Sunday, November 30, 2008


Fall, Winter, Fall

A.E. Housman, Last Poems, XX:
The night is freezing fast,
      To-morrow comes December;
            And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
      And chiefly I remember
            How Dick would hate the cold.

Fall, winter, fall; for he,
      Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
            Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
      His overcoat for ever,
            And wears the turning globe.

Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902), And Dick the Shepherd Blows His Nail

The title of Brewtnall's painting is a quotation from Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost, Act V, Scene ii.

On Housman's poem see Anthony Hecht, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 98-101.


Primal Pleasures

Gretel C. Kovach, "Pastor's Advice for Better Marriage: More Sex," New York Times (Nov. 23, 2008):
GRAPEVINE, Tex. — And on the seventh day, there was no rest for married couples. A week after the Rev. Ed Young challenged husbands and wives among his flock of 20,000 to strengthen their unions through Seven Days of Sex, his advice was — keep it going.

Mr. Young, an author, a television host and the pastor of the evangelical Fellowship Church, issued his call for a week of "congregational copulation" among married couples on Nov. 16, while pacing in front of a large bed. Sometimes he reclined on the paisley coverlet while flipping through a Bible, emphasizing his point that it is time for the church to put God back in the bed.


"If you've said, 'I do,' do it," he said. As for single people, "I don't know, try eating chocolate cake," he said.
A new variation on "Let them eat cake," I suppose.

An alternative for the lovelorn might be to seek consolation and pleasure in another one of God's gifts to mankind. Former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation chairman Guy Fournier once gave a radio interview in which he spoke for over ten minutes about the joys of defecation. According to a story by Graeme Hamilton in the National Post, Fournier recalled a train trip in the early 1960s during which a friend named Michel argued that going number two was as pleasurable as making love.
"From that moment, I started paying closer attention — and I have to tell you, I quickly realized that Michel was entirely right," Mr. Fournier said.

"And the most extraordinary thing is that, in the end, as you grow older, you continue to go poop once a day if you are in good health, while it is not easy to make love every day. So finally, the pleasure is longer-lasting and more frequent than the other."

He also advised against distractions while on the toilet. "There are even people who push the heresy to the point of doing Sudoku or crosswords rather than concentrating on the pleasure that they would have doing the thing," Mr. Fournier told his radio interviewer. "It is just as heretical as if you read the National Post while making love. It is not to be recommended."
If two examples make a trend, this idea seems to have been floating around in the 1960s. W.H. Auden, in the opening stanzas of his poem The Geography of the House, written in July 1964 and dedicated to Christopher Isherwood, makes exactly the same point. Here is the entire hilarious poem:
Seated after breakfast
In this white-tiled cabin
Arabs call The House where
Everybody goes
Even melancholics
Raise a cheer to Mrs
Nature for the primal
Pleasures She bestows.

Sex is but a dream to
But a joy proposed un-
-til we start to shave:
Mouth-delight depends on
Virtue in the cook, but
This She guarantees from
Cradle unto grave.

Lifted off the potty,
Infants from their mothers
Hear their first impartial
Words of worldly praise:
Hence, to start the morning
With a satisfactory
Dump is a good omen
All our adult days.

Revelation came to
Luther in a privy
(Cross-words have been solved there):
Rodin was no fool
When he cast his Thinker,
Cogitating deeply,
Crouched in the position
Of a man at stool.

All the arts derive from
This ur-act of making,
Private to the artist:
Makers' lives are spent
Striving in their chosen
Medium to produce a
De-narcissus-ised en-
-during excrement.

Freud did not invent the
Constipated miser:
Banks have letter boxes
Built in their façade
Marked For Night Deposits,
Stocks are firm or liquid,
Currencies of nations
Either soft or hard.

Global Mother, keep our
Bowels of compassion
Open through our lifetime,
Purge our minds as well:
Grant us a kind ending,
Not a second childhood,
Petulant, weak-sphinctered,
In a cheap hotel.

Keep us in our station:
When we get pound-noteish,
When we seem about to
Take up Higher Thought,
Send us some deflating
Image like the pained ex-
-pression on a Major
Prophet taken short.

(Orthodoxy ought to
Bless our modern plumbing:
Swift and St Augustine
Lived in centuries
When a stench of sewage
Ever in the nostrils
Made a strong debating
Point for Manichees.)

Mind and Body run on
Different time-tables:
Not until our morning
Visit here can we
Leave the dead concerns of
Yesterday behind us,
Face with all our courage
What is now to be.
The end of the third stanza reminds me of the rhyming Latin expression "Cacatio matutina est tamquam medicina" ("A bowel movement in the morning is just like medicine").

Jim. K. drew my attention to Justin McCurry, "Boardroom bards - Japan's salarymen bare their souls in poetry", Guardian (May 14, 2007), a report on the Dai-ichi life insurance company's annual salaryman senryū (short satirical verse) contest. A recent second-prize-winning entry was, "The only warmth in my life is the toilet seat," not only a lament of the lovelorn but also a tribute to Japan's high-tech, well-heated toilets.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Barnaby Rudge

This is a miscellaneous collection of quotations and notes to myself after reading Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens.

Ch. 1 (describing John Willet, and by extension many people I have known): of the most dogged and positive fellows in existence — always sure that what he thought or said or did was right, and holding it as a thing quite settled and ordained by the laws of nature and Providence, that anybody who said or did or thought otherwise must be inevitably and of necessity wrong.
Ch. 2: be plain with you, friend, you don't carry in your countenance a letter of recommendation.
Ch. 4:
Like some other ladies who in remote ages flourished upon this globe, Mrs Varden was most devout when most ill-tempered.
Ch. 7:
Well, well, all of us have our faults. I'll not be hard upon hers. We have been man and wife too long for that.
Ch. 13 (a reversal of Mark 12:31, John 13:34, etc.):
I hope I know my own unworthiness, and that I hate and despise myself and all my fellow-creatures as every practicable Christian should.
Ch. 15:
I have been, as the phrase is, liberally educated, and am fit for nothing.
Ch. 15:
'My meaning is, that you must do as I did; that you must marry well and make the most of yourself.'

'A mere fortune-hunter!' cried the son, indignantly.

