Wednesday, October 31, 2007
I subscribe to the OED Online Word of the Day. Last Wednesday the word was dabble, one of whose meanings well describes my chief occupation:
To employ oneself in a dilettante way in (any business or pursuit) without going deeply or seriously into it; to work off and on at, as a matter of whim or fancy.I found another word that describes me in a letter of Charles Lamb to Robert Southey (July 28, 1798): antiquity-bitten.
Mourning Over Trees
My two favourite elm trees at the back of the hut are condemned to die it shocks me to relate it, but 'tis true. The savage who owns them thinks they have done their best, and now wants to make use of the benefits he can get from selling them. O was this country Egypt and was I but Caliph, the owner would lose his ears for his arrogant presumption ... yet this mourning over trees is all foolishness they feel no pains they are but wood, cut up or not. A second thought tells me I am a fool: were people all to feel as I do, the world could not be carried on, a green would not be ploughed ... This is my indisposition, and you will laugh at it ...Clare's "foolish mourning" impelled him to write one of his most powerful lyrics, The Fallen Elm, which his biographer Jonathan Bate called "at once elegy and protest poem":
Old Elm that murmured in our chimney topAt about the same time when John Clare was lamenting the destruction of elm trees near his cottage, John Constable was painting his magnificent Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree:
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many colored shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comforts that was never penned
Old favourite tree thoust seen times changes lower
But change till now did never come to thee
For time beheld thee as his sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree
Storms came and shook thee with a living power
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots hath been
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew ironstill thy leaves was green
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their play house rings of sticks and stone
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed
Friend not inanimatetho stocks and stones
There are and many cloathed of flesh and bones
Thou ownd a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by the attribute of words
Thine spoke a feeling known in every tongue
Language of pity and the force of wrong
What cant asumes what hypocrites may dare
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are
I see a picture which thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many a shower
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedomO I hate that sound
It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosureruin was its guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwellings far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matterwrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song
Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little that is mine
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours
- Strokes of Havoc
- Maltreatment of Trees
- An Impious Lumberjack
- Erysichthon in Ovid
- Erysichthon in Callimachus
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The City versus the Country
Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don't much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments, as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the Watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old book-stalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee houses, steams of soup from kitchens, the pantomimesLondon itself a pantomime and a masqueradeall these things work themselves into my mind and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me. But consider, what must I have been doing all my life, not to have lent great portions of my heart with usury to such scenes?
My attachments are all local, purely local. I have no passion (or have had none since I was in love, and then it was the spurious engendering of poetry and books,) for groves and valleys. The rooms where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a book-case which has followed me about like a faithful dog, (only exceeding him in knowledge,) wherever I have moved, old tables, streets, squares, where I have sunned myself, my old school,—these are my mistresses. Have I not enough, without your mountains? I do not envy you, I should pity you, did I not know, that the mind will make friends of any thing. Your sun, and moon, and skies, and hills, and lakes, affect me no more, or scarcely come to me in more venerable characters, than as a gilded room with tapestry and tapers, where I might live with handsome visible objects. I consider the clouds above me but as a roof beautifully painted, but unable to satisfy the mind: and at last, like the pictures of the apartment of a connoisseur, unable to afford him any longer a pleasure. So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.
Monday, October 29, 2007
I’m delighted to see you’ve taken to Ivor Gurney. I wonder if you’ve listened to any of his music? I have an old LP - Severn and Somme – that I’ve not listened to for years. I don’t even know if the gramaphone still works.
I thought you might be interested in this Gurney-inspired nomen omen:
“Brahms has more of Autumn in him — the full coloured new ploughed earth also; rich-tinted, strongly fragrant soil unplanted. He has given us even the smell of leaves, it seems to myself at least; … Autumn is strongest in memory of all the seasons. To think of Autumn is to be smitten through most powerfully with an F sharp minor chord that stops the breath, wrings the heart with unmeasurable power. On Brahms it is so strong, this royal season; has given him much, worthily and truly translated. What! do you not know the Clarinet quintet, the Handel Variations, the C minor Symphony? And do you not smell Autumn air keen in the nostrils, touch and wonder at leaves fallen or about to fall? Have you not hastened to the woods of the F minor Quintet?”Ivor Gurney Musical Quarterly 8 (July 1922): 319-322.
“[I]t fell to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch to place within his first culture spanning magnum opus Geist der Utopie, an elegant characterization of Brahms as a master of the orchestra:Malcolm MacDonald Brahms London: Dent 1990 pg. 3-4He does have colour: his orchestral sound has been compared not unfavourably to the North German heathland, which appears from a distance like a broad, monotonous expanse, but whose greyness, as we enter, suddenly dissolves into a myriad little blooms and specks of colour.Behind that poetic comparison lurks an unstated pun on the composer’s origins, and even on his name. The sweet-flowering broom, planta genista, is known throughout North Germany by the dialect name Bram: from Hanover to Schleswig people bear variations of that name, usually in a possessive form ending in ‘s’ – Brams, Brahms, Brampst, and so on. In a French-speaking culture, therefore, the composer might have borne the resoundingly aristocratic name ‘de Plantagenet’, but in German ‘Brahms’ has no connotations of noble birth – rather the opposite, for it means a ‘child of the heathlands’.”
From the same Musical Quarterly essay, Gurney writes intriguingly of trees and music:
“From poplars has come much: the larch has given grace to thought in many of the smaller forms. The oak has strengthened many, and in the shady chambers of the elm many have found peace. Trees are the friendliness of things, and the beech with its smooth A major trunk, its laughing E major foliage; the Scotch fir which passionate or still is always F sharp minor, cannot have been without influence on men.”Mabey’s Beechcombings is excellent, but poorly edited. Here, transcribed to the best of my very meagre abilities, is a nice passage on grafitti (pg. 2-3):
It [The Queen’s Beech] grew up in the open unrestricted by other trees, and its long low branches trail out like the arms of a giant squid. Its trunk is vegetable hide, a mass of burrs, bosses, wounds, flutings, folds of scar tissue congealed around the points where the branches were lopped. One storey up there are mosquito pools in forks, old woodpecker holes, generations of graffiti. Some of the scratchings are in implausible positions; the higher you carve your message, the code reads, the more impressive your feelings. With my binoculars I can just make out some of the inscriptions. The names and homesick addresses of American servicemen stationed nearby during the Second World War. The linked pledges of sweethearts from the outbreak of the First. The copperplate initials of Victorian schoolboys, now stretched beyond deciphering. The letters 'S.A.' many times. A heart. A rose. Not really tree abuse, as it’s so often reckoned, nor always a compulsion to leave one’s mark on the world. More, I think, the result of the world's leaving a mark on you. No one encounters trees like this without some kind of converstion taking place, an exchange that deserves a momento. Beech-scribbling goes back to classical times, and has its own Latin epigram: Crescent illae, crescit amores. 'As these letters grow so will our love.'Not an epigram; not crescit but crescetis; and the antecedent of illae is 'arboribus', but perhaps we should be grateful that anyone these days can be bothered to quote any Latin at all.
