Sunday, December 30, 2007


Be Able To Be Alone

Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals 3.9:
[A] Wise Man may be tolerably said to be alone, though with a Rabble of People little better than Beasts about him. Unthinking Heads, who have not learn'd to be alone, are in a Prison to themselves, if they be not also with others: Whereas on the contrary, they whose thoughts are in a fair and hurry within, are sometimes fain to retire into Company, to be out of the crowd of themselves. He who must needs have Company, must needs have sometimes bad Company. Be able to be alone. Loose not the advantage of Solitude, and the Society of thy self, nor be only content, but delight to be alone and single with Omnipresency. He who is thus prepared, the Day is not uneasy nor the Night black unto him.


Scenes of Desolation and Despair

John Clare, To a Winter Scene:
Hail scenes of Desolation and despair
Keen Winters over bearing sport and scorn
Torn by his Rage in ruins as you are
To me more pleasing then a summers morn
Your shattr'd scenes appear—despoild and bare
Stript of your clothing naked and forlorn
—Yes Winters havoc wretched as you shine
Dismal to others as your fate may seem
Your fate is pleasing to this heart of mine
Your wildest horrors I the most esteem.—
The ice-bound floods that still with rigour freeze
The snow clothd valley and the naked tree
These sympathising scenes my heart can please
Distress is theirs—and they resemble me

Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape

Related post: Leafless Trees My Fancy Please.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


The Contagion of Misery

Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, chapter 35:
I know that the unhappy are never pleasing, and that all naturally avoid the contagion of misery. To hear complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy; for who would cloud by adventitious grief the short gleams of gaiety which life allows us, or who that is struggling under his own evils will add to them the miseries of another?
Related posts:

Friday, December 28, 2007


Lessons Taught By Animals

Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II, Chapter XII (tr. Walter Starkie):
Men have received many lessons from dumb beasts and learned many things of value, as for example: from storks the enema, from dogs vomiting and gratitude, from cranes watchfulness, from ants thrift, from elephants chastity, and loyalty from the horse.


Fences and Pounds

These are some notes to myself as I'm in the middle of reading Susan Allport, Sermons in Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990).

On pp. 51-55 Allport discusses pounds (enclosures for confining escaped farm animals until they can be retrieved by their owners). There is a pound on Baker Hill in Orrington, Maine, near where I grew up. It was recently struck by a minivan and damaged: see Nok-Noi Hauger, "Council discusses Orrington Pound damage repair," Bangor Daily News (Nov. 15, 2006). The pound in Waldoboro, Maine, is on the National Register of Historic Places. An article by Eileen M. Adams in the Lewiston Sun Journal (Sept. 10, 2007) says the pound in Greenwood, Maine, is also on the Register, but I can't find it listed in the Register's online database. Adams' article refers to other surviving pounds in Maine (Pownal, Otisfield, Jefferson, Porter, Parsonsfield, etc.).

The book has much interesting material on laws governing fences. Most put the responsibility on animal owners, but some (p. 34) required farmers to "restrain" (fence in) their crops! I'm familiar with a Minnesota statute still on the books (chapter 346, on stray animals). I think that the genesis of the law was to protect farmers whose crops were trampled by escaped farm animals (with triple damages assessed, 346.16), but most of the case law involves automobile accidents caused by stray animals. I've heard of a recent bodily injury lawsuit in which this statute plays a part.

To judge by the index, the book doesn't mention the escape of the Thoreaus' pig, of which there are extensive and humorous descriptions in Thoreau's Journal (Aug. 8 and 26, 1856).

There are line drawings but no photographs in the book.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


The Eremozoic Era

The Phanerozoic eon is divided into three eras, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. The suffix -zoic comes from Greek ζωϊκός (zōïkos = of or proper to animals), and the prefixes come from Greek φανερός (phaneros = visible), παλαιός (palaios = old), μέσος (mesos = middle), and καινός (kainos = new).

E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 294, thinks we may be at the dawn of a new era, which he names after Greek ἐρῆμος (erēmos = desolate, uninhabited, lonely, solitary):
The ongoing loss of biodiversity is the greatest since the end of the Mesozoic Era sixty-five million years ago. At that time, by current scientific consensus, the impact of one or or more giant meteorites darkened the atmosphere, altered much of the Earth's climate, and extinguished the dinosaurs. Thus began the next stage of evolution, the Cenozoic Era or Age of Mammals. The extinction spasm we are now inflicting can be moderated if we so choose. Otherwise the next century will see the closing of the Cenozoic Era and a new one characterized not by new life forms but by biological impoverishment. It might appropriately be called the "Eremozoic Era," the Age of Loneliness.
Another English word derived from Greek erēmos is hermit.


The Leafless Trees My Fancy Please

Robert Burns, Winter: A Dirge:
The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
While, tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.

"The sweeping blast, the sky o'ercast,"
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest's howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!

Thou Power Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here firm I rest; they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want—O do Thou grant
This one request of mine!—
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign.

Caspar David Friedrich, Bäume und Sträucher im Schnee

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Ex Arbore Nomen Habet

Linnaeus is a suitable name, an aptronym, for a botanist. It is a Latinized form of Swedish lind (alt. linn) = linden tree (Tilia europaea). Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 19, tells the story behind the name:
Linnaeus' father, Nils Ingemarsson, had named himself Linnaeus to celebrate a triple-trunked linden tree growing next to the family farm, Jonsboda Östragård, in Hvittaryd parish, Sunnerbo hundred, Växsjö bishopric, Småland. So magnificent was the tree that two of his maternal uncles also gave themselves family names in its honor. According to local tradition, it was a magic growth (vårdträd), and its well-being was linked to that of the families who farmed its land — now calling themselves Lindelius, Tiliander, and Linnaeus. Some hundred years later, in 1820, high winds tumbled its rotting trunks across a field and onto a Bronze age cairn. The farm people let the "ruin" lie. As the romanticizing local parson contentedly noted, they still adhered to "that prejudice, which I am happy to forgive and do not want to exterminate, that it would not be good luck to remove the least splinter of that linden tree."
A bust by sculptor Paul T. Granlund on the grounds of the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, shows the botanist as part linden tree, part human:

This reminds me of Bernini's sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, in which the girl turns into a laurel tree (daphne = laurel in Greek) while being chased by the amorous god. There are lots of metamorphoses into trees in ancient mythology (Baucis and Philemon, etc.). Similarly, in Tolkien's world, the Ents came to look like the trees they shepherded. Treebeard was
a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck. Whether it was clad in stuff like green and grey bark, or whether that was its hide, was difficult to say. At any rate the arms, at a short distance from the trunk, were not wrinkled, but covered with a brown smooth skin. The large feet had seven toes each. The lower part of the long face was covered with a sweeping grey beard, bushy, almost twiggy at the roots, thin and mossy at the ends.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 4.