'What in the devil's name, Ned, would you be!' returned the father. 'All men are fortune-hunters, are they not? The law, the church, the court, the camp — see how they are all crowded with fortune-hunters, jostling each other in the pursuit. The stock-exchange, the pulpit, the counting-house, the royal drawing-room, the senate, — what but fortune-hunters are they filled with? A fortune-hunter! Yes. You ARE one; and you would be nothing else, my dear Ned, if you were the greatest courtier, lawyer, legislator, prelate, or merchant, in existence.
Ch. 19:
To take a draught of small ale in the morning was to observe a pernicious, irreligious, and Pagan custom, the relish whereof should be left to swine, and Satan, or at least to Popish persons, and should be shunned by the righteous as a work of sin and evil.
Ch. 19:
And so, with a mighty show of humility and forgiveness, she folded her hands, and looked round again, with a smile which plainly said, 'If you desire to see the first and foremost among female martyrs, here she is, on view!'
Ch. 19:
All bars are snug places, but the Maypole's was the very snuggest, cosiest, and completest bar, that ever the wit of man devised. Such amazing bottles in old oaken pigeon-holes; such gleaming tankards dangling from pegs at about the same inclination as thirsty men would hold them to their lips; such sturdy little Dutch kegs ranged in rows on shelves; so many lemons hanging in separate nets, and forming the fragrant grove already mentioned in this chronicle, suggestive, with goodly loaves of snowy sugar stowed away hard by, of punch, idealised beyond all mortal knowledge; such closets, such presses, such drawers full of pipes, such places for putting things away in hollow window-seats, all crammed to the throat with eatables, drinkables, or savoury condiments; lastly, and to crown all, as typical of the immense resources of the establishment, and its defiances to all visitors to cut and come again, such a stupendous cheese!
Ch. 20:
To make one's sweetheart miserable is well enough and quite right, but to be made miserable one's self is a little too much!
Ch. 21:
I'd sooner kill a man than a dog any day. I've never been sorry for a man's death in all my life, and I have for a dog's. [Cf. Robinson Jeffers in his poem Hurt Hawks: I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.]
Ch. 24:
The despisers of mankind — apart from the mere fools and mimics, of that creed — are of two sorts. They who believe their merit neglected and unappreciated, make up one class; they who receive adulation and flattery, knowing their own worthlessness, compose the other. Be sure that the coldest-hearted misanthropes are ever of this last order.
Ch. 25:
It is something to look upon enjoyment, so that it be free and wild and in the face of nature, though it is but the enjoyment of an idiot. It is something to know that Heaven has left the capacity of gladness in such a creature's breast; it is something to be assured that, however lightly men may crush that faculty in their fellows, the Great Creator of mankind imparts it even to his despised and slighted work. Who would not rather see a poor idiot happy in the sunlight, than a wise man pining in a darkened jail!
Ch. 25:
He despised gadding about; he looked upon coaches as things that ought to be indicted; as disturbers of the peace of mankind; as restless, bustling, busy, horn-blowing contrivances, quite beneath the dignity of men, and only suited to giddy girls that did nothing but chatter and go a-shopping.
Ch. 32:
Marriage is a civil contract; people marry to better their worldly condition and improve appearances; it is an affair of house and furniture, of liveries, servants, equipage, and so forth.
Ch. 32:
To surround anything, however monstrous or ridiculous, with an air of mystery, is to invest it with a secret charm, and power of attraction which to the crowd is irresistible. False priests, false prophets, false doctors, false patriots, false prodigies of every kind, veiling their proceedings in mystery, have always addressed themselves at an immense advantage to the popular credulity, and have been, perhaps, more indebted to that resource in gaining and keeping for a time the upper hand of Truth and Common Sense, than to any half-dozen items in the whole catalogue of imposture. Curiosity is, and has been from the creation of the world, a master-passion. To awaken it, to gratify it by slight degrees, and yet leave something always in suspense, is to establish the surest hold that can be had, in wrong, on the unthinking portion of mankind.
Ch. 38 (the revolutionary's creed):
Down with everybody, down with everything!
Ch. 41 (argument against pacifism):
I was going to say, what on earth do you call it unchristian for? Which would be most unchristian, Martha — to sit quietly down and let our houses be sacked by a foreign army, or to turn out like men and drive 'em off? Shouldn't I be a nice sort of a Christian, if I crept into a corner of my own chimney and looked on while a parcel of whiskered savages bore off Dolly — or you?
Ch. 45:
Their pleasures on these excursions were simple enough. A crust of bread and scrap of meat, with water from the brook or spring, sufficed for their repast. Barnaby's enjoyments were, to walk, and run, and leap, till he was tired; then to lie down in the long grass, or by the growing corn, or in the shade of some tall tree, looking upward at the light clouds as they floated over the blue surface of the sky, and listening to the lark as she poured out her brilliant song. There were wild-flowers to pluck — the bright red poppy, the gentle harebell, the cowslip, and the rose. There were birds to watch; fish; ants; worms; hares or rabbits, as they darted across the distant pathway in the wood and so were gone: millions of living things to have an interest in, and lie in wait for, and clap hands and shout in memory of, when they had disappeared. In default of these, or when they wearied, there was the merry sunlight to hunt out, as it crept in aslant through leaves and boughs of trees, and hid far down — deep, deep, in hollow places — like a silver pool, where nodding branches seemed to bathe and sport; sweet scents of summer air breathing over fields of beans or clover; the perfume of wet leaves or moss; the life of waving trees, and shadows always changing. When these or any of them tired, or in excess of pleasing tempted him to shut his eyes, there was slumber in the midst of all these soft delights, with the gentle wind murmuring like music in his ears, and everything around melting into one delicious dream.
Ch. 47:
The world to him was full of happiness; in every tree, and plant, and flower, in every bird, and beast, and tiny insect whom a breath of summer wind laid low upon the ground, he had delight.
The word ravenless (in the Preface to the Charles Dickens Edition, 1868) is apparently not in the Oxford English Dictionary (perhaps intentionally).

The man hoisted with his own petard, the hangman hanged: Mr Dennis.

Asyndetic, privative adjectives: motionless, noiseless, cheerless (Ch. 43); impertinent, unnecessary, unconstitutional (Ch. 58); unwashed, unshorn (Ch. 69); thankless, undeserving (Chapter the Last).

Forms of address:
Mrs Varden's chief aider and abettor, and at the same time her principal victim and object of wrath, was her single domestic servant, one Miss Miggs; or as she was called, in conformity with those prejudices of society which lop and top from poor hand-maidens all such genteel excrescences — Miggs. (Ch. 7)

'At the worst I can have a bed here, Willet, I suppose?'

Old John, immensely flattered by the personal notoriety implied in this familiar form of address, answered, with something like a knowing look, 'I should believe you could, sir' ... (Ch. 10)

'Ah father!' cried his son, 'if—'

'My good fellow,' interposed the parent hastily, as he set down his glass, and raised his eyebrows with a startled and horrified expression, 'for Heaven's sake don't call me by that obsolete and ancient name. Have some regard for delicacy. Am I grey, or wrinkled, do I go on crutches, have I lost my teeth, that you adopt such a mode of address? Good God, how very coarse!' (Ch. 32)
Food and drink:
It was a substantial meal; for, over and above the ordinary tea equipage, the board creaked beneath the weight of a jolly round of beef, a ham of the first magnitude, and sundry towers of buttered Yorkshire cake, piled slice upon slice in most alluring order. There was also a goodly jug of well-browned clay, fashioned into the form of an old gentleman, not by any means unlike the locksmith, atop of whose bald head was a fine white froth answering to his wig, indicative, beyond dispute, of sparkling home-brewed ale. (Ch. 4)

'A bit of fish,' said John to the cook, 'and some lamb chops (breaded, with plenty of ketchup), and a good salad, and a roast spring chicken, with a dish of sausages and mashed potatoes, or something of that sort.' (Ch. 19)

There he sat, watching his wife as she decorated the room with flowers for the greater honour of Dolly and Joseph Willet, who had gone out walking, and for whom the tea-kettle had been singing gaily on the hob full twenty minutes, chirping as never kettle chirped before; for whom the best service of real undoubted china, patterned with divers round-faced mandarins holding up broad umbrellas, was now displayed in all its glory; to tempt whose appetites a clear, transparent, juicy ham, garnished with cool green lettuce-leaves and fragrant cucumber, reposed upon a shady table, covered with a snow-white cloth; for whose delight, preserves and jams, crisp cakes and other pastry, short to eat, with cunning twists, and cottage loaves, and rolls of bread both white and brown, were all set forth in rich profusion; in whose youth Mrs V. herself had grown quite young, and stood there in a gown of red and white: symmetrical in figure, buxom in bodice, ruddy in cheek and lip, faultless in ankle, laughing in face and mood, in all respects delicious to behold — there sat the locksmith among all and every these delights, the sun that shone upon them all: the centre of the system: the source of light, heat,life, and frank enjoyment in the bright household world. (Ch. 80)

Thursday, November 27, 2008


O Sweetest Melancholy

Beaumont and Fletcher, The Nice Valour; or, The Passionate Madman, Act III, Scene III:
Hence, all you vain delights,
As short as are the nights
Wherein you spend your folly:
There's nought in this life sweet
If man were wise to see't,
But only melancholy,
O sweetest Melancholy!

