
   ordinis in templo delectus ab ordine sedi,
   et de rusticulo censor et ipse fui.
et genui et vidi iuvenes carosq(ue) nepotes.
vitae pro meritis claros transegimus annos        25
   quos nullo lingua crimine laedit atrox.
discite, mortales, sine crimine degere vitam.
   sic meruit, vixit qui sine fraude, mori.


The Principle of Sound Learning

F.B. Cornford (1874-1943), Microcosmographia Academica (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1908), page number unknown (librum non vidi):
The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and 'sound scholar' is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called 'brilliant' and forfeit all respect.

University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their high calling. Books are the sources of material for lectures. They should be kept from the young; for to read books and remember what you read well enough to reproduce it is called 'cramming', and this is destructive of all true education. The best way to protect the young from books is, first, to make sure that they shall be so dry as to offer no temptation; and, second, to store them in such a way that no one can find them without several years' training. A lecturer is a sound scholar, who is chosen to teach on the ground that he was once able to learn. Eloquence is not permissible in a lecture; it is a privilege reserved by statute for the Public Orator.


A Spelling Mistake

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), The Elgin Marbles. Should they be returned to Greece? with essays by Robert Browning and Graham Binns, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1997), p. x:
In towns and villages all over Greece, and in Greek tavernas all over the world, the spirit of phylloxenia prevails and no British guest is allowed to pay his or her bill.
For phylloxenia read philoxenia (hospitality).

Hat tip: Ian Jackson, who notes that the error suggests that "C.H. is more familiar with pre-phylloxera Bordeaux than with the Greek language." Hitchens' first wife (to whom he was still married in 1987, when the first edition of the book appeared) was Greek.


Thursday, December 08, 2016


The Field

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), "Strawberry," Wild Fruits, ed. Bradley P. Dean (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), pp. 10-17 (at p. 15, with editor's note on p. 289):
In the vicinity of Bangor, as I am told, they are found at the roots of grass where it is up to your knees, and they are smelled before they are seen, in hot weather—also on mountains whence you see the Penobscot fifteen miles off and the white sails of a hundred schooners flapping. There, sometimes, where silver spoons and saucers are scarce but everything else is plentiful, they empty countless quarts into a milk pan, stir in cream and sugar, while the party sits around with each a big spoon.

as I am told: Thoreau was probably told this by his cousin, George Thatcher, who lived in Bangor, Maine.
I grew up "in the vicinity of Bangor," just across the Penobscot River from Bangor, in fact. Behind our house was an unimproved area we called "The Field," bordered by four streets—Washington Street, Eastern Avenue, Chamberlain Street, State Street—and partially bisected by Holyoke Street. Someone owned it, I suppose, but to us it was the village commons, and we had the usufruct of it.

We neighborhood boys, without adult supervision, mowed part of the knee-high grass for a baseball field in the summer, and in the winter, where the field sloped downwards towards Holyoke and Washington Streets, we went sledding after school until it was too dark to see. I once threw a snowball at a passing car, and when the driver got out and chased me, I ran as fast as my legs could carry me into the safety of the field.

Wild strawberries grew in abundance in the field, and I spent many hours in late spring and early summer on my hands and knees, picking them. Most of those I picked went immediately into my mouth, not into my pail, but enough were saved so that my mother (who let nothing go to waste) could make strawberry jam, in quantities sufficient to last us until the following year. Some of the berries we ate with milk and sugar for breakfast, but most became jam.

The field no longer exists in the form in which I knew it. New streets now run through it, and it is filled with houses.

Id., p. 17:
But let us not call it by the mean name of "strawberry" any longer because in Ireland or England they spread straw under their garden kinds. It is not that to the Laplander or the Chippewayan; better call it by the Indian name of heart-berry, for it is indeed a crimson heart which we eat at the beginning of summer to make us brave for all the rest of the year, as Nature is.
Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.13.12 (on old men; tr. John Henry Freese):
They live in memory rather than in hope; for the life that remains to them is short, but that which is past is long, and hope belongs to the future, memory to the past. This is the reason of their loquacity; for they are incessantly talking of the past, because they take pleasure in recollection.
Thanks to the generous reader who sent me a copy of Thoreau's Wild Fruits

