Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Behavior of a Toady

Karl Marx, Letter to Friedrich Engels (Nov. 19, 1859 = Werke XXIX, 513), quoted by S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 199:
This fellow finds it natural to hear cries of 'Hurrah' when he has broken wind.
This fellow = Ferdinand Freiligrath. I no longer have access to Prawer's book, so I don't know if he connected this with a famous passage of Juvenal describing a toady (3.100-108, tr. G.G. Ramsay):
They are a nation of play-actors. If you smile, your Greek will split his sides with laughter; if he sees his friend drop a tear, he weeps, though without grieving; if you call for a bit of fire in winter-time, he puts on his cloak; if you say 'I am hot,' he breaks into a sweat. Thus we are not upon a level, he and I; he has always the best of it, being ready at any moment, by night or by day, to take his expression from another man's face, to throw up his hands and applaud if his friend gives a good belch or piddles straight, or if his golden basin make a gurgle when turned upside down.

natio comoeda est. rides, maiore cachinno
concutitur; flet, si lacrimas conspexit amici,
nec dolet; igniculum brumae si tempore poscas,
accipit endromidem; si dixeris 'aestuo,' sudat.
non sumus ergo pares: melior, qui semper et omni
nocte dieque potest aliena sumere vultum
a facie, iactare manus, laudare paratus,
si bene ructavit, si rectum minxit amicus,
si trulla inverso crepitum dedit aurea fundo.
See especially lines 106-107.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Better and Bitterer

John Burroughs, In the Catskills, ch. VII (Speckled Trout):
I have thus run over some of the features of an ordinary trouting excursion to the woods. People inexperienced in such matters, sitting in their rooms and thinking of these things, of all the poets have sung and romancers written, are apt to get sadly taken in when they attempt to realize their dreams. They expect to enter a sylvan paradise of trout, cool retreats, laughing brooks, picturesque views, and balsamic couches, instead of which they find hunger, rain, smoke, toil, gnats, mosquitoes, dirt, broken rest, vulgar guides, and salt pork; and they are very apt not to see where the fun comes in. But he who goes in a right spirit will not be disappointed, and will find the taste of this kind of life better, though bitterer, than the writers have described.


More on Droopy Drawers

Dear Michael Gilleland,

The Romans apparently managed to droop even without drawers:

Maltinus tunicis demissis ambulat; est qui
inguen ad obscenum subductis usque. Horace Sat. 1, 2 25-26

Maltinus walks about in baggy pants and another guy
With his tunic tucked up to his raunchy crotch.

(translator: Paul T. Alessi)

Maltinus goes out dressed
In baggy clothes. Another dandy hikes
His tunic halfway up his ass.

(translator: John Svarlien)

'Aurea mediocritas' in the trouser department was spelled out at great length by Lyndon B. Johnson, recorded for the nation ordering various pairs from Texas tailor, Joe Haggar on August 9 th 1964.

Here's a short excerpt from the Oval Office tapes:

LBJ: So leave me at least two and a half, three inches in the back where I can let them out or take them up. And make these a half an inch bigger in the waist. And make the pockets at least an inch longer, my money, my knife, everything falls out - wait just a minute.

Operator: Would you hold on a minute please?

[conversation on hold for two minutes]

LBJ: Now the pockets, when you sit down, everything falls out, your money, your knife, everything, so I need at least another inch in the pockets. And another thing - the crotch, down where your nuts hang - is always a little too tight, so when you make them up, give me an inch that I can let out there, uh because they cut me, it's just like riding a wire fence. These are almost, these are the best I've had anywhere in the United States,

JH: Fine

LBJ: But, uh when I gain a little weight they cut me under there. So, leave me, you never do have much of margin there. See if you can't leave me an inch from where the zipper (burps) ends, round, under my, back to my bunghole, so I can let it out there if I need to.

JH: Right
Whether the tailor managed to defuse the President's personal missile crisis I have no idea.

Best Wishes,
Eric Thomson

Monday, February 26, 2007


Droopy Drawers

In 2004, Louisiana state legislator Derrick Shepherd (D-Jefferson Parish) proposed House Bill 1626:
R.S. 14:106.3 is hereby enacted to read as follows:

§ 106.3. Illegally wearing pants below waist in public; penalty

  A. It shall be unlawful for any person to appear in public wearing his pants below his waist and thereby exposing his skin or intimate clothing.

  B. Whoever violates the provisions of this Section shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.
Similarly in 2005, Virginia state legislator Algie Howell (D-Norfolk) proposed House Bill 1981:
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia:

1. That the Code of Virginia is amended by adding a section numbered 18.2-387.1 as follows:

§ 18.2-387.1. Indecent display of underwear.

Any person who, while in a public place, intentionally wears and displays his below-waist undergarments, intended to cover a person's intimate parts, in a lewd or indecent manner, shall be subject to a civil penalty of no more than $50. "Intimate parts" has the same meaning as in § 18.2-67.10.
Who says the Democrats aren't the party of family values? Neither bill became law. The custom of wearing droopy drawers has a long pedigree. The earliest mention I can find is by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his Decameron 8.5 (tr. Frances Winwar):
But what was most astonishing, in Maso's opinion, was the pair of breeches that graced him which, as he sat, and his clothes spread open back and front because of the stinginess of their cut, revealed a baggy seat, that hung at least half-way down his thighs.
Related posts:

Sunday, February 25, 2007



Matthew 12.11:
And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
Luke 13.15:
The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?
Luke 14.5:
And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?
Jewish writings of course have much to say about what may or may not be done on the Sabbath. Pagans also had their regulations about activities permitted or forbidden on holy days.

Vergil, Georgics 1.268-272 (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough):
Nay, even on holy days, the laws of God and man permit you to do certain tasks. No scruples ever forbade us to guide down the water-rills, to defend a crop with a hedge, to set snares for birds, to fire brambles, or to plunge bleating flocks into the health-giving stream.
Columella (2.21.1) quotes this passage from Vergil and goes on to say (2.21.2-5, tr. H.B. Ash):
[2] And yet the pontiffs assert that a grain-field should not be fenced on holidays; they also forbid the washing of sheep for the good of the fleece, except as a curative measure. Vergil is instructing us as to the lawfulness of washing the flock in a river on holidays, and for that reason he adds "to dip in wholesome stream" that is, in a healing stream; for there are ailments because of which it is expedient to bathe the cattle. [3] Furthermore, the religious observances of our forefathers permit these tasks also on holidays: the braying of spelt; the cutting of torches; the dipping of candles; the tilling of a leased vineyard; the clearing out and cleaning of fish-ponds, cisterns, and old ditches; the sickling of meadows; the spreading of manure; the storing of hay in the loft; the gathering of the fruits of a leased olive-grove; the spreading of apples, pears and figs to dry; the making of cheese; the carrying of trees for planting, either on our own shoulders or with a pack mule. But it is not permitted to haul them with a yoked animal, nor to plant them after they are transported, nor to open the ground, nor to thin a tree; [4] and not to assist in the sowing either unless you have first sacrificed a puppy, nor to cut hay or bind it or haul it; and it is not permissible either by the ordinances of the priests for the vintage to be gathered on feast days, nor to shear sheep, unless you have sacrificed a puppy. It is also lawful to make boiled must and to boil wine. To gather grapes and olives for preserving is likewise lawful. It is not lawful to clothe sheep with skins. Anything that you may do in your garden for the good of your vegetables is lawful. It is not lawful to bury a dead person on public feast days. [5] Marcus Porcius Cato says that there are no holidays for mules, horses, and asses; the same authority permits the yoking of oxen for the purpose of hauling wood and grain. We ourselves have read in the books of the pontiffs that only on the holidays called Denicale is it unlawful to have mules in harness, but on other holidays it is lawful.
Columella refers to Cato, On Agriculture 1.138 (tr. W.D. Hooper and H.B. Ash):
Oxen may be yoked on feast days for these purposes: to haul firewood, bean stalks, and grain for storing. There is no holiday for mules, horses, or donkeys, except the family festivals.
See also Cato, On Agriculture 2.4 (tr. Hooper and Ash):
Remind him, also, that on feast days old ditches might have been cleaned, road work done, brambles cut, the garden spaded, a meadow cleared, faggots bundled, thorns rooted out, spelt ground, and general cleaning done.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Light Reading