Welcome, folded arms, and fixèd eyes,
A sigh that piercing mortifies,
A look that's fasten'd to the ground,
A tongue chain'd up without a sound!
Fountain-heads and pathless groves,
Places which pale passion loves!
Moonlight walks, when all the fowls
Are warmly housed save bats and owls!
A midnight bell, a parting groan!
These are the sounds we feed upon;
Then stretch our bones in a still gloomy valley;
Nothing's so dainty sweet as lovely melancholy.
E.B. White, Portrait:
He goes his way with a too cautious stride
That checks him safe just short of every goal;
Seeks not conclusions lest they try his pride,
Claims not fair booty lest it glut his soul.
If it be love, he finds it unrequited,
And seasons it with sadness to the taste;
If it be fame, he finds his name is slighted,
And turns his luck aside in constant haste.
Frustration tickles his most plaintive strings
And satisfies his bent for somber living;
He daubs with mystery the obvious things,
And holds fulfillment off—always contriving
From life (held very gingerly) to press
The fine musk odor of unhappiness.
Baron Wormser, Melancholy:
Weakness—the pale succumbing to loneliness,
Refusing to admit anyone else, indulging
The blue perquisites of adolescence
Long past their sensible deliquescence.

He knew it but went on drinking and regretting,
Not calling his friends and regretting,
Making scenes over nothing and regretting.
It helped to make him despise himself,

Which was, he sensed, what he wanted. He was
Then, in his oblique way, at ease to wander
The city's brazen or quiet streets, conjuring
Random lives and how the slim arc
Of emotion was pulverized. Back home, he put
On some Monk, lay down, half-cried.
Related post: Black Bile.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008



Thanks to Eric Thomson for the following erudite and entertaining comments on some recent blog posts.

Seize the Day, Don't Fash Your Thumb

On the subject of 'lexicon totius Anglicitatis', a subsense of 'blaw' in the DSL seems to have escaped your eagle eye:
BLAW, BLA', BLAA, Blyave, Blyaver, n.1
5. A pull of liquor.
  *Sc. 1808 Jam.:
  Blaw. A pull, a draught; a cant term, used among topers.
  *Edb. 1772 R. Fergusson Sc. Poems (1925) 9:
  Then come and gies the tither blaw Of reaming ale.
Fergusson's poetry is awash with booze.

Apropos of 'carpe diem', Alan Ramsay put it even more succinctly than Fergusson: "And since our life's sae unko short/ Enjoy it a', ye've nae mair for't" Ode to Robert Forbes 39-40.

The stark dates you supply for Fergusson betray the poet's own dismal 'weird', death in a madhouse at the age of 24. There were precious few days for him to seize, though seize them he did, in ways of which Horace would have approved, with oysters and haddock, gin and ale:
When big as burns the gutters rin,
Gin ye catcht a droukit skin,
To Luckie Middlemist's loup in,
And sit fu snug
O'er oysters and a dram o'gin,
Or haddock lug.

When auld Saunt Giles, at aught o'clock,
Gars merchant lowns their choppies lock,
Then we ajourn wi' hearty fock
To birle our bodles
And get wharewi' to crack our joke,
And clear our noddles.
(from 'Caller Oysters').

Lucky Middlemist's was not far from the Isle of Man tavern, where under the pseudonym 'Sir Precenter' Fergusson used to attend meetings of the Cape Club (Ramsay dedicated his Soracte ode to another of these drinking clubs, the Phiz Club). Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianae gives a flavour of what they must have been like.

Fergusson worked as a copyist of legal papers in the office of the commissionary clerk of Edinburgh, 'a situation miserably inferior to his talents' according to his biographer, who speaks of him 'obtaining the means of a scanty subsistence by servile and unworthy drudgery, and cheering his leisure moments in mingled intellectual exertion and convivial dissipation. To many persons he was recommended by his fascinating conversation, his modesty and his gentle and affectionate character.' Shades of CL as Leigh Hunt used to refer to him. I'm sure there's a bit of MG there too.

The quotation is from the very interesting entry on Fergusson in Robert Chambers: A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen (1870) vol II. I've got the 1971 Georg Olms Verlag 1971 reprint, but the old editions are on Internet Archive.


I know Martinmass has come and gone and you sensibly opted for a minimalist gloss of 'dock' but I thought you might like to know that Rumex obtusifolius is the likely culprit. They used to grow in abundance at the back of our house when I was a boy and we used to use them to rub on nettle stings. 'Docken' is the Scots form. One of the quotations in Wright's EDD is 'Now springs the docken by the dyke' Smart Rhymes (1834).

'Dyke' is a curiosity as my default reading is always 'wall', originally from the earth thrown up by the digging of a dyke/ditch. As both trough and peak I suppose it must qualify as a contranym. 'Stays' in the Fergusson's Ode 1, 11 is another; it really means the opposite of what it seems to. Gash too has a bewildering array of not easily compatible meanings. The OED actually has four different entries for the adjective.

The Clare poem can apparently be pinned down quite closely, if only from the verbal parallels with his prose piece Autumn (Northborough MS 6) a snippet of which can be read in Google preview of The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare by Margaret Grainger (Oxford University Press, 1983). There are two walks round Northborough described there, both from November 1841. I don't know if lapwings, wild geese and starlings can be seen there now. Starlings I know are in steep decline. The dykes are probably concrete and pesticides will have done away with the docks.

Two Latin Genitives

It's just occurred to me that the botched genitive 'smelloci' may not be a genitive at all but a dative and 'gratia' not an ablative but a nominative. Isn't Gould trying to say 'thanks to smellox' in Latin? Perhaps he'd remembered 'gratias ago tibi' from somewhere. It's still a botch but not quite such an egregious one.


I'm not sure someone who can convert x to c in oblique forms would be likely to confuse his declensions. If the form had been smelloxi, case proven but smelloci for me presupposes some knowledge of how third declensions work. On the premise that a polymath who knows a bit of Latin is more likely to make a minor mistake than a major, I'd guess he meant dative, but who knows? Alas, he's no longer around to shed any light on the matter. Wickedpedia says he died in his library surrounded by his wife, his mother and his books.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The Romance of Grammar

Christopher Morley, Inscription For A Grammar:
There were two cheerful pronouns
And nought did them disturb:
Until they met, out walking.
A conjugative verb.

The pronouns, child, were You and I,
We might as well confess;
But, ah, the mischief-making verb
I leave to you to guess!
Related post: Grammar Is Sexy.


Two Latin Genitives

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus (New York: Norton, 1991), pp. 341-342:
I found Jenkin's article and rushed to the pre-Xerox wet processor (anachronistically named smellox by a friend of mine several years later, in honor of the unpleasant chemical that left its signature even after drying)....I kicked myself for sectarian assumptions in the granting of "importance," vowed to learn more about Jenkin (and to tell my fellow evolutionists), and raided the stacks of Widener Library, where I found several copies of Stevenson's memoir, amidst (no doubt) a liberal sprinkling of North British Reviews for 1867 (which smelloci gratia, I didn't need).
If we treat smellox as a Latin word, as Gould did ioci gratia, then its genitive would be not smelloci, but smellocis (see e.g. vox, vocis).

Lynda Mugglestone, Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 117:
In the exposition of such concerns, the ideal of the lexicon totius Anglicitatus again fragments, as does the neutrality of the 'complete inventory of our English tongue' with which Trench sought to inspire the members of the Philological Society.
For Anglicitatus, read Anglicitatis, which Mugglestone gets right on p. 73. See Richard Chenevix Trench, On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. Being the Substance of Two Papers Read Before the Philological Society, Nov. 5, and Nov. 19, 1857, 2nd ed. (London: Parker, 1860), p. 64.

Related post: Fact Checking and Proofreading.

Monday, November 24, 2008



Some, perhaps rightly, regard emendation, or the correction of a corruptly transmitted text, as the acme of the philologist's work. So Robert Renehan, Greek Textual Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 2:
The skill of a Porson or Housman at remedying with an easy dispatch crux after crux ought indeed to be numbered among the θεῶν ἐρικυδέα δῶρα; not without reason has this faculty been called in the Latin tongue divinatio.
The Homeric phrase quoted by Renehan means "glorious gifts of gods." But, at a more mundane level, we engage in something like emendation every time we silently correct a misprint encountered in reading the newspaper.

