Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Creeping Charlie

Creeping Charlie is the name by which I know one of the weeds that infest my lawn, but in the United States Department of Agriculture's Selected Weeds of the United States (1970), reprinted by Dover as Common Weeds of the United States (1971), pp. 312-313, it's called ground ivy.

W.H. Hudson, The Book of a Naturalist (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1919), chapter XXIX (Concerning Lawns, with Incidental Observations on Earthworms), wrote about ground ivy and other weeds:
I am not a lover of lawns; on the contrary, I regard them, next to gardens, as the least interesting adjuncts of the country-house. Grass, albeit the commonest, is yet one of the most beautiful things in Nature when allowed to grow as Nature intended, or when not too carefully trimmed and brushed. Rather would I see daisies in their thousands, ground ivy, hawkweed, and even the hated plantain with tall stems, and dandelions with splendid flowers and fairy down, than the too-well-tended lawn grass. This may be regarded as the mental attitude of the wild man from the woods, but something may be said for it.

The scientific name for Creeping Charlie or ground ivy is Glechoma hederacea. The second half of the binomial, hederacea, is easy enough — it's an adjective formed from hedera, or ivy, which ancient poets were so fond of crowning themselves with. But Glechoma threw me for a loop.

Umberto Quattrochi, CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names: Common Names, Scientific Names, Eponyms, Synonyms, and Etymology, Vol. II (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2000), p. 1083, confidently asserts that Glechoma comes "from the Greek glechon, glachon, blechon, a kind of mint, possibly Mentha palegium, Latin glechon, onis for pennyroyal." Siegfried Bäumler, Heilpflanzenpraxis Heute: Porträts, Rezepturen, Anwendung (München: Elsevier, 2007), p. 183, is not quite so confident (translation and diacritic marks are mine):
The origin of the word "Glechoma" is not clearly explained. Possibly it comes from medieval Latin and Greek ("glēchōn," Attic "blēchōn", Ionic "glēchō" and Doric "glachō"). These foreign words of unknown origin signify the ancient pennyroyal.
Helmut Genaust, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen, 3rd ed. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1996), p. 268, says much the same. Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, vol. 1, p. 245, s.v. βλήχων, says "Herkunft unbekannt, wahrscheinlich Fremdwort." I have not seen Reinhold Strömberg, Griechische Pflanzennamen (Goteborg, 1940).

Here is the entry in Liddell & Scott for the Greek word which is supposed to be the origin of Glechoma:
βλήχων, ἡ (later , Gp.8.7), gen. ωνος, also βληχώ, gen. οῦς; Ion. γλήχων, βληχ-ώ, Dor. γλάχων, βληχ-ώ (on the forms see Phryn.PS p.53 B., Sch.Ar.Pax711), dat. γλήχωνι h.Cer.209; βληχοῖ Thphr.HP 9.16.1: gen. γληχοῦς Hp.Morb.3.17; γλάχωνος Boeot. ap. Ar.Ach. 869: acc. γλάχωνα ib.861, Theoc.5.56; γλήχωνα Herod.9.13; γλαχώ Ar.Ach.874; βληχώ Id.Lys.89:—pennyroyal, Mentha Pulegium,, Dsc.3.31, etc.
It is important to remember that all of the ancient citations refer to pennyroyal, not to ground ivy. According to Bäumler, loc. cit., ground ivy was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans. So I'm puzzled by Wikipedia's statement about ground ivy that "Its medicinal properties have been described for millennia, Galen recommending the plant to treat inflammation of the eyes, for instance." If Galen knew ground ivy, what did he call it? I'm not aware of any ancient Greek word for ground ivy.

Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1967), pp. 85-86 (June 10), objects to the name ground ivy, because it is not genuine ivy, but pays tribute to the plant:
If gill-over-the-ground, commonly miscalled ground ivy, were not so plentiful, and hence so much of a weed, it would rate as a choice ground cover with a modest but beautiful display of small violet-blue flowers. It is in full bloom now, growing almost everywhere, along stone walls, in damp shade on the lawn, invading garden borders. A creeper, it trails across the ground like true ivy, but it is actually a mint, one of the many mints that grow wild here but are native to Europe. Its small, scalloped, heart-shaped leaves have the mint tang and its flowers follow the mint pattern.


Gill's blossoms are tiny, seldom more than half an inch long, but they grow in clusters and make a warm display, particularly in Spring. Here they bloom well into Summer, but in England the gill is an April flower, the English equivalent, in a way, of our trailing arbutus. Those who brought it here wanted to remember April in England, and they had no notion that their gill would run away as it did, leap their garden walls and take to the fields. But that's what happened. And now gill is one of the wildlings, a fugitive trying tirelessly to get back into the garden. A prodigal, perhaps, but an independent prodigal, and a prosperous one.
In his Hill Country Harvest (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1967), pp. 130-131, Hal Borland also speculates that ground ivy is economically useful to farmers:
Perhaps becase of the unusual warmth of early May, the little creeping mint called ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground is thriving and loaded with blossoms. The flowers are very small, typical mint flowers less than a quarter of an inch across, and light purple in color. They seem to have no fragrance. But apparently they are full of nectar and pollen, for they are favorite early flowers of the bumblebees.

The gill, as we always call it, is an insistent creeper and this year practically carpets the edges of the garden and makes big patches at the roadside, patches with a warm purple overtone from the multitude of bloom. If it were not so insistent in its weediness, it might be a welcome ground cover, for it lies flat, thrives in the heat of summer, and does very well even in the shade. It is not a native, actually, for the early settlers brought it from England where it once was the early spring equivalent of our trailing arbutus.

I like the gill, which is a beautiful little flowering plant; but just now I am sure it is important to every farmer who grows clover. As I said, the gill's blossoms are host to early bumblebees. When I watch a patch of gill I always see several of the big black and gold bumblers harvesting there. I watched for ten minutes the other afternoon and every bumblebee in sight passed up all the other early flowers, both wild and tame, to reach the gill. They were all big bees, undoubtedly queens who are nesting at this stage and will soon produce their little colonies. Bumblebees are the prime pollinators of clover. Without them, the clover seed crop would be a failure. So the humble little gill, by feeding the nesting queens, helps produce the bumblebees that keep the clover going.

Monday, April 28, 2008



No one knows for certain the origin of the word almanac. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it
Appears in med.L. as almanac(h in end of 13th c., and soon after (though it may have been earlier) in most of the Rom. langs., It. almanacco, Sp. almanaque, Fr. almanach, the immediate source of which was app. a Spanish Arabic al-manākh; Pedro de Alcala, in his Arabic-Castilian Vocabulista (1505), has 'manākh, almanaque, calendario'; also 'manaḥ (probably meant for same word), relox del sol' [sundial]. But the word occurs nowhere else as Arabic, has no etymon in the language, and its origin is uncertain. See note at end of this article.
At the end of the article, the "Note. As to the origin and history of the word almanac" states:
1. The earliest notices are: 1267 Roger Bacon Op. maj. xv. (1733) 120 'Antiqui astronomi ponunt principium anni circiter principium Octobris, sicut patet in expositione tabularum, quae Almanac vocantur'; Op. Tert. xi. (1859) 36 'Hae tabulae vocantur Almanach vel Tallignum, in quibus..homo posset inspicere omnia ea quae in caelo sunt omni die, sicut nos in calendario inspicimus omnia festa sanctorum'; c 1345 Giovanni Villani Cronica XI. xli, 'Secondo l'almanacco di Profazio Giudeo, e delle tavole Toletane dovea essere la detta congiunzione di Saturno e di Giove a di 20 del detto mese di Marzo' [where the 'Tables of Toledo' (constructed c 1080 by Arzachel) again point to the Arabs in Spain]. Explanations have been offered of manākh from Semitic sources, as Arab. manay to define, determine, manā measure, time, fate; Heb. manāh to allot, assign, count; Arab. manaḥa to present, minḥat a gift, all of which fail in form or sense or both.

2. Eusebius, De Praep. Evangel. iii. 4, quotes Porphyrius as to the Egyptian belief in astrology, in horoscopes, and so-called lords of the ascendant, 'whose names are given in the almenichiaká (ἐν τοῖς ἀλμενιχιακοῖς), with their various powers to cure diseases, their risings and settings, and their presages of things future.' Notwithstanding the suggestive sound and use of this word (of which however the real form is very uncertain), the difficulties of connecting it historically either with the Spanish Arabic manākh, or with med.L. almanach without Arabic intermediation, seem insurmountable. Nor does the sense really point to such tables as those described by Roger Bacon, Chaucer, and Regiomontanus.