I liked the still-lifes you posted, and tried in vain to make out the titles of the books. 'Companions', with its extinguished pipe and rather funerary-looking smoking urn, seems a benign variation on the vanitas-studium theme. In fact it rather undercuts it.
I think I’ll have to disinter the gramaphone and the pipe and see if they both still work.
Gurney's essay in the Musical Quarterly can be found here. The Latin quoted by Mabey comes from Vergil, Eclogues 10.54. Here is an illustration of broom from Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich, und der Schweiz (Gera, 1885):
Sunday, October 28, 2007
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
Bossuet. Do you hate the world, mademoiselle?
Fontanges. A good deal of it: all Picardy, for example, and all Sologne; nothing is uglierand, oh my life! what frightful men and women!
Bossuet. I would say, in plain language, do you hate the flesh and the devil?
Fontanges. Who does not hate the devil? If you will hold my hand the while, I will tell him so. I hate you, beast! There now. As for flesh, I never could bear a fat man. Such people can neither dance nor hunt, nor do anything that I know of.
There are evidently two Thoreausone that of his admirers, and the other that of his detractors.Angie Brennan writes in an email:
Your "It is All Here" Thoreau post made me think of this amusing passage I recently read in "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson:The biographer who described Thoreau as "near hysterical" seems to be Roderick Nash in his Wilderness and the American Mind (1967; rpt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 91:
"The American woods have been unnerving people for 300 years. The inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau thought nature was splendid, splendid indeed, so long as he could stroll to town for cakes and barley wine, but when he experienced real wilderness, on a visit to Katahdin in 1846, he was unnerved to the core. This wasn't the tame world of overgrown orchards and sun-dappled paths that passed for wilderness in suburban Concord, Massachusetts, but a forbidding, oppressive, primeval country that was 'grim and wild…savage and dreary.' The experience left him, in the words of one biographer, 'near hysterical.'"
"What is this Titan that has possession of me?" a near-hysterical Thoreau asked on Katahdin. "Who are we? where are we?"Geral T. Blanchard, Grizzly Lessons: Coexisting with Bears and Wolves (New York: iUniverse, 2004), p. 3, repeats the calumny:
Shocked and nearly hysterical, Thoreau emerged from the bush describing the wild country as "grim, savage, and dreary." In Maine he felt, "more alone than you could imagine."For another view of Thoreau's supposed hysteria, see Randall Roorda, Dramas of Solitude: Narratives of Retreat in American Nature Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 38:
Finally, the historian Nash verges on perfervid in the liberty he takes, depicting a "near-hysterical" Thoreau "clinging to the bare rocks of Katahdin's summit" (91). This is not to say that Thoreau necessarily was not or did not do what Nash says; only that, on the basis of this story we really can't tell.Garrison Keillor, in Time to Lighten Up and Get a Grip, also takes a pot shot at Thoreau:
The philosopher of cheerful purpose was Emerson, and for some reason my generation preferred the puritanical Thoreau, a sorehead and loner whose clunky line about marching to your own drummer has found its way into a million graduation speeches. Thoreau tried to make a virtue out of lack of rhythm. He said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Okay, but how did he know? He didn't talk to that many people. He wrote elegantly about independence and forgot to thank his mom for doing his laundry.On Thoreau's supposed lack of rhythm I have written elsewhere. Weighing all the evidence, Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (1965; rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1982), p. 204, sensibly concluded that it was Thoreau's Aunt Maria, not Emerson, who paid the fine to get him out of jail.
Emerson was a mover and shaker. He said, "Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm ... this is the one remedy for all ills, the panacea of nature. We must be lovers and at once the impossible becomes possible." He said this while he was out on the road plying his trade as a lecturer, peddling his books, earning the money he would use to buy the land for Thoreau to build his little cabin on and pay Thoreau's fine and get him out of jail. Oh well. Never mind.
I count myself among Thoreau's admirers, against those who find him tiresome, priggish, hysterical, Puritanical, a sorehead, and a loner.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
It Is All Here
Henry Thoreau was an especial friend of my father and mother. They spent the first two or three summers after their marriage at his mother's house in Concord. One afternoon the three were taking a quiet rowing trip on the placid Concord River, a diversion to which they were greatly devoted when, as they were approaching a fine old oak on the river bank, Henry ceased rowing, stood up suddenly in the tiny skiff, looked upon the huge tree with something akin to adoration and said, as one inspired, "Why, there is enough in that tree alone to keep one man happily busy all his life!" His face was alight with fervor as he went on to tell of the rich reward awaiting him who would take the oak-tree for his lifework. "The whole story of creation and all of natural history is in that one tree! Why does anyone want to take long journeys to study anything? It is all here."
Friday, October 26, 2007
When I read Ivor Gurney's Common Things, I immediately thought of Borges' more plainly titled version, Things:Here is Borges' original poem:
translation by Stephen Kessler
My cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys,
The obedient lock, the belated notes
The few days left to me will not find time
To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop,
A book and crushed in its pages the withered
Violet, monument to an afternoon
Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten,
The mirror in the west where a red sunrise
Blazes its illusion. How many things,
Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails,
Serve us like slaves who never say a word,
Blind and so mysteriously reserved.
They will endure beyond our vanishing;
And they will never know that we have gone.
El bastón, las monedas, el llavero,
la dócil cerradura, las tardías
notas que no leerán los pocos días
que me quedan, los naipes y el tablero,
un libro y en sus páginas la ajada
violeta, monumento de una tarde
sin duda inolvidable y ya olvidada,
el rojo espejo occidental en que arde
una ilusoria aurora. ¡Cuántas cosas,
láminas, umbrales, atlas, copas, clavos,
nos sirven como tácitos esclavos,
ciegas y extrañamente sigilosas!
Durarán más allá de nuestro olvido;
no sabrán nunca que nos hemos ido.
Books after Death
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.On the Book of Life see also Philippians 4.3 and several other verses of Revelation (3.5, 13.8, 17.8, 20.15, 21.27, 22.19).
καὶ εἶδον τοὺς νεκρούς, τοὺς μεγάλους καὶ τοὺς μικρούς, ἑστῶτας ἐνώπιον τοῦ θρόνου, καὶ βιβλία ἠνοίχθησαν· καὶ ἄλλο βιβλίον ἠνοίχθη, ὅ ἐστιν τῆς ζωῆς· καὶ ἐκρίθησαν οἱ νεκροὶ ἐκ τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐν τοῖς βιβλίοις κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν.