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Letter to Thomas Flower Ellis (Dec. 30, 1835):
During the last thirteen months I have read Aeschylus twice; Sophocles twice; Euripides once; Pindar twice; Callimachus; Apollonius Rhodius; Quintus Calaber; Theocritus twice; Herodotus; Thucydides; almost all Xenophon's works; almost all Plato; Aristotle's Politics, and a good deal of his Organon, besides dipping elsewhere in him; the whole of Plutarch's Lives; about half of Lucian; two or three books of Athenaeus; Plautus twice; Terence twice; Lucretius twice; Catullus; Tibullus; Propertius; Lucan; Statius; Silius Italicus; Livy; Velleius Paterculus; Sallust; Caesar; and, lastly, Cicero. I have, indeed, still a little of Cicero left; but I shall finish him in a few days. I am now deep in Aristophanes and Lucian. Of Aristophanes I think as I always thought; but Lucian has agreeably surprised me. At school I read some of his Dialogues of the Dead when I was thirteen; and, to my shame, I never, to the best of my belief, read a line of him since. I am charmed with him. His style seems to me to be superior to that of any extant writer who lived later than the age of Demosthenes and Theophrastus. He has a most peculiar and delicious vein of humour. It is not the humour of Aristophanes; it is not that of Plato; and yet it is akin to both; not quite equal, I admit, to either, but still exceedingly charming. I hardly know where to find an instance of a writer, in the decline of a literature, who has shown an invention so rich, and a taste so pure.
Macaulay, Letter to Ellis (May 30, 1836):
My mornings, from five to nine, are quite my own. I still give them to ancient literature. I have read Aristophanes twice through since Christmas; and have also read Herodotus, and Thucydides again. I got into a way last year of reading a Greek play every Sunday. I began on Sunday the 18th of October with the Prometheus, and next Sunday I shall finish with the Cyclops of Euripides. Euripides has made a complete conquest of me. It has been unfortunate for him that we have so many of his pieces. It has, on the other hand, I suspect, been fortunate for Sophocles that so few of his have come down to us. Almost every play of Sophocles, which is now extant, was one of his masterpieces. There is hardly one of them which is not mentioned with high praise by some ancient writer. Yet one of them, the Trachiniae, is, to my thinking, very poor and insipid. Now, if we had nineteen plays of Sophocles, of which twelve or thirteen should be no better than the Trachiniae,--and if, on the other hand, only seven pieces of Euripides had come down to us, and if those seven had been the Medea, the Bacchae, the Iphigenia in Aulis, the Orestes, the Phoenissae, the Hippolytus, and the Alcestis, I am not sure that the relative position which the two poets now hold in our estimation would not be greatly altered.

I have not done much in Latin. I have been employed in turning over several third-rate and fourth-rate writers. After finishing Cicero, I read through the works of both the Senecas, father and son. There is a great deal in the Controversiae both of curious information, and of judicious criticism. As to the son, I cannot bear him. His style affects me in something the same way with that of Gibbon. But Lucius Seneca's affectation is even more rank than Gibbon's. His works are made up of mottoes. There is hardly a sentence which might not be quoted; but to read him straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce. I have read, as one does read such stuff, Valerius Maximus, Annaeus Florus, Lucius Ampelius, and Aurelius Victor. I have also gone through Phaedrus. I am now better employed. I am deep in the Annals of Tacitus, and I am at the same time reading Suetonius.


Thoreau's Autarky

I'm reading Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind by Robert D. Richardson Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), which came to my attention through Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence. It's a fine biography, on a level with Walter Harding's The Days of Henry Thoreau and Henry Seidel Canby's Thoreau, and the following are mere quibbles.

On pp. 104-105, Richardson states:
Thoreau's interest in individual reformation also led him back to the Greek ethical schools, and particularly to Stoicism -- the search for self-rule or autarky -- and the same interest should be seen as a practical consequence of a serious immersion in the new, Kantian, subjectivism.
Autarky doesn't mean self-rule; it means self-sufficiency. The word comes from Greek αὐτάρκεια (autárkeia), itself from αὐτός (autós) = self and ἀρκέω (arkéo) which in its passive form means be satisfied, content. There is no connection with Greek ἀρχή (arché) = rule, sovereignty.

The same mistake occurs on p. 316:
Walden modernizes and extends the idea of freedom by reviving the classical, Stoic emphasis on autarky or self-rule, by domesticating into an American context the Hindu concept of the "final liberation" of the spirit, and by equating freedom with the wildness he understood to be the source and raw material of all civilization and culture.
Euripides is misspelled Euripedes every time it appears in the book (pp. 24, 78, 445). Finally, there are errors on p. 255:
Linnaeus's crisp Latin says "lapidae crescunt, vegetabile crescunt et vivunt, animali crescunt vivunt et sentiunt." The word that Thoreau could not have missed is crescunt, from cresco, to come into existence, spring forth, grow. It is the transitive equivalent of creo, to create.
The quotation from Linnaeus is mangled. It comes from the introduction to his Systema Naturae and should be Lapides crescunt, Vegetabilia crescunt et vivunt, Animalia crescunt, vivunt et sentiunt. Richardson's chapter heading on p. 254 should thus be Lapides Crescunt, not Lapidae Crescunt. Also, cresco is intransitive, not transitive.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Profit and Loss

Giacomo Leopardi, The Moral Essays. Operette Morali. Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh = Works of Giacomo Leopardi, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), p. 184 (from The Dialogue of Timander and Eleander):
Laughing at our woes is the only profit we can gain from them, and the only remedy to be found in them.



As the amount of energy in a physical system is constant, so too (it was once thought by some) the amount of evil in the world does not change. Evil can be moved from one place to another but never totally destroyed. To the passages collected on the Gadarene swine, add Tibullus 2.1.17-18 (on the Ambarvalia, tr. J.P. Postgate):
Gods of our sires, we cleanse the farms, we cleanse the farming folk. Do ye outside our boundaries drive all evil things.

di patrii, purgamus agros, purgamus agrestes:
  vos mala de nostris pellite limitibus.

To the passages on children who resemble their fathers, add Theophrastus, Characters 19.1-2 (tr. R.C. Jebb):
Offensiveness is distressing neglect of person. The Offensive man is one who will go about with a scrofulous or leprous affection, or with his nails overgrown, and say that these are hereditary complaints with him; his father had them, and his grandfather, and it is not easy to be smuggled into his family.

Ἔστι δὲ ἡ δυσχέρεια ἀθεραπευσία σώματος λύπης παρασκευαστική, ὁ δὲ δυσχερὴς τοιοῦτός τις, οἷος λέπραν ἔχων καὶ ἀλφὸν καὶ τοὺς ὄνυχας μεγάλους περιπατεῖν καὶ φῆσαι ταῦτα εἶναι αὑτῷ συγγενικὰ ἀρρωστήματα· ἔχειν γὰρ αὐτὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν πάππον, καὶ οὐκ εἶναι ῥᾴδιον αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ γένος ὑποβάλλεσθαι.
Herwerden conjectured μέλανας for μεγάλους (black nails, instead of overgrown ones).