3. Manākh has been identified with a L. manacus or manachus, applied in Vitruv. ix. 8 (Dialling) to a circle in a sun-dial showing the months or signs of the zodiac, an origin which would well explain Pedro's word in both senses; but the true reading of Vitruvius's word is now generally agreed to be menēnaeus (Gr. μηναῖος monthly); and it has not yet been shown that the reading manacus was ever so generally known or accepted, as to make its adoption probable at the hands of any Arab astronomer in Spain. Nor has it been shown to be impossible. Of many other conjectures none are worthy of notice.
See also Walter W. Skeat, A Student's Pastime: Being a Select Series of Articles Reprinted from 'Notes and Queries' (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), p. 154:
I have been referred to the curious word manacus, given both by Scheller and Forcellini, as being just possibly allied to almanac. On investigation there turns out to be no such word in the Latin language; it is a pure fiction, due to a misreading. The only reference is to Vitruvius, l. 9, c. 3 (for which read c. 8). The best edition of Vitruvius, by Rose and Müller-Strubing, Leipzig, 1867, gives menaeus, with the variants maneus, manaeus. Menaeus is merely the Greek μηναῖος in a Latin dress, and is used substantively to signify the ecliptic. This is one more instance of the soundness of the advice to 'verify quotations.'

[I hunted up this reference (with the help of my late dear friend, Mr. Boase, of Exeter College) for Dr. Murray. He gives it in 'Note 3,' at the end of Almanac.]
The OED defines almanac as:
An annual table, or (more usually) a book of tables, containing a calendar of months and days, with astronomical data and calculations, ecclesiastical and other anniversaries, besides other useful information, and, in former days, astrological and astrometeorological forecasts.
Among my favorite books are a few "almanacs" by 20th century American nature writers with entries for every day of the year. One with almanac in the title is Donald Culross Peattie's An Almanac for Moderns, which does contain occasional anniversaries, or rather birthdays of famous naturalists. Others almanacs in my collection are Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist's Year and A Walk Through the Year by Edwin Way Teale, and Sundial of the Seasons by Hal Borland. Here, by way of example, is Borland's Sundial of the Seasons entry for April 28:
A garden has two purposes. One is to grow vegetables which feed the gardener's body and flowers which warm his heart. the other is to satisfy his need for intimate contact with the earth and growing things. Which of these purposes is more important can be disputed endlessly, but eventually the answer lies in the gardener. Perhaps, if one ever arrives at the truth of the matter, they are of approximately equal importance; as has been said many times, man does not live by bread alone, nor by lettuce and carrots and beets and potatoes and broccoli. Man happens to be a sentient person as well as a hungry animal.

By the end of April the real gardener must get his hands in the soil. Planting seeds is a good and profitable exercise, but what he needs, down in his very marrow, is contact with the earth and communion with the rootbed of life. Atoms and molecules are all very well in their place, but soil, humus, compost, earth teeming with the sources of growth, are vital beyond measure. You don't have to know the chemistry of soil or the physics of molecular structure to feel the surge of life beneath your fingertips. You dig, you rake, you plant and you are participating in the ultimate, mysterious miracle.

Such participation is at once humbling and exhilarating. You become a partner of sun and wind and rain. You acknowledge the great forces, the primal urge. You become somewhat master of a plot of earth, encourage it to do your bidding, and eventually you reap, if you are fortunate. But at planting time you chiefly commune with the earth and cooperate with the elements and take part in Spring itself. You make contact with life.
Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac and Joseph Wood Krutch's The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country are not ephemerides, with an entry for every single day. Rather they have chapters for each month of the year.


Unto My Books So Good To Turn

Emily Dickinson, In a Library:
A precious, mouldering pleasure 'tis
To meet an antique book,
In just the dress his century wore;
A privilege, I think,

His venerable hand to take,
And warming in our own,
A passage back, or two, to make
To times when he was young.

His quaint opinions to inspect,
His knowledge to unfold
On what concerns our mutual mind,
The literature of old;

What interested scholars most,
What competitions ran
When Plato was a certainty.
And Sophocles a man;

When Sappho was a living girl,
And Beatrice wore
The gown that Dante deified.
Facts, centuries before,

He traverses familiar,
As one should come to town
And tell you all your dreams were true;
He lived where dreams were sown.

His presence is enchantment,
You beg him not to go;
Old volumes shake their vellum heads
And tantalize, just so.
Emily Dickinson, A Book:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
Emily Dickinson, untitled:
Unto my books so good to turn
Far ends of tired days;
It half endears the abstinence,
And pain is missed in praise.

As flavors cheer retarded guests
With banquetings to be,
So spices stimulate the time
Till my small library.

It may be wilderness without,
Far feet of failing men,
But holiday excludes the night,
And it is bells within.

I thank these kinsmen of the shelf;
Their countenances bland
Enamour in prospective,
And satisfy, obtained.
Emily Dickinson, A Book:
There is no frigate like a book
  To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
  Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
  Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
  That bears a human soul!

Sunday, April 27, 2008


No Politics Disturb Their Mind

Jonathan Swift or Oliver Goldsmith, The Logicians Refuted:
Logicians have but ill defined
As rational, the human kind;
Reason, they say, belongs to man,
But let them prove it if they can.
Wise Aristotle and Smiglesius,
By ratiocinations specious,
Have strove to prove, with great precision,
With definition and division,
Homo est ratione praeditum;
But for my soul I cannot credit 'em,
And must, in spite of them, maintain,
That man and all his ways are vain;
And that this boasted lord of nature
Is both a weak and erring creature;
That instinct is a surer guide
Than reason, boasting mortals' pride;
And that brute beasts are far before 'em.

Deus est anima brutorum.
Whoever knew an honest brute
At law his neighbour prosecute,
Bring action for assault or battery,
Or friend beguile with lies and flattery?
O'er plains they ramble unconfined,
No politics disturb their mind;
They eat their meals, and take their sport
Nor know who's in or out at court.
They never to the levee go
To treat, as dearest friend, a foe:
They never importune his grace,
Nor ever cringe to men in place:
Nor undertake a dirty job,
Nor draw the quill to write for Bob.

Fraught with invective, they ne'er go
To folks at Paternoster Row.
No judges, fiddlers, dancing-masters,
No pickpockets, or poetasters,
Are known to honest quadrupeds;
No single brute his fellow leads.
Brutes never meet in bloody fray,
Nor cut each other's throats for pay.
Of beasts, it is confess'd, the ape
Comes nearest us in human shape;
Like man, he imitates each fashion,
And malice is his lurking passion:
But, both in malice and grimaces,
A courtier any ape surpasses.
Behold him, humbly cringing, wait
Upon the minister of state;
View him soon after to inferiors
Aping the conduct of superiors;
He promises with equal air,
And to perform takes equal care.
He in his turn finds imitators,
At court, the porters, lacqueys, waiters,
Their masters' manner still contract,
And footmen, lords and dukes can act.
Thus, at the court, both great and small
Behave alike, for all ape all.
Related posts:

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Two Yew Trees in Chilthorne, Somerset

Acts of the Apostles 14.11-12 (healing of a crippled man at Lystra):
And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, the gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker.

οἵ τε ὄχλοι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν Παῦλος ἐπῆραν τὴν φωνὴν αὐτῶν Λυκαονιστὶ λέγοντες, Οἱ θεοὶ ὁμοιωθέντες ἀνθρώποις κατέβησαν πρὸς ἡμᾶς· ἐκάλουν τε τὸν Βαρναβᾶν Δία, τὸν δὲ Παῦλον Ἑρμῆν, ἐπειδὴ αὐτὸς ἦν ὁ ἡγούμενος τοῦ λόγου.
The case of mistaken identity was understandable. Jupiter (Zeus) and Mercury (Hermes) used to hang out together in the neighborhood of Lystra. An inscription from nearby Ak-Kilisse (ancient Sedasa), published on p. 77 of W.M. Calder, "A Cult of the Homonades," Classical Review 24 (1910) 76-81, connects the two. Because I can't find the inscription online, even in Searchable Greek Inscriptions, I reproduce it here from Calder:
Τούης Μ[α-
κρεῖνος ὁ
καὶ Ἀβάσκαν-
τος καὶ Βάτα-
σις Βρετασί-
δος Ἑρμῆν
κατὰ εὐχὴν
τες σὺν ὡρο-
λογήωι ἐκ τῶ[ν
ἰδίων (ἀν)αλωμ-
άτων ἀνέστ[η-
σαν Διὶ [Ἡλίῳ
W.M. Ramsay translates the inscription as follows:
Toues Macrinus also called Abascantus, and Batasis son of Bretasis having made in accordance with a vow at their own expense [a statue of] Hermes Most Great along with a sun-dial dedicated it to Zeus the sun-god.
We also find Zeus and Hermes wandering through this same area together in the story of Philemon and Baucis as told by Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.616-724 (tr. Frank Justus Miller, rev. G.P. Goold):
There stand in the Phrygian hill country an oak and a linden-tree side by side, surrounded by a low wall. I have myself seen the spot; for Pittheus sent me to Phrygia, where his father once ruled. Not far from the place I speak of is a marsh, once a habitable land, but now water, the haunt of divers and coots.