In the prologue to his play Rudens (5-21, tr. Henry Thomas Riley), Plautus says that the stars report to Jupiter on the actions of men, and Jupiter keeps written down in tablets who's naughty and who's nice:
Arcturus is my name. By night, I am glittering in the heavens and amid the Gods, passing among mortals in the day. Other Constellations, too, descend from the heavens upon the earth; Jove, who is the ruler of Gods and menhe disperses us here in various directions among the nations, to observe the actions, manners, piety, and faith of men, just as the means of each avail him. Those who commence villanous suits at law upon false testimony, and those who, in court, upon false oath deny a debt, their names written down, do we return to Jove. Each day does he learn who here is calling for vengeance. Whatever wicked men seek here to gain their cause through perjury, who succeed before the judge in their unjust demands, the same case adjudged does he judge over again, and he fines them in a penalty much greater than the results of the judgment they have gained. The good men written down on other tablets does he keep.Most scholars think that Plautus closely translated the Greek original by Diphilus in the passage just quoted.
nomen Arcturo est mihi.
[noctu sum in caelo clarus atque inter deos,
inter mortalis ambulo interdius.
at alia signa de caelo ad terram accidunt.]
qui est imperator divom atque hominum Iuppiter,
is nos per gentis alium alia disparat,
qui facta hominum, mores, pietatem et fidem
noscamus, ut quemque adiuvet opulentia.
Qui falsas litis falsis testimoniis
petunt quique in iure abiurant pecuniam,
eorum referimus nomina exscripta ad Iovem;
cotidie ille scit quis hic quaerat malum:
qui hic litem apisci postulant peiurio
mali, res falsas qui impetrant apud iudicem,
iterum ille eam rem iudicatam iudicat;
maiore multa multat quam litem auferunt.
Bonos in aliis tabulis exscriptos habet.
Erasmus in his Adagia discusses a proverb along the same lines (tr. R.A.B. Mynors):
Ex Iovis tabulis testisJames Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1778, aetat. 69), records a discussion on the subject of books after death:
Evidence from Jove's own file
Ἐκ τῶν Διὸς δέλτων ὁ μάρτυς, literally, the witness from Jove's own tablets. This was used in Greek of a reliable witness whose word could not be doubted. Lucian in his essay On Salaried Posts in Great Houses: 'And if anyone accuses you of adultery or pederasty, without more ado this is evidence, as they say, from Jove's own files.' The allusion, if I am not mistaken, is to the sheet of parchment on which the poets imagine that Jupiter records all that mortals do.
Ex lovis tabulis testis.
Ἐκ τῶν Διὸς δέλτων ὁ μάρτυς, id est, Ex Iovis tabulis testis. Apud Graecos dicebatur, pro certo et indubitabili teste. Lucianus in libello de mercede servientibus εἰ τις εἴπῃ μοιχὸν ἢ παιδεραστήν, τοῦτ᾽ ἐκεῖνο, ἐκ τῶν Διὸς δέλτων ὁ μάρτυς, id est, Si quis te adulterum, aut paederastem dixerit, is protinus, iuxta id, quod dici solet, ex Iovis tabulis testis. Allusum est, ad diphtheram, in qua Iuppiter omnia mortalium acta describere fingitur a poetis.
BOSWELL. 'There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours (naming him) tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.' JOHNSON. 'This is foolish in —— A man need not be uneasy on these grounds; for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto.' BOSWELL. 'True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakspeare's poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, "The first thing you will meet in the other world, will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare's works presented to you."' Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.In Nouveau receuil d'ostéologie et de myologie, Jacques Gamelin (1738-1803) imagines what it might be like to read books after death:
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The Dearness of Common Things
The dearness of common things —
Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves,
And the whole family of crockery —
Wood-axes, blades, helves.
Ivory milk, earth's coffee,
The white face of books
And the touch, feel, smell of paper —
Latin's lovely looks.
Earth fine to handle;
The touch of clouds,
When the imagining arm leaps out to caress
Grey worsted or wool clouds.
Wool, rope, cloth, old pipes
Gone, warped in service;
And the one herb of tobacco,
The herb of grace, the censer weed,
Of whorled, blue, finger-traced curves.
Claude Raguet Hirst, Companions (Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio):
William Michael Harnett, The Professor's Old Friends (Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine):
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The word cider has come down through Greek and Latin from an ancient Hebrew term for strong drink, an intoxicant. We have softened both the word and the substance, and without a hardening adjective the cider we know today is the tanged-sweet juice of the apple, especially in October. True, cider can be potentiated. It can even be distilled, after nature has had her way, and endowed with both fire and lightning. But when caught in its youth and treated kindly, cider is all sunlight and blue skies, spiced with the essence of early Autumn.The etymology is correct see the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Any apple will make a cider, of a sort, even the apple that ripens in August. But the cider really worthy of its name needs a touch of frost and an apple that matures its sugar slowly. Its making calls for care in the choice of apples and both skill and understanding at the mill. For the best flavor, it should still be reasonably young, but beyond its childhood. And damnation to him who would stunt its growth with any additive!
Really good cider is as rural as a corn shock. It sings of the golden birch and the crimson maple as well as the bronzing orchard. It may not be the original nectar of the gods, but it makes a man glad that he is a man. And that apples are apples, with their own inclination. See that golden amber glow in the glass? See those beads of character well slowly up? Taste that distillation of Autumn's wonder? Cider!
c.1280, from O.Fr. sidre, var. of sisdre, from L.L. sicera, Vulgate rendition of Heb. shekhar, word used for any strong drink (translated in O.E. as beor). Meaning gradually narrowed to mean exclusively "fermented drink made from apples," though this sense was present in O.Fr.Greek σίκερα also appears in the Septuagint as a rendition of the Hebrew.
Alan Davidson, in The Penguin Companion to Food, says disappointingly little about cider, but does point out that in the United States cider is usually unfermented, in Britain alcoholic. It was not always so on this side of the Atlantic. Nineteenth century temperance tracts are full of lurid descriptions of the evils of hard cider. The abstemious Thoreau (Journals, Jan. 11-12, 1853) penned an unflattering portrait of one John L:
This man is continually drinking cider; thinks it corrects some mistake in him; wishes he had a barrel of it in the woods; if he had known he was to be out so long would have brought a jugful of it; will dun Captain Hutchinson for a drink on his way home. This, or rum, runs in his head, if not in his throat, all the time.Temperance reformers not only smashed barrels of cider but on occasion cut down orchards.
Hal Borland's "golden amber" implies a thin, transparent liquid, and I won't drink an anemic cider like that. Sitting in my refrigerator now is a jug of local cider that is a dark, reddish brown. No light shines through it, and it has a thick sediment. Borland wanted no additives in his cider, but I wonder if some chemical clarifying agent produced the golden amber color he prized.