In the eyes of some, Thoreau was half tree, half human. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Thoreau," Atlantic Monthly X (Aug. 1862):
"I love Henry," said one of his friends, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree."
Emerson's son Edward, in Henry Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend, tells the same anecdote and adds:
He, himself, said, "When I am dead you will find swamp-oak written on my heart"; but under this oak-bark was friendship and loyalty in the tough grain, through and through.
Bronson Alcott wrote in his Journal (Jan. 22, 1851):
Thoreau passed this morning and dined with me. He was on his way to read a paper at Medford this evening—his "Life in the Woods at Walden"; and as refreshing a piece as the Lyceum will get from any lecturer going at present in New England—a whole forest, with forester and all, imported into the citizen's and villager's brain. A sylvan man accomplished in the virtues of an aboriginal civility, and quite superior to the urbanities of cities, Thoreau is himself a wood, and its inhabitants.
In Concord Days (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1872), p. 11, Alcott wrote that Thoreau "united these qualities of sylvan and human in a more remarkable manner than any whom it has been my happiness to know."

The title of this blog post is a pun on Ovid's ex re nomen habet (Amores 1.8.3).

Related posts:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


God From God, Light From Light

Rowland Watkyns, Upon Christ's Nativity, or Christmas:
From three dark places Christ came forth this day;
From first His Father's bosom, where He lay,
Concealed till now; then from the typic law,
Where we His manhood but by figures saw;
And lastly from His mother's womb He came
To us, a perfect God and perfect Man.
  Now in a manger lies the eternal Word:
The Word He is, yet can no speech afford;
He is the Bread of Life, yet hungry lies;
The Living Fountain, yet for drink He cries;
He cannot help or clothe Himself at need
Who did the lilies clothe and ravens feed;
He is the Light of Lights, yet now doth shroud
His glory with our nature as a cloud.
He came to us a Little One, that we
Like little children might in malice be;
Little He is, and wrapped in clouts, lest He
Might strike us dead if clothed with majesty.
  Christ had four beds and those not soft nor brave:
The Virgin's womb, the manger, cross, and grave.
The angels sing this day, and so will I
That have more reason to be glad than they.

Engraving by Fritz Eichenberg.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Write the Book You Want to Read

Mark R. Peattie, Foreword to Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), p. xiii:
For there was and is, to my knowledge, no work quite like it, and it follows my father's own dictum to all aspiring writers: write the book that you're longing to read, but can't find anywhere.
I just finished reading another book by Donald Culross Peattie, Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), in which a form of this dictum appears on p. 25:
I like to think about Otto Brunfels, the Carthusian monk, who had sampled the forbidden and quickening elixir of heresy, and leaving his order went wandering up the left bank of the Rhine. He was one of those who trustfully searched for his German plants in his Dioscorides, and he now added a second heresy to his fame. He decided to compile nothing from the old authorities, but to make an herbal of his own. And so he was one of the first to write a book, as many a man has done since — as indeed I am doing now — because it was the book he wanted to read, and nobody else would write it for him.
Related posts:


Fine Old Christmas

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, Book II, chapter 2:
Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.

Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified "in unrecumbent sadness"; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow.

But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless,—fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want.

But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.
Eliot says that the snow "clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches." A good illustration of this detail might be Snow Covered Fields with Sheep by Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935):

Farquharson painted so many similar scenes that he was called "Frozen Mutton Farquharson."

Related posts:

Sunday, December 23, 2007


A Pleasure Beyond Compare

Kenko, Tsurezure Gusa 13 (tr. G.B. Sansom):
To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations — such is a pleasure beyond compare.



Thanks to Michael d'Arcy and Dave Lull for answering my question about Aesop. Lawrence M. Wills, The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John and the Origins of the Gospel Genre (Routledge, 1997), pp. 188-189, translates one version of the anecdote from an anonymous Life of Aesop 28 (G recension):
So Aesop followed along after Xanthos. It was high noon, the hottest part of the day, and since the road was now deserted because of the heat, Xanthos lifted up his robe and began to urinate as he walked along. When Aesop saw this, he became furious, seized the hem of Xanthos' robe, and pulled it. "Sell me," Aesop demanded, "since you won't allow me to run away!"


"Your own puddle accuses you, Xanthos! For if you, a person who is master of his own fate and does not live in fear of blows and punishments, cannot take just a minute to see to his physical needs but urinates while walking, what am I, a slave, supposed to do when I'm sent out on some errand — defecate on the wing?"


"I urinated while walking along to avoid three unpleasant consequences."

"What are they?"

"The heat of the earth, the smell of the urine, and the burning rays of the sun."

"How is that?"

"Do you see that the sun is directly overhead and has scorched the earth? If I stop to urinate, the hot ground burns my feet, the smell of the urine rises up to my nose and irritates my nostrils, and the sun burns my head. Thus, by urinating while walking, I avoided these three unpleasant consequences."

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Zemblance of an Hermitage

John Clare, Snow Storm:
Winter is come in earnest and the snow
In dazzling splendour—crumpling underfoot
Spreads a white world all calm and where we go
By hedge or wood trees shine from top to root
In feathered foliage flashing light and shade
Of strangest contrast—fancys pliant eye
Delighted sees a vast romance displayed
And fairy halls descended from the sky
The smallest twig its snowy burthen wears
And woods oer head the dullest eyes engage
To shape strange things—where arch and pillar bears
A roof of grains fantastic arched and high
And little shed beside the spinney wears
The grotesque zemblance of an hermitage
One almost sees the hermit from the wood
Come bending with his sticks beneath his arm
And then the smoke curl up its dusky flood
From the white little roof his peace to warm
One shapes his books his quiet and his joys
And in romances world forgetting mood
The scene so strange so fancys mind employs
It seems heart aching for his solitude
Domestic spots near home and trod so oft
Seen daily—known for years—by the strange wand
Of winters humour changed—the little croft
Left green at night when morns loth look obtrudes
Trees bushes grass to one wild garb subdued
Are gone and left us in another land
Caspar David Friedrich, Verschneite Hütte (Hütte im Schnee), Berlin, Alte Nationalgalerie, ca. 1827.



Montaigne, Essays 3.13 (Of Experience, tr. Donald M. Frame):
Aesop, that great man, saw his master pissing as he walked. "What next?" he said. "Shall we have to shit as we run?"

Esope ce grand homme vid son maistre qui pissoit en se promenant. Quoy donq, fit-il, nous faudra-il chier en courant?
What is the source of this story?

Friday, December 21, 2007


O Tannenbaum

O Tannenbaum was originally a song of unrequited love by August Zarnack (tr. James Robertson):
O evergreen, O evergreen,
how true is all thy leafage!
Nor only green in summer's glow,
But in December's frost and snow;
O evergreen, O evergreen,
how true is all thy leafage!

O little maid, O little maid,
how false is all thy favour!
When Fortune smiled,—thy vow to make!
Now I am poor,—thy vow to break!
O little maid, O little maid,
how false is all thy favour!

The nightingale, the nightingale,
'tis she thou sure dost follow!
Will wait, while laughs the summer gay,—
When falls the year, will fly away;—
The nightingale, the nightingale,
'tis she thou sure dost follow!

The valley-brook, the valley-brook,
is of thy guile the mirror!
Runs only when the rain doth pour,—
When all are thirsting, runs no more;—
The valley-brook, the valley-brook,
is of thy guile the mirror!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!

O Mägdelein, o Mägdelein,
Wie falsch ist dein Gemüte!
Du schwurst mir Treu in meinem Glück,
Nun arm ich bin, gehst du zurück.
O Mägdelein, o Mägdelein,
Wie falsch ist dein Gemüte!

