Saturday, December 31, 2011


Adam Bede

Excerpts from George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859).

Chapter I:
"And there's such a thing as being oversperitial; we must have something beside Gospel i' this world. Look at the canals, an' th' aqueducs, an' th' coal-pit engines, and Arkwright's mills there at Cromford; a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t' hear some o' them preachers, you'd think as a man must be doing nothing all's life but shutting's eyes and looking what's a-going on inside him. I know a man must have the love o' God in his soul, and the Bible's God's word. But what does the Bible say? Why, it says as God put his sperrit into the workman as built the tabernacle, to make him do all the carved work and things as wanted a nice hand. And this is my way o' looking at it: there's the sperrit o' God in all things and all times—weekday as well as Sunday—and i' the great works and inventions, and i' the figuring and the mechanics. And God helps us with our headpieces and our hands as well as with our souls; and if a man does bits o' jobs out o' working hours—builds a oven for's wife to save her from going to the bakehouse, or scrats at his bit o' garden and makes two potatoes grow istead o' one, he's doing more good, and he's just as near to God, as if he was running after some preacher and a-praying and a-groaning."
"Some's got one way o' looking at things and some's got another."
"Look there, now! I can't abide to see men throw away their tools i' that way, the minute the clock begins to strike, as if they took no pleasure i' their work, and was afraid o' doing a stroke too much....I hate to see a man's arms drop down as if he was shot, before the clock's fairly struck, just as if he'd never a bit o' pride and delight in's work. The very grindstone 'ull go on turning a bit after you loose it."
Chapter II:
"I'll stick up for the pretty women preachin'; I know they'd persuade me over a deal sooner nor th' ugly men."
Chapter IV:
Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains; blends yearning and repulsion; and ties us by our heart-strings to the beings that jar us at every movement. We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah, so like our mother's!—averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago. The father to whom we owe our best heritage—the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modelling hand—galls us and puts us to shame by his daily errors; the long-lost mother, whose face we begin to see in the glass as our own wrinkles come, once fretted our young souls with her anxious humours and irrational persistence.
...timid people always wreak their peevishness on the gentle.
"Aye, aye, that's the way wi' thee: thee allays makes a peck o' thy own words out o' a pint o' the Bible's. I donna see how thee't to know as 'take no thought for the morrow' means all that. An' when the Bible's such a big book, an' thee canst read all thro't, an' ha' the pick o' the texes, I canna think why thee dostna pick better words as donna mean so much more nor they say."
"'They that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of those that are weak, and not to please themselves.' There's a text wants no candle to show't; it shines by its own light. It's plain enough you get into the wrong road i' this life if you run after this and that only for the sake o' making things easy and pleasant to yourself. A pig may poke his nose into the trough and think o' nothing outside it; but if you've got a man's heart and soul in you, you can't be easy a-making your own bed an' leaving the rest to lie on the stones. Nay, nay, I'll never slip my neck out o' the yoke, and leave the load to be drawn by the weak uns."
When death, the great Reconciler, has come, it is never our tenderness that we repent of, but our severity.
Chapter V:
"And as to people saying a few idle words about us, we must not mind that, any more than the old church-steeple minds the rooks cawing about it."
"If I don't like a man's looks, depend upon it I shall never like him. I don't want to know people that look ugly and disagreeable, any more than I want to taste dishes that look disagreeable. If they make me shudder at the first glance, I say, take them away. An ugly, piggish, or fishy eye, now, makes me feel quite ill; it's like a bad smell."
His mental palate, indeed, was rather pagan, and found a savouriness in a quotation from Sophocles or Theocritus that was quite absent from any text in Isaiah or Amos. But if you feed your young setter on raw flesh, how can you wonder at its retaining a relish for uncooked partridge in after-life?
Chapter VI:
"As for farming, it's putting money into your pocket wi' your right hand and fetching it out wi' your left. As fur as I can see, it's raising victual for other folks and just getting a mouthful for yourself and your children as you go along."
Chapter X:
"I'n got no taste i' my mouth this day—it's all one what I swaller—it's all got the taste o' sorrow wi't."
Chapter XVI:
On the table, at Mr. Irwine's elbow, lay the first volume of the Foulis Aeschylus, which Arthur knew well by sight; and the silver coffee-pot, which Carroll was bringing in, sent forth a fragrant steam which completed the delights of a bachelor breakfast.
Chapter XVII:
These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience.
"I began to see as all this weighing and sifting what this text means and that text means, and whether folks are saved all by God's grace, or whether there goes an ounce o' their own will to't, was no part o' real religion at all. You may talk o' these things for hours on end, and you'll only be all the more coxy and conceited for't."
Chapter XVIII:
Mr. Poyser had no reason to be ashamed of his leg, and suspected that the growing abuse of top-boots and other fashions tending to disguise the nether limbs had their origin in a pitiable degeneracy of the human calf.
"We shall all on us be dead some time, I reckon—it 'ud be better if folks 'ud make much on us beforehand, i'stid o' beginnin' when we're gone."
Chapter XX:
"...there can be nothing to look at pleasanter nor a fine milch cow, standing up to'ts knees in pasture, and the new milk frothing in the pail, and the fresh butter ready for market, and the calves, and the poultry."
Chapter XXIV:
"Oh, sir, the men are mostly so tongue-tied—you're forced partly to guess what they mean, as you do wi' the dumb creaturs."
Chapter XXVI:
"I know the dancin's nonsense, but if you stick at everything because it's nonsense, you wonna go far i' this life. When your broth's ready-made for you, you mun swallow the thickenin', or else let the broth alone."
Chapter XXXVII:
Religious doctrines had taken no hold on Hetty's mind. She was one of those numerous people who have had godfathers and godmothers, learned their catechism, been confirmed, and gone to church every Sunday, and yet, for any practical result of strength in life, or trust in death, have never appropriated a single Christian idea or Christian feeling.
Chapter XLVI:
"What does it matter to me, lad?" Bartle said: "a night's sleep more or less? I shall sleep long enough, by and by, underground. Let me keep thee company in trouble while I can."
Chapter LII:
"I don't put my soul above yours, as if my words was better for you to follow than your own conscience."
Chapter LIII:
"But there's Mills, now, sits i' the chimney-corner and reads the paper pretty nigh from morning to night, and when he's got to th' end on't he's more addle-headed than he was at the beginning. He's full o' this peace now, as they talk on; he's been reading and reading, and thinks he's got to the bottom on't. 'Why, Lor' bless you, Mills,' says I, 'you see no more into this thing nor you can see into the middle of a potato.'"
"As for other things, I daresay she's like the rest o' the women—thinks two and two 'll come to make five, if she cries and bothers enough about it."
Chapter LIV:
What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined for life—to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?
Related posts:

Thursday, December 29, 2011


A World of Wounds

Aldo Leopold, Round River (1953; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 165:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.


The Old Horatian Forbearance

Edward FitzGerald, letter to E.B. Cowell (January 9, 1876), in The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, edd. Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, Vol. III: 1867-1876 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 645-646 (at 646, with the editors' note 2):
I see by the Athenaeum that Browning and Swinburne go on pouring out Volumes of Verse. I wonder it does not strike them it would be better to follow the old Horatian forbearance for nine years:2 I suppose Gray brooded over his one little Elegy for all that time: and (with all its faults) it endures—as I think nothing which these more aspiring Geniuses do will.

2 Nine or ten years elapsed between the appearance of the first three books of Horace's Odes (23 B.C.) and the fourth (14-13). Subsequently, in one of his Epistles, the poet states that he had intended to abandon lyric poetry, but, in fact, he produced other works during the decade.
This is a very misleading note. FitzGerald was of course referring to a well-known passage in Horace's Ars Poetica, lines 385-390 (emphasis added):
tu nihil invita dices faciesve Minerva;
id tibi iudicium est, ea mens. si quid tamen olim
scripseris, in Maeci descendat iudicis auris
et patris et nostras, nonumque prematur in annum,
membranis intus positis: delere licebit
quod non edideris; nescit vox missa reverti.
In H. Rushton Fairclough's translation:
But you will say nothing and do nothing against Minerva's will; such is your judgement, such your good sense. Yet if ever you do write anything, let it enter the ears of some critical Maecius, and your father's and my own; then put your parchment in the closet and keep it back till the ninth year. What you have not published you can destroy; the word once sent forth can never come back.
Related post: Your Man Sallust.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011


The Great Twalmley

James Boswell, Life of Johnson (anno 1783, aetat. 74):
Once, when checking my boasting too frequently of myself in company, he said to me, 'Boswell, you often vaunt so much, as to provoke ridicule. You put me in mind of a man who was standing in the kitchen of an inn with his back to the fire, and thus accosted the person next him, "Do you know, Sir, who I am?" "No, Sir, (said the other,) I have not that advantage." "Sir, (said he,) I am the great TWALMLEY, who invented the New Floodgate Iron1."'

