Sunday, March 09, 2008


Patulae Recubans Sub Tegmine Fagi

I'm reading Thomas Pakenham, Meetings With Remarkable Trees (New York: Random House, 1998), a gift from a friend. On p. 30 Pakenham quotes from a letter by Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole (Sept. 1737). Gray is describing a visit to his uncle in Burnham in Buckinghamshire. Here is a more extended excerpt from the letter:
The description of a road, which your coach wheels have so often honoured, it would be needless to give you; suffice it that I arrived safe at my uncle's, who is a great hunter in imagination; his dogs take up every chair in the house, so I am forced to stand at this present writing: and, though the gout forbids him galloping after them in the field, yet he continues still to regale his ears and nose with their comfortable noise and stink. He holds me mighty cheap, I perceive, for walking when I should ride, and reading when I should hunt.

My comfort amidst all this is, that I have, at the distance of half a mile, through a green lane, a forest (the vulgar call it a common) all my own, at least as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices; mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds, nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover cliff; but just such hills as people, who love their necks as well as I do, may venture to climb, and craggs that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were more dangerous: both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches, and other very reverend vegetables, that, like most other ancient people, are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds,
And as they bow their hoary tops relate,
In murm'ring sound, the dark decrees of Fate;
While visions, as poetic eyes avow,
Cling to each leaf, and swarm on every bough.
At the foot of one of these squats me I, (Il penseroso) and there grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me like Adam in Paradise, before he had an Eve; but I think he did not use to read Virgil, as I commonly do there.
It would have been fitting if Gray had read there under the "venerable beeches" the first Eclogue of Virgil, which contains the words patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi ("reclining beneath the shade of a spreading beech tree").

Adam could not of course have read Virgil in Paradise. That would be an anachronism. But did he read any books in Paradise? Faith doesn't reveal the answer, so we must have recourse to reason. I think there were books in Paradise, and here is my syllogism:
Adam lacked nothing he needed in Paradise.
Books are necessities of life.
Therefore, there were books in Paradise.
Quod erat demonstrandum.

Gray's letter also interests me because of the possible etymological connection among books, beeches, and Buckinghamshire. Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), p. 162, explains the link between book and beech:
And on the beech was written, probably, the first page of European literature. For, it is said the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark; the custom of inscribing the temptingly smooth boles of Beeches came to Europe with the Indo-European people who entered the continent from Asia. Indeed, our word "book" comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, meaning a letter or character, which in turn derives from the Anglo-Saxon beece, for Beech.
The connection between beech and Buckinghamshire is less certain. Some books say that the Buck- in Buckingham comes from Anglo-Saxon bóc, but Isaac Taylor, Names and Their Histories (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1896), p. 77, dissents:
Buckingham, the county town of BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, is called Buccingaham in the Saxon Chronicle. This name is usually said to mean the -ham of the men of the beech forest (A.S. bóc, 'a beech '). But in this case the A.S. name would have been Bócingaham, and therefore, the name of Buckingham must be referred to the family or clan of the Buccings, who took their name from an ancestor, called Bucca, the Buck, or whose totem was a buck. (A.S. bucca or buc, 'a he-goat.')
I am unqualified to judge on the matter.

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