Hither came Jupiter in the quise of a mortal, and with his father came Atlas' grandson [Mercury], he that bears the caduceus, his wings laid aside. To a thousand homes they came, seeking a place for rest; a thousand homes were barred against them. Still one house received them, humble indeed, thatched with straw and reeds from the marsh; but pious old Baucis and Philemon, of equal age, were in that cottage wedded in their youth, and in that cottage had grown old together; there they made their poverty light by owning it, and by bearing it in a contented spirit. It was of no use to ask for masters or for servants in that house; they two were the whole household, together they served and ruled.

And so when the heavenly ones came to this humble home and, stooping, entered in at the lowly door, the old man set out a bench and bade them rest their limbs, while over this bench busy Baucis threw a rough covering. Then she raked aside the warm ashes on the hearth and fanned yesterday's coals to life, which she fed with leaves and dry bark, blowing them into flame with the breath of her old body. Then she took down from the roof some fine-split wood and dry twigs, broke them up and placed them under the little copper kettle. And she took the cabbage which her husband had brought in from the well-watered garden and lopped off the outside leaves. Meanwhile the old man with a forked stick reached down a chine of smoked bacon, which was hanging from a blackened beam, and cutting off a little piece of the cherished pork, he put it to cook in the boiling water.

Meanwhile they beguiled the intervening time with their talk and smoothed out a mattress of soft sedge-grass placed on a couch with a frame and feet of willow. They threw drapery over this, which they were not accustomed to bring out except on festal days; but even this was a cheap thing and well worn, a very good match for the willow couch. The gods reclined.

The old woman, with her skirts tucked up, with trembling hands set out the table. But one of the three legs was too short; so she propped it up with a potsherd. When this had levelled the slope, she wiped it, thus levelled, with green mint. Next she placed on the board some olives, green and ripe, truthful Minerva's berries, and some autumnal corn-cherries pickled in the lees of wine; endives and radishes, cream cheese and eggs, lightly roasted in the warm ashes, all served in earthen dishes. A moment and the hearth sent its steaming viands on, and wine of no great age was brought out, which was then pushed aside to give a small space for the second course. Here were nuts and figs, with dried dates, plums and fragrant apples in broad baskets, and purple grapes just picked from the vines; in the centre of the table was a comb of clear white honey. Besides all this, pleasant faces were at the board and lively and abounding goodwill.

Meanwhile they saw that the mixing-bowl, as often as it was drained, kept filling of its own accord, and that the wine welled up of itself. The two old people saw this strange sight with amaze and fear, and with upturned hands they both uttered a prayer, Baucis and the trembling old Philemon, and they craved indulgence for their fare and meagre entertainment.

They had one goose, the guardian of their tiny estate; and him the hosts were preparing to kill for their divine guests. But the goose was swift of wing, and quite wore the slow old people out in their efforts to catch him. He eluded their grasp for a long time, and finally seemed to flee for refuge to the gods themselves. Then the gods told them not to kill the goose. 'We are gods,' they said, 'and this wicked neighbourhood shall be punished as it deserves; but to you shall be given exemption from this punishment. Leave now your dwelling and come with us to that tall mountain yonder.'

They both obeyed and, propped on their staves, they struggled up the long slope. When they were a bowshot distant from the top, they looked back and saw the whole country-side covered with water, only their own house remaining. And, while they wondered at this, while they wept for the fate of their neighbours, that old house of theirs, which had been small even for its two occupants, was changed into a temple. Marble columns took the place of the forked wooden supports; the straw grew yellow and became a golden roof; there were gates richly carved, a marble pavement covered the ground.

Then calmly the son of Saturn spoke: 'Now ask of us, thou good old man, and thou wife, worthy of thy good husband, any boon you will.' When he had spoken a word with Baucis, Philemon announced their joint decision to the gods: 'We ask that we may be your priests, and guard your temple; and since we have spent our lives in constant company, we pray that the same hour may bring death to both of us—that I may never see my wife's tomb, nor be buried by her.'

Their request was granted. They had the care of the temple as long as they lived. And at last, when, spent with extreme old age, they chanced to stand before the sacred edifice talking of old times, Baucis saw Philemon putting forth leaves, Philemon saw Baucis; and as the tree-top formed over their two faces, while still they could they cried with the same words; 'Farewell, dear mate,' just as the bark closed over and hid their lips.

Even to this day the Bithynian peasant in that region points out two trees standing close together, and growing from one double trunk. These things were told me by staid old men who could have no reason to deceive. With my own eyes I saw votive wreaths hanging from the boughs, and placing fresh wreaths there myself, I said: 'Let those beloved of the gods be gods; let those who have worshipped be worshipped.'
Jonathan Swift imitated the story of Philemon and Baucis from Ovid and transferred it to the English countryside. In Swift's version, the pious pair were changed not into oak and linden but rather into yew trees. Swift ended his poem with these lines:
Old Goodman Dobson of the green
Remembers he the trees has seen;
He'll talk of them from noon till night,
And goes with folks to show the sight;
On Sundays, after evening prayer,
He gathers all the parish there,
Points out the place of either Yew:
Here Baucis, there Philemon grew,
Till once a parson of our town,
To mend his barn, cut Baucis down;
At which, 'tis hard to be believed
How much the other tree was grieved,
Grew scrubby, died a-top, was stunted:
So the next parson stubbed and burnt it.
The sub-title of Swift's poem is On the Ever-Lamented Loss of the Two Yew-Trees in the Parish of Chilthorne, Somerset.

Related posts:


Tête-à-Tête with Worms

If you're looking for a laugh, perhaps the last place you'd look is Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. But I couldn't help laughing when I read this passage (from chapter 1, Habits of Worms) and tried to picture in my mind's eye the earnest scientist intent on his investigations:
In worms the sense of smell apparently is confined to the perception of certain odours, and is feeble. They were quite indifferent to my breath, as long as I breathed on them very gently. This was tried, because it appeared possible that they might thus be warned of the approach of an enemy. They exhibited the same indifference to my breath whilst I chewed some tobacco, and while a pellet of cotton-wool with a few drops of millefleurs perfume or of acetic acid was kept in my mouth. Pellets of cotton-wool soaked in tobacco juice, in millefleurs perfume, and in paraffin, were held with pincers and were waved about within two or three inches of several worms, but they took no notice.

Friday, April 25, 2008


A Spot Fit for Hermits

G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World, Part I (The Homelessness of Man), Chapter VIII (The Wildness of Domesticity):
For the truth is, that to the moderately poor the home is the only place of liberty. Nay, it is the only place of anarchy. It is the only spot on the earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. Everywhere else he goes he must accept the strict rules of the shop, inn, club, or museum that he happens to enter. He can eat his meals on the floor in his own house if he likes. I often do it myself; it gives a curious, childish, poetic, picnic feeling. There would be considerable trouble if I tried to do it in an A.B.C. tea-shop. A man can wear a dressing gown and slippers in his house; while I am sure that this would not be permitted at the Savoy, though I never actually tested the point. If you go to a restaurant you must drink some of the wines on the wine list, all of them if you insist, but certainly some of them. But if you have a house and garden you can try to make hollyhock tea or convolvulus wine if you like. For a plain, hard-working man the home is not the one tame place in the world of adventure. It is the one wild place in the world of rules and set tasks. The home is the one place where he can put the carpet on the ceiling or the slates on the floor if he wants to.
The poet John Clare was a poor man who wanted a home of his own. He imagined what such a home would be like in Proposals for Building a Cottage, The Wish, and the following untitled poem:
O give me a house in an untrodden glen
Far away from all paths that bring trouble to men
Where spring might bring primroses close to the door
& the chat after insects pop in on the floor