1What the great Twalmley was so proud of having invented, was neither more nor less than a kind of box-iron for smoothing linen.
I have met many descendants of the great Twalmley.


Indictment of the Present Age

Henry W. Chandler (1828-1889), A Practical Introduction to Greek Accentuation, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881), pp. xxii-xxiii (preface to the second edition):
One serious omission there is which I much regret, and for which, in any country governed rationally, I should incur a heavy penalty. To make the present work really useful, it ought to have a complete index of all the Greek words mentioned in it, amounting on a rough estimate to some twenty thousand. I would have constructed one myself, only the fact is that it requires keener eyesight and greater patience than I possess. A hundred years ago it would have been easy enough to find in this place a score of mere schoolboys, anyone of whom would have been willing and able to execute such a task with neatness, quickness, and accuracy; but nowadays, thanks to the spread of omniscience, it is difficult to meet with a young scholar who is sufficiently acquainted with his Greek grammar to be entrusted with such a work as an index; and as to zeal, industry, and accuracy, where are they to be discovered?

In bidding a last farewell to a subject in which I never took more than a languid interest, I may be permitted to say that in England, at all events, every man will accent his Greek properly who wishes to stand well with the world. He whose accents are irreproachable may indeed be no better than a heathen, but concerning that man who misplaces them, or worse still, altogether omits them, damaging inferences will certainly be drawn, and in most instances with justice.
Hat tip: Alan Crease.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Scholar and Murderer

Personal Remembrances of Sir Frederick Pollock, Vol. II (London: Macmillan and Co., 1887), p. 237 (diary entry for February 1, 1872):
Dined Sir Thomas Watson's. Lord Chancellor and Lady Hatherley, Sir T. Henry, Boxall, George Richmond, etc. An unfortunate clergyman, bearing the same name as our host, had been tried three weeks before at the Old Bailey and convicted of murdering his wife, but sentenced to confinement for life as a lunatic. He had used the Latin words, "Saepe olim semper debere nocuit debitori," in an exculpatory statement written by him, and Sir T. Henry said that nothing had given Mr. Watson so much pain in the whole proceedings as having had his Latinity questioned. The Chancellor said that Lowe had divided the Cabinet upon it, and that he had voted in the majority affirming it to be good Latin.
On the identity of this "unfortunate clergyman" see W.P. Courtney and H.C.G. Matthew in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Watson, John Selby (bap. 1804, d. 1884), scholar and murderer, baptized at Crayford church on 30 December 1804, is stated to have been the son of humble parents in Scotland. He was educated at first by his grandfather, and then at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1838, being one of the gold medallists in classics, and proceeded MA in 1844. On 30 March 1854 he was admitted ad eundem at Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1839 by the bishop of Ely, and priest in 1840 by the bishop of Bath and Wells, and from 1839 to 1841 he served the curacy of Langport in Somerset.

Watson continued his classical studies, and began a lifelong habit of writing. From 1844 he was headmaster of the Stockwell grammar school in the London suburbs. Watson continued to publish classical and other works. He translated many Latin authors for Bohn's Classical Library and wrote several biographies, including those of George Fox (1860), Richard Porson (1861), William Wallace (1861), and Bishop Warburton (1863), and Wilkes and Cobbett (1870). He wrote on the reasoning power of animals (1867) and prepared several other works, including a history of the papacy to 1530. He expected pupils to match his level of erudition. Not surprisingly, the number of pupils in his school declined and he was dismissed as headmaster in September 1870.

Watson lived from 1865 at 28 St Martin's Road, Stockwell, and there, in a fit of passion, he killed his wife on 8 October 1871. Her skull was fractured, probably by a horse-pistol in Watson's possession. She was an Irishwoman named Anne Armstrong, to whom he was married at St Mark's Church, Dublin, in January 1845. Three days after the murder he attempted to commit suicide by taking prussic acid, purchased a year earlier. He wrote a long suicide note, admitting his crime and giving instructions for the publication of his literary remnants. He claimed the loss of his post as ‘the principal cause’ of his melancholy. Watson was tried for murder at the Old Bailey and found guilty, but recommended to mercy, and the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. The ‘Stockwell murder’ and Watson's condition attracted much curiosity. Watson, ein unglücklicher Ehemann. Psychologische Studien über die Ehe was published at Berlin in 1875. Watson died at Parkhurst prison in the Isle of Wight on 6 July 1884 after a fall from his hammock, and was buried in Carisbrooke cemetery.
Among the sources listed by Courtney and Matthew are the following issues of The Times: January 11, 12, and 13, 1872; and July 8, 1884 (all unavailable to me).

In two letters to William Aldis Wright (January 20 and January 22, 1872), Edward FitzGerald mentions in passing the question of Watson's Latinity: see More Letters of Edward Fitzgerald (London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1901), p. 139, n. 1, where the editor (FitzGerald's correspondent Wright) points out that Sir Frederick Pollock misquoted Watson, whose words were actually:
Felix in omnibus fere rebus praeterquam quod ad sexum attinet femineum. Saepe olim amanti semper amare nocuit.
At any rate, this is the mark of a true scholar, to feel more shame about a possible Latin mistake than about an act of murder.

I haven't seen Beryl Bainbridge's novel based on this murder case, Watson's Apology (London: Duckworth, 1984).

Monday, December 26, 2011


At My Own Doorstep

Bernd Heinrich, In a Patch of Fireweed: A Biologist's Life in the Field (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984; rpt. 1991), pp. 192-194:
I used to dream of exotic animals in far-off places, the steaming jungles of South America or the plains of East Africa. I still do. But with time I'm discovering more and more excitement at my own doorstep. Much of nature is subtle, and it is difficult to appreciate it if one is used to the grandiose. I doubt that I would have stopped to watch a mere beetle, a bird, or an ant if I had had a toy train to play with when I was young—a train that rumbled and tooted and sped on fast tracks at the touch of a button. I became attuned to spending hours watching a bird just to see what it brought back to the nest, getting pleasure from discovering the subtleties. It is the subtlety of a bird or a carabid or an ant, multiplied a few million times over, that makes the whole. If one is not attuned to the fact of the first subtlety, then all the rest can pass unnoticed also, just as one sees only the train with the loud whistle rumbling past.

Living on my hill has given me a store of observations and ideas that vary in detail from sightings, like those of the beetles and wasps, to impressions and to qualitative observations, like those of my ants. Any one of them could potentially be expanded into a full-blown research project. Yet the projects I have already done on bees, wasps, and moths show me projects that still need to be done in those areas; the more questions you answer, the more are revealed. "Completed" projects are often jumping-off places for others, and thus you maintain momentum in a certain direction.


Although a number of factors might predispose me to specific projects, I am also open to unforeseen events. Throughout my life so far, I have never been able to predict all of what the next day will bring. Here on my hill there are interesting things all around me. I don't know beforehand what I will see, what ideas I will have, and what ideas and observations of other researchers will make me curious about things I might otherwise take for granted. What I do know is that there is enough here to occupy me a lifetime.
Isaak Levitan, Small Hut in a Meadow

Thanks to my daughter, who gave me Heinrich's book as a Christmas present.

Related posts:

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Christmas from Herman Melville

Thanks to Robert J. O'Hara for what follows.

It was on a Christmas afternoon, "some years ago — never mind how long precisely," that the ill-fated Pequod set sail from Nantucket. In the paratactic style he learned from Homer and the Old Testament, here's how Ishmael recalled it:
At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.

Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his
steady notes were heard,—
“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.”
Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. They were full of hope and fruition. Spite of this frigid winter night in the boisterous Atlantic, spite of my wet feet and wetter jacket, there was yet, it then seemed to me, many a pleasant haven in store; and meads and glades so eternally vernal, that the grass shot up by the spring, untrodden, unwilted, remains at midsummer.
And courtesy of the Eugene Sacred Harp Singers (mediated by YouTube) we can hear the tune "Jordan" by William Billings that Capt. Bildad was singing that Christmas — the tune Melville's readers would have had in their ears as they read:


By Thine Own Sweet Light

Richard Crashaw, In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God, lines 15 ff.:
We saw Thee in Thy balmy nest,
        Young dawn of our eternal day;
We saw Thine eyes break from the East,
        And chase the trembling shades away:
We saw Thee, and we bless the sight,
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.

Poor World, said I, what wilt thou do
        To entertain this starry stranger?
Is this the best thou canst bestow—
        A cold and not too cleanly manger?
Contend, the powers of heaven and earth,
To fit a bed for this huge birth.

Proud world, said I, cease your contest,
        And let the mighty babe alone;
The phoenix builds the phoenix' nest,
        Love's architecture is His own.
The babe, whose birth embraves this morn,
Made His own bed ere He was born.

