Sunday, November 21, 2010


Emerson and a Verse from the Poet Martial

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. I: Nature: Addresses and Lectures, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1903), pp. 236-237 (from the lecture Man the Reformer):
When I go into my garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. But not only health, but education is in the work.1
Editor's note on p. 439:
Page 237, note 1. Mr. Emerson had neither the aptitude nor the training for carrying on a farm, or even a large garden, but, especially in his early years as a Concord householder, he took some care of his garden, and preferably of his orchard. But in household matters he disliked to be served by others, especially to call upon servants. He liked the verse from Horace:
At mihi succurrit pro Ganymede manus
(My own right hand my cup-bearer shall be),
and a proverb, perhaps from the Persian, —
The king's servant is the king himself.
Edward Waldo Emerson, Emerson in Concord: A Memoir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1889), p. 151:
"The king's servant is the king himself," quoted, I think, from the Persian, and the verse, —
"At mihi succurrit pro Ganymede manus"
(My own right hand my cup-bearer shall be), —
were favorite mottoes, and from boyhood to age he was as independent as might be of service from others. He built his own fires, going to the woodpile in the yard in all weather for armfuls as he needed fuel; he almost always walked to and from trains, carried his own valise, and when going to lecture in a neighboring town, drove himself. He always kept one or two ears of Indian corn in his cabinet to catch the horse with, if it got out of the pasture.
Emerson deserves praise for his determination to do things for himself, instead of being waited on. But he and his son seem to have misinterpreted the Latin verse "At mihi succurrit pro Ganymede manus," which is not from Horace but from Martial 2.43.14, translated as follows by D.R. Shackleton Bailey: "But my hand comes to my assistance in lieu of Ganymede."

Ganymede served Jupiter in other capacities besides that of cup-bearer (recall that catamite is derived from Ganymede), and what Martial meant by the line is best explained by a parallel passage (Martial 11.73.4-5, addressed to Lygdus, tr. D.R. Shackleton Bailey):
But when I have lain taut with protracted excitement in vain, often my left hand comes to my rescue in your stead.

cum frustra iacui longa prurigine tentus,
succurrit pro te saepe sinistra mihi.
Similarly Martial 9.41.1-2 (numquam futuis, sed paelice laeva / uteris et Veneri servit amica manus), which you'll have to translate for yourself, dear readers. It appears, from these passages, that the Romans customarily used the left hand when engaged in this practice. For a discussion of Martial's views on masturbation see J.P. Sullivan, Martial, the Unexpected Classic: a Literary and Historical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 190-191.

Emerson's misunderstanding amused Basil L. Gildersleeve, "Paulus Silentarius," American Journal of Philology 38 (1917) 42-72 (at 49, footnote omitted):
...the pure-minded Emerson and his innocent editor read to their edification the 'odes' of Martial in praise of self-help, little suspecting what was meant by Martial's handy substitute for Ganymede...

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