Die Nachtigall, die Nachtigall,
Nahmst du dir zum Exempel.
Sie bleibt so lang der Sommer lacht,
Im Herbst sie sich von dannen macht.
Die Nachtigall, die Nachtigall,
Nahmst du dir zum Exempel.

Der Bach im Thal, der Der Bach im Thal
Ist deiner Falschheit Spiegel.
Er strömt allein, wenn Regen fließt,
Bei Dürr er bald den Quell verschließt.
Der Bach im Thal, der Bach im Thal
Ist deiner Falschheit Spiegel.
Ernst Anschütz kept Zarnack's first stanza, but replaced the others to make the lyrics of the familiar Christmas carol (tr. unknown):
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are your branches!
Your boughs are green in summer's clime
And through the snows of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
How steadfast are your branches!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me,
When oft at joyous Christmas-time,
Your form inspires my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
What happiness befalls me.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can teach a lesson
That constant faith and hope sublime
Lend strength and comfort through all time.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your boughs can teach a lesson.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen.
Wie oft hat schon zur Winterszeit
Ein Baum von dir mich hoch erfreut.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Dein Kleid will mich was lehren:
Die Hoffnung und Beständigkeit
Gibt Trost und Kraft zu jeder Zeit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
Dein Kleid will mich was lehren.
Caspar David Friedrich, Winter Landscape (1811)

The tune for O Tannenbaum is a traditional one sung to many different lyrics, including the German student song Lauriger Horatius (tr. John Addington Symonds):
Laurel-crowned Horatius,
  True, how true thy saying!
Swift as wind flies over us
  Time, devouring, slaying.

Where are, oh! those goblets full
  Of wine honey-laden,
Strifes and loves and bountiful
  Lips of ruddy maiden?

Grows the young grape tenderly,
  And the maid is growing;
But the thirsty poet, see,
  Years on him are snowing!

What's the use on hoary curls
  Of the bays undying,
If we may not kiss the girls,
  Drink while time's a-flying?

Lauriger Horatius,
  Quam dixisti verum!
Fugit Euro citius
  Tempus edax rerum.

Ubi sunt, O pocula,
  Dulciora melle,
Rixae, pax, et oscula
  Rubentis puellae?

Crescit uva molliter,
  Et puella crescit,
Sed poeta turpiter
  Sitiens canescit.

Quid iuvat aeternitas
  Nominis, amare
Nisi terrae filias
  Licet, et potare?
No precise saying of Horace can be found to match the words of Lauriger Horatius, but the sentiment of the poem is certainly Horatian.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Darling Laziness

This post is dedicated to Phil O. Ponos (φιλόπονος = lover of toil), who asks in an email, "What in Hell is this 'In Praise of Idleness' serial?"

Charles Lamb, letter to Matilda Bentham (undated, probably early October 1815):
Oh, darling laziness! heaven of Epicurus! Saint's Everlasting Rest! that I could drink vast potations of thee thro' unmeasured Eternity — Otium cum vel sine dignitate. Scandalous, dishonourable, any kind of repose. I stand not on the dignified sort. Accursed, damned desks, trade, commerce, business. Inventions of that old original busybody, Satan — Sabbathless, restless Satan. A curse relieves; do you ever try it?
Lamb was chained to a desk at the East India House. In this letter he plays a variation on the Latin expression otium cum dignitate (Cicero, De Oratore 1.1, leisure with dignity), saying that any kind of leisure, cum vel sine dignitate (with or without dignity), would be a blessing.

On Sabbathless, restless Satan see:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Life and Death

Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II, Chapter XII (tr. Walter Starkie):
"Now tell me, have you never seen a play acted in which kings, emperors, pontiffs, knights, ladies, and divers other characters are introduced? One plays the bully, another the rogue, this one the merchant, that the soldier; one the wise fool, another the foolish lover. When the play is over and they have divested themselves of the dresses they wore in it, the actors are all again on the same level."

"Yes, I've seen it," answered Sancho.

"Well, then," said Don Quixote, "the same happens in the comedy and life of this world, where some play emperors, others popes, and in short, all the parts that can be brought into a play; but when it is over, that is to say, when life ends, death strips them all of the robes that distinguished one from the other, and all are equal in the grave."

"A brave comparison!" said Sancho. "Though not so new, for I've heard it many a time, as well as that one about the game of chess. So long as the game lasts, each piece has his special office, and when the game is finished, they are all mixed, shuffled, and jumbled together and stored away in the bag, which is much like ending life in the grave."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Archilochus on the Idle Life

Archilochus, fragment [50] Diehl (tr. William Harris):
An idle life is suitable for the aged,
especially if they be simple in their ways,
or babble foolishly or are completely stupid,
as old men are likely to be.

βίος δ᾽ ἀπράγμων τοῖς γέρουσι συμφέρει,
μάλιστα δ᾽ εἰ τύχοιεν ἁπλοῖ τοῖς τρόποις
ἢ μακκοᾶν μέλλοιεν ἢ ληρεῖν ὅλως,
ὅπερ γερόντων ἐστίν.
Idle here is ἀπράγμων, as opposed to πολυπράγμων. The corresponding abstract nouns are ἀπραγμοσύνη and πολυπραγμοσύνη. But K.J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality (1974; rpt. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), p. 188, favors φιλοπράγμων (φιλοπραγμοσύνη) as the antonym of ἀπράγμων (ἀπραγμοσύνη). In a note on the same page Dover cites W. Nestle, "Ἀπραγμοσύνη," Philologus 81 (1926) 129-140, and K. Dienelt, "Ἀπραγμοσύνη," Wiener Studien 66 (1953) 94-104, which I haven't looked at yet. Add to Dover's citations Koen Vanhaegendoren, Semantische Studie van het Woordveld ἀπραγμοσύνη - πολυπραγμοσύνη van de Aanvang van de Griekse Letterkunde tot en met Thucydides (Leuven: Garant, 1999).

Thanks to Dave Lull for the following references to books and a web site extolling the virtue of idleness:While I was loafing, lounging, and doing nothing at a secondhand bookstore last Friday night, as befits an idle old man, a slacker, and a bum, I also noticed Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), in the Seven Deadly Sins series.

Related posts:

Monday, December 17, 2007



Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Feb. 13, 1860):
The Scripture rule, "Unto him that hath shall be given," is true of composition. The more you have thought and written on a given theme, the more you can still write. Thought breeds thought. It grows under your hands.


The Thinker

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (May 6, 1858):
The thinker, he who is serene and self-possessed, is the brave, not the desperate soldier. He who can deal with his thoughts as a material, building them into poems in which future generations will delight, he is the man of the greatest and rarest vigor, not sturdy diggers and lusty polygamists. He is the man of energy, in whom subtle and poetic thoughts are bred. Common men can enjoy partially; they can go a-fishing rainy days; they can read poems perchance, but they have not the vigor to beget poems. They can enjoy feebly, but they cannot create. Men talk of freedom! How many are free to think? free from fear, from perturbation, from prejudice? Nine hundred and ninety-nine in a thousand are perfect slaves. How many can exercise the highest human faculties? He is the man truly — courageous, wise, ingenious — who can use his thoughts and ecstasies as the material of fair and durable creations. One man shall derive from the fisherman's story more than the fisher has got who tells it. The mass of men do not know how to cultivate the fields they traverse. The mass glean only a scanty pittance where the thinker reaps an abundant harvest. What is all your building, if you do not build with thoughts? No exercise implies more real manhood and vigor than joining thought to thought. How few men can tell what they have thought! I hardly know half a dozen who are not too lazy for this. They cannot get over some difficulty, and therefore they are on the long way round. You conquer fate by thought. If you think the fatal thought of men and institutions, you need never pull the trigger. The consequences of thinking inevitably follow. There is no more Herculean task than to think a thought about this life and then get it expressed.