I saw the curl'd drops, soft and slow,
        Come hovering o'er the place's head,
Off'ring their whitest sheets of snow,
        To furnish the fair infant's bed.
Forbear, said I; be not too bold;
Your Fleece is white, but 'tis too cold.
In 1921 Gwen Raverat designed a Christmas card (published by Lund, Humphries & Co., Ltd.) with the words "The Festival of Christmas" on the front, with the text as printed above inside (entitled Verses from the Shepherd's Hymn), and with the following engraving facing the text:

Thanks to the dear friend who sent me Raverat's Christmas card as a gift.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Two Christmas Songs

Thanks to Ian Jackson for sending these Christmas songs, translated by the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford:


An Auto-Antonym: Frugal?

Edward FitzGerald, letter to W.A. Wright (March 7, 1869), in The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, edd. Alfred McKinley Terhune and Annabelle Burdick Terhune, Vol. III: 1867-1876 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 130-133 (at 132):
Frugal. Forby notices the Norfolk use of this word (also found in Shakespeare's Merry Wives) in exactly the contrary sense to the modern: sc: lavish, instead of sparing. My nephew Edmund Kerrich was telling me one day an odd instance. His Father's Gamekeeper would say some morning as they went out shooting—"That dog's uncommonly frugal this morning"—meaning, un-costive.
Forby is Robert Forby, The Vocabulary of East Anglia, Vol. I (London: J.B. Nichols and Son, 1830), pp. 124-125:
FRUGAL, adj. the reverse of COSTLY, q. v. This word seems quite distinct from frugal in its current sense. Instances may, indeed, be produced in different languages, of the same word bearing even opposite senses, under different circumstances. The word sacer, in Latin is a very familiar one, sometimes meaning hallowed, sometimes accursed; which sense it bears in any particular passage, must be determined by the context or the occasion. But in each case its etymon is the same. On the contrary, our word, now under consideration, is likely to be of an origin very different from that of the common word, with which it agrees in every letter. "Good woman," quoth the village doctress, "is your child costive?" "Costly! Ma'am, no, quite the contrary, sadly frugal indeed!" So much for modern use. But have we any thing like authority for it in O.E.? We will have recourse to SH. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, Mrs. Page, on receiving Falstaff's love letter, ponders "What unweighed behaviour he could have picked out of her conversation." She presently concludes, "I was, then, too frugal of my mirth. Heaven forgive me!" She could not possibly mean too sparing. It would be nonsense; she must mean too free. The commentators are puzzled, and no wonder. Dr. Johnson says, he once thought "not" ought to be inserted before "too." But it seems his second thoughts were better, for he has not inserted it in the text. The puzzling word frugal stands alone in all the old editions. Now, without presuming to unsettle the derivation of the common word frugal, from the Latin frugi or fruges, or whatever may best please Vossius, or whom else it may concern, we may look at home for that of our frugal and Shakspeare's; and feel pretty confident that we find it, with only a very common change of one vowel. To adapt it to its Saxon origin, and to distinguish from a word of meaning so different, it might be spelled frugle. A.s. frig, liber.
Samuel Johnson's note on Merry Wives of Windsor 2.1.26 (I was then frugal of my mirth, &c.):
By breaking this speech into exclamations, the text may stand; but I once thought it must be read If I was not then frugal of my mirth.
The Oxford English Dictionary doesn't recognize the sense lavish.



A Bad Smell

Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (New York: Harper & Row, 1928), p. 301:
You've got to persuade everybody that all this grand industrial civilization is just a bad smell and that the real, significant life can only be lived apart from it. It'll be a very long time before decent living and industrial smell can be reconciled. Perhaps, indeed, they're irreconcilable. It remains to be seen. In the meantime, at any rate, we must shovel the garbage and bear the smell stoically, and in the intervals try to lead the real human life.
Hat tip: Andrew Rickard, whose new blog I highly recommend. This quotation comes from his post titled Bear the Smell Stoically.


Friday, December 23, 2011


The Direct Method

Christopher Stray, "Postgate, John Percival (1853–1926)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
The children included Raymond Postgate, later well known as a journalist and as the author of the Good Food Guide, and Dame Margaret Cole, who married the socialist economic historian G.D.H. Cole. In her memoirs, she remembered the atmosphere of early family life in Cambridge. Postgate's enthusiasm for learning Latin by the direct method (by speaking the language) was evidenced at mealtimes; at one Sunday dinner Margaret asked da mihi bovem ('give me the ox') instead of da mihi bovis ('give me some beef'), and found the whole vast sirloin thrust at her.
Thanks to Alan Crease for drawing my attention to this anecdote.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


A Certain Slant of Light

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are—

None may teach it—Any—
'Tis the Seal Despair—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air—

When it comes, the Landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—
Walter Launt Palmer (1854-1932),
Winter Sunlight

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


De Liberis Educandis

Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), quoted by Abraham Pais in A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist's Life in a Turbulent World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 205:
Children should neither be seen nor heard until they can quote Virgil in Latin.
Lewis Hine, Boy Studying

Hat tip: Ian Jackson.


O Dulce Otium!

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.9 (to Minicius Fundanus, tr. Betty Radice):
It is extraordinary how, if one takes a single day spent in Rome, one can give a more or less accurate account of it, but scarcely any account at all of several days put together. If you ask anyone what he did that day, the answer would be: 'I was present at a coming-of-age ceremony, betrothal, or a wedding. I was called on to witness a will, to support someone in court or to act as assessor.' All this seems important on the actual day, but quite pointless if you consider that you have done the same sort of thing every day, and still more pointless if you think about it when you are out of town. It is then that you realize how many days you have wasted in trivialities.

I always realize this when I am at Laurentum, reading and writing and finding time to take the exercise which keeps my mind fit for work. There is nothing there for me to say or hear said which I would afterwards regret, no one disturbs me with malicious gossip, and I have no one to blame—but myself —when writing doesn't come easily. Hopes and fears do not worry me, and I am not bothered by idle talk; I share my thoughts with no one but my books. It is a good life and a genuine one, a seclusion which is happy and honourable, more rewarding than almost any 'business' can be. The sea and shore are truly my private Helicon, an endless source of inspiration. You should take the first opportunity yourself to leave the din, the futile bustle and useless occupations of the city and devote yourself to literature or to leisure. For it was wise as well as witty of our friend Atilius to say that it is better to have no work to do than to work at nothing.
Pliny's letter in Latin:
Mirum est, quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque non constet. Nam si quem interroges "Hodie quid egisti?" respondeat: "Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in consilium rogavit." Haec quo die feceris, necessaria; eadem, si quotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis, cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: "Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!"

Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. Nihil audio, quod audisse, nihil dico, quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me, cum parum comode scribo; nulla spe, nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor, mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Borges as Opsimath

Eric Ormsby, Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation (Erin: The Porcupine's Quill, 2001), p. 162 (in "Jorge Luis Borges and the Plural I"):
Polyglot from childhood, fluent in English, French, German and, of course, Spanish, and having taught himself Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse in middle age, Borges finally embarked on the study of Classical Arabic with an Egyptian tutor whom he met in Geneva in the last year of his life. He was then eighty-six.



A Very Superficial Scholar

Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883), letter to E.B. Cowell (January 28, 1845):
I was very happy to receive your letter: and also that I was able to construe your French, and your Greek. As I hope, at least: for I am a very superficial scholar: having much neglected to learn when I was at school: and having but in the past ten years dug out of dictionaries and grammars just enough to give me some insight into the great Authors—long dead. This kind of Scholarship lies much on the surface—soon come soon gone: I believe that I have got some of the substance of these great Authors into my head, and am able to estimate what room they fill in the learning of the world—but the languages they wrote in slide and slide away from my head: and I know not if I shall have time or patience in future to keep up a serviceable amount of Latin and Greek. And yet how easy to read Homer every year: and three or four Greek Plays: and some Plato—some Tacitus; all Virgil's Georgics!



D.H. Lawrence, Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 291 (from "Nottingham and the Mining Countryside"):
The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely; the man-made England so vile.
Cf. the first sentence of Rousseau's Émile (tr. William H. Payne):
Everything is good as it comes the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of men.

Tout est bien, sortant des mains de l'Auteur des choses; tout dégénere entre les mains de l'homme.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Pyrrho and the Pig

Diogenes Laertius 9.68 (on Pyrrho, tr. R.D. Hicks):
When his fellow-passengers on board a ship were all unnerved by a storm, he kept calm and confident, pointing to a little pig in the ship that went on eating, and telling them that such was the unperturbed state in which the wise man should keep himself.