James Thacher, The American Orchardist (Plymouth: Collier, 1825), pp. 151-152, mentions the use of isinglass to clarify cider, and Thoreau wrote in his Journals, Feb. 28, 1856:
Stopped at Martial Miles's to taste his cider. Marvellously sweet and spirited without being bottled; alum and mustard put into the barrels.Alum is a clarifying agent.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Strokes of Havoc
The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound of a tree being felled and looking out and seeing it maimed, there came at that moment a great pang, and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.On March 13, 1879, Hopkins wrote in a letter to his friend Richard Watson Dixon:
I have been up to Godstow this afternoon. I am sorry to say that the aspens that lined the river are everyone felled.Godstow is north of Binsey, which is north of Oxford, and the river is the Thames. Hopkins wrote a poem about the felling of the trees that lined the river, with the title Binsey Poplars:
History repeated itself in 2002, when more poplars along this stretch of the Thames were again cut down. Richard Alleyne, Poet's lament echoes as trees face axe again, Telegraph (Nov. 12, 2002), identified the trees as Populus x canadensis, a hybrid of Populus nigra x Populus deltoides:My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
The latest poplars, and those Hopkins saw felled, were not the pencil thin variety but populus canadensis, a hybrid of Canadian and native European poplars, that are far grander.Here is an illustration by Pierre Joseph Redouté from Michaux's North American Sylva showing the leaf of Populus x canadensis:
The following photograph shows a row of poplars such as Hopkins might have seen:
William Cowper, in The Poplar Field, also lamented the felling of poplars:
William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information (London, 1832), p. 1491 (Dec. 23), claimed to have identified the location of the poplars described by Cowper:The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade
And the whispering sound of the cool colonnade;
The winds play no longer and sing in the leaves,
Nor Ouse on his bosom their image receives.
Twelve years have elapsed since I first took a view
Of my favourite field, and the bank where they grew:
And now in the grass behold they are laid,
And the tree is my seat that once lent me a shade.
The blackbird has fled to another retreat
Where the hazels afford him a screen from the heat;
And the scene where his melody charm'd me before
Resounds with his sweet-flowing ditty no more.
My fugitive years are all hasting away,
And I must ere long lie as lowly as they,
With a turf on my breast and a stone at my head,
Ere another such grove shall arise in its stead.
'Tis a sight to engage me, if anything can,
To muse on the perishing pleasures of man;
Short-lived as we are, our enjoyments, I see,
Have a still shorter date; and die sooner than we.
I visited the field where stood the poplars whose fall he so feelingly laments in some exquisite verses commencing,Cowper himself translated The Poplar Field into elegant Latin hexameters:
"The poplars are fell'd, farewell to the shade."
There are now standing, of what was once a fine row, two only of these trees; the field in which they are situated is between Olney and Lavendon mill, and belongs to Mr. Perry of the mill; it is called the "Lynch close."
An old woman at Olney told me she remembered Cowper perfectly well, "He was a sorrowful-looking man," she said, "and very particular in avoiding persons in his walks—he would turn down any path that presented itself to avoid being seen."
Populeae cecidit gratissima copia silvae,
Conticuere susurri, omnisque evanuit umbra,
Nullae jam levibus se miscent frondibus aurae,
Et nulla in fluvio ramorum ludit imago.
Hei mihi! bis senos dum luctu torqueor annos,
His cogor silvis suetoque carere recessu,
Cum sero rediens, stratasque in gramine cernens,
Insedi arboribus, sub queis errare solebam.
Ah ubi nunc merulae cantus? Felicior illum
Silva tegit, durae nondum permissa bipenni;
Scilicet exustos colles camposque patentes
Odit, et indignans et non rediturus abivit.
Sed qui succisas doleo succidar et ipse,
Et prius huic parilis quam creverit altera silva
Flebor, et, exequiis parvis donatus, habebo
Defixum lapidem tumulique cubantis acervum.
Tam subito periisse videns tam digna manere,
Agnosco humanas sortes et tristia fata—
Sit licet ipse brevis, volucrique simillimus umbrae,
Est nomini brevior citiusque obitura voluptas.
Eric Thomson draws my attention to Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007), pp. 356-357:
Hazel is the most amenable to cutting and plashing, as though it has evolved into the habit. Hawthorn and ash are also pliable enough. The laid pleachers must always slope upwards. The river of sap will only flow uphill. Already, in February, the maple was so full of early-rising sap it wept copious tears when I cut it, the sap trickling down the pleated bark or splashing on to my boot. I tasted it optimistically, but, although a little sweet, it was also brackish, like human tears, and it was impossible not to think of all the sad times when my own tears, or those of loved ones have run down my cheeks and I've licked them away. Impossible too not to imagine that the tree itself was mourning its own wound: this mutilation, subjugation to a human will.Plash = To cut partly, or to bend and intertwine the branches of; as, to plash a hedge.
Pleacher = A stem in a hedge half cut through and bent.
J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph (June 30, 1972):
With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying 'gloom', especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the dominion of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture, and murder of trees perpetuated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.
- Maltreatment of Trees
- An Impious Lumberjack
- Erysichthon in Ovid
- Erysichthon in Callimachus
Sunday, October 21, 2007
A Quirkily Laconic Character
Your post today reminded me of another quirkily laconic character, Saxon Sydney-Turner (1880-1962), who was on the margins of the Bloomsbury Group. This is how Leonard Woolf describes him in Sowing: An Autobiography of the Years 1880-1904 (1960) pg. 67:
"Both physically and mentally Saxon was ghost-like, shadowy. He rarely committed himself to any positive opinion or even statement. His conversation – if it could rightly be called conversation – was extremely spasmodic, elusive, and allusive. You might be sitting reading a book and suddenly find him standing in front of you on one leg in front of the fire knocking out his pipe into the fireplace and he would say without looking up: 'Her name was Emily'; or perhaps: 'He was right.' After a considerable amount of cross-examination, you would find that the first remark applied to a conversation weeks ago in which he had tried unsuccessfully to remember the christian name of Miss Girouette in Nightmare Abbey, and the second remark applied to a dispute between Thoby Stephen and myself which I had completely forgotten because it had taken place in the previous term."
The full sketch (too long to quote) actually takes up two pages and describes more of his numerous eccentricities, bibliomania among them.
The Big Woods once extended over more than three thousand square miles of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana. A few patches remain, and one of them is the subject of a chapter in Paul Gruchow, Worlds within a World: Reflections on Visits to Minnesota Scientific and Natural Area Preserves (St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, 1999), who reports:
A flurry of motion about thirty yards down the slope caught my eye. I looked and saw an eastern chipmunk perched on the upturned roots of a fallen tree. I suppose that there is not a more beguiling denizen of these woods. A chipmunk is quintessentially cute pert, petite, bright-eyed, and curious, a Walt Disney creature if ever there was one.I was surprised to learn about the etymology of treacle and its connection with fierce, but Gruchow is correct according to the American Heritage Dictionary, which derives treacle from
Then I saw that the chipmunk was chewing on something as long and lithe as a length of rope. I raised my binoculars for a closer view and was astonished to see that the little animal was eating a garter snake more than a foot long and as big around as my index finger.