O give me the rest of a wood hidden place
Where I might see the squirrel sit washing his face
& pelt him with acorns right round the old tree
Till he pattered his feet & fell hissing at me

In a spot fit for hermits which toil never tilled
O give me the peace where the pigeon might build
Just over the chimney all covered in boughs
& just within hearing of men at their ploughs

Where the rabbit its burrows made close to the wall
& often came bolt in the house at the call
Of the hunter who hallooed the fox brushing bye
That turned back in fear at a cottage so nigh

In my chair with a book I could sit down & see
The thrush build her nest by the side of a tree
That propt its grey body so close to the house
As even to chafe at the glass with its boughs

Where close to the door autumn littered her leaves
& the oak in a wind chafed the thatch from the eaves
O give me the hut in the midst of the wild
Where the world & its follys neer entered or smiled
Jasper Francis Cropsey, Fisherman's House, Greenwood Lake

Related posts:

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Nasty Science

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone:
Gentlefolks in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life—the rock ahead of their own idleness. Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see—especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort—how often they drift blindfold into some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something—and they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house. I have seen them (ladies, I am sorry to say, as well as gentlemen) go out, day after day, for example, with empty pill-boxes, and catch newts, and beetles, and spiders, and frogs, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them up, without a pang of remorse, into little pieces. You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring over one of their spiders' insides with a magnifying-glass; or you meet one of their frogs walking downstairs without his head—and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you DO know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see—they must get through the time. You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is, that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands. And so it ends in your spoiling canvas with paints, and making a smell in the house; or in keeping tadpoles in a glass box full of dirty water, and turning everybody's stomach in the house; or in chipping off bits of stone here, there, and everywhere, and dropping grit into all the victuals in the house; or in staining your fingers in the pursuit of photography, and doing justice without mercy on everybody's face in the house. It often falls heavy enough, no doubt, on people who are really obliged to get their living, to be forced to work for the clothes that cover them, the roof that shelters them, and the food that keeps them going. But compare the hardest day's work you ever did with the idleness that splits flowers and pokes its way into spiders' stomachs, and thank your stars that your head has got something it MUST think of, and your hands something that they MUST do.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Elementarius Senex

Plato, Euthydemus 272 b-d (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):

And so I, Crito, am minded to place myself in these two gentlemen's hands; for they say it would take them but a little while to make anyone else clever in just the same way.


What, Socrates! Are you not afraid, at your time of life, that you may be too old for that now?


Not at all, Crito: I have enough proof and reassurance to the contrary. These same two persons were little less than old men at the time of their taking up this science, which I desire to have, of disputation. Last year, or the year before, they were as yet without their science. The only thing I am afraid of is that I may bring the same disgrace upon our two visitors as upon Connus, son of Metrobius, the harper, who is still trying to teach me the harp; so that the boys who go to his lessons with me make fun of me and call Connus "the gaffers' master" [γεροντοδιδάσκαλον]. This makes me fear that someone may make the same reproach to the two strangers; and, for aught I know, their dread of this very thing may make them unwilling to accept me. So, Crito, just as in the other case I have persuaded some elderly men to come and have lessons with me, in this affair I am going to try and persuade another set.


Ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν, ὦ Κρίτων, ἐν νῷ ἔχω τοῖν ἀνδροῖν παραδοῦναι ἐμαυτόν· καὶ γάρ φατον ἐν ὀλίγῳ χρόνῳ ποιῆσαι ἂν καὶ ἄλλον ὁντινοῦν τὰ αὐτὰ ταῦτα δεινόν.


Τί δέ, ὦ Σώκρατες; Οὐ φοβῇ τὴν ἡλικίαν, μὴ ἤδη πρεσβύτερος ᾖς;


Ἥκιστά γε, ὦ Κρίτων· ἱκανὸν τεκμήριον ἔχω καὶ παραμύθιον τοῦ μὴ φοβεῖσθαι. Αὐτὼ γὰρ τούτω, ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν, γέροντε ὄντε ἠρξάσθην ταύτης τῆς σοφίας ἧς ἔγωγε ἐπιθυμῶ, τῆς ἐριστικῆς· πέρυσιν ἢ προπέρυσιν οὐδέπω ἤστην σοφώ. Ἀλλ' ἐγὼ ἓν μόνον φοβοῦμαι, μὴ αὖ ὄνειδος τοῖν ξένοιν περιάψω, ὥσπερ Κόννῳ τῷ Μητροβίου, τῷ κιθαριστῇ, ὃς ἐμὲ διδάσκει ἔτι καὶ νῦν κιθαρίζειν· ὁρῶντες οὖν οἱ παῖδες οἱ συμφοιτηταί μοι ἐμοῦ τε καταγελῶσι καὶ τὸν Κόννον καλοῦσι γεροντοδιδάσκαλον. Μὴ οὖν καὶ τοῖν ξένοιν τις ταὐτὸν τοῦτο ὀνειδίσῃ· οἱ δ' αὐτὸ τοῦτο ἴσως φοβούμενοι τάχα με οὐκ ἂν ἐθέλοιεν προσδέξασθαι. Ἐγὼ δ', ὦ Κρίτων, ἐκεῖσε μὲν ἄλλους πέπεικα συμμαθητάς μοι φοιτᾶν πρεσβύτας, ἐνταῦθα δέ γε ἑτέρους πειράσομαι πείθειν.
Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos 6.13:
Socrates, although he was already deep in old age, was not ashamed to resort to Lampo the lyre player, and to one who reproached him for this he said that it is better to be criticized for learning late than for not learning at all.

Σωκράτης καίπερ βαθυγήρως ἤδη γεγονὼς οὐκ ᾐδεῖτο πρὸς Λάμπωνα τὸν κιθαριστὴν φοιτῶν, καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἐπὶ τούτῳ ὀνειδίσαντα λέγειν ὅτι κρεῖττόν ἐστιν ὀψιμαθῆ μᾶλλον ἢ ἀμαθῆ διαβάλλεσθαι.
Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 36.4 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
Now is the time to learn. "What? Is there any time when a man should not learn?" By no means; but just as it is creditable for every age to study, so it is not creditable for every age to be instructed. An old man learning his A B C [elementarius senex] is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.

Hoc est discendi tempus. 'Quid ergo? aliquod est quo non sit discendum?' Minime; sed quemadmodum omnibus annis studere honestum est, ita non omnibus institui. Turpis et ridicula res est elementarius senex: iuveni parandum, seni utendum est.
Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 76.1-3 (tr. Richard M. Gummere):
[1] You have been threatening me with your enmity, if I do not keep you informed about all my daily actions. But see, now, upon what frank terms you and I live: for I shall confide even the following fact to your ears. I have been hearing the lectures of a philosopher; four days have already passed since I have been attending his school and listening to the harangue, which begins at two o'clock. "A fine time of life for that!" you say. Yes, fine indeed! Now what is more foolish than refusing to learn, simply because one has not been learning for a long time?

[2] "What do you mean? Must I follow the fashion set by the fops and youngsters?" But I am pretty well off if this is the only thing that discredits my declining years. Men of all ages are admitted to this class-room. You retort: "Do we grow old merely in order to tag after the youngsters?" But if I, an old man, go to the theatre, and am carried to the races, and allow no duel in the arena to be fought to a finish without my presence, shall I blush to attend a philosopher's lecture?

[3] You should keep learning as long as you are ignorant, - even to the end of your life, if there is anything in the proverb. And the proverb suits the present case as well as any: "As long as you live, keep learning how to live." For all that, there is also something which I can teach in that school. You ask, do you, what I can teach? That even an old man should keep learning.

[1] Inimicitias mihi denuntias si quicquam ex iis quae cotidie facio ignoraveris. Vide quam simpliciter tecum vivam: hoc quoque tibi committam. Philosophum audio et quidem quintum iam diem habeo ex quo in scholam eo et ab octava disputantem audio. 'Bona' inquis 'aetate.' Quidni bona? quid autem stultius est quam quia diu non didiceris non discere?

[2] 'Quid ergo? idem faciam quod trossuli et iuvenes?' Bene mecum agitur si hoc unum senectutem meam dedecet: omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. 'In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?' In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit: ad philosophum ire erubescam?