τῶν γὰρ συμπλεόντων ἐσκυθρωπακότων ὑπὸ χειμῶνος, αὐτὸς γαληνὸς ὢν ἀνέρρωσε τὴν ψυχήν, δείξας ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ χοιρίδιον ἐσθίον καὶ εἰπὼν ὡς χρὴ τὸν σοφὸν ἐν τοιαύτῃ καθεστάναι ἀταραξίᾳ.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Pleasing Thoughts

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), South Moon Under (1933), Chapter XIII:
It was uninhabited. Where there was true scrub, there would never be human habitation. It pleased the boy that he may have crossed where no man had ever crossed before. It pleased him, that he would come upon no clearing, no cabin, no clatter of human voices.


Good Will to Men

George Gissing (1857-1903), The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Summer, XIII):
All men my brothers? Nay, thank Heaven, that they are not! I will do harm, if I can help it, to no one; I will wish good to all; but I will make no pretence of personal kindliness where, in the nature of things, it cannot be felt. I have grimaced a smile and pattered unmeaning words to many a person whom I despised or from whom in heart I shrank; I did so because I had not courage to do otherwise. For a man conscious of such weakness, the best is to live apart from the world.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Well-Tim'd Levities Become the Wise

Leonard Welsted (1688-1747), The Invitation, lines 23-36:
Of what avail is fortune unenjoy'd?
Or what is life, in anxious hours employ'd?
Let the dull miser pine with niggard care,
And brood o'er gold devoted to his heir:
While we in honest mirth send time away,
Regardless what severer Sages say.
In chearful minds unbidden joys arise,
And well-tim'd levities become the wise.
What virtue does not generous Wine impart?
It gives a winning frankness to the heart;
With sprightly hope the drooping spirits arms;
Awakens Love, and brightens Beauty's charms;
High, florid thoughts th' inspiring juices breed;
Spleen they dispell, and clear the brow of need.


Tibullus the Farmer

Tibullus 1.1.1-10:
Divitias alius fulvo sibi congerat auro
    et teneat culti iugera multa soli,
quem labor adsiduus vicino terreat hoste,
    Martia cui somnos classica pulsa fugent:
me mea paupertas vita traducat inerti,        5
    dum meus adsiduo luceat igne focus.
ipse seram teneras maturo tempore vites
    rusticus et facili grandia poma manu:
nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
    praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.        10
Some of the following 18th century English translations seem to be based on a Latin text in which Scaliger's transpositions of lines 9-10 after 6, and 29-32 after 8, are accepted. Here are lines 29-32:
nec tamen interdum pudeat tenuisse bidentem
    aut stimulo tardos increpuisse boves;        30
non agnamve sinu pigeat fetumve capellae
    desertum oblita matre referre domum.
Translated by Leonard Welsted, in Ambrose Philips' Free-Thinker (Oct. 23, 1719):
Let others wealth amass in heaps of gold,
And many acres plow'd with pride behold;
Disturb'd amidst their daily toil with fears,
Oft as the trumpet sound, or foe appears:

The dire alarm repeated still denies
Peace to their mind, and slumber to their eyes:
An humbler life less painful I require,
While in my parlour shines a nightly fire;

Unblighted while my promis'd harvest grows,
And with the racy grape my vat o'erflows:
Of my own farm the husbandman I'll be,
And prune the vine, and plant the apple-tree;

Nor will I scorn the rustic fork to wield,
Or goad the heifer o'er the furrow'd field;
Or in my arms to bear the bleating lamb,
Or kid forsaken of its heedless dam.
Translated by John Dart, in The Works of Tibullus (London: T. Sharpe, 1720):
Let the rich Miser gather golden Gain,
And live the large Possessor of the plain:
Whom Fears perpetual scare with neighb'ring Foes,
And sounding Trumpets wake his soft Repose.

To me the Fates with sparing Hand dispence,
The humbler Sweets of Ease, and Innocence;
Pleas'd in the Pleasures of a still Retreat,
While constant Fires supply the cheerful Seat.

Here I a Countryman, with ready Hand,
When Seasons call, and proper Times demand,
With tender Vines my Vineyard will recruit,
And plant my Orchard with the choicest Fruit;

Nor one ungrateful Produce of the Year
Shall baulk my Labour, or elude my Care,
Whilst bending Boughs their Golden Weight produce,
And frothy Vats o'erflow with purple Juice.
Translated by James Grainger, in A Poetical Translation of the Elegies of Tibullus; and of the Poems of Sulpicia (London: A. Millar, 1759):
The glitt'ring Ore let others vainly heap,
  O'er fertile Vales extend th' inclosing Mound;
With dread of neighb'ring Foes forsake their Sleep,
  And start aghast at ev'ry Trumpet's Sound.

Me humbler Scenes delight, and calmer Days;
  A tranquil Life fair Poverty secure!
Then boast, my Hearth, a small but cheerful Blaze,
  And Riches grasp who will, let me be poor.

Nor yet be Hope a Stranger to my Door,
  But o'er my Roof, bright Goddess, still preside!
With many a bounteous Autumn heap my Floor,
  And swell my Vats with Must, a purple Tide.

My tender Vines I'll plant with early Care,
  And choicest Apples, with a skilful Hand;
Nor blush, a Rustic, oft to guide the Share,
  Or goad the tardy Ox along the Land.

Let me, a simple Swain, with honest Pride,
  If chance a Lambkin from its Dam should roam,
Or sportful Kid, the little Wanderer chide,
  And in my Bosom bear exulting Home.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


A Sound Appalling

Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Shorter Poems, IV, 12, in his Poetical Works, Vol. II (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1899), p. 138:
The hill pines were sighing,
O'ercast and chill was the day:
A mist in the valley lying
Blotted the pleasant May.

But deep in the glen's bosom
Summer slept in the fire
Of the odorous gorse-blossom
And the hot scent of the brier.

A ribald cuckoo clamoured,
And out of the copse the stroke
Of the iron axe that hammered
The iron heart of the oak.

Anon a sound appalling,
As a hundred years of pride
Crashed, in the silence falling;
And the shadowy pine-trees sighed.
Darius Kinsey, Bucker Crosscutting Fallen Spruce

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.



Study Tips

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898, also known as Lewis Carroll), letter to Edith Rix:
When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on. Put it aside till the next morning; and if then you can’t make it out, and have no one to explain it to you, put it aside entirely, and go back to that part of the subject which you do understand. When I was reading Mathematics for University honours, I would sometimes, after working a week or two at some new book, and mastering ten or twenty pages, get into a hopeless muddle, and find it just as bad the next morning. My rule was to begin the book again. And perhaps in another fortnight I had come to the old difficulty with impetus enough to get over it. Or perhaps not. I have several books that I have begun over and over again.

My second hint shall be—Never leave an unsolved difficulty behind. I mean, don’t go any further in that book till the difficulty is conquered. In this point, Mathematics differs entirely from most other subjects. Suppose you are reading an Italian book, and come to a hopelessly obscure sentence—don’t waste too much time on it, skip it, and go on; you will do very well without it. But if you skip a mathematical difficulty, it is sure to crop up again: you will find some other proof depending on it, and you will only get deeper and deeper into the mud.

My third hint is, only go on working so long as the brain is quite clear. The moment you feel the ideas getting confused leave off and rest, or your penalty will be that you will never learn Mathematics at all!
George Clausen (1852-1944),
Twilight Interior
(Reading by Lamplight)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Fine Old Leisure

George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859), chapter LII:
Leisure is gone—gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now—eager for amusement: prone to excursion-trains, art-museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels: prone even to scientific theorising, and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage: he only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion,—of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis: happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves. He lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall, and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or of sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling. He knew nothing of week-day services, and thought none the worse of the Sunday sermon, if it allowed him to sleep from the text to the blessing,—liking the afternoon service best, because the prayers were the shortest, and not ashamed to say so; for he had an easy, jolly conscience, broadbacked like himself, and able to carry a great deal of beer or port-wine,—not being made squeamish by doubts and qualms and lofty aspirations. Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure: he fingered the guineas in his pocket, and ate his dinners, and slept the sleep of the irresponsible; for had he not kept up his charter by going to church on the Sunday afternoons?