When I got home, I looked up eastern chipmunks in Evan B. Hazard's The Mammals of Minnesota....Hazard adds, "Chipmunks are a source of much enjoyment, though people often have an unrealistically benign image of the personalities of these aggressive, often antisocial rodents."
There it was, another illusion shattered.
When I thought about it, I realized that that is one of the reasons I find myself mesmerized by the natural world. Whenever you are tempted to make something treacly of it, nature conspires to show you its tart reality. Nature is not, as it is so often represented, an escape from anything, but a bracing call to realism.
So I was not surprised, when I looked treacle up in the dictionary, to find where the word came from. It once referred not to something cloyingly sweet, as it does now, but to an antidote to poisonous bites. It was derived from an ancient Greek word meaning "wild animal," the same root that gave us the word fierce.
Fierce, for example, as a chipmunk.
Middle English triacle, antidote for poison, from Old French, from Latin thēriaca, from Greek (antidotos) thēriakē, from thērion, poisonous beast, diminutive of thēr, beast. See ghwer- in Appendix.and fierce from
Middle English F(i)ers, from Old French, from Latin ferus, wild. See ghwer- in Appendix.The Appendix is Calvert Watkins' Indo-European Roots, which has the following entry for ghwer-:
Wild beast. 1. Suffixed form *ghwer-o- in Latin ferus, wild: FERAL, FIERCE. 2. Compound *ghwer-okw-, "of wild aspect" (*-okw-, "-looking"; see okw-), in Latin ferōx (stem ferōc-), fierce: FEROCIOUS. 3. Lengthened-grade form *ghēwr- in Greek thēr, wild beast: -THERE, THEROPOD, TREACLE.Cute, by the way, was originally acute ("sharp, shrewd, clever"), related to Latin acus ("needle") and acerbus ("bitter, sharp, tart").
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Of my numerous phases of single-minded devotion to a single author, one of the longest and deepest has been with Edward Thomas, and Rain is one of the handful of his poems I know by heart. This too was the poem that came to mind when about 25 years ago now I visited the Arras cemetery where he is buried. So I opened the blog this morning with a smile of recognition.I'm indebted to Eric for many things, and now I must thank him for introducing me to Ivor Gurney (1890-1937).
I wonder if you know of Ivor Gurney, Gloucestershire poet and composer, and devotee of Schubert and Thomas in equal measure? WWI killed him too, though not as quickly or as cleanly as it did Thomas. I think you'd like his poetry if you don't know it.
I discovered a cache of Gurney's poems here, from which I select a few that describe rain. I haven't been able to compare the texts against a printed copy, so I reproduce them as I found them.
There is no sound within the cottage now,Rainy Midnight
But my pen and the sound of long rain
Heavy and musical, I must think again
To find so sweet a noise, and cannot anyhow.
The soothingness and deep-toned tinkle, soft
Happenings of night, in pain there's nothing better.
Save tobacco, or long most looked for letter.
The different roof-sounds. House, shed, loft and scullery.
Long shines the line of wet lamps dark in gleaming,Soft Rain Beats Upon My Windows
The trees so still felt yet as strength not used,
February chills April, the cattle are housed,
And nights grief from the higher things comes streaming.
The trade is all gone, the elver-fishers gone
To string their lights 'long Severn like a wet Fair.
If it were fine the elvers would swim clear,
Clothes sodden, the out-of-work stay on.
Soft rain beats upon my windowsThe Soaking
But by the great gusts guessed further off
Up by the bare moor and brambly headland
Heaven and earth make war
That savage toss of the pine boughs past music
And that roar of the elms...
Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder
Of poetry's truth, while rain beats as softly here
As sleep, or shelter of farms
The rain has come, and the earth must be very glad
Of its moisture, and the made roads, all dust clad;
It lets a veil down on the lucent dark,
And not of any bright ground thing shows its spark.
Tomorrow's gray morning will show cowparsley,
Hung all with shining drops, and the river will be
Duller because of the all soddenness of things,
Till the skylark breaks his reluctance, hangs shaking, and sings.
The Merest Statue of a Man
Demosthenes Taylor, as he was called, (that is, the Editor of Demosthenes) was the most silent man, the merest statue of a man that I have ever seen. I once dined in company with him, and all he said during the whole time was no more than Richard. How a man should say only Richard, it is not easy to imagine. But it was thus: Dr. Douglas was talking of Dr. Zachary Grey, and ascribing to him something that was written by Dr. Richard Grey. So, to correct him, Taylor said, (imitating his affected sententious emphasis and nod,) "RICHARD."This is Dr. John Taylor (1704-1766), who edited Lysias as well as Demosthenes. See John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908), pp. 414-415.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Penury of Words
For the first two years of my residence at Oxford, I compute that I did not utter one hundred words. (p. 118)Related post: Portrait of a Shy Man.
In early youth I labored under a peculiar embarrassment and penury of words, when I sought to convey my thoughts adequately upon interesting subjects: neither was it words only that I wanted; but I could not unravel, I could not even make perfectly conscious to myself, or properly arrange the subsidiary thoughts into which one leading thought often radiates; or, at least, I could not do this with anything like the rapidity requisite for conversation. I laboured like a Sibyl instinct with the burden of prophetic wo, as often as I found myself dealing with any topic in which the understanding combined with deep feelings to suggest mixed and tangled thoughts: and thus partly — partly also from my invincible habit of reverie — at that era of my life, I had a most distinguished talent 'pour le silence.' Wordsworth, from something of the same causes, suffered (by his own report to myself) at the same age from pretty much the same infirmity. (p. 124)
Here's a somewhat gloomy poem by Edward Thomas (1878-1917) entitled Rain:
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipp'd from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish'd and imprison'd; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body,A plant sometimes used as an ingredient in a salad (sallet) is cowslip.Horse to ride, and weapons to wear;
But mice and rats, and such small deer,
Have been Tom's food for seven long year.
The Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. cowslip, says:
O.E. cu-slyppe, apparently from cu "cow" + slyppe "slop, slobber, dung."The American Heritage Dictionary explains "probably because some varieties are found in cow pastures."
So perhaps Poor Tom, by "cow-dung for sallets," means nothing worse than a cowslip salad.
Related post: Noctes Scatologicae: Coprophagy
Battle of the Books
In those days he never punished me, though I think I grieved him much by my idleness; but in passion he knew not what he did, and he has knocked me down with the great folio Bible which he always used.Andrew MacGillivray writes in an email:
I thought this might serve to complement your Bible-Thumping. Books can be body armour as well as blunt instrument. Smite thine enemy with the Old Testament; be saved by the New.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Samuel Johnson as Bible Thumper
The bookseller Thomas Osborne bought the library of Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, and hired Samuel Johnson to catalogue it. A dispute between Osborne and Johnson arose in the course of the work. Johnson's early biographers give slightly different accounts of the quarrel.