Wednesday, December 07, 2016


Condemnation of Trifles

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (June 16?, 1838):
The Unbelief of the age is attested by the loud condemnation of trifles. Look at our silly religious papers. Let a minister wear a cane, or a white hat, go to a theatre, or avoid a sunday school, let a school book with a Calvinistic sentence or a sunday schoolbook without one, be heard of, & instantly all the old grannies squeak & gibber & do what they call sounding an alarm, from Bangor to Mobile. Alike nice & squeamish is its ear; you must on no account say "stink" or "damn."
The old grannies, of whatever age and sex, are still squeaking, gibbering, and sounding the alarm today. Only the forbidden words and deeds have changed.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


A Fable for Our Time

Phaedrus 4.20 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
He who brings aid to the wicked afterwards suffers for it.
A man picked up a venomous serpent benumbed by the cold
and warmed it in his bosom, showing pity to his own cost;
for when the serpent revived he immediately killed the man.
When another serpent asked him why he did this,        5
he replied: "To teach men not to be good to those who are no good."

Qui fert malis auxilium, post tempus dolet.
Gelu rigentem quidam colubram sustulit
sinuque fovit, contra se ipse misericors;
namque, ut refecta est, necuit hominem protinus.
hanc alia cum rogaret causam facinoris,        5
respondit "Ne quis discat prodesse improbis."
Babrius 143 (tr. Ben Edwin Perry):
A farmer picked up a viper that was almost dead from the cold, and warmed it. But the viper, after stretching himself out, clung to the man's hand and bit him incurably, thus killing (the very one who wanted to save him). Dying, the man uttered these words, worthy to be remembered: "I suffer what I deserve, for showing pity to the wicked."

Ἔχιν γεωργὸς ἐκπνέοντ᾿ ὑπὸ ψύχους
λαβὼν ἔθαλπεν· ἀλλ᾿ ἐκεῖνος ἡπλώθη
τῇ χειρὶ προσφύς, καὶ δακὼν ἀνιήτως
ἔκτεινεν [αὐτὸν τὸν θέλοντ᾿ ἀνστῆσαι.]†
θνῄσκων δὲ μῦθον εἶπεν ἄξιον μνήμης·        5
"δίκαια πάσχω τὸν πονηρὸν οἰκτείρας."
Aesop 82 Chambry (my translation):
A farmer in winter time found a serpent stiff with cold. After pitying the serpent and picking it up, he placed it beneath his garment's fold. The serpent, warmed up and reverting to its nature, struck and killed its benefactor. As he was dying, the man said, "I'm getting what I deserve for having taken pity on a wicked creature."

Γεωργός τις χειμῶνος ὥρᾳ ὄφιν εὑρὼν ὑπὸ κρύους πεπηγότα, τοῦτον ἐλεήσας καὶ λαβὼν ὑπὸ κόλπον ἔθετο. Θερμανθεὶς δὲ ἐκεῖνος καὶ ἀναλαβὼν τὴν ἰδίαν φύσιν ἔπληξε τὸν εὐεργέτην καὶ ἀνεῖλε· θνῄσκων δὲ ἔλεγε· Δίκαια πάσχω, τὸν πονηρὸν οἰκτείρας.
This is what happens to those who obey Matthew 5.44:
Do good to them that hate you.


What Else Does a Gentleman Need?

Adam Makkai, "Meeting Tibor and the Wlassics Family," In remembrance of Tibor Wlassics, savio gentil (Charlottesville: The Graduate Students of the Department of Italian, University of Virginia, 1999), pp. 1-2 (bracketed material in original):
(7) Just a few weeks before the National Uprising of 1956 his father, Dr. Géza Wlassics, who instilled in Tibor the love of Dante and that of the Italian language, commits suicide in deep depression. We roam the streets of Budapest for many nights reciting poetry to one another and dream of a better world.

(8) Not knowing what happened to him, I stumble across him at midnight in the Stefanskirche in Vienna in early December of 1956. When I ask him what he brought with him, he answers: "One white shirt, and the Dramas of Sophokles [in Hungarian translation by János Arany, Hungary's Goethe (1817-1882)], after all, what else does a gentleman need?" This becomes proverbial among Hungarian literati in the West.
In the title of the Gedenkschrift, the phrase savio gentil comes from the description of Vergil in Dante's Inferno 7.3—quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe (that noble sage, who knew everything).

