Saturday, January 31, 2009


There Was an Old Man

Logan Pearsall Smith, Longevity (from More Trivia):
'But when you are as old as I am!' I said to the young lady in pink satin. 'But I don't know how old you are,' that young lady answered almost archly. We were getting on quite nicely.

'Oh I'm endlessly old; my memory goes back almost forever. I come out of the Middle Ages. I am the primitive savage we are all descended from; I believe in Devil-worship, and the power of the Stars; I dance under the new Moon, naked and tattooed and holy. I am a Cave-dweller, a contemporary of Mastodons and Mammoths; I am pleistocene and neolithic, and full of the lusts and terrors of the great pre-glacial forests. But that's nothing; I am millions of years older; I am an arboreal Ape, an aged Baboon, with all its instincts; I am a pre-simian quadruped, I have great claws, eyes that see in the dark, and a long prehensile tail.'

'Good gracious!' said the terrified young lady in pink satin. Then she turned, and for the rest of the dinner talked in a hushed voice with her other neighbour.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Communion with T.E. Page

Thanks to Eric Thomson, who writes in an an email (accompanied by copies of some pages from Niall Rudd, T.E. Page: Schoolmaster Extraordinary (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1981)):
I thought the office tedium might be relieved by a couple of amusing anecdotes concerning T. E. Page's dress habits and verbal tics (from Niall Rudd's essay). I think you are absolutely right in identifying Page as one of the 'persons of British taste ... etc.'. There is perhaps a sly allusion to Page in 'sub-Tennysonian', as both Page and Tennyson were from Lincolnshire, and both preserved their accents (cf the rhotacism and short [a] in 'half' in the 1890 recording of Charge of the Light Brigade). Housman also had another reason for wanting to have a digg at Page. None of his four articles on Horace (Diggle and Goodyear 1, 11, 17 and 18), all written before 1890, was taken account of in the additions and corrections (1890, 1892, and 1893) to his 1883 edition.
Here are the anecdotes from Rudd, pp. 10-12, which mention Page's dress, verbal tics, and Lincolnshire accent:
In 1887, when Page was 37, one of the boys wrote a poem entitled 'An Epic of Hades' which contained the following stanza:
Tis the good and gentle Page.
In the breeze his locks are streaming;
In his eyes poetic rage
(Something earthly too) is gleaming.
Facing it is a caricature by the youthful Max Beerbohm, showing a tall retreating figure wearing a high-crowned hat, from which the hair fans out in a pear-shaped curve, a tail coat, and a pair of voluminous light-coloured trousers. The feet are slightly turned out, and the cane is carried at an insouciant angle. A balloon from his mouth contains the word 'Please' — a long-standing verbal mannerism, here reduced to absurdity by an inscription which reads 'Thank you, please!' A second hand has added 'D'yer see?'

As fashions changed, the high hat gave way to a bowler. But for the rest Page's dress remained the same for sixty years — white shirt and navy-blue poplin tie, black tail coat, and black boots. The most remarkable item was his trousers. Some irreverent pupils spread the story that the material came from a remnant sale after the Crimean war, but in fact they were made of an off-white tweed woven on St. Kilda far out in the Atlantic. After visiting the island in his Cambridge days, Page wore the material exclusively for the rest of his life. In 1930 there was a crisis. The population of St. Kilda was evacuated, and for a while it looked as if Page would have to settle for something more conventional, or else (as some of his cronies hoped) appear bare-legged in the streets of London. But with great tenacity he traced the weaver and his family through the Scottish Office to their new home in the Shetlands, and so continuity and decorum were preserved. To prevent such a danger recurring, however, Page had a bolt of the stuff sent to his tailor in Godalming, and so ensured a regular supply. One wonders, in fact, whether he possessed anything else. Even at a Buckingham Palace garden party in 1932, where everyone else was dressed with the utmost smartness, Page turned up in a freshly laundered pair of St. Kilda trousers — laundered, because he would never trust the new-fangled cleaning establishments.

Testimony is also unanimous about Page's voice. It was deep and musical, splendidly suitable for reading the Old Testament in chapel, or for reciting Inchcape Rock or The Raven or The Revenge at entertainments in hall. This is the more interesting in that his accent was not wholly in conformity with standard southern English. He retained the short 'a' from his Lincolnshire youth and normally used 'ye' instead of 'you'. Some of the examples preserved by oral tradition — e.g. 'blăsted jackass' — are more than phonetically instructive. When batting at the nets he would wear his cap back to front in the Old Charterhouse manner and shout to the bowler 'Will ye pitch 'em up, please — I căn't get at 'em!'