John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.:
I mention the above particulars of this worthless fellow as an introduction to a fact respecting his behaviour to Johnson, which I have often heard related, and which himself confessed to be true. Johnson, while employed in selecting pieces for the Harleian Miscellany, was necessitated, not only to peruse the title-page of each article, but frequently to examine its contents, in order to form a judgment of its worth and importance, in the doing whereof, it must be supposed, curiosity might sometimes detain him too long, and whenever it did, Osborne was offended. Seeing Johnson one day deeply engaged in perusing a book, and the work being for the instant at a stand, he reproached him with inattention and delay, in such coarse language as few men would use, and still fewer could brook: the other in his justification asserted somewhat, which Osborne answered by giving him the lie; Johnson's anger at so foul a charge, was not so great as to make him forget that he had weapons at hand: he seized a folio that lay near him, and with it felled his adversary to the ground, with some exclamation, which, as it is differently related, I will not venture to repeat.Hesther Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson:
Of the truth of stories which ran currently about the town concerning Dr. Johnson it was impossible to be certain, unless one asked him himself, and what he told, or suffered to be told, before his face without contradicting, has every public mark, I think, of real and genuine authenticity. I made, one day, very minute inquiries about the tale of his knocking down the famous Tom Osborne with his own "Dictionary" in the man's own house. "And how was that affair? In earnest? Do tell me, Mr. Johnson?" "There is nothing to tell, dearest lady, but that he was insolent, and I beat him, and that he was a blockhead, and told of it, which I should never have done. So the blows have been multiplying and the wonder thickening for all these years, as Thomas was never a favourite with the public. I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues."James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.:
In 1742 he wrote ... 'Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.' He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000 £, a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. 'Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.'The statement of the former Mrs. Thrale (Hesther Lynch Piozzi) that the book used as a weapon was Johnson's own dictionary can probably be dismissed. Hawkins and Boswell connect the incident with the catalogue of the Harleian library. Work on this started in 1742, parts of the catalogue appeared in 1743-1744, and selected pamphlets from the library were reprinted between 1744 and 1746. Johnson's Dictionary was not published until 1755.
John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vol. VIII (1814), p. 446, reports:
The identical book with which Johnson knocked down Osborne (Biblia Graeca Septuaginta, folio, 1594, Frankfort; the note written by the Rev. ----- Mills) I saw in February 1812 at Cambridge, in the possession of J. Thorpe, Bookseller; whose Catalogue, since published, contains particulars authenticating this assertion.W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 225, accepts the identification of the folio with a Greek Bible.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Talking of education, 'People have now a-days, (said he,) got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chymistry by lectures.You might teach making of shoes by lectures!'
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Maltreatment of Trees
I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Jane Neave (Sept. 8-9, 1962):
There was a great treea huge poplar with vast limbsvisible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbsthough of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled. Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. (Too often the hate is irrational, a fear of anything large and alive, and not easily tamed or destroyed, though it may clothe itself in pseudo-rational terms.)Related posts:
Saturday, October 13, 2007
stare decisis (STAYR-ee di-SY-sis) nounI cannot let the translation stand. Stare decisis is not Latin for "let the decision stand," however many web pages or books say so. It means "to stand by (rest on, abide by) cases which have been decided." Stare is present infinitive of sto ("stand"). Decisis is perfect passive participle of decido ("decide"). Decisis is plural in number, and it can be argued whether its case is dative or ablative see Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, s.v. sto (II.B.1.c):The legal principle of following precedents in deciding a case, the idea that future decisions of a court should follow the example set by the prior decisions.[Latin for "let the decision stand".]
Stare in aliquā re, simply aliquā re, and post-class. also alicui rei, to stand firm, persist, persevere; to rest, abide, adhere to, continue in a thing.The gender of decisis is probably neuter. A fuller form of the phrase is stare decisis et non quieta movere ("to stand by decided cases and not to disturb settled points"), where the neuter accusative plural quieta lends support to the idea that decisis is likewise neuter. Some, I suppose, might argue that it is feminine, modifying the understood noun rebus.
I don't know the precise origin of the phrase, that is, in what text it first occurred.
Friday, October 12, 2007
That Man, Where Is He Now?
Der Strom, der neben mir verrauschte, wo ist er nun?
Der Vogel, dessen Lied ich lauschte, wo ist er nun?
Wo ist die Rose, die die Freundin am Herzen trug?
Und jener Kuß, der mich berauschte, wo ist er nun?
Und jener Mensch, der ich gewesen, und den ich längst
Mit einem andern Ich vertauschte, wo ist er nun?
On her excellent web site devoted to Lieder lyrics, Emily Ezust translated Platen's poem thus:
The storm which rolled past me, where is it now?
The bird to whose song I listened, where is it now?
Where is the rose that my sweetheart wore on her heart?
And that kiss that intoxicated me, where is it now?
And that man that I once was, whom long ago I exchanged
for another self - where is he now?
The first line of Ezust's otherwise close translation is inaccurate. German Strom means "river" (related to English stream), and the German word for "storm" is Sturm. Der Strom, der neben mir verrauschte, wo ist er nun? should thus be translated something like "The river which rushed past me, where is it now?" We might think that a river is permanent, as opposed to a transient storm, but the Greek philosopher Heraclitus thought otherwise (fragment 91, "You can't step into the same river twice").
Eric Sams, The Songs of Johannes Brahms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 82, translated the poem as follows:
The river whose sound faded past me, where is it now? The bird whose song I listened to, where is it now? Where is the rose that my love wore at her breast, and that kiss which enraptured me, where is it now? And that man I once was and whom I long ago exchanged for another self, where is he now?
Verrauschen can mean "to fade away, to die away, to pass away" (see here), but also "to rush away, to hurry past, to rustle or rush by" according to Friedrich Bruns, ed. A Book of German Lyrics (Boston: D.C. Health & Co., 1921), p. 182.
I have all of Brahms' songs in the Lea Pocket Scores edition. At the back of each volume are English translations of the lyrics by Henry S. Drinker. Drinker's translations seem to attempt to follow the rhythms of the original poems, presumably so that the songs can be sung in English. But the attempt to preserve the rhythm sometimes distorts the sense. Here is Drinker's version of August von Platen's poem:
The brook that thru the wood was dancing,
Where is it now?
The thrush's song so soul entrancing,
Where is it now?
Where are the roses, there but now on
My Lady's heart,
And where the kiss that so bewitched me?
Oh where, ah where, where is it now?
That other man, who once was I, he
Who long ago became another entirely,
Oh where, ah where, where is he now?