Sunday, December 16, 2007



Much of the country is snowbound today, although Minnesota was spared the latest storm. I've been reading Snowbound: A Winter Idyl by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892).

Whittier prefaced his poem with two quotations, one from Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem The Snow Storm and the other from a more recondite source:
"As the Spirits of Darkness be stronger in the dark, so Good Spirits, which be Angels of Light, are augmented not only by the Divine light of the Sun, but also by our common Wood Fire: and as the Celestial Fire drives away dark spirits, so also this our Fire of Wood doth the same."—Cor. AGRIPPA, Occult Philosophy, Book I. ch. v.
In Vittoria Perrone Compagni's edition of Cornelius Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (Leiden: Brill, 1992), the clauses which Whittier separated by a colon are reversed and not contiguous:
Fugat itaque coelestis et lucidus ignis tenebrosos daemones, fugat et hic noster ligneus eosdem....Sicut ergo tenebrarum daemones in tenebris ipsis robustiores sunt, sic boni daemones, qui sunt angeli lucis, incrementa suscipiunt a luce, non solum divina, solari et coelesti, sed etiam eius qui apud nos est ignis.
Whittier described the domestic "Fire of Wood" in Snowbound:
As night drew on, and, from the crest
Of wooded knolls that ridged the west,
The sun, a snow-blown traveller, sank
From sight beneath the smothering bank,
We piled, with care, our nightly stack
Of wood against the chimney-back,—
The oaken log, green, huge, and thick,
And on its top the stout back-stick;
The knotty forestick laid apart,
And filled between with curious art
The ragged brush; then, hovering near,
We watched the first red blaze appear,
Heard the sharp crackle, caught the gleam
On whitewashed wall and sagging beam,
Until the old, rude-furnished room
Burst, flower-like, into rosy bloom;
While radiant with a mimic flame
Outside the sparkling drift became,
And through the bare-boughed lilac-tree
Our own warm hearth seemed blazing free.
Later in the poem Whittier recurred to the cozy fire:
Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door,
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat;
And ever, when a louder blast
Shook beam and rafter as it passed,
The merrier up its roaring draught
The great throat of the chimney laughed;
The house-dog on his paws outspread
Laid to the fire his drowsy head,
The cat's dark silhouette on the wall
A couchant tiger's seemed to fall;
And, for the winter fireside meet,
Between the andirons' straddling feet,
The mug of cider simmered slow,
The apples sputtered in a row,
And, close at hand, the basket stood
With nuts from brown October's wood.

What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow.
Towards the end of the poem Whittier recalled the winter joys of boyhood, among them the fire in the chimney:
Yet, haply, in some lull of life,
Some Truce of God which breaks its strife,
The worldling's eyes shall gather dew,
Dreaming in throngful city ways
Of winter joys his boyhood knew;
And dear and early friends—the few
Who yet remain—shall pause to view
These Flemish pictures of old days;
Sit with me by the homestead hearth,
And stretch the hands of memory forth
To warm them at the wood-fire's blaze!
Snowbound is a long poem, published as a book in itself by the Boston firm of Ticknor & Fields. One of the early editions was illustrated not with "Flemish pictures of old days," but with engravings after illustrations by Harry Fenn (1845–1911). Here is Fenn's illustration of the boys watching "the first red blaze appear:"

As I read Whittier's once popular poem, I thought that one might also illustrate it with the contemporary and once equally popular Currier and Ives prints of winter scenes. One of the artists whose paintings were used as the basis of the Currier and Ives prints was George Henry Durrie (1820-1863). In Snowbound, the children of the family gathered wood for the fire:
Meanwhile we did our nightly chores,—
Brought in the wood from out of doors...
Here's a painting by Durrie that shows a couple gathering wood in the snow:

I've heard it said that winter landscapes are comparatively rare because artists want to paint from life, and it's just too darn cold in winter time to set up an easel outdoors and paint. You'd likely end up with frostbitten fingers. Nevertheless, there are those intrepid artists who do brave the cold and paint winter scenes. One of the most persistent was Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932). Here is his Shining Stream:

My house doesn't have a fireplace, and huddling for warmth next to the steam radiator doesn't seem so idyllic as Whittier's wood fire. Besides, I'm determined this winter to spend more time outside, so soon I'll bundle up, go for a walk in the cold (16 degrees Fahrenheit at the moment), and watch the "Divine light of the Sun" rise and chase away the "Spirits of Darkness."

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The Science of Happiness

Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
Let it, however, not be spring, nor summer, nor autumn, but winter in his sternest shape. This is a most important point in the science of happiness. And I am surprised to see people overlook it, and think it matter of congratulation that winter is going, or, if coming, is not likely to be a severe one. On the contrary, I put up a petition annually for as much snow, hail, frost, or storm, of one kind or other, as the skies can possibly afford us. Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside, candles at four o'clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without,
And at the doors and windows seem to call,
As heav'n and earth they would together mell;
Yet the least entrance find they none at all;
Whence sweeter grows our rest secure in massy hall.

Castle of Indolence.
All these are items in the description of a winter evening which must surely be familiar to everybody born in a high latitude. And it is evident that most of these delicacies, like ice-cream, require a very low temperature of the atmosphere to produce them; they are fruits which cannot be ripened without weather stormy or inclement in some way or other. I am not "particular," as people say, whether it be snow, or black frost, or wind so strong that (as Mr. —— says) "you may lean your back against it like a post." I can put up even with rain, provided it rains cats and dogs; but something of the sort I must have, and if I have it not, I think myself in a manner ill-used; for why am I called on to pay so heavily for winter, in coals and candles, and various privations that will occur even to gentlemen, if I am not to have the article good of its kind? No, a Canadian winter for my money, or a Russian one, where every man is but a co-proprietor with the north wind in the fee-simple of his own ears. Indeed, so great an epicure am I in this matter that I cannot relish a winter night fully if it be much past St. Thomas's day, and have degenerated into disgusting tendencies to vernal appearances. No, it must be divided by a thick wall of dark nights from all return of light and sunshine. From the latter weeks of October to Christmas Eve, therefore, is the period during which happiness is in season, which, in my judgment, enters the room with the tea-tray; for tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally of coarse nerves, or are become so from wine-drinking, and are not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant, will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual; and, for my part, I would have joined Dr. Johnson in a bellum internecinum against Jonas Hanway, or any other impious person, who should presume to disparage it.

