Friday, May 14, 2010


Two Opsimaths

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf (tr. Alastair Reid):
At various times I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.
Used up by the years my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.
Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast encompassing
circle can take in all, accomplish all.
Beyond my anxiety and beyond this writing
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.
According to an interview with Rita Guibert, reprinted in Richard Burgin, ed., Jorge Luis Borges: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), pp. 44-45, Borges began to study Old English in 1955, i.e. in his mid 50's.

Bernard Ashmole, "Sir John Beazley (1885-1970)," in Donna Kurtz, ed., Beazley and Oxford: Lectures delivered in Wolfston College, Oxford, 28 June 1985 (Oxford University Committee for Archaeology, 1985), pp. 57-71 (at 70):
When convalescing in his seventies from an attack of pneumonia, he was reading through Lewis and Short's Latin Dictionary. He explained that he had never had time systematically before; that his tutor at Balliol had once recommended it, but at the time he had managed only to read through Liddell and Scott. 'It is amazing what one does not know.' Dietrich von Bothmer also recalls finding him working steadily through a Russian dictionary and making a note of every word with which he was not acquainted. His memory often seemed incredible because it was not the mechanical memory of a prodigy, but ruminative - the memory of a humanist. He could quote, and quote with relevance and scholarly accuracy, much of the world's great poetry in many languages, and there was no subject, except perhaps music, which he could not illuminate.
"It is amazing what one does not know" reminds me of the motto of Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655) — "Quantum est quod nescimus" ("How much there is that we don't know").

Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz, Old Man with a Book

Thanks to R. Threadgall for the generous gift of Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (Penguin Books, 1999), and to Eric Thomson for the quotation about Beazley.

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