The enclitic use of 'please' figures in many of the stories about him, but it is perhaps best illustrated in the report of a visit which he paid to Provost Phelps of Oriel (himself a Carthusian), who had a slightly different mannerism. Questioned about the encounter, Phelps said 'Page's visit passed very agreeably, I mean, but why does he have that silly habit, I mean, of saying "please" all the time?' Back in Godalming Page remarked 'Phelps is a capital fellow, please, but why must he keep on saying "I mean" after every other word?'
Note that Tennyson wrote The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet, one of the poems recited by Page "at entertainments in hall."

T.E. Page

Thursday, January 29, 2009



Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.6 (tr. Francis Brooks):
The voices of the Fauns have often been heard, and the forms of the gods been seen, forcing the man who was neither destitute of perception, nor impious, to acknowledge the presence of divinity.

saepe Faunorum voces exauditae, saepe visae formae deorum quemvis aut non hebetem aut impium deos praesentes esse confiteri coegerunt.
Gods manifest themselves to humans primarily through the senses of hearing and sight. There is a curious combination of the two in Revelation 1.12 (tr. David E. Aune):
Then I turned to see the voice speaking to me.

Καὶ ἐπέστρεψα βλέπειν τὴν φωνὴν ἥτις ἐλάλει μετ’ ἐμοῦ.
From a psychological perspective, this brings to mind the phenomenon of synesthesia.

In his excellent commentary, Revelation 1-5 (Dallas: Word Books, 1997), p. 87-88 (at p. 87), Aune asks the obvious question, "How is is possible to 'see' a voice?" Among the parallels he cites are two from the Septuagint, in which the same Greek word for voice or sound is the object of a verb of seeing: Exodus 20.18 (καὶ πᾶς ὁ λάος ἑώρα τὴν φωνήν = "and all the people saw the sound") and Daniel 7.11 (ἐθεώρουν τότε τὴν φωνήν = "then I beheld the voice").

I noticed a few minor misprints in Aune's commentary on the first chapter of Revelation. On p. 40 (Rev. 1.5) Aune writes, "The Latin Vulgate translates the phrase 'ruler of the kings of the earth' with princeps regnum terrae, a title with significant political ramifications since it could designate the Roman emperor." For princeps regnum terrae read princeps regum terrae. At Rev. 1.5, λούσαντι ("having washed") is a variant reading for λύσαντι ("having freed") — on p. 45 Aune prints λύσαντι but translates λούσαντι.

Related posts:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


A Fig for Chink

While reading Songs and Other Poems (1668) by Alexander Brome (1620-1666), I happened on a phrase that sums up my feelings about current economic problems — "a fig for chink" (Song V: The Trooper, line 22).

OED, s.v. fig, n.2:
A contemptuous gesture which consisted in thrusting the thumb between two of the closed fingers or into the mouth. Also, fig of Spain, and to give (a person) the fig.
OED, s.v. chink, n.3, definition 4:
A humorous colloquial term for money in the form of coin; ready cash.

Exceedingly common in the dramatists and in songs of the 17th c.; now rather slangy or vulgar.
Brome used the phrase "a fig for chink" in a drinking song. Most of his songs fall into the category of convivial, drinking songs. Although I'm neither very convivial nor much of a drinker, I'm enjoying Brome's variations on the inexhaustible "eat, drink, and be merry" theme. Here is one of them (Song XXXI: The Cheerful Heart, pp. 95-96):
What though these ill times do go cross to our will?
  And fortune still frowns upon us?
Our hearts are our own, and they shall be so still;
  A pin for the plagues they lay on us.
    Let us take t'other cup,
    To keep our hearts up,
  And let it be purest Canary;
    We'l ne're shrink or care,
    For the crosses we bear,
Let 'um plague us until they be weary.

What though we are made, both beggars and slaves,
  Let us stoutly endure it and drink on:
'Tis our comfort we suffer, 'cause we will not be knaves
  Our redemption will come e're we think on't.
    We must flatter and fear
    Those that over us are,
  And make 'um believe that we love 'um,
    When their tyranny's past,
    We will serve them at last,
As they serv'd those that have been above 'um.

The Levites do preach, for the Goose and the Pig,
  To drink wine but at Christmas and Easter;
The Doctour doth labour our lives to new-trig,
  And makes nature to fast, but we feast her;
    The Lawyer doth bawl,
    Out his lungs and his gall,
  For the Plantiff and for the Defendant;
    At books the Scholar lies,
    Till by Flatus he dies,
With the ugly hard word at the end on't.