Fine old Leisure! Do not be severe upon him, and judge him by our modern standard: he never went to Exeter Hall, or heard a popular preacher, or read Tracts for the Times or Sartor Resartus.
Édouard Manet, Le Bon Bock (1873)


A Great Achievement of Culinary Art

George Gissing (1857-1903), The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Winter, X):
Talking of vegetables: can the inhabited globe offer anything to vie with the English potato justly steamed? I do not say that it is always—or often—to be seen on our tables, for the steaming of a potato is one of the great achievements of culinary art; but when it is set before you, how flesh and spirit exalt! A modest palate will find more than simple comfort in your boiled potato of every day, as served in the decent household. New or old, it is beyond challenge delectable. Try to think that civilized nations exist to whom this food is unknown—nay, who speak of it, on hearsay, with contempt! Such critics, little as they suspect it, never ate a potato in their lives. What they have swallowed under that name was the vegetable with all its exquisite characteristics vulgarized or destroyed. Picture the "ball of flour" (as old-fashioned housewives call it) lying in the dish, diffusing the softest, subtlest aroma, ready to crumble, all but to melt, as soon as it is touched; recall its gust and its after-gust, blending so consummately with that of the joint, hot or cold. Then think of the same potato cooked in any other way, and what sadness will come upon you!
Charles Spencelayh, Dig for Victory:
The Wise Eat More Potatoes

Related post: A Blessed Thing.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Pope's Nose

William Shenstone, Works in Verse and Prose (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1764), vol. II, p. 174:
People in high or in distinguished life ought to have a greater circumspection in regard to their most trivial actions. For instance, I saw M. Pope—and what was he doing when you saw him?—why to the best of my memory, he was picking his nose.


Winter Fields

John Clare (1793-1864), Winter Fields:
O for a pleasant book to cheat the sway
Of winter—where rich mirth with hearty laugh
Listens and rubs his legs on corner seat
For fields are mire and sludge—and badly off
Are those who on their pudgy paths delay        5
There striding shepherd seeking driest way
Fearing nights wetshod feet and hacking cough
That keeps him waken till the peep of day
Goes shouldering onward and with ready hook
Progs oft to ford the sloughs that nearly meet        10
Accross the lands—croodling and thin to view
His loath dog follows—stops and quakes and looks
For better roads—till whistled to pursue
Then on with frequent jump he hirkles through
5 pudgy: muddy, like a puddle
10 progs: prods, probes
11 croodling: crouching
14 hirkles: cowers, shudders (or hurtles?)

Thanks to Charles Collicutt, who writes about hirkle:
I found another gloss in "The Poems of William Dunbar", which is available on Google Books here:

To hirkle, hurkle, v. n. To draw the body together, to be in a rickety state, to be contracted into folds (Jamieson). Dr. Gregor says: to hirkle = to bend and totter. The form of the word in Banffshire is hurkle, to walk with a tottering step in a crouching position.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


A Word about Bookstalls

Salad for the Solitary. By an Epicure [Frederick Saunders] (New York: Lamport, Blakeman & Law, 1853), pp. 301-302:
A word about bookstalls—establishments which, humble in themselves, have been the resort in past days of many a true son of genius. Our collective literary spoils are not exclusively to be found garnishing the shelves of the library, or the bookseller’s store; there are sundry other interesting little nooks and corners in the wide world as attractive to the real book-worm as the honeypot to bees, where learned personages seek their literary aliment, and with as eager an appetite.

Book-stalls were the cheap literature of a former age. Ben Jonson was probably a haunter of them when a working brick-layer, he used to be seen with a trowel in one hand and a book in the other. Lackington was a constant frequenter of these lowly depositories of literary wares. The amusing anecdote of his book versus a leg of mutton, which his spouse commissioned him to purchase, his process of reasoning the matter, and final decision in favor of the food intellectual, reveals the first glimpses of his character. Charles Lamb relates a somewhat similar story of his purchase of a folio, "Beaumont and Fletcher," at a bookstall. He had marked it longingly, but was delayed by want of money. He almost daily passed the place to see if the book was there, fearful lest it should be gone. At length, late one Saturday night, having mastered the necessary sum—thirteen shillings—off he set to the shop, never dreaming of the possibility of its being shut. Finding this the case, and the worthy proprietor gone to his nocturnal repose, he was not yet, however, to be baulked of his prey, for he presently commenced a rapping at the door, sufficient to have awakened the seven sleepers. The bookseller came out, at length, in the direst alarm, half-clad, and grumblingly took the thirteen pieces of silver in exchange for the twin dramatists, whom the delighted author carried away in high exultation and rapture.
Cornelis Springer (1817-1891), Bookstall

Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


She Smiles for Few

George Crabbe (1754-1832), The Village 1.136-139:
Where Plenty smiles—alas! she smiles for few—
And those who taste not, yet behold her store,
Are as the slaves that dig the golden ore,
The wealth around them makes them doubly poor.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Modern Students

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994; rpt. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995), p. 19, describing his experience teaching Henry James' story Brooksmith to undergraduate students in 1992:
And what emerged was this: that they were not, with a few exceptions, readers—never had been; that they had always occupied themselves with music, TV, and videos; that they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; that they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed "pretentious"; that they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and that they were put off by an ironic tone, because it flaunted superiority and made them feel they were missing something. The list is partial.
Related post: The Night Closes In.


Manichean Avoidance of Arboricide

The Cologne Mani Codex (P. Colon. inv. nr. 4780) "Concerning the Origin of His Body", tr. Ron Cameron and Arthur J. Dewey (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), p. 11 (translating 7.2-4):
"If you keep the [pain] away from us (trees), (4) you will [not perish] with the murderer."
Id., p. 13 (translating 10.1-11):
...[it] wasted away, [wailing] like human beings, (4) and, as it were, like children. Alas! Alas! The blood was streaming down from the place cut by the pruning hook which (8) he held in his hands. And they were crying out in a human voice on account of their blows.
Id., p. 79 (translating 98.8-99.8):
Again he (Mani) points out that a date-palm tree spoke with Aianos, the Baptist from Koche, (12) and commanded him to say to <its> lord: "Don't cut (me) down because (16) my fruit is stolen, but grant me this [year]. And in [the] course of this year I shall give you (20) [fruit] proportionate to what has been stolen, [and in all] the [other years hereafter]." (99.1) But [it] also commanded (him) to say to that man who was stealing its fruit: (4) "Do not come at this season to steal my fruit away. If you come, I shall hurl you down (8) from my height and you will die."
I'm too lazy to transcribe the Greek text, which appears on the even-numbered pages in Cameron and Dewey, facing the English translation on the odd-numbered pages.

Ludwig Koenen, "Augustine and Manichaeism in Light of the Cologne Mani Codex," Illinois Classical Studies 3 (1978) 154-195 (176-187 on "Jesus Patibilis and Crux Lucis"), explains the theological basis for Manichean reluctance to injure plants and trees (at 176):
Manichean myths describe how particles of the divine Light, Augustine's substantia vitalis, fell to the earth and were tied up and kept captive in plants and trees.
Albert Henrichs, "'Thou Shalt Not Kill a Tree': Greek, Manichaean and Indian Tales," Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 16 (1979) 85-108 (at 97-103), attributes this belief to Indian influences.

In the Latin-speaking world, at least, Manicheans buttressed their belief by an idiosyncratic translation and interpretation of Paul, Galatians 3.13 (who quotes Deuteronomy 21.23):
Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.

Χριστὸς ἡμᾶς ἐξηγόρασεν ἐκ τῆς κατάρας τοῦ νόμου γενόμενος ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν κατάρα, ὅτι γέγραπται, Ἐπικατάρατος πᾶς ὁ κρεμάμενος ἐπὶ ξύλου.
The Manicheans seem to have translated πᾶς ὁ κρεμάμενος ἐπὶ ξύλου not, as one might expect, as omnis suspensus ex ligno, but rather as omni suspensus ex ligno (preserved in Augustine, Against Faustus 20.2). As Koenen points out (p. 179), "By the omission of one letter in the Latin text, the sentence taken from Paul and Deuteronomy came to express the sufferings of Christ in every tree and plant."

If there were such a thing as a Manichean translation of Galatians 3.13 into English, it might read something like this: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is he that hangeth on every tree."

Augustine often poured scorn on his former co-religionists, the followers of Mani, for this belief, e.g. On the Way of Life of the Manicheans 17.55 (tr. Donald A. Gallagher and Idella J. Gallagher):
However, lest someday, when you come to realize how these passages contradict your teachings, you should decide to say the same thing about them, I shall keep to my original plan and ask you, first of all — you who are so full of promises of evidence and truth — what harm is done to a tree if you pull it up? I do not mean if you pluck some leaves or fruit from it, although one would undoubtedly be condemned by you as a corrupter of the symbol if he did this intentionally and not accidentally, but if you tore it up roots and all. For the soul which exists in a tree, and which you consider to be rational, is freed from bondage when the tree is cut down — a bondage in which it suffered much affliction, but all to no avail. It is well known that you and, in fact, the founder of your sect himself, used to threaten as a serious punishment, if not the worst, the turning of a man into a tree. But can the soul of a tree become wiser as does the soul of a man?
Cf. also Augustine, Confessions 3.10.18 (tr. Henry Chadwick):
Gradually and unconsciously I was led to the absurd trivialities of believing that a fig weeps when it is picked, and that the fig tree its mother sheds milky tears.


Friday, December 09, 2011



Thanks to Eric Thomson for what follows.