[3] Tamdiu discendum est quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est quemadmodum vivas quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris quid doceam? etiam seni esse discendum.
St. Augustine, Letters 166 (to St. Jerome, tr. Marcus Dods):
For although in addressing you I consult one much older than myself, nevertheless I also am becoming old; but I cannot think that it is at any time of life too late to learn what we need to know, because, although it is more fitting that old men should be teachers than learners, it is nevertheless more fitting for them to learn than to continue ignorant of that which they should teach to others.

Quamquam enim te multo quam ego sum aetate maiorem, tamen etiam ipse iam senex consulo: sed ad discendum quod opus est, nulla mihi aetas sera videri potest; quia etsi senes magis decet docere quam discere, magis tamen discere quam quid doceant ignorare.
Related posts:

Monday, April 21, 2008


Visuriency, Tacturiency, and Hirquitalliency

Thomas Urquhart, The Jewel (Ekskybalauron) (1652):
Thus for a while their eloquence was mute, and all they spoke was but with the eye and hand, yet so persuasively, by vertue of the intermutual unlimitedness of their visotactil sensation, that each part and portion of the persons of either was obvious to the sight and touch of the persons of both; the visuriency of either, by ushering the tacturiency of both, made the attrectation of both consequent to the inspection of either. Here it was that passion was active, and action passive, they both being overcome by other, and each the conquerour. To speak of her hirquitalliency at the elevation of the pole of his microcosme, or of his luxuriousness to erect a gnomon on her horizontal dyal, will perhaps be held by some to be expressions full of obscoeness, and offensive to the purity of chaste ears; yet seeing she was to be his wife, and that she could not be such without consummation of marriage, which signifieth the same thing in effect, it may be thought, as definitiones logicae verificantur in rebus, if the exerced act be lawful, that the diction which suppones it, can be of no greater transgression, unless you would call it a solaecisme, or that vice in grammar which imports the copulating of the masculine with the feminine gender.
This is a charming bit of erotica. Visuriency (the desire to see) and tacturiency (the desire to touch) are easy to understand, although the Latin desiderative verbs from which they supposedly come (visurio and tacturio) are unattested. Hirquitalliency is more difficult. Dr. John B. Corbett glosses hirquitalliency as "delighted shouts" (i.e. cries of delight). Let's examine the evidence.

The Oxford English Dictionary s.v. hirquitalliency provides an etymology ("f. L. hirquitallī-re (of infants) to acquire a strong voice (f. hircus he-goat) + -ENCY") and the citation from Urquhart but no definition, at least not that I could find online. It simply says "Obs. nonce-wd."

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy Part. 3, Sect. 2, Memb. 2, Subs. 1, uses the Latin verb hirquitallire:
But most part, I say, such are aptest to love that are young and lusty, live at ease, stall-fed, free from cares, like cattle in a rank pasture, idle and solitary persons, they must needs hirquitallire, as Guastavinius recites out of Censorinus.
J.B. Bamborough and Martin Dodsworth, in their commentary on this passage from Burton, state:
According to Censorinus, De die natali 14.7 ((1593), p. 21), hirquitallire ('to resemble a billygoat (hircus)') was used of boys whose voices had begun to break. Guastavinius (Commentarii, sect. 4, probl. 13, p. 182) notes this and alleges an alternative meaning 'to become sexually active'; since he is commenting on the Aristotelian Problem 4.11, why men's and women's flesh begins to smell at puberty, this is his preferred meaning, and given the context will have been uppermost in Burton's mind.
Here is Censorinus, in the midst of a discussion on the periods or stages of human life:
Yet in the second period or the beginning of the third, the voice becomes rougher and uneven, what Aristotle calls τραγίζειν, and our ancestors called hirquitallire, and people think that those at this stage are called hirquitalli for the following reason, because then the body begins to smell like a he-goat [hircus].

tamen in secunda hebdomade vel incipiente tertia vocem crassiorem et inaequabilem fieri, quod Aristoteles appellat τραγίζειν, antiqui nostri hirquitallire, et ipsos inde putant hirquitallos appellari, quod tum corpus hircum olere incipiat.
As Latin hirquitallire comes from hircus (he-goat), so Greek τραγίζειν comes from τράγος (he-goat). Cf. Pauli Festus:
Boys who are first approaching puberty are hirquitalli, so called from the lecherousness of he-goats.

hirquitalli pueri primum ad virilitatem accedentes, a libidine scilicet hircorum dicti.

Sunday, April 20, 2008



Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2001), p. 67:
Perhaps best known for their mastery of food-hoarding are the territorial pine squirrels (i.e., red and Douglas' squirrels). Common denizens of the conifer forests of Canada and the western and northern United States (Steele 1998, 1999), these small but highly aggressive and vocal squirrels store huge quantities of conifer cones that they vigorously defend against competitors (Gurnell 1987; Steele 1998, 1999). Such extensive hoards (or middens as they are sometimes called), easily recognized by their conspicuous piles of cone cores and bracts under which new cones are placed, provide a cool moist environment that is ideal for the storage of cones (C.Smith 1965, 1968). Most middens contain enough food to last one to two seasons, and they are often passed on through several generations of squirrels (Gurnell 1984; Lair 1985).
This is a somewhat unusual use of the word midden. I would have expected it to apply only to the pile of discarded cone fragments above, not to the hoarded whole cones beneath. The primary meaning of a midden is a dunghill or a refuse heap. I don't know how widespread the meaning hoard is among biologists, and I haven't seen this meaning in the few dictionaries I consulted. But there may be some justification for the meaning hoard concealed in the history of the word midden.

At first glance, the two roots that make up the two halves of the word midden seem to be synonyms. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the following derivation:
< an early Scandinavian compound (cf. Norwegian (Bokmål) mødding, Danish mødding (earlier møgdynge), Swedish regional mödding) < the Scandinavian base of Old Icelandic myki (see MUCK n.1) + the Scandinavian base of Icelandic dyngja (see DUNG n.). The expected Old Icelandic form would be *myki-dyngja (cf. Norwegian regional mykjadunge, mykjardunge).
Muck and dung mean the same thing to us. But see the OED's etymology of dung, which reveals that some cognates of dung can also mean hoard or heap:
OE. dung = OFris. dung, OHG. tunga manuring, mod.G. dung and dünger manure. Cf. also Sw. dynga dung, muck, Da. dynge heap, hoard, mass, pile, mod.Icel. dyngja heap, dung. The original sense is uncertain: see Kluge s.v.
In Friedrich Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Strassburg: Trübner, 1882), p. 57, s.v. Dung, I find an interesting reference to Tacitus, Germania 16. Here is Tacitus in the translation of Church and Brodribb:
They are wont also to dig out subterranean caves, and pile on them great heaps of dung, as a shelter from winter and as a receptacle for the year's produce, for by such places they mitigate the rigour of the cold. And should an enemy approach, he lays waste the open country, while what is hidden and buried is either not known to exist, or else escapes him from the very fact that it has to be searched for.

solent et subterraneos specus aperire eosque multo insuper fimo onerant, suffugium hiemis et receptaculum frugibus, quia rigorem frigorum eius modi loci molliunt, et si quando hostis advenit, aperta populatur, abdita autem et defossa aut ignorantur aut eo ipso fallunt, quod quaerenda sunt.
So it appears that hoarding food beneath a pile of refuse is a custom of both ancient Germans and modern squirrels.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


O Seri Studiorum

Pomponius the jurist, in Digest 40.5.20 (tr. Tim G. Parkin):
For in my desire for learning, which down to my 78th year I have regarded as the single best principle for living, I am mindful of the maxim of the one who is reported to have said: "Even though I may have one foot in the grave, I want to learn something new."

Nam ego discendi cupiditate, quam solam vivendi rationem optimam in octavum et septuagesimum annum aetatis duxi, memor sum eius sententiae, qui dixisse fertur: κἄν τὸν ἕτερον πόδα ἐν τῇ σορῷ ἔχω, προσμαθεῖν τι βουλοίμην.
I found this in Parkin's Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 75. If you combine Parkin's excellent notes on pp. 344-345 with those in James Diggle, Theophrastus: Characters = Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 43 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 477, you'll probably have a nearly complete set of references to ancient authors on the subject of opsimathy.

I'll be poaching from these two collections in the weeks to come, because this is a subject that interests me. In his Adagia Erasmus quotes Pomponius to illustrate the proverb alterum pedem in cymba Charontis habere (to have one foot in Charon's boat).

Minutes after posting this, I saw a quotation by Theodore Dalrymple cited by Patrick Kurp:
All in all, my life is a rich one, and it rich because the world is so much richer than my life can ever be. I don't think I will lose interest in the world until the day I die, and my only regret is that I will not have long enough to learn much more than I have learnt.