But here, to save myself the trouble of too much verbal description, I will introduce a painter, and give him directions for the rest of the picture. Painters do not like white cottages, unless a good deal weather-stained; but as the reader now understands that it is a winter night, his services will not be required except for the inside of the house. Paint me, then, a room seventeen feet by twelve, and not more than seven and a half feet high. This, reader, is somewhat ambitiously styled in my family the drawing-room; but being contrived "a double debt to pay," it is also, and more justly, termed the library, for it happens that books are the only article of property in which I am richer than my neighbours. Of these I have about five thousand, collected gradually since my eighteenth year. Therefore, painter, put as many as you can into this room. Make it populous with books, and, furthermore, paint me a good fire, and furniture plain and modest, befitting the unpretending cottage of a scholar. And near the fire paint me a tea-table, and (as it is clear that no creature can come to see one such a stormy night) place only two cups and saucers on the tea-tray; and, if you know how to paint such a thing symbolically or otherwise, paint me an eternal tea-pot—eternal a parte ante and a parte post—for I usually drink tea from eight o'clock at night to four o'clock in the morning. And as it is very unpleasant to make tea or to pour it out for oneself, paint me a lovely young woman sitting at the table. Paint her arms like Aurora's and her smiles like Hebe's.
Related posts:


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.

Friday, December 14, 2007


The Education of Presidents

Last week some readers alerted me to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Harry Mount, with the title A Vote for Latin. Mount hopes that a new generation of students, including future Presidents, will choose to study Latin.

Forget Latin. I'd be satisfied if the next President could speak English correctly. The current occupant of the White House speaks English as if it were not even his native tongue:And then there's his pronunciation of "nuclear."

Both Presidents Bush were educated at Phillips Academy and Yale University. I was surprised to learn from Mount's article that Bush XLIII actually studied Latin at prep school. It just goes to show that no amount of expensive education will make a dent if raw material is lacking.

Tracy Lee Simmons, "Greek Ruins," National Review (Sept. 14, 1998), told an amusing anecdote about the limits of Bush XLI's knowledge of the classics:
A speechwriter for Vice President George Bush once prepared a stump speech peppered with a bit of Thucydides, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. But after the Vice President tripped over the name one time too many, another staffer decided to avoid further embarrassment by drawing a line through the word and writing in "Plato." One dead Greek was as good as another, and who would know the difference?
Perhaps there are others, but to my knowledge the only U.S. politician of recent times who studied Latin extensively in school was a former Senator from Maine, William Cohen, a graduate of Bowdoin College with a major in Latin. Our paths may have crossed, although I don't remember ever seeing him in person. Senator Cohen's father, Reuben Cohen, owned a bakery across the river from the town where I grew up. It was a great treat for me to go with my parents to Bangor Rye Bakery to buy bread or rolls hot from the oven. William Cohen taught at the University of Maine when I was a student there. If he had taught Latin, I would have met him, since that was my field of study, but instead he taught business administration, a subject I have always avoided.

Besides the Bushes, the other father and son who became U.S. Presidents are John Adams (II) and John Quincy Adams (VI). The letters between Adams II and Thomas Jefferson in their retirement are full of Greek and Latin tags and other evidence of classical learning. Adams VI even translated an ode of Horace (1.22, Integer vitae):
The man in righteousness array'd,
  A pure and blameless liver,
Needs not the keen Toledo blade,
  Nor venom-freighted quiver.
What though he wind his toilsome way
  O'er regions wild and weary—
Through Zara's burning desert stray;
  Or Asia's jungles dreary:

What though he plough the billowy deep
  By lunar light, or solar,
Meet the resistless Simoom's sweep,
  Or iceberg circumpolar.
In bog or quagmire deep and dark
  His foot shall never settle;
He mounts the summit of Mont Blanc,
  Or Popocatepetl.

Or Chimborazo's breathless height
  He treads o'er burning lava;
Or snuffs the Bohan Upas blight:
  The deathful plant of Java.
Through every peril he shall pass,
  By Virtue's shield protected;
And still by Truth's unerring glass
  His path shall be directed.

Else wherefore was it, Thursday last,
  While strolling down the valley,
Defenceless, musing as I pass'd
  A Canzonet to Sally,
A wolf, with tooth protruding snout,
  Forth from the thicket bounded—
I clap'd my hands and raised a shout—
  He heard—and fled—confounded.

Tangier nor Tunis never bred
  An animal more crabbed,
Nor Fez, dry-nurse of lions, fed
  A monster half so rabid;
Not Ararat so fierce a beast
  Has seen since days of Noah;
Nor strung more eager for a feast,
  The fell Constrictor Boa.

Oh! place me where the solar beam
  Has scorch'd all verdure vernal:
Or on the polar verge extreme,
  Block'd up with ice eternal—
Still shall my voice's tender lays
  Of love remain unbroken;
And still my charming SALLY praise,
  Sweet smiling, and sweet spoken.
This imitation of Horace, first published in The Southern Literary Messenger 7 (1841) 705, isn't great poetry, but it's clever. I don't think I'll ever see anything comparable from former Presidents in my lifetime.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


Elderberry, Cistus, Fuchsia

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, Book II, Chapter I:
There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labor of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality; we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. Very commonplace, even ugly, that furniture of our early home might look if it were put up to auction; an improved taste in upholstery scorns it; and is not the striving after something better and better in our surroundings the grand characteristic that distinguishes man from the brute, or, to satisfy a scrupulous accuracy of definition, that distinguishes the British man from the foreign brute? But heaven knows where that striving might lead us, if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things; if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory.

One's delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank, as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf, is an entirely unjustifiable preference to a nursery-gardener, or to any of those regulated minds who are free from the weakness of any attachment that does not rest on a demonstrable superiority of qualities. And there is no better reason for preferring this elderberry bush than that it stirs an early memory; that it is no novelty in my life, speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and color, but the long companion of my existence, that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.


Change and Presumption

Barack Obama on change:
When millions of voices join together and insist on change, change happens and that's what we have to do in this election.


People are hungry for change. They're hungry for a new direction.


I've got a track record of actually bringing about change that I believe nobody else has.
Michel de Montaigne on presumption (tr. E.J. Trechmann):
According to my way of thinking, in public matters no course of proceeding is so bad, provided it have age and continuity to recommend it, but that it is better than change and uncertainty.


Many of our laws and customs are barbarous and monstrous; yet, by reason of the difficulty of improving our condition, and the danger of the whole State toppling to pieces, if I could put a spoke into our wheel and stop it at this point, I would do it with a light heart.


It is very easy to condemn a government for its imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it. It is very easy to generate in a people a contempt for their ancient observances; no man ever attempted it without succeeding. But many have come to grief in their attempt to establish a better state of things in place of what they have destroyed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


More on Idleness

Thanks to Dennis Mangan for additional references to works on idleness:Related posts:


More on the Etymology of Walden

Thanks to Eric Thomson for this excerpt from Margaret Gelling, Signposts to the Past (Chichester: Phillimore, 1988), pp. 93-94:
There is a division of opinion concerning the significance of walh (plural walas, genitive singular wales, genitive plural wala) in place-names. In written Old English the word has two meanings, 'Welshman' and 'serf'. It is the former meaning which has survived in modern English, Wales being the plural, and Welsh the derivative adjective. The plural, walas, is also the second element in the name Cornwall. This word walh is a Germanic formation from Latin Volcae, the name of a Celtic tribe. It was applied in Germanic languages to the speakers of Latin, as well as to the speakers of Celtic languages, and Professor Tolkien (1963, p. 26) suggested that this was due not only to the fact that Latin eventually became the language of most areas of Celtic speech known to Germanic peoples, but also to the ability of the Germans to recognize similarities between Latin and Gallo-Brittonic speech. As regards the Old English use of walh to mean 'slave', Professor Tolkien considered that this was not a total generalization of the national name (as slave is from Slav), but that it must often have involved a recognition that particular serfs were Welsh speaking.