Arthur Ransome's 'Bohemia in London' is a fine evocation of literary London, Johnson's mainly but also Lamb's. Chapter IX is devoted to bookshops.

'Bohemia in London' (London, Stephen Swift and Co., 1912), pp. 138-40:
Summer and winter, book-buyers range up and down the street; book-buyers who mean to buy, book-buyers who would buy if they could, and book-buyers who have bought, and are now tormenting themselves by looking for bargains that they might have made, choicer than those they have already clinched. There is a rare joy in picking books from the stalls without the interference of any commercial fingers; a great content in turning over the pages of a book, a Cervantes perhaps, or a Boccaccio, or one of the eighteenth-century humourists, catching sight here and there of a remembered smile, and chuckling anew at the remembrance, putting the book down again, rather hurriedly, as if to decide once for all that you must not buy it, and then picking up another and repeating the performance. And then, the poignant, painful self-abandon when at last you are conquered, and a book leads you by the hand to the passionless little man inside the shop, and makes you pay him money, the symbol, mean, base, sordid in itself, but still the symbol, that the book has won, and swayed the pendulum of your emotions past the paying point.

I remember the buying of my "Anatomy of Melancholy" (that I have never read, nor ever mean to—I dare not risk the sweetness of the title); two big beautiful volumes, with a paper label on the back of each, they stood imperious on the shelves. I had seven-and-sixpence in the world, and was on my way up to Soho for dinner. I took one volume down, and turned the thick old leaves, and ran my eye over the black print, broken and patterned by quotations in italics, Latin quotations everywhere making the book a mosaic in two languages. To sit and smoke in front of such a book would be elysium. I could, of course, have got a copy at a library but then I did not want to read it. I wanted to own it, to sit in front of it with a devotional mind, to let my tobacco smoke be its incense, to worship its magnificent name; and here it was in such a dress as kings and hierarchs among books should wear. If I were ever to have a Burton, this Burton would I have. I remember I laid the book down, and stoically lit a pipe, before daring to look at the flyleaf for the pencilled price. Just then another man, one with the air of riches, walked casually up to the stall, and, fearful for my prize and yet timorous of its cost, I seized it and turned with trembling fingers back to the beginning:

"Two vols. 8/-."

I am glad to say I later took that risk.

Turning my purse inside out, I went in, with the two volumes and the three half-crowns, to come to some agreement with the bookseller. He let me have the books, but dinner vanished for that night, as the meats from the table of Halfdan the Black, and I had to walk to Chelsea. But what a joyous walk that was in the early autumn evening! Those two heavy volumes, one under each arm, swung me up the hill from Piccadilly as if they had been magic wings. The feel of them on my sides sent my heart beating and my face into smiles. One of the volumes was uncut—UNCUT. My landlord met me at the door with my bill. "The Devil!" my heart said; "I will attend to it," uttered my lips; and upstairs, penniless, by the light of a candle, that is, after all, as Elia has it, "a kindlier luminary than sun or moon," I spent three hours cutting that volume, leaf by leaf, happier than can well be told.
John Frederick Peto (1854-1907), Take Your Choice


Just Say No

Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994; rpt. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995), p. 229:
The devil no longer moves around on cloven hooves, reeking of brimstone. He is an affable, efficient fellow. He claims to want to help us all along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth. I was, as the old song goes, almost persuaded. I saw what it could be like, our toil and misery replaced by a vivid, pleasant dream. Fingers tap keys, oceans of fact and sensation get downloaded, are dissolved through the central nervous system. Bottomless wells of data are accessed and manipulated, everything flowing at circuit speed. Gone the rock in the field, the broken hoe, the grueling distances. "History," said Stephen Dedalus, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken." This may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep. From deep in the heart I hear a voice that says "Refuse it."


Thursday, December 08, 2011


Shepherd's Offering and Prayer

[For my friends Dave and Lorraine, who raise sheep on Dor Galen farm.]

Ovid, Fasti 4.735-776 (tr. James George Frazer):
Shepherd, do thou purify thy well-fed sheep at fall of twilight; first sprinkle the ground with water and sweep it with a broom. Deck the sheepfold with leaves and branches fastened to it; adorn the door and cover it with a long festoon. Make blue smoke with pure sulphur, and let the sheep, touched with the smoking sulphur, bleat. Burn wood of male olives and pine and savines, and let the singed laurel crackle in the midst of the hearth. And let a basket of millet accompany cakes of millet; the rural goddess particularly delights in that food. Add viands and a pail of milk, such as she loves; and when the viands have been cut up, pray to sylvan Pales, offering warm milk to her.

[747] Say, "O, take thought alike for the cattle and the cattle's masters; ward off from my stalls all harm, O let it flee away! If I have fed my sheep on holy ground, or sat me down under a sacred tree, and my sheep unwittingly have browsed on graves; if I have entered a forbidden grove, or the nymphs and the half-goat god have been put to flight at sight of me;

[751] if my pruning-knife has robbed a sacred copse of a shady bough, to fill a basket with leaves for sick sheep, pardon my fault. Count it not against me if I have sheltered my flock in a rustic shrine till the hail left off, and may I not suffer for having troubled the pools: forgive it, nymphs, if the trampling of hoofs has made your waters turbid.

[759] Do thou, goddess, appease for us the springs and their divinities; appease the gods dispersed through every grove. May we not see the Dryads, nor Diana's baths, nor Faunus, when he lies in the fields at noon.

[763] Drive far away diseases: may men and beasts be hale, and hale too the sagacious pack of watch-dogs. May I drive home my flocks as numerous as they were at morn, nor sigh as I bring back fleeces snatched from the wolf.

[767] Avert dire hunger. Let grass and leaves abound, and water both to wash and drink. Full udders may I milk; may my cheese bring in money; may the sieve of wicker-work give passage to the liquid whey: lustful be the ram, and may his mate conceive and bear, and many a lamb be in my fold.

[773] And let the wool grow so soft that it could not fret the skin of girls nor chafe the tenderest hands. May my prayer be granted, and we will year by year make great cakes for Pales, the shepherds' mistress."

pastor, oves saturas ad prima crepuscula lustra:    735
    unda prius spargat, virgaque verrat humum;
frondibus et fixis decorentur ovilia ramis,
    et tegat ornatas longa corona fores.
caerulei fiant puro de sulpure fumi,
    tactaque fumanti sulpure balet ovis.    740
ure mares oleas taedamque herbasque Sabinas,
    et crepet in mediis laurus adusta focis.
libaque de milio milii fiscella sequatur:
    rustica praecipue est hoc dea laeta cibo.
adde dapes mulctramque suas, dapibusque resectis    745
    silvicolam tepido lacte precare Palem.
"consule" dic "pecori pariter pecorisque magistris:
    effugiat stabulis noxa repulsa meis.
sive sacro pavi sedive sub arbore sacra,
    pabulaque e bustis inscia carpsit ovis:    750
si nemus intravi vetitum, nostrisve fugatae
    sunt oculis nymphae semicaperque deus:
si mea falx ramo lucum spoliavit opaco,
    unde data est aegrae fiscina frondis ovi:
da veniam culpae. nec, dum degrandinat, obsit    755
    agresti fano subposuisse pecus.
nec noceat turbasse lacus. ignoscite, nymphae,
    mota quod obscuras ungula fecit aquas.
tu, dea, pro nobis fontes fontanaque placa
    numina, tu sparsos per nemus omne deos.    760
nec Dryadas nec nos videamus labra Dianae,
    nec Faunum, medio cum premit arva die.
pelle procul morbos; valeant hominesque gregesque,
    et valeant vigiles, provida turba, canes.
neve minus multos redigam, quam mane fuerunt,    765
    neve gemam referens vellera rapta lupo.
absit iniqua fames: herbae frondesque supersint,
    quaeque lavent artus quaeque bibantur aquae.
ubera plena premam, referat mihi caseus aera,
    dentque viam liquido vimina rara sero.    770
sitque salax aries, conceptaque semina coniunx
    reddat, et in stabulo multa sit agna meo.
lanaque proveniat nullas laesura puellas,
    mollis et ad teneras quamlibet apta manus.
quae precor eveniant, et nos faciemus ad annum    775
    pastorum dominae grandia liba Pali."

Joseph Farquharson, The Shortening
Winter's Day is Near a Close

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Beatus Vir

Joachim du Bellay (1525-1560), Les Regrets XXXVIII, tr. Richard Helgerson:
O happy the man who can spend his life with people like himself, and who, without feigning, without fear, without envy, and without ambition, reigns peacefully in his own poor household!

The miserable trouble of acquiring more does not tyrannize over his free inclinations, and his greatest desire, a desire without passion, reaches no further than his own inheritance.

He does not trouble himself with the business of others. His chief hope depends only on himself. He is his own court, his king, his benefactor, and his master.