In P.G. Naiditch, A.E. Housman at University College, London: The Election of 1892 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), pp. 134-135, I found a humorous, anonymous poem about emendation which first appeared in The University College London Union Magazine 1.5 (March 1906) 177:
'I have found it: heureka! heureka!'
  I cried. 'Now the riddle is solved.
When before has so neat, so unique a
  Solution as this been evolved?'
With a hand that still shook with elation,
  The words in the margin I wrote,
Then I gazed at my great emendation,
  My marvellous critical note.

Though it flashed on my mind in a minute,
  No force would suffice to express
All the wealth of Greek learning that's in it—
  I've got the Greek spirit, I guess.
The Greek spirit—Professor G. Murray,
  At least as he seeks to imply,
Thinks he has it; he'll just have to hurry
  To get it as badly as I.

Where were Scaliger, Porson and Bentley?
  And Housman—ah! where wandered he?
(Yet with him I should wish to deal gently,
  That he may deal gently with me.)
Has he e'er in his books or his lectures
  Once chanced on a comment so fine?
(But I'm ready to praise his conjectures,
  If he will do justice to mine.)

When the study of classics is ended
  (And many to end it now seek),
And the line I so grandly emended,
  Has gone the long road of all Greek;
Yet my fame shall abide even then, and
  These words on my tomb you shall see:—
'He inserted a comma at μέν and
  Deleted the colon at δὲ.'
Related post: Emendatio.

Sunday, November 23, 2008



John Hewitt, Timber:
Whether sunshine, snow, or rain,
Caesar now and Charlemain
Sleep and will not wake again.

Sandstorms sweep over Babylon:
Thistles cover Marathon:
Sheba's dead, and Solomon.

Winds fret through the creaking trees,
Gusty with ten centuries . . .
Trees are more than dynasties.
James Hayford, The Principle Is Growth:
Of moving immobility
The model is a tree.
Compliance, fixity,
The tree has both.
The principle is growth.
The essence is to live,
To stay put and yet give,
To sway and still not snap—
And what it takes is blood or sap.
Ivan Shishkin, Teutoburg Forest

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Seize the Day, Don't Fash Your Thumb

Of all the Odes of Horace, probably 1.11 is the best known. It contains the famous phrase carpe diem (seize the day). I recently happened on a fine version of the Ode by the Scots poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774). I don't understand a couple of the words used by Fergusson, but my perplexity doesn't hinder my enjoyment. Most of the definitions I owe to the indispensable online Dictionary of the Scots Language.
Ne'er fash your thumb what gods decree
To be the weird o' you or me,
Nor deal in cantrip's kittle cunning
To speir how fast your days are running;
But patient lippen for the best,
Nor be in dowie thought opprest.
Whether we see mair winter's come,
Than this that spits wi' canker'd foam.
Now moisten weel your geyzen'd wa's
Wi' couthy friends and hearty blaws;
Ne'er let your hope o'ergang your days,
For eild and thraldom never stays;
The day looks gash, toot aff your horn,
Nor care ae strae about the morn.
ae: one, a single
blaws: blows (back-slappings?)
canker'd: gusty, stormy
cantrip: magic
couthy: agreeable, sociable
dowie: sad, melancholy
eild: age, time of life
fash: trouble, bother, fret (fash your thumb = care a rap)
gash: pale, dismal
geyzen'd: dried out
kittle: tricky
lippen: trust, have confidence
morn: tomorrow
speir: ask
strae: straw
wa's: ? The context requires something like weasand (Scots weason) = throat, but the only definitions I can find for wa's are walls and ways, from which I can extract no satisfactory sense. Or could it be waes = woes?
weird: fate, destiny

Roger Kuin writes about wa's:
The 'walls' don't bother me: I imagined instantly some dried-out walls of a wattle-and-daub Scots bothie badly in need of moistening by the body heat and the libations of a cheerful party with many wee drams -- some of them thrown at the walls, just out of high spirits (so to speak).

Here is a literal prose translation of Horace's Ode, followed by the Latin original:
Don't ask—it's forbidden to know—what final fate the gods have given to me and you, Leuconoe, and don't consult Babylonian horoscopes. How much better it is to accept whatever shall be, whether Jupiter has given many more winters or whether this is the last one, which now breaks the force of the Tuscan sea against the facing cliffs. Be wise, strain the wine, and trim distant hope within short limits. While we're talking, grudging time will already have fled: seize the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quicquid erit, pati,
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Appalling and Horrifying

Letter from Ed Turner to his son Ted Turner:
My dear son:

I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted classics as a major. As a matter of fact, I almost puked on my way home today.


I am a practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you should wish to speak Greek. With whom will you communicate in Greek?


I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you will feel that you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by becoming a classical snob. I can see you drifting into a bar, belting down a few, turning around to the guy on the stool next to you—a contemporary billboard baron from Podunk, Iowa—and saying, "Well, what do you think of Leonidas?" He will turn to you and say, "Leonidas who?" You will turn to him and say, "Why, Leonidas, the prominent Greek of the twelfth century." He will, in turn, say to you, "Well, who the hell was he?" You will say, "Oh, you don’t know anything about Leonidas?" and dismiss him. And not discuss anything else with him for the rest of the evening. He will feel that you are a stupid snob and a fop, and you will feel that he is a clodhopper from Podunk, Iowa.

There is no question but this type of useless information will distinguish you, set you apart from the doers of the world. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower and contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of prehistoric man had upon William Faulkner.


I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better it will suit me.


Devotedly, DAD

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Burton on Bashfulness

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (Part. I, Sect. 3, Memb. I, Subs. 2):
Crato, Laurentius, & Fernelius, put bashfulness for an ordinary symptom; subrusticus pudor, or vitiosus pudor, [mauvaise honte], is a thing which much haunts & torments them. If they have been misused, derided, disgraced, chidden, &c. or by any perturbation of mind misaffected, it so far troubles them, that they become quite moped many times, and so disheartened, dejected, they dare not come abroad, into strange companies especially, or manage their ordinary affairs, so childish, timorous, and bashful, they can look no man in the face; some are more disquieted in this kind, some less, longer some, others shorter, by fits, &c. though some on the other side, (according to Fracastorius), be inverecundi & pertinaces, impudent and peevish. But most part they are very shamefac'd, and that makes them with Pet. Blesensis, Christopher Urswick, & many such, to refuse Honours, Offices, and Preferments, which sometimes fall into their mouths, they cannot speak, or put forth themselves, as others can, timor hos, pudor impedit illos, timorousness & bashfulness hinder their proceedings, they are contented with their present estate, unwilling to undertake any office, & therefore never likely to rise. For that cause they seldom visit their friends, except some familiars: pauciloqui, of few words, and oftentimes wholly silent. Frambesarius, a Frenchman, had two such patients, omnino taciturnos, their friends could not get them to speak: Rodericus à Fonseca, consult. Tom. 2. 85. consil. gives instance in a young man, of 27 years of age, that was frequently silent, bashful, moped, solitary, that would not eat his meat, or sleep, and yet again by fits apt to be angry, &c.

Most part they are, as Plater notes, desides, taciturni, [slothful, and taciturn;] aegrè impulsi, nec nisi coacti procedunt, &c. they will scarce be compelled to do that which concerns them, though it be for their good, so diffident, so dull, of small or no compliment, unsociable, hard to be acquainted with, especially of strangers; they had rather write their minds than speak, & above all things love solitariness. Ob voluptatem, an ob timorem soli sunt? Are they so solitary for pleasure (one asks) or pain? for both: yet I rather think for fear and sorrow, &c.

Hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent, fugiuntque, nec auras
Respiciunt, clausi tenebris, et carcere caeco.