A recent discussion of the problem, Faull 1975, provides a careful analysis of all the linguistic evidence relating to the use of walh (and the West Saxon form, wealh) in legal codes, literature, personal names and place-names in the Anglo-Saxon period. This establishes that walh meant 'a Celt' when the English entered Britain during the course of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries. It is likely that in the earliest settlement period the majority of slaves would be British, being either the descendants of people who had that status during the Roman period, or people reduced to it during the wars which led to the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so it was natural that the secondary sense 'slave' should develop. The racial meaning persisted, however, and Miss Faull demonstrates that the sense 'Briton' is clearly apparent in the laws of King Ine of Wessex (dating from AD 688-94), which provide for free wealas, who may or may not be owners of land, to have a lower social status (measured by their wergild, the compensation paid for killing them) than Englishmen in equivalent positions. When these laws use the term wealh of a slave, it is clear that they refer to a Welsh slave as opposed to an English one. The date at which the two senses became separate, so that a slave referred to as a walh need not be Welsh, is not ascertainable on account of the shortage of eighth-century evidence, but the separation appears to have occurred by the second half of the ninth century. At the end of the ninth century there is some evidence that Wealas could still be used of Britons living within the English territories, but by the eleventh century Wealas as a racial term could only be applied to the Celts of Wales and Cornwall. Miss Faull considers that walh 'slave' was not very widely adopted in Old English, the alternative term, theow, being usuaIly preferred. This excellent article provides the sober documentation for Professor Tolkien's inspired rhetoric. As regards the use of walh in place-names and personal names, Miss Faull's views coincide very closely with my own, and no attempt is made in the foIlowing paragraphs to distinguish between her ideas and mine. She is rather more definite than I feel able to be about the likelihood of walh meaning 'Welshman' in some examples, of the place-names Walcot and Walton.

The occasional use of walh to mean 'serf' in Old English means that the Waltons and Walcots marked on Fig. 4 are ambiguous. If they were coined in the first years of the use of English speech in the area they may weIl mean 'farm and cottages of the Britons', but if they are of later origin they need mean no more than 'farm or cottages where there are serfs'. There is some reason to think that place-names which refer to owners or inhabitants of a particular social class, such as priests, ceorls, 'knights', were coined at a rather late stage of English name-giving (this point is discussed in Chapter 5), and Walcot and Walton could be considered to belong to this category, and so to have arisen at a date when the meaning 'Briton' is not certain to be the operative one for walh. In addition to this doubt about the historical significance, there is some difficulty in deciding whether or not a modern Walton or Walcot certainly contains this word. There are several other Old English compounds which yield these modern forms, and a Walton may be a farm near a forest (Old English wald), a farm near a wall (e.g. Walton CMB) or, in the Mercian dialect area, a farm near a spring. It is generally assumed that names which have a majority of Middle English spellings with Wale-, as opposed to Wal(l)-, contain the word which means 'Briton' or 'serf'.
The works cited by Gelling are:Eric Thomson also points out that Margaret Gelling and Ann Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Lincolnshire: Shaun Tyas, 2000), p. 118, include Walden (Essex, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire, North Riding) under the 'With classes of people' ('Britons') paragraph of the reference section of place-names with the –denu element.

Related posts:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The Father of Paraebius

In Greek mythology Erysichthon was punished for cutting down trees. The unnamed father of Paraebius committed the same sin, and his son suffered the consequences. Apollonius of Rhodes, 2.468-489 (tr. E.V. Rieu), puts the story in the mouth of the seer Phineus:
You see, my friends, that not everyone is graceless or forgetful of benefits received. I am thinking of Paraebius, who came here just now to have his fortune told. There was a time in that man's life when the more he toiled the harder he found it to keep body and soul together. He sank lower day by day, and there was no respite from his labours.

He was paying in misery for a sin committed by his father, who had refused to listen for a Hamadryad's prayers when he was felling trees one day, alone in the mountains. She wished him to spare the stump of an oak which was as old as she and had been her only home for many a long year. She wept and pleaded with him piteously. But in the headstrong arrogance of youth he cut it down; and in revenge the nymph laid a curse on him and his children.

When Paraebius consulted me, I realized the nature of the sin and told him to build an altar to the Thynian nymph and there make an offering in atonement, with prayers for release from his father's doom. Thus he escaped the wrath of Heaven, and never since that day has he forgotten or neglected me. Indeed, he is so determined to stand by me in my troubles that I find it hard to make him leave the house.



As part of his series on curiosity, Horace Jeffery Hodges, Aquinas: Careless Curiosity, quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II. 2, q. 35, a. 4, obj. 3:
[Isidore of Seville] states that from sloth seven things arise, viz. "idleness, drowsiness, uneasiness of the mind, restlessness of the body, instability, loquacity, curiosity."
The Latin says:
De acedia vero dicit oriri septem, quae sunt otiositas, somnolentia, importunitas mentis, inquietudo corporis, instabilitas, verbositas, curiositas.
Brandon Watson, taking inspiration from Dr. Hodges' post, industriously tackles the question of the Daughters of Sloth.

At this stage of my life, sloth is the one of the Seven Deadly Sins that tempts me the most, and my curiosity about idleness has led me recently to note some literary descriptions of the sin, which I place here in my electronic filing cabinet:Some have argued that idleness is a virtue rather than a vice, e.g.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Choosing a Christmas Tree

Robert Kimber, Upcountry: Reflections from a Rural Life (1991; rpt. Camden: Down East Books, 2005), pp. 159-160:
The woods are impressing on us once again the lesson they have taught us year after year: Nature abhors the perfect Christmas tree, and—now that I think about it—so do I. What ever made me think I wanted one of those flawlessly symmetrical cone-shaped things in the first place? The perfect Christmas tree is a horticultural artifact, an artifice, a hoax, a put-up job, a plantation product bred of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and years of artful shearing and clipping that would put a prize Poodle to shame. It is an example of man trying to make nature imitate industry, a design taken from a solid-geometry textbook and infinitely reproduceable in plastic: it's life in Lego Land.

On our woodlot, by contrast, our trees are shaped by the vagaries of shade, sun, and wind; of ice storms and sodden snows; of aphids and mites; of drought and deluge; of the thousand natural shocks that trees are heir to. It is those incalculable forces that account for all our lopsided, snaggletoothed, brown-needled, potbellied, wimpy-topped firs and spruce, trees that invite us to spend a few hours browsing among them, looking closely at their endless variety and eccentricity, enjoying the ones we leave every bit as much as—if not more than—the one we take home.
Franklin Stanwood (1852-1888), Mount Lafayette

By extension, this lesson applies to choosing other things, too.