He does not devour his wealth in a foreign country. He does not put his life in danger for others. And he would not want to be richer than he is.
The French:
O qu'heureux est celuy qui peult passer son aage
Entre pareils à soy! & qui sans fiction,
Sans crainte, sans envie, & sans ambition,
Règne paisiblement en son pauvre mesnage!

Le miserable soing d'acquerir d'avantage
Ne tyrannise point sa libre affection,
Et son plus grand desir, desir sans passion,
Ne s'estend plus avant que son propre heritage.

Il ne s'empesche point des affaires d'autry,
Son principal espoir ne depend que de luy,
Il est sa court, son roy, sa faveur, & son maistre.

Il ne mange son bien en païs estranger,
Il ne met pour autry sa personne en danger,
Et plus riche qu'il est ne voudroit jamais estre.
From the 1559 edition, printed by Federic Morel:
The same, tr. C.H. Sisson:
O happy the man who can spend his life
Among his own kind: and who, without pretence,
Without fear, without envy, and in full content
Reigns peacefully at his own poor fireside.

The wretched trouble of acquiring more
Does not tyrannise over his affections,
His highest desire, a desire without passion,
Extends only to what his father had before him.

He does not bother with other people's affairs,
His main hope is for what is already there,
He is his own master in all that he does.

He does not waste what he has abroad,
He does not waste his life for a foreign cause,
And he does not want to be richer than he is.
The same, tr. David R. Slavitt:
Happy is he who can spend his life with his own
kind, and who without any need for pretense,
and without ambition or eny, has the good sense
to live by the fireside he has always known,

untroubled by ambition's goad that distracts
from what his fathers and forebears always had
and were content with. He disdains the mad
passions of the madding crowd and the acts

of desperate men who scurry about in the street.
He is able to recognize what he has as sweet
and enjoy being the master in his own hall.

He does not risk what he has for the sake of applause
or even himself in some foreign cause.
To be richer? That doesn't matter to him at all.
The same, tr. Norman R. Shapiro:
O happy he, whose latter years are spent
Amongst his own, his intimates! who, free
Of lies, of fear, of jealous enmity,
Reigns in his humble dwelling, calm, content!

The base desire more and more opulent
To grow holds not his soul in thrall; for he
Sagely accepts what largesse destiny
Sees fit to grant him in his line's descent.

He troubles not with others' power or pelf,
His hopes depend on him alone, himself,
He his own court, patron, master is;

He wastes his fortune not on foreign soil,
He risks not harm for others' toil and moil,
And seeks no greater weath than what is his.
The same, tr. A.S.Kline:
Oh, happy is he who can pass his days
Among his equals! And without deception,
Free of fear, or envy or ambition,
In his own home pursue his own quiet ways!

That wretched need to garner more praise,
Never tyrannises over free affection;
His deepest desire, devoid of passion,
Never far from our true heritage strays.

He never delves in the business of another,
He is court, king, favour, and his own master.
His expectations rest on himself alone.

He’ll not eat in a far land, as a stranger,
Nor for another place himself in danger:
Richer, in that there’s nothing more he’d own.
Andreas Schelfhout (1787-1870), Farmyard


Lazy, Unprincipled Students

C.A. Stephens (1844-1931), A Great Year of Our Lives at the Old Squire's (Norway, Maine: The Old Squire's Bookstore, 1912), pp. 156-157:
Joel was very particular that we should not assist each other, and obtained a promise from us each to that effect. "You will never make good, self-respecting Latin students, if you depend on others to make your translations for you!" he exclaimed, with emphasis, and iterated this sentiment nearly every day. "Make up your minds at the outset, too, that you will never use 'ponies.'"

"What's a 'pony?'" a number of us inquired.

Joel laughed. "It is somewhat to your credit that you don't know," said he. "You will find out quite soon enough, if you go to a Latin school, or to college. But as there is neither safety nor merit in ignorance, I will inform you that a 'pony' is a translation, written or printed, which lazy, unprincipled students make use of secretly to get their lessons from, or rather to evade their lessons."

"Ho!" cried Thomas, "that must be jolly!"

"It is so very jolly that I never knew a student, making use of them, who amounted to anything," replied Joel. "It is cheating. It is also unfair to others in the class. But the worst effect of it is always on the one who uses it. It robs him at once of self-respect and self-reliance. I take it upon myself to say boldly that only a sneak will use a 'pony.' If I were reduced to the necessity of using one, I would tell every member of my class of it, in advance, and also my instructor; but there never need be any necessity of using one, where the student has studied honestly and well, to begin with."

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Trees Are Like People

Robin Nisbet, "The Oak and the Axe: Symbolism in Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus 1618ff.," in M. Whitby and P. Hardie, edd., Homo Viator: Classical Essays for John Bramble (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1987), pp. 243–252 (at 243, footnotes omitted):
Trees are like people. They have a head (vertex), a trunk (truncus), arms (bracchia). They stand tall like a soldier, or look as slender as a bridegroom (Sappho, 115 L-P). Their life moves in human rhythms, which in their case may be repeated: sap rises and falls, hair (coma) luxuriates, withers, drops off. Sometimes they are superior and aloof, sometimes they go in pairs, whether as comrades-in-arms (Hom. Il. 12.132ff., Virg. Aen. 9.679ff.) or husband and wife (Ov. Met. 8.720). They whisper like lovers (Ar. Nub. 1008), embrace, support, cling, and the stricken elm grieves for the vine more than himself (Stat. Theb. 8.544ff.). When the storm bears down, they suffer, heave, bend, as on Soracte or Wenlock Edge, but though they may take a battering (Hor. Carm. 1.28.27: 'plectantur silvae'), they remain robust ('oaken') and tenacious. Even under the axe they are resilient, like the Romans in the Punic War, and put out new growth (Hor. Carm. 4.5.5: 'duris ut ilex tunsa bipennibus...').
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593), Winter


No Second Spring

Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Triolets after Moschus:
Αἰαῖ ταὶ μαλάχαι μέν, ἐπὰν κατὰ κᾶπον ὄλωνται,
ὕστερον αὖ ζώοντι καὶ εἰς ἔτος ἄλλο φύοντι
ἄμμες δ᾽ οἱ μεγάλοι καὶ καρτεροί οἱ σοφοὶ ἄνδρες
ὁππότε πρᾶτα θάνωμες ἀνάκοοι ἐν χθονὶ κοίλᾳ
εὕδομες εὖ μάλα μακρὸν ἀτέρμονα νήγρετον ὕπνον.

Alas, for us no second spring,
      Like mallows in the garden-bed,
For these the grave has lost his sting,
    Alas, for us no second spring,
    Who sleep without awakening,
And, dead, for ever more are dead,
    Alas, for us no second spring,
      Like mallows in the garden-bed!

Alas, the strong, the wise, the brave
    That boast themselves the sons of men!
Once they go down into the grave—
    Alas, the strong, the wise, the brave,—
    They perish and have none to save,
    They are sown, and are not raised again;
Alas, the strong, the wise, the brave,
    That boast themselves the sons of men!
Related post: Death.


Clouded and Confused

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), My Books:
Sadly as some old mediaeval knight
    Gazed at the arms he could no longer wield,
    The sword two-handed and the shining shield
    Suspended in the hall, and full in sight,
While secret longings for the lost delight
    Of tourney or adventure in the field
    Came over him, and tears but half concealed
    Trembled and fell upon his beard of white,
So I behold these books upon their shelf,
    My ornaments and arms of other days;
    Not wholly useless, though no longer used,
For they remind me of my other self,
    Younger and stronger, and the pleasant ways,
    In which I walked, now clouded and confused.
Longfellow was 74 years old when he wrote this.

Anonymous (English, 17th century), Portrait of a Bibliophile

Monday, December 05, 2011


O or Constantinopolitanus?

M.L. West, Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique (Stuttgart: B.G. Teubner, 1973; rpt. 2003), p. 58:
There is a dictum of Haupt, quoted with approval by Housman and others: "If the sense requires it, I am prepared to write Constantinopolitanus where the manuscripts have the monosyllabic interjection o". The point he is making is that emendation must start from the sense. But the failure to explain how Constantinopitanus came to be corrupted into o may leave others with certain doubts as to whether that is what the sense was. Until those doubts are stilled, the conjecture has the status of a diagnostic one.


They Paved Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot

Thanks to Robert J. O'Hara, who sent me Robert Frost's poem A Brook In The City (in response to It Isn't Going to Last):
The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square
With the new city street it has to wear
A number in. But what about the brook
That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
And impulse, having dipped a finger length
And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
The meadow grass could be cemented down
From growing under pavements of a town;
The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
How else dispose of an immortal force
No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
In fetid darkness still to live and run —
And all for nothing it had ever done
Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
No one would know except for ancient maps
That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
If from its being kept forever under,
The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
This new-built city from both work and sleep.