Hence 'tis they grieve and fear, avoiding light,
And shut themselves in prison dark from sight.

As Bellerophon in Homer,

Qui miser in silvis moerens errabat opacis,
Ipse suum cor edens, hominum vestigia vitans;

That wandered in the woods sad all alone,
Forsaking men's society, making great moan;

they delight in floods & waters, desert places, to walk alone in orchards, gardens, private walks, back-lanes, averse from company, as Diogenes in his tub, or Timon Misanthropus, they abhor all companions at last, even their nearest acquaintance, & most familiar friends, for they have a conceit (I say) every man observes them, will deride, laugh to scorn, or misuse them; confining themselves therefore wholly to their private houses or chambers, fugiunt homines sine causa (saith Rhasis) et odio habent, cont. l.i.c.9, they will diet themselves, feed, and live alone. It was one of the chiefest reasons why the Citizens of Abdera suspected Democritus to be melancholy and mad, because that, as Hippocrates related in his Epistle to Philopoemen, he forsook the City, lived in groves & hollow trees, upon a green bank by a brook side, or confluence of waters, all day long, & all night. Quae quidem (saith he) plurimum atra bile vexatis & melancholicis eveniunt, deserta frequentant, hominumque congressum aversantur; which is an ordinary thing with melancholy men.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Ultimate Recycling

Irene Klotz, Astronauts board space shuttle for Florida launch (Reuters, Nov. 14, 2008):
The shuttle carries two new sleeping compartments and a water recycling system that will enable the crew to purify urine and other wastewater for drinking.

"We did blind taste tests of the water," said NASA's Bob Bagdigian, the system's lead engineer. "Nobody had any strong objections. Other than a faint taste of iodine, it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water."

"I've got some in my fridge," he added. "It tastes fine to me."


NASA expects to process about six gallons (23 liters) of water per day with the new device. The goal is to recover about 92 percent of the water from the crew's urine and moisture in the air.

The wastewater is processed using an extensive series of purification techniques, including distillation — which is somewhat tricky in microgravity — filtration, oxidation and ionization.

The final step is the addition of iodine to control microbial growth, Bagdigian said.

The device is intended to process a full day's worth of wastewater in less than 24 hours.

"Today's drinking water was yesterday's waste," Bagdigian said.
If NASA wants to go further down this path, it should consider giving a research grant to the Academy of Lagado, which is well known for its work investigating such methods of recycling:
I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper "to give no offence, which would be highly resented;" and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels.

Thanks to Jim K., who draws my attention to Dana Cordell, The Story of Phosphorus (footnotes omitted):
Human excreta (urine and faeces) are renewable and readily available sources of phosphorus. Urine is essentially sterile and contains plant-available nutrients (P,N,K) in the correct ratio. Treatment and reuse is very simple and the World Health Organisation has published 'guidelines for the safe use of wastewater, excreta and greywater'.

More that 50% of the worlds’ population are now living in urban centres, and in the next 50 years 90% of the new population are expected to reside in urban slums. Urine is the largest single source of P emerging from human settlements.

According to some studies in Sweden and Zimbabwe, the nutrients in one person's urine are sufficient to produce 50-100% of the food requirements for another person. Combined with other organic sources like manure and food waste, the phosphorus value in urine and faeces can essentially replace the demand for phosphate rock. In 2000, the global population produced 3 million tonnes of phosphorus from urine and faeces alone.

Unlike phosphate rock, which only exists in a handful of countries' control, urine and faeces are available from any community or city,and hence can contribute to 'phosphorus sovereignty' and food security.

In material flow terms, human excreta represents a readily available 'exchange pool' of phosphorus, before it is 'lost' to the hydrosphere typically as treated or untreated effluent discharged to rivers and oceans. If urine is reused as a fertilizer, then less phosphorus (in urine) is entering waterways, reducing the potential to cause toxic algal blooms.

Although preventing phosphorus point sources from entering water bodies is often necessary to prevent water pollution, removing high levels of phosphorus at the wastewater treatment plant is expensive and energy intensive. Capturing urine at source (at the toilet) can be much more energy efficient and cost-effective and does not contain heavy metals like Cadmium.

The cost of ecological sanitation systems around the world could be offset by the commercial value of the phosphorus (and nitrogen) they yield in the future. Particularly in Africa where synthetic fertilizers typically cost 2-5 times more than in Europe. A community ecological sanitation toilet in Tamilnadu, India, now pays users, recognising the fertilizer value of their urine and faeces.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Pleasantly Pedantic

Andrew Lang, Burton's Anatomy:
A quaint old store of learning lies
      In Burton's pleasant pages,
With long quotations that comprise
      The wisdom of the ages.
'Tis strange to read him 'mid the crowd
      And modern hurly-burly;
The only author Johnson vowed
      Could make him get up early.

He lived a solitary life,
      He said "Mihi et musis,"
And put his rest from worldly strife
      To very pleasant uses.
He wrote the book wherein we find
      "All joys to this are folly,"
And naught to the reflective mind
      "So sweet as melancholy."

How strangely he dissects his theme
      In manner anatomic;
He's earnest at one time, you deem,
      Now decorously comic.
And most prodigiously he quotes,
      With learning quite gigantic,
Or telling classic anecdotes,
      Is pleasantly pedantic.

There's sterling sense in every page,
      And shrewdest cogitation;
Your keen attention he'll engage,
      And honest admiration.
If any man should vow to live
      With but one book, be certain
To him could friendly fortune give
      No better book than Burton.

He lies in rest at Christ's Church aisle,
      With all his erudition;
The hieroglyphics make one smile,
      That show his superstition.
His epitaph survives to-day,
      As one "Cui vitam dedit
Et mortem Melancholia,"
      So he himself has said it.
On Burton's final resting place see Percy Dearmer, The Cathedral Church of Oxford (London: George Bell & Sons, 1899), p. 96:
On the pier at the foot of Sir George Nowers' tomb is fixed the remarkably characteristic monument of Robert Burton, the famous author of "The Anatomy of Melancholy," who died in 1639, having been Student of Christ Church for forty years, and also Vicar of St. Thomas', Oxford. His bust is coloured, and surrounded by an oval frame; it should be a good likeness, and one fancies that the face is drenched in melancholy.

On the frame are two medallions with a sphere, and a curious calculation of his nativity, composed by himself, and placed here by his brother William, the historian of Leicestershire. The inscription, written by himself, is :—

Paucis notus, paucioribus ignotus
Hic jacet
Democritus Junior
Cui vitam dedit et mortem

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Etymological Conjectures of Amateurs

Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, On Hobos, Hautboys, and Other Beaus. Also, On Suffixes as Midwives:
Unless we can explain why the phenomenon under investigation arose where and when it did, we have no right to speak up. Since etymology habitually attracts the attention of lay people, they often believe that any ingenious suggestion has the right to exist or that one can guess the origin of a word by developing a feel for it. This is a dangerous illusion. Tracing words to their sources is a scholarly pursuit.
Liberman gives examples of the unscientific methods likely to be followed by unscholarly amateurs:
Let us suppose that we are trying to find out the origin of the word devil. Here are a few excellent possibilities. 1) There once was a vicious man called Deville. The crimes he committed were so terrible that his name became synonymous with Satan. 2) The devil is evil, and this is how the word arose (letters come and go, so never mind initial d: compare Ned from Ed and whilst from while; a school teacher I knew—his name was Ned—used to send his students to the room acrosst the hall). 3) The devil makes people deviate from the straight and narrow path of virtue. Devil is, obviously, dev- (from deviate) plus ill. 4) The devil is resilient but ugly. His color is livid, for he has been beaten and bruised innumerable times. Devil is livid pronounced from right to left and slightly altered (people have many reasons to avoid the use of the word devil: compare Old Nick and other euphemisms like it).
Morgan Kavanagh, Origin of Language and Myths (London: Low, 1871), actually adopted one of the methods described by Liberman — reading a word backwards in a misguided attempt to discover its origin. Ernest Weekley, Something About Words (London: John Murray, 1935), pp. 167-168, gives specimens of Kavanagh's reasoning:
Among our author's minor discoveries are the convenient fact that 'any letter can become any other letter', and the equally helpful law that all words may be read backwards as well as forwards, 'for why should English not have the same privileges as Hebrew?' The advantage of the Hebrew method may be illustrated by the following example—'If we read spot, a place, from right to left, what shall we obtain if not tops, and what is tops, when the vowel due between the p and s is supplied, but topos, and this is the Greek for place. When in like manner we read skin from right to left, what have we? Niks; and as here the i has o understood, and as o and i make a, we obtain naks, of which nak is the radical part of naked, and to be in one's skin is to be naked.'
William Bryant Logan, in his books Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995) and Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), often discusses the origins of words, usually (but not always) accurately.