Related post: Apples and Oranges.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


Epipompē in Euripides

Epipompē is the sending away of evil to another place. I recently found a good example in Euripides, Children of Heracles 770-775 (prayer to Athena or perhaps Gē, tr. E.P. Coleridge):
O dread goddess, thine the soil whereon we stand, thine this city, for thou art its mother, queen, and saviour; wherefore turn some other way the impious king, who leadeth a host from Argos with brandished lance against this land.

ἀλλ', ὦ πότνια, σὸν γὰρ οὖ-
δας γᾶς, καὶ πόλις, ἇς σὺ μά-
τηρ δέσποινά τε καὶ φύλαξ
πόρευσον ἄλλᾳ τὸν οὐ δικαίως
τᾷδ' ἐπάγοντα δορυσσοῦν
στρατὸν Ἀργόθεν.
I tried to see if John Wilkins discussed this in his commentary on the Heraclidae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), but only the beginning of the note on these lines is visible through Google Books.



It warms the cockles of my heart to hear about people who reject modern ways of doing things in favor of older, traditional techniques. Poet and essayist Wendell Berry's manifesto Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer strikes a sympathetic chord in me. I was delighted to learn that Guy Davenport never had a driver's license. I admire the farmer who plows with draft horses instead of a tractor, the carpenter who builds with hand tools rather than power tools, the college student who studies Old Icelandic instead of business administration, the musician who plays an acoustic guitar instead of an electric one, the family that reads books aloud to each other instead of watching television, the woman who drives about in a donkey cart instead of an automobile, and the man who brews beer instead of buying it.

(Of course I don't reject all modern improvements indiscriminately, provided that they really are improvements. If my tooth needs pulling, I want a dentist to extract it as gently as possible, using the most up-to-date techniques and painkillers.)

In art as well as in everyday life I appreciate anachronists.

The harpsichordist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) is Layton James. It is a pleasure to watch and listen to him improvise, like an inspired jazz musician, over a figured bass. James is also a composer. I heard an interview with him a few weeks ago on Minnesota Public Radio in which he claimed to be the only living composer of Baroque music. His cantata Sine Nomine recently received its premiere with the SPCO. Another composer who often writes in a traditional musical idiom is Thomas G. McFaul. Known to most people as the composer of the Meow Mix commercial tune, McFaul has also written a fine Mass in C minor (with Latin words, of course) in homage to J.S. Bach, as well as preludes and fugues that show an deep mastery of traditional contrapuntal techniques.

An anachronist movement in painting is Classical Realism, whose founder Richard Lack taught for a long time in Minnesota. On Classical Realism see:Anachronists in the arts humbly acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. This image was apparently first used by Bernard of Chartres, quoted by John of Salisbury (Metalogicon 3.4, tr. Henry Osborn Taylor):
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.

Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvehimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea.
Ivor Gurney, in his poem Apprentices, recognized the debt owed by artists to "the capable and the mighty dead":
We who praise poets with our labouring pen
And justify ourselves with laud of men
Have not the right to call our own our own,
Being but the ground-sprouts from those great trees grown.
The crafted art, the smooth curve, and surety
Come not of nature till the apprentice free
Of trouble with his tools, and cobwebbed cuts,
Spies out a path his own and casts his plots.
Then looking back on four-square edifices
And wind-and-weather standing tall houses
He stakes a court and tries his unpaid hand;
Begins a life who salt is arid sand;
Of cactus whose bread comes, whose wine is clear,
Being bitter water from fount all too near.
Happy if after toil he grow to worth
And prise of complete men of earlier birth
Of happier pen and more steel-propertied
Nerves of the capable and the mighty dead.
Related posts:

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Walled-In Pond and Walnuts

In my post on the etymology of Walden, I neglected to mention Thoreau's derivation, found in chapter 9 (The Ponds) of Walden:
As for the stones, many still think that they are hardly to be accounted for by the action of the waves on these hills; but I observe that the surrounding hills are remarkably full of the same kind of stones, so that they have been obliged to pile them up in walls on both sides of the railroad cut nearest the pond; and, moreover, there are most stones where the shore is most abrupt; so that, unfortunately, it is no longer a mystery to me. I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality — Saffron Walden, for instance — one might suppose that it was called originally Walled-in Pond.
I did cite W.W. Skeat's derivation of Walden from Old English wealh (stranger) and denu (valley). Eric Thomson now draws my attention to the discussion of wealh in J.R.R. Tolkien's English and Welsh, an O'Donnell Lecture delivered at Oxford on Oct. 21, 1955 and originally publshed in a collection entitled Angles and Britons: O'Donnell Lectures (University of Wales Press, 1963). I quote the following from the reprinting of the lecture in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983; rpt. Hammersmith: Harper/Collins, 2006), pp. 183-184:
It seems clear that the word walh, wealh which the English brought with them was a common Germanic name for a man of what we would call Celtic speech. But in all the recorded Germanic languages in which it appears it was also applied to the speakers of Latin. That may be due, as is usually assumed, to the fact that Latin eventually occupied most of the areas of Celtic speech within the knowledge of Germanic peoples. But it is, I think, also in part a linguistic judgement, reflecting that very similarity in style of Latin and Gallo-Brittonic that I have already mentioned. It did not occur to anyone to call a Goth a wealh even if he was long settled in Italy or in Gaul. Though 'foreigner' is often given as the first gloss on wealh in Anglo-Saxon dictionaries this is misleading. The word was not applied to foreigners of Germanic speech, nor to those of alien tongues, Lapps, Finns, Esthonians, Lithuanians, Slavs, or Huns, with whom the Germanic peoples came into contact in early times. (But borrowed in Old Slavonic in the form vlachŭ it was applied to the Roumanians.) It was, therefore, basically a word of linguistic import; and in itself implied in its users more linguistic curiosity and discrimination than the simple stupidity of the Greek barbaros.


This is a controversial point, and I do not deal with the question of place-names, such as Walton, Walcot, and Walsworth, that may be supposed to contain this old word walh.
In a footnote (n. 19, p. 196) Tolkien says of those place-names:
They were generally supposed to do so; but it has been shown that in fact many contain either weall 'wall' or weald 'forest'. But scepticism has swung too far. In any case a number of these names must still be allowed to contain walh, among them several in the east far from Wales: Surrey, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. When these names were first made they must have referred to groups of people who were not regarded as English, but were recognized as British; and language must have been the principal characteristic by which this was judged. But how long that situation lasted is a different matter.
It is not clear whether Tolkien would have included Walden among those place-names derived from walh, wealh. In another footnote (n. 17, p. 196) he refers to the theory that walh, wealh is related to the "Celtic tribal name represented in Latin sources as Volcae."

We also see wealh in the common word walnut, whose origin the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language explains as follows:
Middle English walnot, Old English wealhhnutu (translation of Latin nux gallia, "Gaulish or foreign nut"). See Volcae in Appendix.
Should nux gallia be nux gallica? The "Appendix" is Calvert Watkins' valuable Indo-European Roots, which has this entry for Volcae:
Celtic tribal name. Latin noun akin to the unknown source of Germanic *walkhaz. Germanic *walkhaz in: a. Old English wealh, Wealh, foreigner, Welshman, Celt: WALES, WALNUT, WELSH; b. Medieval Latin wallō, a foreigner: WALLOON; c. Irish Gaelic gall, foreigner: GALLOGLASS, GALLOWAY.
For more on the Volcae, see Oskar Bandle et al., The Nordic Languages: An International Handbook of the History of the North Germanic Languages, vol. 1 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002), starting on p. 578. Only p. 578 is visible from Google Books.