Thursday, February 22, 2007



Henry David Thoreau, A Winter Walk:
The snow falls on every wood and field, and no crevice is forgotten; by the river and the pond, on the hill and in the valley. Quadrupeds are confined to their coverts and the birds sit upon their perches this peaceful hour. There is not so much sound as in fair weather, but silently and gradually every slope, and the gray walls and fences, and the polished ice, and the sere leaves, which were not buried before, are concealed, and the tracks of men and beasts are lost. With so little effort does nature reassert her rule and blot out the traces of men.


More on Drinking Tobacco

Dear Mr Gilleland,

Your post on drinking tobacco reminded me that I had heard, years ago, about some of the early Europeans to come into contact with tobacco wondering in what way best to consume it, and having tried infusion. I can't find any of those references; but I did turn up this, which might interest you:
"Probably the oldest way of taking the weed, and the most straightforward, was chewing it. Cured tobacco leaves were mixed with salt or ashes, formed into pellets or rolls, then tucked into the user's cheek, or under a lip. The juices thus released then dissolved in saliva and slid down the masticator's throat. Tobacco chewing could be recreational, or magical. The next method of consumption, in terms of complexity and pedigree, was drinking tobacco, in a sort of tea. Tobacco leaves were boiled or steeped in water and the resulting brew drunk via the nose or mouth. This was a popular method of consumption among shamans, as the strength of the brew could be adjusted to deliver the massive doses they preferred. The provenance of the tobacco used in making tea was a matter of great importance. For instance, Acawaio men would travel to a special stream to collect ‘Mountain Spirit’ tobacco, which was steeped in the water of the stream to enhance its potency. Drinking tobacco also presented the opportunity of mixing other narcotics into the brew. Novice shamans would sometimes add a dash of the fluids they collected from a dead shaman, and a qualified shaman's tea was often loaded with other hallucinogenic plant extracts. Tobacco was drunk in sufficient quantities at shamanic initiation ceremonies to induce vomiting, paralysis and, occasionally, death. Even everyday tobacco drinkers attributed mystic powers to their brew."
Also, someone did a book on Tobacco and Shamanism which lists all the South American tribes that drank rather than smoked tobacco. So I imagine it was a question of which tribe which Westerner first met, for a while at least.


Roger Kuin

The excerpt quoted by Professor Kuin comes from the first chapter of Iain Gately, Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World (New York: Grove Press, 2001). Gately provides this additional detail about drinking tobacco:
Tobacco tea was also ‘drunk’ via the anus where it was introduced in the form of a clyster, using a hollow length of cane or bone, or with a bulb made out of animal skin and a bone or reed nozzle. An early example of such a device, dating from AD 500, has been discovered in the tomb of a Colombian shaman.
Don't try this at home, kids.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The Course of Life

Matthew Arnold, Rugby Chapel, lines 58-72:
What is the course of the life
Of mortal men on the earth? -
Most men eddy about
Here and there - eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl'd in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and, then they die -
Perish; - and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean, have swell'd,
Foam'd for a moment, and gone.
Related posts:



Dr. Hodges at Gypsy Scholar, in a post On Milton's 'Identity', mentions the odd expression drinking tobacco. By coincidence, just yesterday I happened on the same expression in a poem by Robert Wisdome included in Norman Ault's anthology of Elizabethan Lyrics (1949; rpt. New York: Capricorn Books, 1960), pp. 19-20:

The Indian weed witherëd quite,
Green at morn, cut down at night,
    Shows thy decay;
    All flesh is hay:
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

And when the smoke ascends on high,
Think thou behold’st the vanity
    Of worldly stuff,
    Gone with a puff:
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

But when the pipe grows foul within,
Think of thy soul defiled with sin.
    And that the fire
    Doth it require:
Thus think, then drink tobacco.

The ashes that are left behind,
May serve to put thee still in mind
    That into dust
    Return thou must:
Thus think, then drink tobacco.
The final stanza is especially appropriate for today, Ash Wednesday.

I recently encountered another expression new to me and related to tobacco -- anatomical snuff box, an area of the wrist so called from its use in taking snuff.

Monday, February 19, 2007


How To Start the Day

Sebastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, Products of the Perfected Civilization. Selected Writings, tr. W.S. Merwin (New York: Macmillan, 1969), p. 231:
M. de Lassay, a very gentle man but with a great knowledge of society, said that one must swallow a toad every morning, when one had to go out into the world, so as not to find anything more disgusting during the day.

M. de Lassay, homme très doux, mais qui avait une grande connaissance de la société, disait qu'il faudrait avaler un crapaud tous les matins, pour ne trouver plus rien de dégoûtant le reste de la journée, quand on devait la passer dans le monde.
Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Notas, 210 (tr. Michael Hendry):
The reading of Homer every morning, with the serenity, the tranquillity, the deep sensation of moral and physical well-being which it instills in us, is the best provision to endure the vulgarities of the day.

La lectura matutina de Homero, con la serenidad, el sosiego, la honda sensación de bienestar moral y físico, de salud perfecta, que nos infunde, es el mejor viático para soportar las vulgaridades del díia.
By the way, I've noticed a few more translations of Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994) by Michael Hendry recently at Dr. Weevil. I hope he continues this project. Reading the master aphorist is also a good way to start the day.

A few years ago I tried my hand at translating a few aphorisms from Nicolás Gómez Dávila's Escolios a un Texto Implicito (1977). Unfortunately I didn't transcribe the original Spanish. Here are a few of my translations:
The individual shrinks in proportion as the state grows. (I, 21)

Confused ideas and muddy ponds appear deep. (I, 40)

All literature is contemporary to the reader who knows how to read. (I, 57)

Violence is not necessary to destroy a civilization. Each civilization dies from indifference toward the unique values which created it. (I, 70)

Civilization is a poorly fortified encampment in the midst of rebellious tribes. (I, 268)

I distrust every idea that doesn't seem obsolete and grotesque to my contemporaries. (I, 353)

The cultured man has the obligation to be intolerant. (II, 58)

He who speaks of his "generation" admits that he's part of a herd. (II, 81)

For the myth of a past golden age, present day humanity substitutes the myth of a future plastic age. (II, 88)

The imagination is the only place in the universe where it is possible to live. (II, 132)

A cultivated soul is one where the din of the living does not drown out the music of the dead. (II, 195)

The modern world seems invincible. Like the extinct dinosaurs. (II, 226)

To be unaware of the putrefaction of the modern world is a symptom of contagion by it. (II, 451)

There is an illiteracy of the soul that no diploma cures. (II, 469)

The genuine reader is the one who reads for pleasure the books that others only study. (II, 486)

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Hatred of Greek

G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World, ch. 10 (The Case for the Public Schools):
There is something highly maddening in the circumstance that when modern people attack an institution that really does demand reform, they always attack it for the wrong reasons. Thus many opponents of our public schools, imagining themselves to be very democratic, have exhausted themselves in an unmeaning attack upon the study of Greek. I can understand how Greek may be regarded as useless, especially by those thirsting to throw themselves into the cut throat commerce which is the negation of citizenship; but I do not understand how it can be considered undemocratic. I quite understand why Mr. Carnegie has a hatred of Greek. It is obscurely founded on the firm and sound impression that in any self-governing Greek city he would have been killed. But I cannot comprehend why any chance democrat, say Mr. Quelch, or Mr. Will Crooks, or Mr. John M. Robertson, should be opposed to people learning the Greek alphabet, which was the alphabet of liberty. Why should Radicals dislike Greek? In that language is written all the earliest and, Heaven knows, the most heroic history of the Radical party. Why should Greek disgust a democrat, when the very word democrat is Greek?