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

Monday, December 05, 2016


De Officiis

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), The Blithedale Romance, chapter XX (Zenobia to Coverdale):
"Oh, this stale excuse of duty!" said Zenobia, in a whisper so full of scorn that it penetrated me like the hiss of a serpent. "I have often heard it before, from those who sought to interfere with me, and I know precisely what it signifies. Bigotry; self-conceit; an insolent curiosity; a meddlesome temper; a cold-blooded criticism, founded on a shallow interpretation of half-perceptions; a monstrous scepticism in regard to any conscience or any wisdom, except one's own; a most irreverent propensity to thrust Providence aside, and substitute one's self in its awful place—out of these, and other motives as miserable as these, comes your idea of duty!"


You Lie!

Dear Mike,

I was reading Hubert Bost and Antony McKenna’s edition of Les “Éclaircissements” de Pierre Bayle (Paris, Champion, 2010) last night. These are the four articles he added to the second edition (1702) of his Dictionnaire historique et critique in response to criticism from the Walloon Church of Rotterdam. His subjects are Atheists, Manicheans, Pyrrhonians and Obscenities. Under Obscenities, Bayle writes:
La perfection d’une histoire est d’être desagréable à toutes les sectes & à toutes les nations: car c’est une preuve que l’auteur ne flate ni les unes ni les autres, & qu’il a dit à chacune ses véritez. Il y a beaucoup de lecteurs qui se fâchent à un tel point lorsqu’ils rencontrent certaines choses, qu’ils déchirent le feuillet ou qu’ils écrivent à la marge tu as menti, coquin, & tu meriterois les étrivieres. (Bost & McKenna, p. 101).

An historical work attains perfection when it manages to annoy every sect and every nation: for that proves that the author has flattered neither side, and has told home truths to each. There are many readers who become so annoyed when they read certain remarks that they tear out the page or write in the margin you have lied, you rogue, and deserve a thrashing.
He adds a footnote to that last sentence:
J’ai vu de telles choses écrites à la main à la marge de quelques livres.

I have seen such things written by hand in the margins of some books.
I need hardly tell you that “You are lying” is an essential element in the vocabulary of Odium Theologicum. A heresiarch is not merely carelessly and innocently mistaken in his views, but willfully and sinfully leading the faithful into error. My rough sense is that Odium Philologicum, as practiced by the “the gladiators of literature” in the 16th and 17th century, was more inclined to apply the verb “lie” to a scholar’s personal conduct rather than to his philological errors, at least in classical philology — sacred philology was naturally quite another matter.

Since the days of Bentley (and Bayle) there has been no finer exponent of Odium Philologicum than Housman. I do not suggest that he ever read Bayle’s Éclaircissements, but he was certainly familiar with old editions of the classics, and may well have come across contemporary marginalia similar to those recorded by Bayle, found their style and sentiments congenial, and not bothered to reflect on how appropriate they might be for revival two centuries later.

“You lie” appears, on the evidence of the surviving annotated books, to have been Housman’s favorite marginal excoriation, followed closely by “liar”. By Paul Naiditch’s count, “you lie” occurs 273 times merely in the books from Housman’s library published during his Cambridge career. He gives a list of the appearances of “you lie” and “liar” in an appendix to Additional Problems in the Life and Writings of A. E. Housman (Los Angeles, Sam: Johnson’s, 2005), pp. 174-9, along with such variants as “impudent liar”, “you liar” and “damned liar”. Naiditch adds:
The words “you lie” are extremely harsh; they were one of Housman’s favourite censures; psychologically, since he employed the word “lie” at times when a simple “false” would have sufficed, his use is of considerable importance; for to affirm that one lies is to attack morality, where to say that one is mistaken is to attack competence. (Additional Problems, p. 63).
As ever,

Ian [Jackson]

Sunday, December 04, 2016


For All Things Merry, Quaint and Strange

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), "Hymn in Contemplation of Sudden Death," Op. I (Oxford: Blackwell, 1916), pp. 39-40:
Lord, if this night my journey end,
I thank Thee first for many a friend,
The sturdy and unquestioned piers
That run beneath my bridge of years.

