Monday, August 04, 2014


Birds in Borrowed Plumage

Erasmus, letter 15 (to Servatius Rogerus; tr. R.A.B. Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson):
Secondly, it will most of all speed you on your way if you write to me more often than you are doing, and that, too, not in your old style, taking little snippets of second-hand wisdom, or even (which is worse) collecting phrases indiscriminately from Bernard here and Claudian there and fitting them, or rather sewing them clumsily on, to your own observations, exactly like a crow decking itself out in peacock's feathers. That is not literary composition but mere scissors-and-paste, and you must not suppose that I am so dull-witted and stupid as to be unable to make out what is your own and what is borrowed from others. Rather, write down as well as you can, and I would rather you did it spontaneously too, whatever comes into your head. Do not be ashamed of any solecism you fall into: you will find that my purpose is to correct not to sneer at you. How is a wound to be healed if it is not laid open?
The Latin, from Opus Epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. P.S. Allen, tom. I: 1484-1514 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906; rpt. 1992), p. 89:
Deinde id eo quo pergis omnium conducet maxime, si crebrius ac facis ad nos scripseris; nec id sane pristino tuo more mendicatas quasdam sententiolas, imo (quod turpius est) voces hinc ex Bernardo, illinc ex Claudiano passim coaceruando, tuisque non aliter quam sibi cornicula pauonis plumas aptando, imo inepte assuendo: neque enim id est literas condere sed colligere. Nec nos tam crassi ingenii tamque stupidos suspicere, qui nequeamus discernere quid e tuo, quid alieno fonte mutuatus sis. Quin magis pro tui ingenii uiribus (atque id quoque ex tempore malim) quidquid in buccam venerit scribe. Nec te barbarismi, si qui inciderit, pudeat; senties nos correctores, non irrisores. Quo pacto curabitur uulnus quod non aperitur?
So difficult is it to avoid borrowing, however, that Erasmus himself is poaching here from Horace, Epistles 1.3.15-20 (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough, with his note):
He was warned, and must often be warned to search for home treasures, and to shrink from touching the writings which Apollo on the Palatine has admitted a: lest, if some day perchance the flock of birds come to reclaim their plumage, the poor crow, stripped of his stolen colours, awake laughter.

aCelsus is urged to depend more upon himself, instead of drawing so freely upon earlier writers, whose works he consulted in the library of the temple of Apollo on the Palatine.

             monitus multumque monendus,
privatas ut quaeret opes et tangere vitet
scripta, Palatinus quaecumque recepit Apollo,
ne, si forte suas repetitum venerit olim
grex avium plumas, moveat cornicula risum
furtivis nudata coloribus.
Horace himself, in his turn, has borrowed here as well, from some story similar to Aesop, Fables 162 Chambry (tr. Robert and Olivia Temple):
Wishing to establish a King of the Birds, Zeus set a date for summoning them all before him for comparison: he would choose the most beautiful one to reign over them. The birds went off then to the shallow water near the shore of a river to wash. Now the jackdaw, realizing his ugliness, went around gathering up the feathers which fell from the other birds, which he then arranged and attached to his own body. Thus he became the most handsome of all.

Then the big day arrived and all the birds presented themselves before Zeus. The jackdaw, with his motley adornment, was among them. And Zeus voted for him to be the royal bird on account of his beauty. But the other birds, outraged at this decision, each pulled out the feather that had come from him. The result was that the jackdaw was stripped and once again became just a jackdaw.

Ζεὺς βουλόμενος βασιλέα ὀρνέων καταστῆσαι, προθεσμίαν αὐτοῖς ἔταξεν ἐν ᾗ παραγενήσονται πάντα, ὅπως τὸν ὡραιότατον πάντων καταστήσῃ ἐπ' αὐτοῖς βασιλέα. Τὰ δὲ παραγενόμενα ἐπί τινα ποταμὸν ἀπενίζοντο. Κολοιὸς δέ, συνιδὼν ἑαυτὸν δυσμορφίᾳ περικείμενον, ἀπελθὼν καὶ τὰ ἀποπίπτοντα τῶν ὀρνέων πτερὰ συλλεξάμενος, ἑαυτῷ περιέθηκε καὶ προσεκόλλησε. Συνέβη οὖν ἐκ τούτου εὐειδέστερον πάντων γεγονέναι.

Ἐπέστη οὖν ἡ ἡμέρα τῆς προθεσμίας καὶ ἦλθον πάντα τὰ ὄρνεα πρὸς τὸν Δία. Ὁ δὲ κολοιὸς ποικίλος γενόμενος ἧκε καὶ αὐτός. Τοῦ δὲ Διὸς μέλλοντος χειροτονῆσαι αὐτοῖς τὸν κολοιὸν βασιλέα διὰ τὴν εὐπρέπειαν, ἀγανακτήσαντα τὰ ὄρνεα, ἕκαστον τὸ ἴδιον αὐτοῦ πτερὸν ἀφείλετο. Οὕτω τε συνέβη αὐτῷ ἀπογυμνωθέντι κολοιὸν πάλιν γενέσθαι.
For similar fables about birds in borrowed plumage see Babrius 72, Aphthonius 31, Phaedrus 1.3, etc.

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