A Thistle to the Moon

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets (1998; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 672, quotes a few lines from Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978):
For ilka thing a man can be or think or dae
Aye leaves a million mair unbeen, unthocht, undune,
Till his puir warped performance is,
To a' that micht ha' been, a thistle to the mune.
"Unbeen, unthocht, undune" is a good example of a series of asyndetic, privative adjectives.

I can't find the rest of MacDiarmid's poem on the World Wide Web, and I don't even know the title of it.

Update: See the following email.

Dear Michael Gilleland,

'Thistle to the moon' comes from my fellow countryman's masterpiece 'A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle' lines 269 -272, which - mirabile dictu - is more or less at the beginning of the poem, as there are another 2,413 lines to go. The stanza seems to be a variation on the 'mute inglorious Milton' theme of unrealized possibilities. Another Miltonic theme ['Milton, Thou shouldst be living this hour'] occurs a little earlier in the poem in a marvellous outburst of Juvenalian disgust. As Burns' Day has only just passed, it perhaps deserves an airing:
"You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wiout some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee
Chinee turns round to say "Him Haggis - velly goot"
And ten to wan the piper is a Cokney.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennan hand to gie -

Croose London Scotties with their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freinds rejoicean
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicean

Burns' sentiments o universal love.
In pidgin English and wild-fowl Scots,
And toastan ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

Aa they've to say was aften said afore
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw about.
What unco fate maks him the dumpan-grund
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw out?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony barran liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreiden as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zeitgeist!

Rabbie, wadst thou wert - the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o the likes o thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre's become
The laxative for aa loquacity." [l. 37- 64]
MacDiarmid never suffered coofs, gowks and gomerels gladly.

Best wishes,

Eric Thomson

PS More on eating acorns. Or should that be moron eating acorns. Isn't it typical of Juvenal to tarnish his Golden Age by peopling it with a pair of acorn-belching neanderthals?

[montana uxor] horridior glandem ructante marito Sat. VI, 10

I'll leave the carminative properties of the tannin-rich acorn to others.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Killing God

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science § 125 (tr. Walter Kaufmann):
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
Don't blame us. A doctor named Marcus killed the king of the gods, according to an epigram by Nicarchus in the Greek Anthology (11.113, tr. W.R. Paton):
The physician Marcus laid his hand yesterday on the stone Zeus, and though he is of stone and Zeus he is to be buried to-day.

Τοῦ λιθίνου Διὸς ἐχθὲς ὁ κλινικὸς ἣψατο Μάρκος·
  καὶ λίθος ὢν καὶ Ζεύς, σήμερον ἐκφέρεται.
This is one of a series of jokes making fun of doctors in book 11 of the Greek Anthology (poems 112-126).

On the custom of touching a statue of a god, cf. Lucretius 1.316-318 (tr. Martin Ferguson Smith):
Again, bronze statues set by gateways display the right hands thinned away by the frequent touch of greeting from those who pass by.

                              tum portas propter aena
signa manus dextras ostendunt adtenuari
saepe salutantum tactu praeterque meantum.
Smith ad loc. cites Cicero, Against Verres 4.43.94 (tr. C.D. Yonge):
There is a temple of Hercules at Agrigentum, not far from the forum, considered very holy and greatly reverenced among the citizens. In it there is a brazen image of Hercules himself, than which I cannot easily tell where I have seen anything finer; (although I am not very much of a judge of those matters, though I have seen plenty of specimens;) so greatly venerated among them, O judges, that his mouth and his chin are a little worn away, because men in addressing their prayers and congratulations to him, are accustomed not only to worship the statue, but even to kiss it.

Herculis templum est apud Agrigentinos non longe a foro, sane sanctum apud illos et religiosum. ibi est ex aere simulacrum ipsius Herculis, quo non facile dixerim quicquam me vidisse pulchrius--tametsi non tam multum in istis rebus intellego quam multa vidi--usque eo, iudices, ut rictum eius ac mentum paulo sit attritius, quod in precibus et gratulationibus non solum id venerari verum etiam osculari solent.
In Minucius Felix, Octavius 2.4, it is not clear if a statue was actually touched or not. Gerald H. Rendall and W.C. Ker translate the passage thus:
Caecilius noticed an image of Serapis, and -- as is the superstitious habit of the vulgar -- put his hand to his mouth and blew it a kiss.
But "blew it a kiss" isn't in the Latin. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson translate as follows:
Caecilius, observing an image of Serapis, raised his hand to his mouth, as is the custom of the superstitious common people, and pressed a kiss on it with his lips.
"On it" refers to Caecilius' hand, as the Latin makes clear:
Caecilius simulacro Serapidis denotato, ut vulgus superstitiosus solet, manum ori admovens osculum labiis pressit.


Advice To a Self-Tormentor

Palladas (Greek Anthology 10.78, tr. W.R. Paton):
Cast away complaint and be not troubled, for how brief is the time thou dwellest here compared with all the life that follows this! Ere thou breedest worms and art cast into the tomb torment not thy soul, as if it were damned while thou still livest.

Ῥίπτε γόους, μὴ κάμνε, πόσον χρόνον ἐνθάδε μίμνων,
  ὡς πρὸς ἐκεῖνον ὅλον τὸν μετὰ ταῦτα βίον.
πρὶν τοίνυν σκώληκα βαλεῖν τύμβοις τε ῥιφῆναι,
  μὴ δαμάσῃς ψυχὴν ζῶν ἔτι κρινομένην.

Friday, February 16, 2007



The Worthless Word of the Day earlier this week was cumber-ground. I can't find a permanent link, but the definition was "a person or thing that uselessly cumbers the ground; a useless or unprofitable occupant of a position," and the citations included:Clare might have remembered the word from Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, which book pleased him "mightily" according to Jonathan Bate's biography of Clare (p. 28). I don't know who coined cumber-ground or when it first appeared, but I'd guess the inspiration was the question in the parable of the barren fig tree at Luke 13.7 (King James Version):
Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?

εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀμπελουργόν, Ἰδοὺ τρία ἔτη ἀφ’ οὗ ἔρχομαι ζητῶν καρπὸν ἐν τῇ συκῇ ταύτῃ καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκω. ἔκκοψον [οὖν] αὐτήν· ἱνατί καὶ τὴν γῆν καταργεῖ;
A Homeric equivalent of "cumber-ground" might be the phrase ἄχθος ἀρούρης (burden on the earth), which appears once each in the Iliad (18.104, ἐτώσιον ἄχθος ἀρούρης, worthless burden on the earth) and the Odyssey (20.379, αὔτως ἄχθος ἀρούρης, mere burden on the earth).