And next, for all the love I gave
To things and men this side the grave,
Wisely or not, since I can prove
There always is much good in love.

Next, for the power thou gavest me
To view the whole world mirthfully,
For laughter, paraclete of pain,
Like April suns across the rain.

Also that, being not too wise
To do things foolish in men's eyes,
I gained experience by this,
And saw life somewhat as it is.

Next, for the joy of labour done
And burdens shouldered in the sun;
Nor less, for shame of labour lost,
And meekness born of a barren boast.

For every fair and useless thing
That bids men pause from labouring
To look and find the larkspur blue
And marigolds of a different hue;

For eyes to see and ears to hear,
For tongue to speak and thews to bear,
For hands to handle, feet to go,
For life, I give Thee thanks also.

For all things merry, quaint and strange,
For sound and silence, strength, and change,
And last, for death, which only gives
Value to every thing that lives;

For these, good Lord that madest me,
I praise Thy name; since, verily,
I of my joy have had no dearth
Though this night were my last on earth.
To be read at my memorial service.


A German Folksong

J.K. Annand (1908-1993), "Snaw," Selected Poems 1925-1990 (Edinburgh: James Thin / The Mercat Press, 1992), p. 52:
Es ist ein Schnee gefallen Anon. 16th century

It's snawin cats and dugs,
Winter's owre early,
Hailstanes blatter my lugs
The road is smoorit fairly.

My gavel-end is sindert
My hous has growne auld
My ruif-tree is nou flindert
My room is owre cauld.

Ach lassie, show some pitie,
I'm dowie, and I pyne.
Tak me to your hert
And fleg the winter hyne.
This is a translation of the first three stanzas of a lyric from the song book of Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), now in the Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek München (Cgm 810, f. 146r). For the collection see Martin Kirnbauer, "Liederbuch des Hartmann Schedel," Historisches Lexikon Bayerns.

The German, from Rochus von Liliencron, ed., Deutsches Leben im Volkslied um 1530 (Berlin: W. Spemann, [1885] = Deutsche National-Litteratur, Bd. 13), p. 209 (# 64):
Es ist ein schne gefallen
und ist es doch nit zeit,
man wirft mich mit den pallen,
der weg ist mir verschneit.

Mein haus hat keinen gibel
es ist mir worden alt,
zerbrochen sind die rigel,
mein stüblein ist mir kalt.

Ach lieb, laß dichs erparmen
daß ich so elend pin,
und schleuß mich in dein arme!
so vert der winter hin.
Here is an image of the manuscript page, from

For a discussion of the folksong see Lucia Mor, "...Und ist es doch nit czeit: La percezione dell'individualità in un Volkslied del XV secolo," Aevum 72.3 (Settembre-Dicembre 1998) 671-684.

The German folksong reminds me of a famous English one (British Museum, Royal Appendix MS. 58, fol. 5):
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne.
Thanks to Ian Jackson for introducing me to J.K. Annand.

Related post: The Old Sappho.


Forsaking One's Native Language

Helen B. Cruickshank (1886-1975), "To An Aberdeen Poet Who Writes Solely In English," in David McCordick, ed., Scottish Literature in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology (Dalkeith: Scottish Cultural Press, 2002), pp. 252-253 (line numbers added):
What ails ye at yer mither tongue?
Hae ye forgot the tang o' it?
The gurly guttrals, malmy soonds,
The dirly words, the sang o' it?
An wad ye cuist it a awa,        5
Like bauchles on a midden-heid?
Man, think agen afore ye sell
Yer saul tae saft-like English leid.

Wad ye forget the ballad-speik,
Melodeon's chord and fiddle's clink,        10
Forsweir yer grandad's wey o' life,
Swap uisge-beatha for Kola drink?
Say 'Shinty is too rough a game
And cricket's more my cup of tea.'
Weel, hyne awa fae Aiberdeen,        15
For feich, ye'e owre genteel for me!
The "wey o' life" and language of my Scottish ancestors are too distant and mysterious for me to understand at first sight, so I need some notes:
3 gurly: rough; malmy: soft, mellow
4 dirly: thrilling?
6 bauchles: old shoes
8 leid: language
16 feich: exclamation of disgust, cf. faugh
Related posts:


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