Thursday, October 11, 2007
The Greeks and Their Influence
The Greek language was the first lost tongue recovered in modern times, and the men who recovered it naturally made as much as they could of the ideas that came with it. Ever since the Renaissance it has been a mark of intellectual distinction to know Greek, though there is no record that knowing it has ever helped any man to think profitable thoughts. That distinction, to be sure, now begins to fade and wear thin, but there was a time, just before the beginning of the current rapid increase of knowledge, when it rose above all other forms of intellectual eminence, and it was during that period that the world was saddled with the exalted view of Greece and the Greeks that still survives.
Were the Greeks scientists? Then so are the modern chiropractors.
The barbaric surges and thunders of the Odyssey, in these twilight days of Christendom, are moving only to professors of Greek which is to say, to men whose opinion on any other subject would be rejected even by their fellow professors and the enjoyment of Greek tragedy, that unparalleled bore, is confined almost wholly to actresses who have grown too fat for Ibsen; but the ideas of Lucian and Aristophanes still live, and so do those of the Four Hundred.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Tolkien on Writing for Oneself
I wrote the Trilogy as a personal satisfaction, driven to it by the scarcity of literature of the sort that I wanted to read (and what there was was often heavily alloyed). A great labour; and as the author of the Ancrene Wisse says at the end of his work: 'I would rather, God be my witness, set out on foot for Rome than begin the work over again!' But unlike him I would not have said: 'Read some of this book at your leisure every day; and I hope that if you read it often it will prove very profitable to you; otherwise I shall have spent my long hours very ill.' I was not thinking much of the profit or delight of others; though no one can really write or make anything purely privately.Related posts:
When I saw your post on asyndetic, privative adjectives, I couldn't help but think back to P.G. Wodehouse's famous line from The Code of the Woosters: "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."In the same vein, see Jack Winter, "How I Met My Wife," The New Yorker (July 25, 1994):
So where the normative form is a privative adjective, what's the linguistic term for when it loses its prefix!?!
Also amusing in this context is David McCord's tongue-in-cheek ditty "Gloss":
I know a little man both ept and ert.
An intro-? extro-? No, he's just a vert.
Sheveled and couth and kempt, pecurious, ane,
His image trudes upon the captive brain.
When life turns sipid and the mind is traught,
The spirit soars as I would sist it ought.
Chalantly then, like any gainly goof,
My digent self is sertive, choate, loof.
It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.
I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.
I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknowst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.
Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.
So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make head or tails of.
I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated—as if this were something I was great shakes at—and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.
Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d'oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myself.
She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savoury character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Children Gathering Pebbles
However, many books,
Wise men have said, are wearisome; who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.
Asyndetic, Privative Adjectives: Paradise Regained
- 1.25: Unmarked, unknown
- 2.413: Unknown, unfriended
- 3.243: Irresolute, unhardy, unadvent'rous
- 3.429: Unhumbled, unrepentant, unreformed
Monday, October 08, 2007
Cursed, Trite, Commonplace Topics
Poor Boswell is very low and dispirited and almost melancholy madfeels no spring, no pleasure in existence, and is so perceptible altered for the worse that it is remarked everywhere. I try all I can to rouse him but he recurs so tiresomely and tediously to the same cursed, trite, commonplace topics about death, etc.that we grow old, and when we are old we are not youngthat I despair of effecting a cure.Boswell was 50 years old at the time. He would not live to see his 55th birthday.
Those "same cursed, trite, commonplace topics about death" give rise to some of the most sublime poetry ever written, such as Glaucus' words to Diomedes in Homer's Iliad 6.145-149 (tr. William Cowper):
Why asks brave Diomede of my descent?The second movement of Brahms' German Requiem begins with these words on the same theme, from 1 Peter 1.24:
For, as the leaves, such is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind. One generation meets
Its destined period, and a new succeeds.
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.Brahms himself was "very low and dispirited and almost melancholy mad" by temperament. Joseph Hellmesberger said about him, "When Brahms is in good spirits, he sings 'The grave is my joy'."
I sleep fitfully, and when I awoke in the wee hours of this morning I turned to an author not exactly known for bubbly cheerfulness, Seneca the Younger. I read his letter to Lucilius (101) on the unexpected death of Cornelius Senecio. Here is part of the letter in Richard M. Gummere's translation:
 But how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! O what madness it is to plot out far-reaching hopes! To say: "I will buy and build, loan and call in money, win titles of honour, and then, old and full of years, I will surrender myself to a life of ease."Related posts:
 Believe me when I say that everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous. No one has any right to draw for himself upon the future. The very thing that we grasp slips through our hands, and chance cuts into the actual hour which we are crowding so full. Time does indeed roll along by fixed law, but as in darkness; and what is it to me whether Nature's course is sure, when my own is unsure?
 We plan distant voyages and long-postponed home-comings after roaming over foreign shores, we plan for military service and the slow rewards of hard campaigns, we canvass for governorships and the promotions of one office after another - and all the while death stands at our side; but since we never think of it except as it affects our neighbour, instances of mortality press upon us day by day, to remain in our minds only as long as they stir our wonder.
 Yet what is more foolish than to wonder that something which may happen every day has happened on any one day? There is indeed a limit fixed for us, just where the remorseless law of Fate has fixed it; but none of us knows how near he is to this limit. Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
The Moon for Drying Rice
Some modern nature writers have felt the tug of a calendar beginning in March. Edwin Way Teale's A Walk Through the Year and Hal Borland's Sundial of the Seasons both have entries for every day of the year. The former starts with March 21, the latter with March 22. On the other hand, Teale's Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist's Year starts conventionally with January 1.
In the Dakota Indian calendar, we're now in the Moon for Drying Rice. I take the following list of Dakota seasons and months from Janet D. Spector, What This Awl Means: Feminist Archaeology at a Wahpeton Dakota Village (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1993), p. 66. Her list in turn relies on Stephen Riggs, A Dakota-English Dictionary (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890 = vol. 7 of Contributions to North American Ethnology, ed. James Owen Dorsey), pp. 564-565, and Philander Prescott, "Contributions to the History, Customs, and Opinions of the Dacota Tribe," in Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, ed. Henry Schoolcraft, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, Grambo, 1852), pp. 168-199 (at 177).
Witehi withe Hard or Severe Moon (January)
Wicata withe Raccoon Moon (February)
Istawicayazan withe Moon of Sore Eyes (March)
Magaokata withe Moon When Geese Lay Eggs (April)
Watopapi wiThe Moon When Streams Are Again Navigable (also April)
Wozupi withe Moon for Planting (May)
Wazustecasa withe Moon When Strawberries are Red and When Corn Is Hoed (June)
Canpasa withe Moon When Chokecherries Are Ripe and Geese Shed Their Feathers (also, Wasunpa wi) (July)
Wasuton withe Moon When Corn Is Gathered, or the Harvest Moon (August)
Psinhnaketu withe Moon When Rice Is Laid Up to Dry (September)
Wazupi withe Moon for Drying Rice (October)
Takiyuha withe Moon When Deer Rut (November)
Tahecapsun withe Moon When Deer Shed Their Horns (December)
Saturday, October 06, 2007
Fringed Gentians, Phenology, and Bees
Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,John Burroughs, Nature and the Poets, finds fault with the accuracy of Bryant's third stanza:
And coloured with the heaven's own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.