Denial of Burial

This week the Maine Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Legal and Veterans Affairs held a hearing on a bill sponsored by Representative John L. Patrick (D-Rumford):
An Act To Prevent Persons Convicted of Child Molestation from Being Buried in a Maine Veterans' Cemetery

Be it enacted by the People of the State of Maine as follows:

Sec. 1. 37-B MRSA §504, sub-§4, ¶G is enacted to read:

G. Notwithstanding paragraphs B and C, a person may not be buried after January 1, 2008 in any cemetery of the Maine Veterans' Memorial Cemetery System if that person has been convicted by a Maine court for the crime of sexual act, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual contact, sexual touching, sexual exploitation or incest and the victim was under 18 years of age at the time the offense was committed or if that person has been convicted of a similar crime by any other state, provincial or federal court and the victim was under 18 years of age at the time the offense was committed.
Cf. another set of proposed legislation, Plato's Laws, which denied burial to parricides and witches (9.873 B-C and 10.909 C, tr. A.E. Taylor):
If a man be found guilty of such homicide, that is, of slaying any of the aforesaid [father, mother, brother, child], the officers of the court with the magistrates shall put him to death and cast him out naked, outside the city at an appointed place where three ways meet. There, all the magistrates, in the name of the state, shall take each man his stone and cast it on the head of the corpse as in expiation for the state. The corpse shall then be carried to the frontier and cast out by legal sentence without sepulture.

At death he [the witch] shall be cast out beyond the borders without burial, and if any free citizen has a hand in his burial, he shall be liable to a prosecution for impiety at the suit of any who cares to take proceedings.
Denial of burial to witches was a kind of condign justice, because it was well known that ancient witches disinterred dead bodies for use in their magical rites. See e.g. Horace, Satires 1.8.20-22 (tr. C. Smart), where the statue of the god Priapus is talking about the witches Canidia and Sagana:
These I can not by any means destroy nor hinder, but that they will gather bones and noxious herbs, as soon as the fleeting moon has shown her beauteous face.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


To Himself

Paul Fleming (1609-1640), An Sich (To Himself, tr. Leonard Forster):
Be undismayed in spite of everything; do not give up, despite everything; give way to no twist of fortune; stand above envy; be content with yourself and think it no disaster even if fortune, place, and time have conspired against you.

What saddens or refreshes you, think it chosen for you; accept your fate, regret nothing, do what must be done and before you are told to do it. What you can hope for may happen any day.

What is it that we lament, or that we praise? Each man is his own fortune and misfortune. Look round at everything -- all this is within you; leave your empty delusion,

and, before you go any further, go back into yourself. The man who is master of himself and can control himself has the whole wide world and what is in it at his feet.

Sei dennoch unverzagt, gib dennoch unverloren,
Weich keinem Glücke nicht, steh höher als der Neid,
Vergnüge dich an dir und acht' es für kein Leid,
Hat sich gleich wider dich Glück, Ort und Zeit verschworen.

Was dich betrübt und labt, halt alles für erkoren;
Nimm dein Verhängnis an, lass alles unbereut,
Tu, was getan muss sein, und eh man dirs gebeut.
Was du noch hoffen kannst, das wird noch stets geboren.

Was klagt, was lobt man noch? Sein Unglück und sein Glücke
Ist ihm ein jeder selbst. Schau alle Sachen an,
Dies alles ist in dir, lass deinen eitlen Wahn,

Und eh du fürder gehst, so geh' in dich zurücke.
Wer sein selbst Meister ist und sich beherrschen kann,
Dem ist die weite Welt und alles untertan.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


The Antichrist

William Blake, Annotations to Dr. Thornton's New Translation of the Lord's Prayer (London 1827):
I look upon this as a Most Malignant & Artful attack upon the Kingdom of Jesus By the Classical Learned, thro' the Instrumentality of Dr. Thornton. The Greek & Roman Classics is the Antichrist. I say Is & Not Are as most expressive & correct too.


Table Talk

Norman Douglas, quoted by Elizabeth David in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (1984; rpt. Penguin Books, 1986), p. 127:
I have been perusing Seneca's letters. He was a cocoa-drinker, masquerading as an ancient.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


More on Eating Acorns

In response to Eating Acorns, Aurelian Isaïcq writes:

Dear Sir,

The trouble with acorns is their tannin content. They impart bitter taste and also can have other adverse effects. Even so, they are very rich nutrient sources and perfect animal fodder.

However, although most oak species produce high tannin acorns, there are a handful in Europe, and a good bunch in N America, that are sweet and have been appreciated as human food from prehistoric up to recent times. The best of them are comparable and can replace chestnuts.

It would be good to know what kind does Hesiod refer to. I should venture to suggest that before the coming of the true chestnut some such sweet acorn might have held the place.

The European chestnut is in fact a Persian native brought to Europe rather later by the Greeks. In the Book V, Ch. IV of Anabasis (tr. H.G. Dakyns), Xenophon describes noble Mossynoecian children being fattened with chestnuts ("fatted children belonging to the wealthy classes, fed up on boiled chestnuts until they were as white as white can be, of skin plump and delicate, and very nearly as broad as they were long").

The description does not suggest chestnuts were already a common Greek food item ("nuts […] the broad kind without a division") and, in Hesiod’s time, they were probably unknown.

Even the bitter ones have been consistently used as human foods in times of crop failure or famine. Methods of tannin-leaching have been developed (water soaking or repeated boiling) by several human cultures.

(Wiki cites, without reference, ancient Japan (Jomon period), where acorn was an important food, harvested, peeled and soaked in natural or artificial ponds, then processed into cakes. Also, in Korea, an edible acorn jelly (dotorimuk) is made).

The acorns of white oaks, much lower in tannins, are nutty in flavor, which is enhanced if they are lightly roasted, before grinding. As for the N American sweet ones, their former use by Native Americans is well documented.

Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, OUP, 1999 (a useful, if very uneven and poorly edited work) refers to the acorns of the Holm Oak (also Holly Oak, Evergreen Oak), Quercus ilex, of southern Europe and northwestern Africa, the ssp. rotundifolia (syn. Q. rotundifolia, Q. ballota), as the best and sweetest. The acorns are 2.5 cm long (longer than most) and cylindrical in shape. Davidson does not bother us with references. However, he does mention Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I take the liberty to provide a few actual quotes in John Ormsby’s translation.

The course of meat finished, they spread upon the sheepskins a great heap of parched acorns […] When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:
(And here follows a wonderful harangue on the Golden Age, a gem that deserves mention. For mere convenience, I append it at the end of the message).

Friend Teresa,--
[…] They tell me there are big acorns in your village; send me a couple of dozen or so, and I shall value them greatly as coming from your hand; […]
From this place. Your loving friend, THE DUCHESS.

"If you come to people of quality," said Sancho, "there's nobody more so than my master; but the calling he follows does not allow of larders or store-rooms; we lay ourselves down in the middle of a meadow, and fill ourselves with acorns or medlars."
"No, senor, that's not true," said Sancho, "for I am more cleanly than greedy, and my master Don Quixote here knows well that we two are used to live for a week on a handful of acorns or nuts."
With best wishes,
Aurelian Isaïcq

Appendix: the Golden Age
When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:

"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words "mine" and "thine"! In that blessed age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit. The clear streams and running brooks yielded their savoury limpid waters in noble abundance. The busy and sagacious bees fixed their republic in the clefts of the rocks and hollows of the trees, offering without usance the plenteous produce of their fragrant toil to every hand. The mighty cork trees, unenforced save of their own courtesy, shed the broad light bark that served at first to roof the houses supported by rude stakes, a protection against the inclemency of heaven alone. Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord; as yet the dull share of the crooked plough had not dared to rend and pierce the tender bowels of our first mother that without compulsion yielded from every portion of her broad fertile bosom all that could satisfy, sustain, and delight the children that then possessed her. Then was it that the innocent and fair young shepherdess roamed from vale to vale and hill to hill, with flowing locks, and no more garments than were needful modestly to cover what modesty seeks and ever sought to hide. Nor were their ornaments like those in use to-day, set off by Tyrian purple, and silk tortured in endless fashions, but the wreathed leaves of the green dock and ivy, wherewith they went as bravely and becomingly decked as our Court dames with all the rare and far-fetched artifices that idle curiosity has taught them. Then the love-thoughts of the heart clothed themselves simply and naturally as the heart conceived them, nor sought to commend themselves by forced and rambling verbiage. Fraud, deceit, or malice had then not yet mingled with truth and sincerity. Justice held her ground, undisturbed and unassailed by the efforts of favour and of interest, that now so much impair, pervert, and beset her. Arbitrary law had not yet established itself in the mind of the judge, for then there was no cause to judge and no one to be judged. Maidens and modesty, as I have said, wandered at will alone and unattended, without fear of insult from lawlessness or libertine assault, and if they were undone it was of their own will and pleasure.But now in this hateful age of ours not one is safe, not though some new labyrinth like that of Crete conceal and surround her; even there the pestilence of gallantry will make its way to them through chinks or on the air by the zeal of its accursed importunity, and, despite of all seclusion, lead them to ruin.