Punishment, Expiation, and Propitiation

Inscription from Lydia in Asia Minor, dated 194/195 A.D. (Sullan year 279), translated by David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 88-89 (ellipsis in original):
Great is Zeus of the Twin Oaks. Stratoneikos son of Euangelos because of ignorance cut down one of the oaks belonging to Zeus Didymeites. And the god mobilized his own power because he (i.e. Stratoneikos) did not believe in him, and placed him ... in a deathlike condition. He was saved from great danger and raised the stele in gratitude. I declare that no one shall ever show contempt for his powers and cut down an oak. In the year 279, on the 18th of the month Panêmos.
Text of the inscription, from Georg Petzl, "Inschriften aus der Umgebung von Saittai (I)," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 30 (1978) 249-273 (at 253):
μέγας Ζεὺς ἐγ διδύμων δρυ-
ῶν. Στρατόνεικος Εὐανγέ-
λου διὰ τὸ ἀγνοεῖν αὐτὸν Δι-
ὸς Διδυμείτου ἔκκοψε δρῦ-
ν, κὲ ἀναζητήσας ὁ θεὸς τὴν
ἰδίαν δύναμιν διὰ τὸ ἀπιστῖν
αὐτὸν κατέθηκεν ΟΛΟΔΟΥΜΕ
ἰσοθανάτους, καὶ σωθεὶς ἐγ
μεγάλου κινδύνου εὐχαρισ-
τῶν ἀνέθηκεν· παρανγέλ-
λω δέ, αὐτοῦ τὰς δυνάμις μή
τίς ποτε κατευτελήσι καὶ
κόψει δρῦν. ἔτους σοθʹ, μη(νὸς) Πα-
νήμου ηιʹ.
Photograph of the inscription, from Petzl, op. cit., Tafel X (Nr. 1):

Another inscription, found about 10 kilometers south of the one above, dated 235/236 A.D. (Sullan year 320), translated by Aslak Rostad, Human Transgression - Divine Retribution: a study of religious transgressions and punishments in Greek cultic regulations and Lydian-Phrygian reconciliation inscriptions (diss. Bergen, 2006), p. 295:
In the year 320, on the 12th of the month Peritos. Because I, Aurelius Stratonikos son of Stratonikos, in ignorance cut down trees belonging to the gods Zeus Sabazios and Artemis Anaitis in the grove, I was punished and raised the sign of gratitude after having promised to do so.
One is tempted to assume that the Aurelius Stratonicus in the second inscription is the son of the Stratonicus in the first inscription. If so, the son is a chip off the old block, so to speak, and didn't learn his father's lesson.

Text of the inscription, from Rostad, op. cit., pp. 294-295:
Ἔτους τκʹ, μη(νὸς) Περειτίου βιʹ. Αὐρ.
Στρατόνεικος βʹ, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ
ἄγνοιαν ἐκ τοῦ ἄλσου ἔκοψα
δένδρα θεῶν Διὸς Σαβαζίου καὶ
Ἀρτέμιδος Ἀναείτις, κολασ-
θεὶς εὐξάμενος εὐχαριστή-
ριον ἀνέστησα.

E.N. Lane, Corpus Cultus Iovis Sabazii, Vol. III: Conclusions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), p. 28 (footnotes omitted, square brackets in original):
But the presence of trees can lead to another human activity illustrated on and mentioned by Sabazius monuments, namely tree-cutting. On the extreme right of the Ampurias plaque (II, 85) we see a little figure armed with an axe, as if about to take a whack at the right-hand tree, which is clearly a pine. What are we to make of him? On the one hand, the axe may be a symbol of divine power, as shown, by Men on the coins of Alia. On the other hand we know that in the so-called Katakekaumene there was a grove sacred to Zeus Sabazius and Artemis Anaetis, which we have already discussed. In this part of the world, Sabazius, as we have already had occasion to mention, enters into the number of the gods who are recipients of the so-called confessional steles, which give accounts of misfortunes which befall men as a result of offenses against the gods. The offenses must be expiated and the gods propiated. In one of these inscriptions, II, 33, a certain Aurelios Stratoneikos admits to having cut, out of ignorance, trees of these divinities out of their grove. He is punished in an unspecified way, makes a vow to the gods [to set up a stele if healed, is in fact healed], thanks them, and sets the stele up. This homely account may possibly shed light on the axe-carrying figure of the Ampurias plaque. For it is probably better to see the small figure, not as carrying a symbol of the god's power, but as an opponent of the god, ready to cut his sacred pine-tree.
I don't have access to Vol. II of Corpus Cultus Iovis Sabazii, but here is a drawing reconstructing the Ampurias plaque, from Martín Almagro Basch, "Manifestaciones del Culto de Zeus Serapis y de Sabazios en España," Cuadernos de Trabajos de la Escuela Española de Historia y Arqueología de Roma 8 (1956) 199-212:


Sunday, December 04, 2011


Away From This Metropolitan Century

Les Murray, Noonday Axeman, from his Collected Poems (2006), pp. 3-6:
Axe-fall, echo and silence. Noonday silence.
Two miles from here, it is the twentieth century:
cars on the bitumen, powerlines vaulting the farms.
Here, with my axe, I am chopping into the stillness.

Axe-fall, echo and silence. I pause, roll tobacco,
twist a cigarette, lick it. All is still.
I lean on my axe. A cloud of fragrant leaves
hangs over me moveless, pierced everywhere by sky.

Here, I remember all of a hundred years:
candleflame, still night, frost and cattle bells,
the draywheels' silence final in our ears,
and the first red cattle spreading through the hills

and my great-great-grandfather here with his first sons,
who would grow old, still speaking with his Scots accent,
having never seen those highlands that they sang of.
A hundred years. I stand and smoke in the silence.

A hundred years of clearing, splitting, sawing,
a hundred years of timbermen, ringbarkers, fencers
and women in kitchens, stoking loud iron stoves
year in, year out, and singing old songs to their children

have made this silence human and familiar
no farther than where the farms rise into foothills,
and, in that time, how many have sought their graves
or fled to the cities, maddened by this stillness?

Things are so wordless. These two opposing scarves
I have cut in my red-gum squeeze out jewels of sap
and stare. And soon, with a few more axe-strokes,
the tree will grow troubled, tremble, shift its crown

and, leaning slowly, gather speed and colossally
crash down and lie between the standing trunks.
And then, I know, of the knowledge that led my forebears
to drink and black rage and wordlessness, there will be silence.

After the tree falls, there will reign the same silence
as stuns and spurns us, enraptures and defeats us,
as seems to some a challenge, and seems to others
to be waiting here for something beyond imagining.

Axe-fall, echo and silence. Unhuman silence.
A stone cracks in the heat. Through the still twigs, radiance
stings at my eyes. I rub a damp brow with a handkerchief
and chop on into the stillness. Axe-fall and echo.

The great mast murmurs now. The scarves in its trunk
crackle and squeak now, crack and increase as the hushing
weight of the high branches heels outward, and commences
tearing and falling, and the collapse is tremendous.

Twigs fly, leaves puff and subside. The severed trunk
slips off its stump and drops along its shadow.
And then there is no more. The stillness is there
as ever. And I fall to lopping branches.

Axe-fall, echo and silence. It will be centuries
before many men are truly at home in this country,
and yet, there have always been some, in each generation,
there have always been some who could live in the presence of silence.

And some, I have known them, men with gentle broad hands,
who would die if removed from these unpeopled places,
some again I have seen, bemused and shy in the cities
you have built against silence, dumbly trudging through noise

past the railway stations, looking up through the traffic
at the smoky halls, dreaming of journeys, of stepping
down from the train at some upland stop to recover
the crush of dry grass underfoot, the silence of trees.

Axe-fall, echo and silence. Dreaming silence.
Though I myself run to the cities, I will forever
be coming back here to walk, knee-deep in ferns,
up and away from this metropolitan century,

to remember my ancestors, axemen, dairymen, horse-breakers,
now coffined in silence, down with their beards and dreams,
who, unwilling or rapt, despairing or very patient,
made what amounts to a human breach in the silence,

made of their lives the rough foundation of legends—
men must have legends, else they will die of strangeness—
then died in their turn, each, after his own fashion,
resigned or agonized, from silence into great silence.

Axe-fall, echo and axe-fall. Noonday silence.
Though I go to the cities, turning my back on these hills,
for the talk and dazzle of cities, for the sake of belonging
for months and years at a time to the twentieth century,

the city will never quite hold me. I will be always
coming back here on the up-train, peering, leaning
out of the window to see, on far-off ridges,
the sky between the trees, and over the racket
of the rails to hear the echo and the silence.

I shoulder my axe and set off home through the stillness.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.


Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?