On p. 38 of Dirt, Logan writes, "It takes dirt to grow an oak from an acorn. It takes the rot and the shit that is the root meaning of 'dirt'—dritten means 'shit' in Old Norse."

It's unclear whether Logan thinks dritten is a noun or a verb in Old Norse. The noun is drit, and the infinitive of the verb is apparently dríta: see L.F.A. Wimmer, Altnordische Grammatik, tr. E. Sievers (Halle: Waisenhaus, 1871), p. 104.

I'm way out of my league here, though, since I'm an amateur in the field of etymology, and I know nothing about Old Norse. But according to the experts, there is definitely a connection between the Old Norse word and the English word. Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the following etymology of dirt:
By metathesis from ME. drit, not known in OE. and prob. a. ON. drit neuter, excrement (mod. Icel. dritr masc., Norw. dritt); cf. also MDu. drete, Du. dreet, Fl. drits, drets excrement: see DRITE v.
Metathesis is the "transposition within a word of letters, sounds, or syllables, as in the change from Old English brid to modern English bird." (American Heritage Dictionary).

The first meaning of dirt in the OED is "ordure" (excrement) and the first example of the meaning "soil" is late (1698). So dirt itself, one could say, is a dirty four-letter word.

Logan's etymological speculation on p. 80 of Dirt is more doubtful:
The digging sticks of primitive tribes were often made explicitly in the shapes of phalloi, just as are the dibbles sold in every garden catalogue today. (Indeed, I have often wondered whether "dibble" is the diminutive of "dildoe.")
This is highly unlikely, if only on chronological grounds. Dildo is first attested at the end of the 16th century in English, dibble about 150 years earlier. It is unlikely that a diminutive would surface so long before the word it diminishes. I suspect that the etymology is also unlikely on phonetic grounds.

OED calls dildo "A word of obscure origin." One of the OED quotations, from Richard Burton's Arabian Nights X.239 (1886), connects it with Italian diletto (= delight):
Of the penis succedaneus,..which the Latins called phallus and fascinum, the French godemiché and the Italians passatempo and diletto (whence our 'dildo'), every kind abounds.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Scenes from Homer

In the Trojan War, Hector killed Achilles' companion Patroclus. Homer, Iliad 22, describes how Achilles took revenge on Hector. Edwin Muir, Ballad of Hector in Hades, retells the story:
Yes, this is where I stood that day,
    Beside this sunny mound.
The walls of Troy are far away,
    And outward comes no sound.

I wait. On all the empty plain
    A burnished stillness lies,
Save for the chariot's tinkling hum,
    And a few distant cries.

His helmet glitters near. The world
    Slowly turns around,
With some new sleight compels my feet
    From the fighting ground.

I run. If I turn back again
    The earth must turn with me,
The mountains planted on the plain,
    The sky clamped to the sea.

The grasses puff a little dust
    Where my footsteps fall.
I cast a shadow as I pass
    The little wayside wall.

The strip of grass on either hand
    Sparkles in the light;
I only see that little space
    To the left and to the right,

And in that space our shadows run,
    His shadow there and mine,
The little flowers, the tiny mounds,
    The grasses frail and fine.

But narrower still and narrower!
    My course is shrunk and small,
Yet vast as in a deadly dream,
    And faint the Trojan wall.
The sun up in the towering sky
    Turns like a spinning ball.

The sky with all its clustered eyes
    Grows still with watching me,
The flowers, the mounds, the flaunting weeds
    Wheel slowly round to see.

Two shadows racing on the grass,
    Silent and so near,
Until his shadow falls on mine.
    And I am rid of fear.

The race is ended. Far away
    I hang and do not care,
While round bright Troy Achilles whirls
    A corpse with streaming hair.

It took Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, ten years to return home after the Trojan War. During his absence, suitors tried unsuccessfully to win the hand of his wife Penelope. When he finally returned, Odysseus took revenge on the suitors. Jorge Luis Borges, Odyssey, Book Twenty-three (tr. Robert Fitzgerald), retells the story:
Now has the rapier of iron wrought
The work of justice, and revenge is done.
Now spear and arrows, pitiless every one,
Have made the blood of insolence run out.
For all a god and his seas could do
Ulysses has returned to realm and queen.
For all a god could do, and the grey-green
Gales and Ares' murderous hullabaloo.
Now in the love of their own bridal bed
The shining queen has fallen asleep, her head
Upon her king's breast. Where is that man now
Who in his exile wandered night and day
Over the world like a wild dog, and would say
His name was No One, No One, anyhow?
A couple of details in Borges' poem may be puzzling to the reader unfamiliar with Homer's Odyssey. The phrase "a god and his seas" refers to Poseidon. Odysseus during his wanderings had been captured by Poseidon's son Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant (Cyclops). Odysseus concealed his true name from Polyphemus and pretended that his name was Οὔτις ("No One"). When Odysseus and his companions blinded the sleeping Polyphemus in his one eye, and the other Cyclopes asked who had done the deed, Polyphemus answered, "No One." After Odysseus escaped from Polyphemus, the giant begged his father Poseidon to take revenge, and Poseidon's wrath pursued Odysseus throughout the rest of his wanderings.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Parva Domus, Magna Quies

Poem attributed to Petronius (tr. Helen Waddell):
Small house and quiet roof tree, shadowing elm,
Grapes on the vine and cherries ripening,
Red apples in the orchard, Pallas' tree
Breaking with olives, and well-watered earth,
And fields of kale and heavy creeping mallows
And poppies that will surely bring me sleep,
And if I go a-snaring for the birds
Or timid deer, or angling the shy trout,
'Tis all the guile that my poor fields will know.
Go now, yea, go, and sell your life, swift life,
For golden feasts. If the end waits me too,
I pray it find me here, and here shall ask
The reckoning from me of the vanished hours.
A more literal translation by Michael Heseltine:
My little house is covered by a roof that fears no harm, and the grape swollen with wine hangs from the fruitful elm. The boughs yield cherries, the orchards ruddy apples, and the trees sacred to Pallas break under the wealth of their branches. And now where the smooth soil drinks from the runnels of the spring, Corycian kale springs up for me and creeping mallows, and the poppy with promise of untroubled sleep. Moreover, if my pleasure is to lay snares for birds, or if I choose rather to entrap the timid deer, or draw out the quivering fish on slender line, so much deceit is all that is known to my humble fields. Go, then, and barter the hours of flying life for rich banquets. My prayer is that since at the last the same end waits for me, it may find me here, here call me to account for the time that I have spent.
Another translation by H.E. Butler:
My cottage is sheltered by a roof that fears no ill; the grape, bursting with wine, hangs from the fertile elm; cherries hang by the bough and my orchard yields its rosy apples, and the tree that Pallas loves breaks beneath the rich burden of its branches. And now, where the garden bed's light soil drinks in the runnels of water, rises for me Corycian kale and low-growing mallow, and the poppy that grants easy slumber. Moreover, whether 'tis my pleasure to set snares for birds or hem in the timid deer, or on fine-meshed net to draw up the affrighted fish, this is all the guile known to my humble lands. Go to, now, and waste the flying hours of life on sumptuous feasts! I pray, that my destined end may find me here, and here demand an account of the days I have lived.
The Latin original:
Parvula securo tegitur mihi culmine sedes
uvaque plena mero fecunda pendet ab ulmo.
dant rami cerasos, dant mala rubentia silvae,
Palladiumque nemus pingui se vertice frangit.
iam qua diductos potat levis area fontes,
Corycium mihi surgit olus malvaeque supinae
et non sollicitos missura papavera somnos.
praeterea sive alitibus contexere fraudem
seu magis imbelles libuit circumdare cervos
aut tereti lino pavidum subducere piscem,
hos tantum novere dolos mea sordida rura.
i nunc et vitae fugientis tempora vende
divitibus cenis. me si manet exitus idem,
hic precor inveniat consumptaque tempora poscat.
Isaak Levitan, Sunny Day