Donald Culross Peattie, The Road of a Naturalist, chapter 5:
Badlands are bad enough for the farmer or cattleman who so names them. Intractable to the plow, inhospitable to cattle, they offer nothing practical to be done with them. But the naturalist calls them not bad at all; like bogs, everglades, or bleak alpine passes, they are good going precisely because they are hard going. What you bring out of them will be nothing you could have found near home; I got what I count riches in the desert. In Nature the only barrens are the cities; these are all a howling wilderness where neither lion nor jackal dare set foot.
Thomas Moran, Badlands of the Dakotas

Friday, April 18, 2008



Lucretius 2.79: "Like runners they pass on the torch of life" (quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt).

Ancient Greece:

Berlin, 1936:

Paris, 2008:

Related post: Torch Relays and Races.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Ferns and Dead Languages

Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns (August 2):
A man with a taste for being able to name what he sees will want not only to know the trees and the flowers; sooner or later he will take up the ferns, and I give him no assurance that he will ever get much beyond them. Not that there are so many. But the sirens were only three, amidst all those sailor's skulls.

There are only a little less than sixty ferns and fern allies in my region and it will not take a man a season to know them all, so few, so striking they are, so excellent the many handbooks of fern study in existence. But in the very circumscription of their bounds lies half the charm of the time you first take up a study of the ferns; like the pictures of Vermeer or the signatures of Button Gwinnet, there are just a few in the world, and all of them precious. Gone forever is the age of the ferns, when they ruled the earth. Now, as an experiment of evolution, they are finished; we see of their great subkingdom only the fragments that time has spared. It is that which gives the study of them its classic, its complete and homogeneous character, like the study of a rigid, highly inflected, sonorous and dead language.
Isaak Levitan, Ferns

Button Gwinnet was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. I would have written sailors', not sailor's, but I left it as I found it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A Necessary Act?

William Cowper, The Task, Book VI (The Winter Walk at Noon), lines 560-587:
I would not enter on my list of friends
(Though graced with polished manners and fine sense,
Yet wanting sensibility) the man
Who needlessly sets foot upon a worm.
An inadvertent step may crush the snail
That crawls at evening in the public path;
But he that has humanity, forewarned,
Will tread aside, and let the reptile live.
The creeping vermin, loathsome to the sight,
And charged perhaps with venom, that intrudes,
A visitor unwelcome, into scenes
Sacred to neatness, and repose, the alcove,
The chamber, or refectory, may die;
A necessary act incurs no blame.
Not so when, held within their proper bounds
And guiltless of offence, they range the air,
Or take their pastime in the spacious field:
There they are privileged; and he that hunts
Or harms them there is guilty of a wrong,
Disturbs the economy of Nature's realm,
Who, when she formed, designed them an abode.
The sum is this: if man's convenience, health,
Or safety interfere, his rights and claims
Are paramount, and must extinguish theirs.
Else they are all—the meanest things that are—
As free to live, and to enjoy that life,
As God was free to form them at the first,
Who in His sovereign wisdom made them all.
Those lines of Cowper came to my mind as I was reading Donald Culross Peattie, The Road of a Naturalist, chapter 2 (Survival in the Desert), in which he describes an encounter with a rattlesnake:
My first instinct was to let him go his way and I would go mine, and with this he would have been well content. I have never killed an animal I was not obliged to kill; the sport in taking life is a satisfaction I can't feel. But I reflected that there were children, dogs, horses at the ranch, as well as men and women lightly shod; my duty, plainly, was to kill the snake.
Here was Cowper's "creeping vermin, loathsome to the sight, / and charged perhaps with venom." The snake was "a visitor unwelcome" to Peattie, although it could be said that it was "within its proper bounds / and guiltless of offence." Was it a "necessary act" that "incurred no blame" to kill the snake? Or was it an act that "disturbed the economy of Nature's realm?" I can't judge, but Peattie did. He bludgeoned the snake to death with a hoe.

Related post: Cruelty to Animals.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008



Aldo Leopold, A Man's Leisure Time:
What is a hobby anyway? Where is the line of demarcation between hobbies and ordinary normal pursuits? I have been unable to answer this question to my own satisfaction. At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant. Certainly many of our most satisfying avocations today consist of making something by hand which machines can usually make more quickly and cheaply and sometimes better....Perhaps we have here the real inwardness of our question: A hobby is a defiance of the contemporary. It is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked. If this is true, then we may also say that every hobbyist is inherently a radical, and that his tribe is inherently a minority.

This, however, is serious; becoming serious is a grievous fault in hobbyists. It is an axiom that no hobby should either seek or need rational justification. To wish to do it is reason enough. To find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry—lowers it at once to the ignominious category of an 'exercise' undertaken for health, power, or profit. Lifting dumbells is not a hobby. It is a confession of subservience, not an assertion of liberty.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Two Rhetorical Devices

I've recently noticed some examples of interlocking chiasmus and asyndetic, privative adjectives, and I want to add them to the electronic filing cabinet that is my blog.

Examples of interlocking chiasmus:Examples of asyndetic, privative adjectives:


Good to the Last Drop

My friend Jim K. sent me a link to Emily Andrews, "World's most expensive coffee at £50 a cup comes to British stores...and it's made from cats' droppings," Daily Mail (April 10, 2008). The cats are palm civets of Indonesia, the store is Peter Jones, in Sloane Square, London, and the coffee is called Luwak coffee.

Jim's email had the subject line Good to the Last Drop, which for many years has been an advertising slogan for Maxwell House coffee. It occurred to me that it would also be a fitting slogan for Luwak coffee. The steps in my contorted thinking are (1) the last drop is the dregs; (2) the Latin word for dregs or sediment is faex; (3) English feces comes from the plural of faex, i.e. faeces; and (4) Luwak coffee beans are extracted from the feces of the palm civet.

I also wondered if English dregs (meaning sediment) was etymologically related to dreck (meaning excrement), but it is not.

Related post: Cowslip.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Creatures of a Day

Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns (May 10):
Was it worth while for a mayfly to have been born, to have been a worm for weeks and a bride or a bridegroom for one day, only to perish? Such is not a question to which Nature will give the human mind an answer. She thrusts us all into life, and with her hand propels us like childen through the rôle she has allotted us. You may weep about it or you may smile; that matters only to yourself. The trees that live five hundred years, or five thousand, see us human mayflies grow and mate and die while they are adding a foot to their girth. Well might they ask themselves if it be not a slavish and ephemeral soft thing to be born a man.
Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California

Saturday, April 12, 2008



Hesketh Pearson, The Smith of Smiths, being The Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1934), p. 319:
In June [1844] he was laid up with the gout and one of his callers, Thomas Moore, was amused and surprised to find him studying French, a copy-book open upon the table, with all the verbs, their moods and tenses, written out neatly in his own hand. Moore thought it an odd pastime for a septuagenarian.
I don't find it odd at all, and I hope I have enough of my wits about me in my later years to do something similar.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Epicurean Fare

Sydney Smith's epicure was satisfied with a potato salad. Epicurus himself, according to St. Jerome (Against Jovinian 2.11, tr. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace), praised a vegetarian diet:
And, strange to say, Epicurus, the defender of pleasure, in all his books speaks of nothing but vegetables and fruits; and he says that we ought to live on cheap food because the preparation of sumptuous banquets of flesh involves great care and suffering, and greater pains attend the search for such delicacies than pleasures the consumption of them.

quodque mirandum sit Epicurus voluptatis assertor omnes libros suos replevit holeribus et pomis et vilibus cibis dicit esse vivendum, quia carnes et exquisitae epulae ingenti cura ac miseria praeparentur maioremque poenam habeant in inquirendo, quam voluptatem in abutendo.
The Roman poet Horace called himself a "pig from Epicurus' sty" (Epistles 1.4.16, a passage also quoted by St. Jerome, Against Jovinian), and in a couple of passages mentioned a diet of vegetables which Epicurus would have approved.

The first passage is Horace, Satires 1.6.111-115 (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough):
Wherever the fancy leads, I saunter forth alone, I ask the price of greens and flour; often toward evening I stroll round the cheating Circus and the Forum. I listen to the fortune-tellers; then homeward betake me to my dish of leeks and peas and fritters.