There were walnut trees growing near Walden Pond, as Thoreau indicates, e.g. in Walden, chapter 5 (Solitude):
When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip.

Friday, December 07, 2007


The Photo Telephone

From Ben Zimmer's fascinating history of the verb tase, I learned that the inventor of the Taser, Jack Cover, named the device after the initial letters in the title of one of the Tom Swift adventure novels, Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle (1911).

This made me nostalgic about the Tom Swift books, which along with the Hardy Boys books were favorites of my childhood. Perhaps I should have included the Hardy Boys books on my list of comfort books, since I continue to read them to this day.

But to return to Tom Swift. One of the books about him is Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1914), which opens as follows:
"Tom, I don't believe it can be done!"

"But, Dad, I'm sure it can!"

Tom Swift looked over at his father, who was seated in an easy chair in the library. The elderly gentleman—his hair was quite white now—slowly shook his head, as he murmured again:

"It can't be done, Tom! It can't be done! I admit that you've made a lot of wonderful things—things I never dreamed of—but this is too much. To transmit pictures over a telephone wire, so that persons cannot only see to whom they are talking, as well as hear them—well, to be frank with you, Tom, I should be sorry to see you waste your time trying to invent such a thing."

"I don't agree with you. Not only do I think it can be done, but I'm going to do it. In fact, I've already started on it. As for wasting my time, well, I haven't anything in particular to do, now that my giant cannon has been perfected, so I might as well be working on my new photo telephone instead of sitting around idle."
Instead of sitting around idle, I used to work for a telecommunications firm as a programmer on various computer and Internet telephony projects, including video phones. Even when the video was turned off, you would see a picture of the person you were talking to, because all subscribers to the service were required to upload photographs of themselves when registering. A picture of your interlocutor would always appear on the computer screen. It was Tom Swift's Photo Telephone come to life.

We had to use our own telephony software — the common expression for this was "eating your own dog food." But the programmers on the project (an irreverent lot) almost to a man refused to submit actual photographs of themselves. Usually they uploaded photographs of movie stars, such as Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio, who resembled the programmers not at all.

Here is the picture I uploaded to represent my antediluvian, troglodyte self on the Photo Telephone:

In real life my rib cage doesn't show and I wear glasses.


Friday Night Happy Hour

Chaucer, House of Fame 2.652-660:
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges,
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon;
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look,
And lyvest thus as an heremyte,
Although thyn abstynence ys lyte.
In John Edmonds' modern English rendering:
When your labour is done, and you have made all your reckoning, instead of rest and new things you go home immediately to your house and also dumb as a stone you sit at another book until your looks are dazed, and live thus like a hermit, although your abstinence is small.
I would not translate "also domb as any stoon" as "also dumb as a stone." Rather I would translate it "as dumb as a stone." See the electronic Middle English Dictionary, s.v. also (adv.) Also alswo, alz(u)o; alswa, alsway, alsqua, alsa; elswa; alse, als, as:
3a: In adverbial expressions: (a) introducing, connecting, or correlating prepositional phrases: also; and (..) also, and also; as..and, as..also; nought onli..but also; (b) correlated with a following as, so phrase or clause: as faste as, as fast as; etc.; (c) followed by a time clause or a clause of result: so.
Here, in my opinion, we have an example of (b). The Dictionary gives a comparable example, c1460 Oseney Reg. 118/11: Al so ofte as hit happeneth.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


The Etymology of Walden

W. Barksdale Maynard, Walden Pond: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 17:
Environmental historian Brian Donahue is among several recent scholars who hold that "the name is derived from the once-wooded upland Weald in Kent (home of many Concord settlers), or more generally from the fact that Walden means 'in the woods.'"
The footnote (on p. 338) cites a personal communication from Donahue.

But cf. W.W. Skeat, The Place-Names of Hertfordshire (Hertford: East Herts Archaeological Society, 1904), pp. 22-23:
WALDEN.—Spelt Waldene, D.B. 8; Waledene, R.B. and H.E. The spelling with -le- is to be noted, as it shows that the name begins neither with A.S. weald, ' a wood,' nor with weall, ' a wall.' In fact, it precisely agrees with A.S. Wealadene (O. Merc. Waladene), dat. case of Weala denu, which occurs thrice, with reference to Walden in Herts.; Kemble, Cod. Dipl., vi, 212; Thorpe, Diplomat., pp. 649, 650. Weala is the gen. pl. of Wealh, 'a stranger, foreigner,' esp. a Briton or Welshman. The sense is 'valley of strangers,' or, probably, 'valley of Britons.' We find here a trace of the Celts.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007



Bai Juyi, A Suggestion to My Friend Liu (tr. Witter Bynner):
There's a gleam of green in an old bottle,
There's a stir of red in the quiet stove,
There's a feeling of snow in the dusk outside —
What about a cup of wine inside?
Related post: Cold Outside, Cozy Inside.


Draw On, Sweet Night

John Wilbye, Second Set of Madrigals (1609):
Draw on, sweet Night, best friend unto those cares
That do arise from painful melancholy;
My life so ill through want of comfort fares,
That unto thee I consecrate it wholly.

Sweet Night, draw on; my griefs, when they be told
To shades and darkness, find some ease from paining.
And while thou all in silence dost enfold,
I then shall have best time for my complaining.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Sweet Monotony

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, Book I, Chapter 5:
We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,—if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn's hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call "God's birds," because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet, what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky, with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows,—such things as these are the mother-tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle, inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep-bladed grass to-day might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years which still live in us, and transform our perception into love.


Notes to Myself

See Euripides, Trojan Women 1085 (tr. David Kovacs), for an example of asyndetic, privative adjectives: "Unburied and with no lustral water" (ἄθαπτος ἄνυδρος). The translation obscures the asyndeton.

On deforestation see T.R. Glover, "The Greek and the Forest," pp. 29-50 of his The Challenge of the Greek (New York: Macmillan, 1942).

Monday, December 03, 2007


Gadgets and Computers

I have a degree in computer science, and I used to work as a computer programmer. My hero in that field was Prof. Dr. Edsger W. Dijkstra (1930-2002), who once gave these Answers to questions from students of Software Engineering:
Edsger W. Dijkstra



Wendell Berry, Woods:
I part the out thrusting branches
and come in beneath
the blessed and the blessing trees.
Though I am silent
there is singing around me.
Though I am dark
there is vision around me.
Though I am heavy
there is flight around me.
Wendell Berry, A Native Hill:
And so I go to the woods. As I go in under the trees, dependably, almost at once, and by nothing I do, things fall into place. I enter an order that does not exist outside, in the human spaces. I feel my life take its place among the lives — the trees, the annual plants, the animals and the birds, the living of all these and the dead — that go and have gone to make the life of the earth. I am less important than I thought. I rejoice in that. My mind loses its urgings, senses its nature, and is free.
Asher Brown Durand, In the Woods

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