Thou comest not when violets lean
O'er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o'er the ground-bird's hidden nest.
Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.
Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blueblueas if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.
I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.
The fringed gentian belongs to September, and, when the severer frosts keep away, it runs over into October. But it does not come alone, and the woods are not bare. The closed gentian comes at the same time, and the blue and purple asters are in all their glory. Goldenrod, turtle-head, and other fall flowers also abound. When the woods are bare, which does not occur in New England till in or near November, the fringed gentian has long been dead. It is in fact killed by the first considerable frost. No, if one were to go botanizing, and take Bryant's poem for a guide, he would not bring home any fringed gentians with him. The only flower he would find would be the witch-hazel. Yet I never see this gentian without thinking of Bryant's poem, and feeling that he has brought it immensely nearer to us.Fringed gentian. Photograph by Robert H. Mohlenbrock. USDA SCS. 1989. Midwest wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. Midwest National Technical Center, Lincoln, NE. Courtesy of USDA NRCS Wetland Science Institute.
Phenology is "the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena," and Burrough's quarrel with Bryant is over a phenological detail. Aldo Leopold called Henry David Thoreau the "father of phenology" in America, and any reader of Thoreau's Journal knows with what painstaking detail he recorded the times of recurring natural phenomena. A recurrent phrase in his Journal is "How long?" When Thoreau observes, say, a species of flower in bloom, he wonders if he has truly noted its first appearance, or whether it has in fact been in bloom for some time already.
Here are the dates when Thoreau records in his Journal that he saw fringed gentians October 19, 1852; September 18, 1854; September 14, 1856; September 18, 1856; September 13, 1858; October 1, 1858; and October 10, 1858.
On November 14, 1853 Thoreau states that the fringed gentian had "long since withered," but on December 1, 1856 he records "Minot Pratt tells me that he watched the fringed gentian this year, and it lasted till the first week in November."
In his essay An Idyl of the Honey-Bee, John Burroughs implies that fringed gentians do not attract bees:
Beside a ditch in a field beyond we find the great blue lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica), and near it amid the weeds and wild grasses and purple asters the most beautiful of our fall flowers, the fringed gentian. What a rare and delicate, almost aristocratic look the gentian has amid its coarse, unkempt surroundings. It does not lure the bee, but it lures and holds every passing human eye.But Thoreau (Journal, October 18, 1852) wrote the following about fringed gentians and bees:
At this hour [5 p.m.] the blossoms are tightly rolled and twisted, and I see that the bees have gnawed round holes in their sides to come at the nectar. They have found them, though I had not. "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen" by man.
Who cares when the fringed gentian blooms, and whether it attracts bees or not? It is probably a shocking heresy to say so, but such questions inspire in me a far deeper and more enduring curiosity and sympathy than current events and controversies that fill the newspaper headlines.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Revise and Rewrite
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try. Quite often you will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, a word processor can save you time and labor as you rearrange the manuscript. You can select material on your screen and move it to a more appropriate spot, or, if you cannot find the right spot, you can move the material to the end of the manuscript until you decide whether to delete it. Some writers find that working with a printed copy of the manuscript helps them to visualize the process of change; others prefer to revise entirely on screen. Above all, do not be afraid to experiment with what you have written. Save both the original and the revised versions; you can always use the computer to restore the manuscript to its original condition, should that course seem best. Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.This paragraph itself has evidently undergone major surgery since Strunk first wrote it. In the process of surgical revision it has acquired an iatrogenic disease, a sort of excrescence or tumor. I refer to the sentences about the word processor, the screen, and the computer. This addition violates one of Gilleland's Elements of Style, viz. "Write in such a way that a reader of a hundred years ago could understand you. The more closely you follow this rule, the less ephemeral your writing will be, the less apt to become obsolete or dated."
I will now get down off my hobby-horse.
The "best writers" who revised and rewrote included Plato and Vergil, as the following anecdotes show.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Literary Composition 25 (tr. W. Rhys Roberts):
Plato did not cease, when eighty years of age, to comb and curl his dialogues and reshape them in every way. Of course every scholar is familiar with the stories told about Plato's industry, especially the one about the writing tablet which they say was found after his death, with the opening words of the Republic arranged in various orders, 'I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston.'Diogenes Laertius 3.37 (tr. R.D. Hicks):
ὁ δὲ Πλάτων, τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ διαλόγους κτενίζων καὶ βοστρυχίζων, καὶ πάντα τρόπον ἀναπλέκων, οὐ διέλιπεν ὀγδοήκοντα γεγονὼς ἔτη. πᾶσι γὰρ δή που τοῖς φιλολόγοις γνώριμα τὰ περὶ τῆς φιλοπονίας τἀνδρὸς ἱστορούμενα, τά τ᾽ ἄλλα, καὶ δὴ καὶ τὰ περὶ τὴν δέλτον ἣν τελευτήσαντος αὐτοῦ λέγουσιν εὑρεθῆναι ποικίλως μετακειμένην τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἔχουσαν τήνδε "κατέβην χθὲς εἰς Πειραιᾶ μετὰ Γλαύκωνος τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος."
Euphorion and Panaetius relate that the beginning of the Republic was found several times revised and rewritten.Quintilian 8.6.64 (tr. H.E. Butler):
Εὐφορίων δὲ καὶ Παναίτιος εἰρήκασι πολλάκις ἐστραμμένην εὑρῆσθαι τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς Πολιτείας.
Further, it is impossible to make our prose rhythmical except by artistic alterations in the order of words, and the reason why those four words in which Plato in the noblest of his works states that he [sic, actually Socrates] had gone down to the Piraeus were found written in a number of different orders upon his wax tablets, was simply that he desired to make the rhythm as perfect as possible.Suetonius, Life of Vergil 22 (tr. J.C. Rolfe):
Nec aliud potest sermonem facere numerosum quam oportuna ordinis permutatio, neque alio ceris Platonis inventa sunt quattuor illa verba, quibus in illo pulcherrimo operum in Piraeum se descendisse significat, plurimis modis scripta quam ut quo ordine quodque maxime faceret experiretur.
When he was writing the "Georgics," it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning, and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape.
Cum "Georgica" scriberet, traditur cotidie meditatos mane plurimos versus dictare solitus ac per totum diem retractando ad paucissimos redigere, non absurde carmen se more ursae parere dicens et lambendo demum effingere.