                            quacumque libido est,
incedo solus, percontor quanti holus ac far,
fallacem circum vespertinumque pererro
saepe forum, adsisto divinis, inde domum me
ad porri et ciceris refero laganique catinum.
The second is Odes 1.31.15-16 (tr. Theodore Martin):
Let olives, endives, mallows light
  Be all my fare.

                me pascunt olivae,
me cichorea levesque malvae.

15 pascant Faber
George Meason Whicher and George Frisbie Whicher, On the Tibur Road: A Freshman's Horace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1912), p. 59, anachronistically take cichorea to be a cheap substitute for coffee, in this amusing bit of light verse titled "Horace's Diet":
O Quintus Horatius! O can it be true
  That you spurned the Falernian flagon,
And quaffed, in its place, this chicory brew,
  Refusing to get a good jag on?

If for dinner, instead of a New England boiled,
  You preferred but an olive or mallow,
I'm surprised your digestion so long was unspoiled,
  And your verses not morbid or shallow.

So, Horace, if feeding on fodder like this
  You fancied that you were in clover,
I'll never blame Pyrrha for shunning your kiss,
  Or Chloe for throwing you over.
The reference to St. Jerome comes from Nisbet and Hubbard's commentary on Odes 1.31.

Related posts:

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Fate Cannot Harm Me

Sydney Smith, A Recipe for Salad:
Two large potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Unwonted softness to the salad give:
Of mordant mustard, add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment which bites so soon;
But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault,
To add a double quantity of salt:
Three times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown,
And once with vinegar, procured from town;
True flavour needs it, and your poet begs
The pounded yellow of two well-boiled eggs;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And scarce suspected, animate the whole;
And lastly, on the flavoured compound toss,
A magic teaspoon of anchovy sauce:
Then though green turtle fail, though venison's tough,
And ham and turkey are not boiled enough,
Serenely full, the epicure may say —
"Fate cannot harm me, — I have dined to-day."
For another literary recipe for salad, see Moretum in the Appendix Vergiliana.


Aversion from Solitude and Rural Scenes

Charles Lamb, The Londoner:
I was born, as you have heard, in a crowd. This has begot in me an entire affection for that way of life, amounting to an almost insurmountable aversion from solitude and rural scenes. This aversion was never interrupted or suspended, except for a few years in the younger part of my life, during a period in which I had set my affections upon a charming young woman. Every man, while the passion is upon him, is for a time at least addicted to groves and meadows and purling streams. During this short period of my existence, I contracted just familiarity enough with rural objects to understand tolerably well ever after the poets, when they declaim in such passionate terms in favor of a country life.

For my own part, now the fit is past, I have no hesitation in declaring, that a mob of happy faces crowding up at the pit door of Drury-lane Theatre, just at the hour of six, gives me ten thousand sincerer pleasures, than I could ever receive from all the flocks of silly sheep that ever whitened the plains of Arcadia or Epsom Downs.
Charles Lamb, Letter to Thomas Manning (Nov. 28, 1800):
I am not romance-bit about Nature. The earth and sea and sky (when all is said) is but as a house to dwell in. If the inmates be courteous, and good liquors flow like the conduits at an old coronation,—if they can talk sensibly, and feel properly, I have no need to stand staring upon the gilded looking-glass, (that strained my friend's purse-strings in the purchase,) nor his five-shilling print, over the mantel-piece, of old Nabbs, the carrier. Just as important to me (in a sense) is all the furniture of my world,—eye-pampering, but satisfies no heart. Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat seamstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying, authors in the street with spectacles, lamps lit at night, pastry-cooks' and silver-smiths' shops, beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches, drowsy cry of mechanic watchmen at night, with bucks reeling home drunk,—if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of "Fire!" and "Stop thief!"—inns of court with their learned air, and halls, and butteries, just like Cambridge colleges,—old book-stalls, "Jeremy Taylors," "Burtons on Melancholy," and "Religio Medicis," on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London! with thy many sins. O City, abounding in whores, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!
Charles Lamb, Letter to William Wordsworth (Jan. 22, 1830):
O let no native Londoner imagine that health, and rest, and innocent occupation, interchange of converse sweet and recreative study, can make the country any thing better than altogether odious and detestable. A garden was the primitive prison till man with Promethean felicity and boldness luckily sinn'd himself out of it.
Related post: The City versus the Country.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Now the Green Blade Rises

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, chapter 17 (Spring):
The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever! The faint silvery warblings heard over the partially bare and moist fields from the bluebird, the song sparrow, and the red-wing, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell! What at such a time are histories, chronologies, traditions, and all written revelations? The brooks sing carols and glees to the spring. The marsh hawk, sailing low over the meadow, is already seeking the first slimy life that awakes. The sinking sound of melting snow is heard in all dells, and the ice dissolves apace in the ponds. The grass flames up on the hillsides like a spring fire,—"et primitus oritur herba imbribus primoribus evocata,"—as if the earth sent forth an inward heat to greet the returning sun; not yellow but green is the color of its flame;—the symbol of perpetual youth, the grass-blade, like a long green ribbon, streams from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its spear of last year's hay with the fresh life below. It grows as steadily as the rill oozes out of the ground. It is almost identical with that, for in the growing days of June, when the rills are dry, the grass-blades are their channels, and from year to year the herds drink at this perennial green stream, and the mower draws from it betimes their winter supply. So our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.
It is interesting to compare a earlier version of this passage, from Thoreau's Journal (Sept. 29, 1843):
The first sparrow of spring! The year beginning with younger hope than ever. The first silvery warblings heard over the bare and dank fields, as if the last flakes of winter tinkled as they fell. What, then, are histories, chronologies, and all written revelations? Flakes of warm sunlight fall on the congealed fields. The brooks and rills sing carols and glees for the spring. The marshhawk already seeks the first stirring life that awakes. The sough of melting snow is heard in all dells, and on all the hillsides, and by the sunny river-banks; and the ice dissolves in the ponds. The earth sends forth, as it were, an inward heat; not yellow like the sun, but green is the color of her flames; and the grass flames up on the warm hillsides as her spring fire. Methinks the sight of the first sod of fresh grass in the spring would make the reformer reconsider his schemes; the faithless and despairing man revive. Grass is a symbol of perpetual growth,—its blade like a long green ribbon, streaming from the sod into the summer, checked indeed by the frost, but anon pushing on again, lifting its last year's spear of withered hay with the fresh life below. I have seen when early in spring the clumps of grass stood with their three inches of new green upholding their withered spears of the last autumn. It is as steady a growth as the rill which leaps out of the ground,—indeed it is almost identical with that; for in the vigorous fertile days of June when the rills are dry, the grass-blades are their only channels. And from year to year, the herds drink this green stream, and the mower cuts from the out-welling supply,—what the several needs require. So the human life but dies down to the surface of Nature; but puts forth its green blade to eternity.
This passage doesn't seem to be in the Torrey-Allen edition of Thoreau's Journal. I found it in Carl Bode's Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau. Bode cites as his source F.B. Sanborn's The First and Last Journeys of Thoreau (1905), vol. 1.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


The Fate of the Shrubbery at Weston

William Cowper's friend, the physician William Heberden, recommended spending time outdoors to alleviate melancholy (Retirement, lines 279-282):
Virtuous and faithful Heberden, whose skill
Attempts no task it cannot well fulfil,
Gives melancholy up to nature's care,
And sends the patient into purer air.
But Cowper's gloom was sometimes so profound that not even "nature's care" could cure it. Cowper recorded one of those times in his poem The Shrubbery. Written in a Time of Affliction:
O happy shades! to me unblest!
  Friendly to peace, but not to me!
How ill the scene that offers rest,
  And heart that cannot rest, agree!

This glassy stream, that spreading pine,
  Those alders quivering to the breeze,
Might soothe a soul less hurt than mine,
  And please, if anything could please.

But fixed unalterable Care
  Foregoes not what she feels within,
Shows the same sadness everywhere,
  And slights the season and the scene.

For all that pleased in wood or lawn,
  While Peace possessed these silent bowers,
Her animating smile withdrawn,
  Has lost its beauties and its powers.

The saint or moralist should tread
  This moss-grown alley, musing, slow;
They seek like me the secret shade,
  But not, like me, to nourish woe!