Related posts:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


The Estate of Peasants

Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns (Nov. 12):
In Normandy or Piedmont or the Schwarzwald, such a forest tract as the one that stretches all the way from the village past my house, and many miles down to the river, would never be permitted to lie so unprofitably idle. At this season of the year, when the forest floor is littered with thousands of twigs and branches and fallen nuts, this wood would be full of industrious children, collecting the branches into faggots, the nuts in sacks.

But I am eyed askance here when I go out with my children to gather patiently the twigs and break up fallen boughs. This appears as cheese-paring upon my part, a menial evidence that I have somehow acquired in my European years a low and foreign standard of living, reducing my children to the estate of peasants.

Now I know of no one who has all things better ordered for a truly high standard of living than a good peasant, who knows how to find the greatest possible satisfaction in an acre of black earth, a barrel of wine, an armful of wife, a big horse and a fine ripe wood lot. To all he gives back the gift of being needed, used, garnered and brought to appointed fruition.

But all about me I am presented with a people, blood of my blood and dear to me, who have no capacity to to enjoy that which they have. In place of the forest turned to account without injury, I have the spectacle of my neighbors who burn off the woods every year from sheer incompetence to enjoy their blessings, from an innate hostility to Nature.
Narcisse Díaz de la Peña, Gathering Wood Under the Trees

Tuesday, November 11, 2008



John Clare (written Nov. 11, 1841):
'Tis Martinmass from rig to rig
Ploughed fields and meadow lands are blea
In hedge and field each restless twig
Is dancing on the naked tree
Flags in the dykes are bleached and brown
Docks by its sides are dry and dead
All but the ivy-boughs are brown
Upon each leaning dotterel's head

Crimsoned with awes the awthorns bend
O'er meadow-dykes and rising floods
The wild geese seek the reedy fen
And dark the storm comes o'er the woods
The crowds of lapwings load the air
With buzes of a thousand wings
There flocks of starnels too repair
When morning o'er the valley springs
awes: hawes
awthorns: hawthorns
blea: bleak
docks: weeds (cf. burdocks)
dotterel: pollard tree
dykes: ditches
flags: reeds
rig: ridge
starnels: starlings

Monday, November 10, 2008


Of Pulp Acerb and Spirit Bleak

Eden Phillpotts, Crab-apple:
Winter has filched the forest bare;
The boughs are naked, lean and grey
But whisper to the winter air,
All croaking, creaking cheerfully
Of what the Spring
Will bring.

Where breaks the wood upon the hill
The branches of a crab arise
And round about, for all who will,
Her unregarded harvest lies,
Cheerful and bright
To sight.

Her jewels flash among the weeds
With not a peck, or bite, or scar
Save where a mouse, in hope of seeds,
Has taken courage one to mar,
But lost the gain
For pain.

Both men and women happen so,
Of pulp acerb and spirit bleak:
Right well their inner wealth they know,
And muse why neighbors never seek
To win the gold
They hold.

Alas, we shirk them, shy and swerve
At greeting chill and voice unkind;
We dread the pang and lack the nerve
To tackle their unfriendly rind;
Our days fly past
Too fast.
Joseph Decker, Still Life with Crab Apples and Grapes

Sunday, November 09, 2008


When the World Is All Awry

John Meade Falkner, Theocritus in Fleet Street:
What matter though my room be small,
  Though the red lamp-light looks
On nothing but a papered wall,
  And some few rows of books.

For in my hand I hold a key
  That opens golden doors,
At whose resistless sesame,
  A tide of sunlight pours;

In from the basking lawns that lie
  Beyond the boundary wall;
Where summer broods eternally,
  Where the cicadas call.

There all the landscape softer is,
  There greener tendrils twine,
The bowers are roofed with clematis,
  With briony and vine.

There pears and golden apples hang,
  There falls the honey-dew,
And there the birds at morning sang,
  When all the world was new.

Beneath an oak Menalcas woos
  Arachnia's nut-brown eyes;
And still the laughing Faun pursues,
  And still the Dryad flies.

And you may hear young Orpheus there
  Come singing through the wood,
Or catch the gleam of golden hair
  In Dian's solitude.

So when the world is all awry,
  When life is out of chime,
I take the golden key and fly
  To that serener clime:

To those fair sun-lit lawns that lie
  Beyond the boundary wall:
Where summer broods eternally,
  And Youth is over all.


A Resonating Fundament

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), p. 202:
That fundament resonated with hope and possibility, even in pianissimo.
The primary meaning of fundament in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is "buttocks," but Gould wasn't talking about flatulence here — he was talking about the final bass note (a low D-flat) in the song "Madame Jeanette."

Related posts:

Saturday, November 08, 2008



George H.W. Bush, Speech to the Parliament of Poland (July 10, 1989):
The reform of the Polish economy presents an historic challenge. There can be no substitute for Poland's own efforts, but I want to stress to you today that Poland is not alone. Given the enormity of this moment, the United States stands ready to help, as you help yourselves.
Barack Obama, Speech at rally in Grant Park in Chicago (Nov. 5, 2008):
This is your victory. And I know you didn't do this just to win an election. And I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.
Judith Warner, Tears to Remember (New York Times, Nov. 6, 2008):
But the race thing? The groundbreaking enormity of the election of our country's first African-American president?
I'm a fuddy-duddy, and I cringe when I hear or read enormity with the meaning "hugeness, importance." My catechism, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, prescribes: "Use only in the sense of 'monstrous wickedness.'" But some authorities give the other meaning their stamp of approval, e.g. Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage: "The stigmatized sense is entirely standard and has been for over a century and a half."

The word comes from Latin, and the "big" meaning is common in that language, according to Lewis & Short. First the adjective:
ē-normis, e, adj. [norma],

I. out of rule (post-Aug.).

I. Irregular, unusual: toga, Quint. 11, 3, 139 : vici (with huc et illuc flexi), Tac. A. 15, 38 .--Far more freq.,

II. Immoderate, immense, enormous (cf.: immensus, immodicus, summus, maximus, effusus): enormes sunt (umbrae) cerasis, Plin. 17, 12, 17, § 88: spatium (with immensum), Tac. Agr. 10; cf. hastae (with immensa scuta), id. A. 2, 14 : gladii (opp. parva scuta), id. Agr. 36: Colossi, Stat. S. 1, 3, 51; cf. corpus, Suet. Calig. 50 : proceritas, id. Vitell. 17: uniones, Plin. 9, 35, 56, § 115 et saep.: senecta, i.e. very great, App. 9, p. 232; Sen. ap. Gell. 12, 2, 10: loquacitas, Petr. 2, 7; cf. Plin. Ep. 9, 26, 6.-- Comp.: prologus enormior quam fabula, longer, Spart. Ael. Ver. 1 fin.--Adv.: ēnor-mĭter (acc. to I.), irregularly, Sen. Q. N. 1, 7; Plin. 36, 10, 15, § 17; 37, 6, 23, § 89; Veg. Vet. 2, 8, 2; 2, 28, 10; 1, 36; 56 Bip.-- Sup. of the adj. and comp. and sup. of the adv. appear not to occur.
Next the noun:
ēnormĭtas , ātis, f. [enormis] (postAug.).

