Saturday, December 15, 2007


Nulla Dies Sine Linea

Earlier this week, on the radio show Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor mentioned that Emily Dickinson wrote 366 poems in the year 1862. Since 1862 was not a leap year, that comes to a tad more than a poem a day.

That fact got me thinking about the Latin proverb Nulla dies sine linea ("No day without a line"). I started to track down its source, but I quickly got bogged down, and finally I asked Laura Gibbs for help. Dr. Gibbs replied first in a friendly and helpful email and then in a learned blog post.

Gleaning the stubble, I'll add just a few points.

One of the variants noted by Dr. Gibbs is Nullam hodie lineam duxi ("I have not drawn a line today"), which appears in Erasmus' Adagia. Erasmus gave the Greek as τήμερον οὐδεμίαν γραμμὴν ἤγαγον, which I found at Apostolius XVI 44C (Leutsch and Schneidewin, Corpus Paroemiographorum Graecorum II, 670).

Erasmus also alluded to the proverb in one of his Colloquies (Opulentia Sordida, or Filthy Wealth):
That famous painter thought it cause for sorrow, if a day had passed without a line; Antronius was far more sorrowful if a day had passed without financial gain.

Pictor ille nobilis deplorandum existimavit, si dies abisset sine linea; Antronius longe magis deplorabat, si dies praeteriisset absque lucro.
Another variant of the proverb is the hexameter Nulla dies abeat, qua linea ducta supersit, which Dr. Gibbs translates as "Let no day go by without a drawn line to show for it." I have a little trouble getting to "without" from "qua". The variant Nulla dies abeat, quin linea ducta supersit occurs elsewhere and gives the desired meaning. "Qua" is definitely the lectio difficilior.

In his Autobiography, after listing his novels, their dates of publication, and how much he was paid for each, Trollope quoted the proverb Nulla dies sine linea with approval as a motto for aspiring writers:
It will not, I am sure, be thought that, in making my boast as to the quantity, I have endeavoured to lay claim to any literary excellence. That, in the writing of books, quantity without quality is a vice and a misfortune, has been too manifestly settled to leave a doubt on such a matter. But I do lay claim to whatever merit should be accorded to me for persevering diligence in my profession. And I make the claim, not with a view to my own glory, but for the benefit of those who may read these pages, and when young may intend to follow the same career. Nulla dies sine linea. Let that be their motto. And let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat. More than nine-tenths of my literary work has been done in the last twenty years, and during twelve of those years I followed another profession. I have never been a slave to this work, giving due time, if not more than due time, to the amusements I have loved. But I have been constant,—and constancy in labour will conquer all difficulties. Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo.
Trollope assumed that the average reader would be able to understand not only Nulla dies sine linea but also Gutta cavat lapidem non vi, sed saepe cadendo without the help of a translation. Such an assumption is unfounded nowadays, so here's a translation of the second proverb: "The drop of water hollows the rock not by force, but by often falling." To trace the source of that proverb will be the work of another day perhaps.

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