Me fruitful scenes and prospects waste
  Alike admonish not to roam;
These tell me of enjoyments past,
  And those of sorrows yet to come.
What became of the shrubbery and the surrounding grove Cowper related in a letter to Lady Hesketh (May 8, 1786):
The environs are most beautiful, and the village itself one of the prettiest I ever saw. Add to this, you would step immediately into Mr. Throckmorton's pleasure ground, where you would not soil your slipper even in winter. A most unfortunate mistake was made by that gentleman's bailiff in his absence. Just before he left Weston last year for the winter, he gave him orders to cut short the tops of the flowering shrubs, that lined a serpentine walk in a delightful grove, celebrated in my poetship in a little piece that you remember was called the Shrubbery. The dunce, misapprehending the order, cut down and fagoted up the whole grove, leaving neither tree, bush, nor twig; nothing but stumps about as high as my ancle. Mrs. T. told us that she never saw her husband so angry in her life. I judged indeed by his physiognomy, which has great sweetness in it, that he is very little addicted to that infernal passion. But had he cudgeled the man for his cruel blunder, and the havoc made in consequence of it, I could have excused him.
Compare the wrath of William Wordsworth's sea captain brother John, when the owner of John's favorite grove cut down all the trees in it: "I wish I had the monster that cut them down in my ship & I would give him a tight flogging."

Related posts:

Monday, April 07, 2008


Lesson for a Whiffet

Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (The Lesson of a Tree):
I should not take either the biggest or the most picturesque tree to illustrate it. Here is one of my favorites now before me, a fine yellow poplar, quite straight, perhaps 90 feet high, and four thick at the butt. How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing. How it rebukes by its tough and equable serenity all weathers, this gusty-temper'd little whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow. Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscences of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don't, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons—or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get. ("Cut this out," as the quack mediciners say, and keep by you.) Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.
Yellow poplar is a common name for the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). There are some good photographs of tulip trees by Gregory Palermo on his blog Plainfield Trees.


Poetry and Life

Underbelly, Scarlet Letters:
"My book might be filthy, but my life is blameless."—has a certain Victorian ring, not so? But the new issue of The "Quote, Unquote" Newsletter traces it [to] the Latin writer Martial: Lascivia est nobis pagina, vita proba. Wonder where Martial pinched it.
Read lasciva (adjective modifying pagina), not lascivia (noun). Martial (1.4.8) might have pinched it either from Catullus 16.5-6:
For it is fitting for the virtuous poet to be chaste himself, but there is no need for his verses to be so.

nam castum esse decet pium poetam
ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est.
or Ovid, Tristia 2.353-354:
Believe me, my character is not the same as my poetry (my life is chaste, my Muse is playful).

Crede mihi, distant mores a carmine nostro
  (vita verecunda est, Musa iocosa mea).
Martial's contemporary and acquaintance Pliny the Younger, in defense of his own racy hendecasyllables (Letters 4.14), quoted the lines from Catullus.

Sunday, April 06, 2008



Ernst Mayr, Systematics and the Origin of Species (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942; rpt. 1982), p. 103:
[N]o system of nomenclature and no hierarchy of systematic categories is able to represent adequately the complicated set of interrelationships and divergences found in nature.
Heinrich Heine, The Harz Journey (tr. Charles G. Leland):
It vexes me every time, when I remember that even the dear flowers which God hath made have been, like us, divided into castes, and like us are distinguished by those external names which indicate descent and family. If there must be such divisions, it were better to adopt those suggested by Theophrastus, who wished that flowers might be divided according to souls—that is, their perfumes. As for myself, I have my own system of Natural Science, according to which, all things are divided into those which may—or may not be—eaten!

Saturday, April 05, 2008



Baltasar Gracián, Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia 137 (tr. Joseph Jacobs):
The sage should be self-sufficient. He that was all in all to himself carried all with him when he carried himself. If a universal friend can represent to us Rome and the rest of the world, let a man be his own universal friend, and then he is in a position to live alone. Whom could such a man want if there is no clearer intellect or finer taste than his own? He would then depend on himself alone, which is the highest happiness and like the Supreme Being. He that can live alone resembles the brute beast in nothing, the sage in much and like a god in everything.

Bástese a sí mismo el sabio. Él se era todas sus cosas, y llevándose a sí lo llebava todo. Si un amigo universal basta hazer Roma y todo lo restante del Universo, séase uno esse amigo de sí proprio, y podrá vivirse a solas. ¿Quién le podrá hazer falta si no ai ni mayor concepto ni mayor gusto que el suyo? Dependerá de sí solo, que es felicidad suma semejar a la entidad suma. El que puede passar assí a solas, nada tendrá de bruto, sino mucho de sabio y todo de Dios.
"He that was all in all to himself" is either Bias or Stilpon, to both of whom the saying "I carry all my possessions with me" (omnia mea mecum porto) is attributed. In the last sentence Gracián seems to disagree with Aristotle, Politics 1.1253a29 (tr. H. Rackham):
A man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.

ὁ δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν ἢ μηδὲν δεόμενος δι' αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε ἢ θηρίον ἢ θεός.
What Rackham translates as "a lower animal" is really "a wild beast" (θηρίον). See also Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Maxims and Arrows 3, tr. Walter Kaufmann):
To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both - a philosopher.

Um allein zu leben, muss man ein Thier oder ein Gott sein - sagt Aristoteles. Fehlt der dritte Fall: man muss Beides sein - Philosoph ...
Related post: Omnia Mea Mecum Porto.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Open Air

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (December 29, 1856):
We must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day. We must make root, send out some little fibre at least, even every winter day. I am sensible that I am imbibing health when I open my mouth to the wind. Staying in the house breeds a sort of insanity always. Every house is, in this sense, a sort of hospital. A night and a forenoon is as much confinement to those wards as I can stand. I am aware that I recover some sanity, which I had lost, almost the instant that I come abroad.
Walt Whitman, A Sun Bath—Nakedness, from Specimen Days:
Shall I tell you, reader, to what I attribute my already much-restored health? That I have been almost two years, off and on, without drugs and medicines, and daily in the open air. Last summer I found a particularly secluded little dell off one side by my creek, originally a large dug-out marl-pit, now abandon'd, fill'd with bushes, trees, grass, a group of willows, a straggling bank, and a spring of delicious water running right through the middle of it, with two or three little cascades. Here I retreated every hot day, and follow it up this summer. Here I realize the meaning of that old fellow who said he was seldom less alone than when alone. Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so close to me.


A Certain Fertile Sadness

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (August 17, 1851):
Why should pensiveness be akin to sadness? There is a certain fertile sadness which I would not avoid, but rather earnestly seek. It is positively joyful to me. It saves my life from being trivial.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Advice to Poor Jackself

Gerard Manley Hopkins:
My own heart let me have more pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.
This sonnet is good advice for the self tormentor (Greek heautontimorumenos), but it's a bit difficult to parse in spots.

The first editor, Robert Bridges, suggested that we mentally supply world as the noun which the adjectives comfortless (6) and dark (7) modify, and on betweenpie (14) he remarked: "a strange word, in which pie apparently makes a compound verb with between, meaning 'as the sky seen between dark mountains is brightly dappled', the grammar such as intervariegates would make. This word might have delighted William Barnes, if the verb 'to pie' existed. It seems not to exist, and to be forbidden by homophonic absurdities."

Size (11) is an intransitive verb meaning "increase in size, grow, wax." See the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), s.v. size, v.1, definition 8b, which cites sizing moon (i.e. waxing moon) from another poem by Hopkins.

For the first half of the compound Jackself (9), definition 36 of OED, s.v. Jack, n.1, seems appropriate: "Prefixed to another noun denoting a person, a thing personified, a trade, or a quality, so as to form a quasi-proper name or nickname, often applied familiarly or contemptuously."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Differences of Opinion

Charles Lamb, Letter XLVIII (to Thomas Manning, 1800):
But you see it in one view, I in another. Rest you merry in your opinion! Opinion is a species of property; and though I am always desirous to share with my friend to a certain extent, I shall ever like to keep some tenets, and some property, properly my own.



Charles Lamb, Letter XIII (to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nov. 14, 1796):
But there is a monotony in the affections, which people living together or, as we do now, very frequently seeing each other, are apt to give in to: a sort of indifference in the expression of kindness for each other, which demands that we should sometimes call to our aid the trickery of surprise.


A Place to Hide

Montaigne, Essais 3.3 (De Trois Commerces = Three Kinds of Association, tr. Donald M. Frame):
Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself, to pay his court privately to himself, to hide! .... I find it measurably more endurable to be always alone than never to be able to be alone.

Miserable à mon gré, qui n'a chez soy, où estre à soy : où se faire particulierement la cour : où se cacher....Et trouve aucunement plus supportable, d'estre tousjours seul, que ne le pouvoir jamais estre.

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