In defence of these, as time advanced and wickedness increased, the order of knights-errant was instituted, to defend maidens, to protect widows and to succour the orphans and the needy. To this order I belong, brother goatherds, to whom I return thanks for the hospitality and kindly welcome ye offer me and my squire; for though by natural law all living are bound to show favour to knights-errant, yet, seeing that without knowing this obligation ye have welcomed and feasted me, it is right that with all the good-will in my power I should thank you for yours."

All this long harangue (which might very well have been spared) our knight delivered because the acorns they gave him reminded him of the golden age; and the whim seized him to address all this unnecessary argument to the goatherds, who listened to him gaping in amazement without saying a word in reply. Sancho likewise held his peace and ate acorns, and paid repeated visits to the second wine-skin, which they had hung up on a cork tree to keep the wine cool.

Monday, February 12, 2007



Brandon at Siris, McEwan :
I think blogging constantly about politics is mentally unhealthy, inevitably warps one's priorities, and distracts from the fact that politics is merely one necessary condition of the good life, and not even the most important.
Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer:
There was a time, indeed, I fretted myself about the mistakes of government, like other people; but finding myself every day grow more angry, and the government growing no better, I left it to mend itself.
William Blake, Notes on a Public Address:
I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise, the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not Wise, the Freest Government is compell'd to be a Tyranny. Princes appear to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools; they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.
Henry David Thoreau, Journals (April 24, 1852):
Society, man, has no prize to offer me that can tempt me; not one. That which interests a town or city or any large number of men is always something trivial, as politics.
Henry David Thoreau, Natural History of Massachusetts:
The merely political aspect of the land is never very cheering; men are degraded when considered as the members of a political organization.
Henry David Thoreau, Walking:
In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.
Ambrose Bierce:
Do you know, Johnny Voter, that you are a dupe? Does it penetrate your poor understanding that every time you throw off the top of your head to give tongue for the man of another man's choice the worthy persons who keep the table in the little game of politics are affected with merriment? Have you ever a dawnlight of suspicion that in the service of their purpose your wage is their derision, your pension their silent contempt? O, you will uphold principle. You will stand in to avert the quadrennial peril to the country. You will assist in repelling the treasonable attempt of one half its inhabitants whose interest (obviously) lies in its destruction. You will be a 'Republican' -- or a 'Democrat'; you will be it diligently, loudly and like the devil. Pray do; and when you have processioned your feet sore and your teeth loose, and been a spectacular extravaganza to the filling of your ambition's belly, may it comfort you to know that you have been a Tool.
John Burroughs, The Still Small Voice:
The unknown, the inaudible forces that make for good in every state and community -- the gentle word, the kind act, the forgiving look, the quiet demeanor, the silent thinkers and workers, the cheerful and unwearied toilers, the scholar in his study, the scientist in his laboratory -- how much more we owe to these things than to the clamorous and discordant voices of the world of politics and the newspaper!
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 32:
The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and . . . all economics, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing of the sand and sowing of the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit.



The narrator in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy refers repeatedly to a scholarly treatise De Nasis (On Noses) by Hafen Slawkenbergius. He even quotes a long extract from the work. But Slawkenbergius' treatise is an imaginary book, in the same category as the Ars Honeste Petandi in Societate (The Art of Breaking Wind Politely in Public) mentioned by Rabelais.

In Tristram Shandy we also read:
Of all the tracts my father was at the pains to procure and study in support of his hypothesis, there was not any one wherein he felt a more cruel disappointment at first, than in the celebrated dialogue between Pamphagus and Cocles, written by the chaste pen of the great and venerable Erasmus, upon the various uses and seasonable applications of long noses.
This is a reference to a real work, a colloquy by Erasmus, De Captandis Sacerdotiis (On Benefice-Hunters, tr. Nathan Bailey), which contains the following passage:
PAMPHAGUS: I am not at all sorry for this Nose.
COCLES: No, nor have you any Occasion to be sorry for having a Thing that is fit for so many Uses.
PAMPHAGUS: For what Uses?
COCLES: First of all, it will serve instead of an Extinguisher, to put out Candles.
COCLES: Again, if you want to draw any Thing out of a deep Pit, it will serve instead of an Elephant's Trunk.
PAMPHAGUS: O wonderful.
COCLES: If your Hands be employ'd, it will serve instead of a Pin.
PAMPHAGUS: Is it good for any Thing else?
COCLES: If you have no Bellows, it will serve to blow the Fire.
PAMPHAGUS: This is very pretty; have you any more of it?
COCLES: If the Light offends you when you are writing, it will serve for an Umbrella.
PAMPHAGUS: Ha, ha, ha! Have you any Thing more to say?
COCLES: In a Sea-fight it will serve for a Grappling-hook.
PAMPHAGUS: What will it serve for in a Land-fight?
COCLES: Instead of a Shield.
PAMPHAGUS: And what else?
COCLES: It will serve for a Wedge to cleave Wood withal.
PAMPHAGUS: Well said.
COCLES: If you act the Part of a Herald, it will be for a Trumpet; if you sound an Alarm, a Horn; if you dig, a Spade; if you reap, a Sickle; if you go to Sea, an Anchor; in the Kitchen it will serve for a Flesh-hook; and in Fishing a Fish-hook.
PAMPHAGUS: I am a happy Fellow indeed, I did not know I carry'd about me a Piece of Household Stuff that would serve for so many Uses.
Erasmus was probably inspired by an anonymous poem in the Greek Anthology (11.203, tr. W.R. Paton):
Castor's nose is a hoe for him when he digs anything, a trumpet when he snores and a grape-sickle at vintage time, an anchor on board ship, a plough when he is sowing, a fishing-hook for sailors, a flesh-hook for feasters, a pair of tongs for ship-builders, and for farmers a leek-slicer, an axe for carpenters, and a handle for his door. Such a serviceable implement has Castor the luck to possess, wearing a nose adaptable for any work.
Related posts:

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Eating Acorns

William Annis argues that acorns in Hesiod, Works and Days 233, are food for pigs, not humans:
Nice fat pigs are a valuable commodity, not to mention tasty. We don't eat bees, but the honey they produce. We don't eat fields, but the grain they produce. I don't see why Hesiod cannot then list acorns as a good, not as a food for us, but for their value for growing fat pigs.
I'm reminded of a passage in Thoreau's Journals (Oct. 8, 1851):
By the side of J.P. Brown's grain-field I picked up some white oak acorns in the path by the wood-side, which I found to be unexpectedly sweet and palatable, the bitterness being scarcely perceptible. To my taste they are quite as good as chestnuts. No wonder the first men lived on acorns. Such as these are no mean food, such as they are represented to be. Their sweetness is like the sweetness of bread, and to have discovered this palatableness in this neglected nut, the whole world is to me the sweeter for it. I am related again to the first men. What can be handsomer, wear better to the eye, than the color of the acorn, like the leaves on which they fall polished, or varnished? To find that acorns are edible,--it is a greater addition to one's stock of life than would be imagined. I should be at least equally pleased if I were to find that the grass tasted sweet and nutritious. It increases the number of my friends; it diminishes the number of my foes. How easily at this season I could feed myself in the woods! There is mast for me too, as well as for the pigeon and the squirrel. This Dodonean fruit.
Dodonean means from Dodona. See Plato, Phaedrus 275b (tr. Harold N. Fowler):
They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances.
Thoreau's use of the word mast is also interesting. It might be related to meat, which originally meant just food, as opposed to drink. Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for mast:
"fallen nuts; food for swine," O.E. mæst, from P.Gmc. *mastaz (cf. Du., Ger. mast "mast," O.E. verb mæsten "to fatten, feed"), perhaps from PIE *mazdo-/*maddo- "to be fat, to flow" (cf. Skt. meda "fat," Goth. mats "food," see meat).

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Holy Water

Before engaging in religious activities, one should be washed clean. After the Offertory, the priest washes his hands while reciting "Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas" ("I will wash my hands among the innocent") from Psalm 25(26).6 ff. Only those who have been baptized (dipped in water) are entitled to eat Christ's flesh and drink His blood. During Mass on Palm Sunday, the priest walks up and down the aisles, dips a palm frond in an aspersory carried by an altar server, and sprinkles the congregants with holy water. Just inside the doors of churches are stoups of holy water, so that entering worshippers can dip their fingers and make the Sign of the Cross.

There are of course Jewish analogues for these actions, but there are also similarities in ancient Greek religious practices. Among the numerous examples of washing before performing sacrifice, pouring libations, or saying prayers are these:For washing before entering a sacred space, see e.g.:

Friday, February 09, 2007


More on Men of Parts

I just received a very amusing email. Be sure to read to the end.

Dear Mr. Gilleland,

Your posting today brought to mind this riddle. As a man of parts yourself, you're more than likely to be acquainted with it already but I thought I'd pass it on anyway, as you may not have seen the original text, which to those like me who don't keep their Old English in anything like reasonable enough repair, is a bit of a riddle in itself.

Best wishes,
Eric Thomson

The Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Chapter Library, MS 3501), riddle 44:

Wrætlic hongað    bi weres þeo,
frean under sceate.    Foran is þyrel.
Bið stiþ ond heard,    stede hafað godne;
þonne se esne    his agen hrægl
ofer cneo hefeð,    wile þæt cuþe hol
mid his hangellan    heafde gretan
þæt he efenlang ær    oft gefylde.

A wondrous thing hangs by man's thigh,
hidden by a garment. It has a hole
in its head. It is stiff and strong
and its firm bearing reaps a reward.
When the young lord hitches his clothing
high above his knee, he wants the head
of this hanging tool to find the old hole
that it, outstretched, has often filled before.

Answer: a key

Javier Álvarez at Edad de Oro also has some interesting remarks.


Men of Parts

You've probably heard this riddle:
Arnold Schwarzenegger has a big one, Michael J. Fox has a little one, Cher and Madonna don't have one, and the Pope has one but doesn't use it. What is it?
The answer, of course, is "a last name," although most people guess something else.

The last time I told this joke, I said that I thought canon law required the Pope's plumbing to be in working order, and that no one could become Pope who had undergone, for example, a vasectomy. But when I tried to verify my statement later, the closest I could find in the Code of Canon Law was Book IV (Function of the Church), Part I (The Sacraments), Title VI (Orders), Chapter II (Those to be Ordained), Article 3 (Irregularities and Other Impediments), Canon 1041, which states that "The following are irregular for receiving orders ... 5. a person who has mutilated himself or another gravely and maliciously."

I'm not sure how this prohibition against self-mutilation squares with Jesus' injunction at Matthew 18.8-9:
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
Canon 1041 may go all the way back to the first Canon of the Council of Nicaea (325):
If any one in sickness has been subjected by physicians to a surgical operation, or if he has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain among the clergy; but, if any one in sound health has castrated himself, it behoves that such an one, if [already] enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. But, as it is evident that this is said of those who wilfully do the thing and presume to castrate themselves, so if any have been made eunuchs by barbarians, or by their masters, and should otherwise be found worthy, such men the Canon admits to the clergy.
According to Eusebius, Origen castrated himself after taking too literally Matthew 19.12:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
Origen was nevertheless ordained a priest after his self-mutilation. He lived before the Council of Nicaea, though.

The old tale that papal candidates sat on a chaise percée (sella cacatoria) and had their nether parts inspected from below is a scurrilous falsehood, although the report of one supposed inspector is worth quoting: "Testiculos habet, et bene pendentes."

It's interesting that priests of one ancient cult voluntarily castrated themselves, the priests of Cybele. See Catullus 63 for details.

Update here.


Lords of Creation

Juvenal 15.69-71:
For the human race was already going downhill when Homer was alive; now the earth brings forth bad and puny men. Therefore whatever god has set eyes on us laughs and despises us.

nam genus hoc vivo iam decrescebat Homero,
terra malos homines nunc educat atque pusillos;
ergo deus, quicumque aspexit, ridet et odit.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


The Oxford Etymologist

Read an interview with the Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman. I never miss his weekly column, and I look forward to the publication this year of his etymological dictionary of the English language.



Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster (ed. R.J. Schoeck), Book II:
A bishop that now liveth, a good man, whose judgement in religion I better like than his opinion in perfectness in other learning, said once unto me, "We have no need now of the Greek tongue, when all things be translated into Latin." But the good man understood not, that even the best translation is for mere necessity but an evil imped wing to fly withal, or a heavy stump leg of wood to go withal. Such, the higher they fly, the sooner they falter and fail: the faster they run, the ofter they stumble, and sorer they fall. Such as will needs so fly, may fly at a pie, and catch a daw; and such runners, as commonly they shove and shoulder to stand foremost; yet, in the end, they come behind others, and deserve but the hopshackles, if the masters of the game be right judgers.
Evil imped = badly repaired
Pie = magpie
Daw = jackdaw
Hopshackles = hamshackles, hobbles, fetters

Wednesday, February 07, 2007



Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography (2003), chap. 15:
The draft essays are also very funny, especially at the expense of those who have pretensions to social status. One piece consists of a series of letters written in the style of a greengrocer's wife telling her daughter how important it is to master the art of correct spelling: 'to be wyse is to be larneyd our Paa paa yur furthor wishes mee yur maa maa to introduct you into the hart off sphellin correctedly as that is the rutt end of the tree of nowlege'. Given this mockery of bad spelling, it is difficult to imagine that Clare would have wanted his own deficiencies in that art to have been reproduced in print as they have in various modern editions of his works.
Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son, CXXXIV (Nov. 19, 1750, Old Style):
You spell induce, enduce; and grandeur, you spell grandure; two faults of which few of my housemaids would have been guilty. I must tell you that orthography, in the true sense of the word, is so absolutely necessary for a man of letters, or a gentleman, that one false spelling may fix ridicule upon him for the rest of his life; and I know a man of quality, who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled wholesome without the w.
Mary Boykin Chesnut, Diary (August 27, 1861):
Today I saw a letter from a girl crossed in love. Her parents object to the social position of her fiancé; in point of fact, they forbid the banns. She writes: "I am misserable." Her sister she calls a "mean retch." For such a speller, a man of any social status would do. They ought not to expect so much for her. If she wrote her "pah" a note I am sure that "stern parient" would give in.
Artemus Ward, The London Punch Letters, 4 (At the Tomb of Shakespeare):
Some kind person has sent me Chawcer's "poems." Mr. C. had talent, but he couldn't spel. No man has a right to be a lit'rary man onless he knows how to spel. It is a pity that Chawcer, who had geneyus, was so unedicated. He's the wuss speller I know of.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007



Among the Greek warriors in Homer's Iliad are "two sons of Asklepios, good healers both themselves, Podaleirios and Machaon" (2.731-2, tr. Richmond Lattimore). The word for healer is ἰατήρ (iatér), a poetical form of ἰατρός (iatrós), root of many English words, such as podiatrist (foot doctor), pediatrician (doctor specializing in children), etc. A psychiatrist, from an etymological point of view, is a "soul healer."