I. Irregularity, Quint. 9, 4, 27.--

II. Hugeness, vastness, enormous size, Sen. Const. Sap. 18: onerum, Veg. Vet. 2, 54; 59 Bip.; Spart. Carac. 2; Capitol. Gord. 29 al.

Friday, November 07, 2008


For Abstruse Reasons

Humphrey Carpenter, in the first chapter of The Inklings (1978), describes an elaborate prank planned by C.S. Lewis and his friends in 1926 but unfortunately never perpetrated. They composed parodies of modernist verse, purportedly written by the imaginary siblings Rollo and Bridget Considine, and intended to mail them from Vienna to T.S. Eliot's magazine Criterion, in the hope that Eliot would publish them as serious poems.

Ten years earlier Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke both planned and perpetrated a similar hoax. They composed ridiculous poems in the modernist idiom under the pseudonyms Emanuel Morgan (Bynner) and Anne Knish (Ficke) and published them as Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1916). Among those fooled by the hoax into taking the Spectrist poems seriously were John Gould Fletcher, Alfred Kreymborg, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, and William Carlos Williams.

One of the poems, Anne Knish's Opus 40, is on a theme that interests me, the fact that some writers write primarily for themselves, not for readers:
I have not written, reader,
      That you may read...
They sit in rows in the bare school-room

Throwing rocks at windows is better,
And oh the tortoise-shell cat with the can fled on!
I would rather be a can-tier
Than a writer for readers.

I have written, reader,
For abstruse reasons.
Gold in the mine...
Black water seeping into tunnels
A plank breaks, and the roof falls...
Three men suffocated.
The wife of one now works in a laundry;
The wife of another has married a fat man;
I forget about the third.
Related posts:

Thursday, November 06, 2008


A Lay Sage

Ronald Syme, Some Arval Brethren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 114-115:
In diverse and negative fashion Annius Verus and King Philopappus illuminate the quality and functions of the Brethren. A subdued congregation on the whole, and not exhilarating. Eloquence, talent, and taste were to be found elsewhere, for example among the quindecimviri. Lacking entry to aristocratic 'convivia et circuli' or the superior avenues of patronage and intrigue, the less pretentious members might nevertheless derive benefit from intermittent contact with birth and rank and success. Like certain posts in the administration, the fraternity permitted an approach to one of the ideals of a leisured society: something to live for and nothing to do. Mediocrity embellished by survival and seniority gains respect among colleagues, although not always in the wider world. To reverse the verdict of a lay sage in a later era, the arvalis saw no cause to question the value of a club that admitted persons no better than himself.
The "lay sage in a later era" is comedian Groucho Marx, who sent this telegram to the Friars Club of Beverly Hills: "Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member."

Marx was not a clubable man. He wrote in his autobiography:
I'm not a particularly gregarious fellow. If anything, I suppose I'm a bit on the misanthropic side. I've tried being a jolly good club member, but after a month or so my mouth always aches from baring my teeth in a false smile. The pseudo-friendliness, the limp handshake and the extra firm handshake (both of which should be abolished by the Health Department), are not for me. This also goes for the hearty slap-on-the-back and the all-around, general clap-trap that you are subjected to from the All-American bores which you would instantly flee from if you weren't trapped in a clubhouse.
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The Old Man of the Stream

Po Chü-i, Lodging with the Old Man of the Stream (tr. Arthur Waley):
Men's hearts love gold and jade;
Men's mouths covet wine and flesh.
Not so the old man of the stream;
He drinks from his gourd and asks nothing more.
South of the stream he cuts firewood and grass;
North of the stream he has built wall and roof.
Yearly he sows a single acre of land;
In spring he drives two yellow calves.
In these things he finds great repose;
Beyond these he has no wish or care.
By chance I met him walking by the water-side;
He took me home and lodged me in his thatched hut.
When I parted from him, to seek market and Court,
This old man asked my rank and pay.
Doubting my tale, he laughed loud and long:
"Privy Councillors do not sleep in barns."
Related posts:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


By the Silent Pond

Walt Whitman, November 8, '76, from Specimen Days:
The forenoon leaden and cloudy, not cold or wet, but indicating both. As I hobble down here and sit by the silent pond, how different from the excitement amid which, in the cities, millions of people are now waiting news of yesterday's Presidential election, or receiving and discussing the result — in this secluded place uncared-for, unknown.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008



Bernd Heinrich, The Trees in My Forest (1997), Mushrooms:
Apparently we fear some fungi even more than the toxins that we use to kill them. Fungal apple scab, for example, is one feared species, though it really does only minor damage. Scab costs Vermont apple growers alone one million dollars annually in chemical applications and "product loss." (Scabbed apples are "unsellable.") Yet, a little apple scab is harmless and tasteless. Given the choice, I'd purposely pick out apples with some black fungus scabs, because they could not more honestly be labeled "fungicide free," in the same way that a tiny tasteless moth caterpillar in the apple core says "insecticide free."
Apples are prominent in the paintings of Levi Wells Prentice (1850-1935), and I am pleased to see that some of Prentice's apples show the sort of imperfections that Heinrich mentioned, e.g. Apples in a Tin Pail:

Related posts:

Monday, November 03, 2008


Recesses and Vistas

Walt Whitman, Entering a Long Farm Lane, from Specimen Days:
As every man has his hobby-liking, mine is for a real farm lane fenced by old chestnut rails gray-green with dabs of moss and lichen, copious weeds and briers growing in spots athwart the heaps of stray-pick'd stones at the fence bases—irregular paths worn between, and horse and cow tracks—all characteristic accompaniments marking and scenting the neighborhood in their seasons—apple-tree blossoms in forward April—pigs, poultry, a field of August buckwheat, and in another the long flapping tassels of maize—and so to the pond, the expansion of the creek, the secluded-beautiful, with young and old trees, and such recesses and vistas.
William Trost Richards, Country Lane

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Inexpensive Instruments of Instruction

Ernest Weekley, Something about Words (London: John Murray, 1935), pp. 39-40:
At that point, so far as the constitution of our vocabulary goes, we have to stop, for our pupils are, for our particular purpose, even worse placed than Shakespeare, who knew little Latin and less Greek. This I regret, for in matters educational I am a die-hard conservative, a hide-bound reactionary and all the other things so objectionable to enlightenment. Like Anatole France, 'Je porte aux études latines un amour désespéré', and, like George Borrow's father, I hold that no boy ever came to a bad end who had thoroughly mastered the Latin primer. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the whole elaborate and costly machinery of modern education produces a more clear-thinking and hard-working type than did those bygone centuries when the simple apparatus of instruction was represented by those two comparatively inexpensive instruments—a Latin grammar and a birch-rod.
The reincarnation of plagosus Orbilius is probably not a good idea, but I wouldn't mind seeing more Latin grammars and fewer computers in today's classrooms.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


Real Fame and The Noblest Sport

Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates, Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius (Cambridge: Zoland Books, 1999), p. 23:
A few years after it was published, Alexander Klots wrote in his widely read Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America that "the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus." This notice meant much to the writer. Alfred Appel, Jr., reported in his Annotated Lolita that, when he was visiting Nabokov in 1966, the author took a copy of Klots from the shelf, pointed to this quotation, and said: "That's real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic could say."
Op. cit., pp. 43-44:
"Sugaring" for moths — that is, setting out pungent bait to attract them, which Fyodor mentions in the previously quoted passage of The Gift — was one of Nabokov's passionate lepidopterological pastimes; as unlikely a picture as the possibility may have presented, he once tried to interest his friend Edmund Wilson in having a go. "Try, Bunny," he wrote. "It is the noblest sport in the world."

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