These Greek doctors are good at healing battle wounds, but when plague strikes the Greek army in the first book of the Iliad, no one thinks of consulting them. What is needed in time of plague is a seer or prophet, to tell the Greeks who offended what god, and how the offense can be expiated. Here the Greeks call upon the seer Calchas, who reveals that the offense is Agamemnon's harsh treatment of Apollo's priest, when he came to ransom his captive daughter. Agamemnon refused his plea and drove him away. The priest prayed to Apollo, who brought plague on the Greeks. Expiation takes place when the Greeks return the priest's daughter and offer sacrifice to Apollo.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King, like the Iliad, opens with a plague, this one afflicting the city of Thebes. Here too a seer, Tiresias, reveals the cause of the plague, which is the pollution brought on the city by its king, Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, despite being warned by an oracle of Apollo. Oedipus must leave the territory of Thebes to end the plague.

It was not just in old myths that the Greeks sought a divine explanation of plagues. During the plague that attacked Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians had recourse to both science and religion, according to Thucydides 2.47.4 (tr. Charles Forster Smith):
For neither were physicians able to cope with the disease, since they at first had to treat it without knowing its nature, the mortality among them being the greatest because they were the most exposed to it, nor did any other human art avail. And the supplications made at sanctuaries, or appeals to oracles and the like, were all futile, and at last men desisted from them, overcome by the calamity.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Monday Morning

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, tr. M. Rosenthal (New York: Schocken, 1984), p. 120:
To do work in which one does not believe is a great affliction.
Henry David Thoreau, Journals (August 7, 1853):
How trivial and uninteresting and wearisome and unsatisfactory are all employments for which men will pay you money! The ways by which you may get money all lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle. If the laborer gets no more than the money his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. Those services which the world will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man.
Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle:
Most men would be insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.
Colin Thubron, Journey into Cyprus (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1976), p. 242 (quoting a Turkish soldier):
"I was four years in England," he said, "in a canning factory at Newton Abbot, twisting a knob day after day -- twist, twist, twist. In the end I got fed up and came back home. What sort of life is that for a man -- twist, twist, twist?"
Gore Vidal, At Home: Essays 1982-1988 (New York: Random House, 1990), p. 51, on Tennessee Williams:
Years later, when confronted with the fact that he had been born in 1911 not 1914, he said, serenely, "I do not choose to count as part of my life the three years that I spent working for a shoe company."

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Notes To Myself

If you keep your misfortunes hidden, you won't give occasion for your enemies to laugh at you. Euripides fr. 460 Nauck neatly ties these two threads together:
It is a painful thing for someone to fall into shameful ruin; but if this should happen, one should conceal and cover it up well, and not announce these things to the whole world; for such things become a source of laughter to enemies.

λύπη μὲν ἄτῃ περιπεσεῖν αἰσχρᾷ τινι·
εἰ δ᾽ οὖν γένοιτο, χρὴ περιστεῖλαι καλῶς
κρύπτοντα καὶ μὴ πᾶσι κηρύσσειν τάδε·
γέλως γὰρ ἐχθροῖς γίγνεται τὰ τοιάδε.
Related posts:

To the collection of references on the insatiable nature of avarice, add Xenophon, Ways and Means 4.7 (tr. E.C. Marchant):
No one ever yet possessed so much silver as to want no more; if a man finds himself with a huge amount of it, he takes as much pleasure in burying the surplus as in using it.

ἀργύριον δὲ οὐδείς πω οὕτω πολὺ ἐκτήσατο, ὥστε μη έτι προσδεῖσθαι· ἀλλ᾽ ἤν τισι γένητα παμπληθές, τὸ περιττεῦον κατορύττοντες οὐδὲν ἧττον ἥδονται ἢ χρώμενοι αὐτῷ.

U.S. Forest Service Silvics Manual links for the most common trees on my woodlot:

On February 3, 1945, my Uncle Phil (S/Sgt. P.R. Paiement, 3rd Platoon "E" Co. 2nd Battalion, 511th Parachute Inf., 11th Airborne Division) jumped behind Japanese lines in Luzon, Philippines, as part of a mission to liberate a civilian internment camp.

Thoreau in Walden wrote, "I thus found that the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually." When he returned home from the war, Uncle Phil did just that, with his friend and fellow veteran Albert Brown. The two designed and built a trailer home for $1200 and lived in it while they attended the University of Maine. The Portland Press Herald (Sept. 9, 1948) told the story on the front page.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


Dalrymple Watch

Here are some recent essays by Theodore Dalrymple:


There Is a Season

Henry David Thoreau, Journals (April 24, 1859):
There is a season for everything, and we do not notice a given phenomenon at any other season, if, indeed, it can be called the same phenomenon at any other season. There is a time to watch the ripples on Ripple Lake, to look for arrowheads, to study the rocks and lichens, a time to walk on sandy deserts; and the observer of nature must improve these seasons as much as the farmer his. So boys fly kites and play ball or hawkie at particular times all over the State. A wise man will know what game to play to-day, and play it. We must not be governed by rigid rules, as by the almanac, but let the season rule us. The moods and thoughts of man are revolving just as steadily and incessantly as nature's. Nothing must be postponed. Take time by the forelock. Now or never! You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this, or the like of this. Where the good husbandman is, there is the good soil. Take any other course, and life will be a succession of regrets. Let us see vessels sailing prosperously before the wind, and not simply stranded barks. There is no world for the penitent and regretful.
Where is Ripple Lake (aka Little Goose Pond) today? Buried underneath what was for many years the Concord town dump.

Hawkie = hockey.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Emotional Incontinence

Euripides, fr. 553 (Oedipus, tr. Christopher Collard):
It is stupid for a man to testify to his misfortunes in front of everybody; concealing them is wise.

ἐκμαρτυρεῖν γὰρ ἄνδρα τὰς αὑτοῦ τύχας
εἰς πάντας ἀμαθές, τὸ δ᾽ ἐπικρύπτεσθαι σοφόν.
Alfred Pennyworth, in Batman and Robin:
A gentleman does not discuss his ailments.
Theodore Dalrymple:
I recall an elderly working-class widow who has experienced many tragedies, none of her own making, who recently lost three of her four children unexpectedly. She told me how, in the privacy of her own home, she often cried, but how she did not do so in public because "it wouldn't be right, would it, doctor?"

Others, she said, had to get on with their lives without being inconvenienced or embarrassed by her, and so she kept her grief to herself, without making a public exhibition of it.

This fortitude struck me as noble, though it was much against the temper of the times, which is all in favour of emotional incontinence.

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