But here's to the man that delights in Sol fa,
  'Tis Sack is his only Rosin,
A load of heigh-ho's are not worth a ha, ha;
  He's the man for my money that draws in.
    Come a pin for this Muck,
    And a fig of ill Luck;
  'Tis better be blyth and frolick,
    Then to sigh out our breath,
    And invite our own death
By the Gout or the stone, and the cholick.
Related posts:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009



Thomas Babington Macaulay, quoted in George Otto Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, new ed. (London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1881), p. 665:
I have pretty nearly learned all that I like best in Catullus. He grows on me with intimacy. One thing he has,—I do not know whether it belongs to him, or to something in myself,—but there are some chords of my mind which he touches as nobody else does. The first lines of 'Miser Catulle;' the lines to Cornificius, written evidently from a sick bed; and part of the poem beginning 'Si qua recordanti' affect me more than I can explain. They always move me to tears.
The same, p. 690:
Finished Catullus August 3, 1835. An admirable poet. No Latin writer is so Greek. The simplicity, the pathos, the perfect grace, which I find in the great Athenian models, are all in Catullus, and in him alone of the Romans.
Walter Savage Landor, On Catullus:
Tell me not what too well I know
About the bard of Sirmio.
  Yes, in Thalia's son
Such stains there are—as when a Grace
Sprinkles another's laughing face
  With nectar, and runs on.
Walter Savage Landor, Written in a Catullus:
Among these treasures there are some
That floated past the wreck of Rome;
But others, for their place unfit,
Are sullied by uncleanly wit.
So in its shell the pearl is found
With rank putridity around.
Algernon Charles Swinburne, To Catullus:
My brother, my Valerius, dearest head
Of all whose crowning bay-leaves crown their mother
Rome, in the notes first heard of thine I read
  My brother.

No dust that death or time can strew may smother
Love and the sense of kinship inly bred
From loves and hates at one with one another.

To thee was Caesar's self nor dear nor dread,
Song and the sea were sweeter each than other:
How should I living fear to call thee dead
  My brother?
Robert Bridges, To Catullus:
Would that you were alive today, Catullus!
Truth 'tis, there is a filthy skunk amongst us,
A rank musk-idiot, the filthiest skunk,
Of no least sorry use on earth, but only
Fit in fancy to justify the outlay
Of your most horrible vocabulary.

My Muse, all innocent as Eve in Eden,
Would yet wear any skins of old pollution
Rather than celebrate the name detested.
Ev'n now might he rejoice at our attention,
Guess'd he this little ode were aiming at him.
O! were you but alive again, Catullus!

For see, not one among the bards of our time
With their flimsy tackle was out to strike him;
Not those two pretty Laureates of England,
Not Alfred Tennyson nor Alfred Austin.
William Butler Yeats, The Scholars:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

Monday, January 26, 2009


How to Read

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, "On the Steps of the Bema. Studies in the Attic Orators. No. II. The Attic Rowdy, or Where is the Perlice?" Southern Magazine (= New Eclectic Magazine) 12 (n.s. 5) (May 1873) 559-569, rpt. in his Selected Classical Papers, ed. Ward W. Briggs, Jr. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), pp. 166-176 (at p. 170):
I read largely without note or comment. After a man has made sufficient progress in a modern tongue to read it with a reasonable degree of fluency, he does not surround himself with commentaries, and dictionaries and grammars—certainly not for his first reading. If he finds a hard sentence, a strange word, a difficult allusion, he may work at it; but who would dream of treating a French or German booklet, such as Edmond About's Le Nez du Notaire, or Auerbach's Barfüssle, in the way in which most men go at an ancient classic of the same compass? What a man has to teach—ah, that is a different thing. No study can be too exhaustive. But what a man reads for his private delectation is not to be handled as David handled his foes. Yet that is what we are expected to do. We are expected to put the ancients under grammatical saws and under literary harrows and under critical axes, before we are allowed to enter upon the possession of such enjoyment as these processes have left. Willing enough to be taught in all that pertains to the science of my profession, I am not willing to repeat anybody's literary creed; and in order to form honest opinions, it is necessary to read in mass.
D.R. Shackleton Bailey, "A Ciceronian Odyssey," Ciceroniana n.s. 8 (1994) 87-92 (Atti dell'VIII Colloquium Tullianum, New York, 1991), rpt. in his Selected Classical Papers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 363-368 (at p. 363):
The classics teaching at that school was excellent, but somehow the classroom routine failed to satisfy, and I formed a resolution which I have always regarded as crucial. I decided that every day I would read privately a quota of Greek or Latin, one hundred lines of verse or four pages of prose in an Oxford Text. I started with four works, taking them in daily rotation: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Xenophon's Hellenica, the poems of Catullus, and Cicero's Catilinarian speeches. The reading was conducted on a system of my own devising. It proceeded sentence by sentence, with a dictionary and usually a translation and/or commentary for checking. The sentence would then be read aloud. At the end of a paragraph or other appropriate stopping-place the sentences covered would be read aloud consectutively. At the end of the day's ration I would traverse its contents in a mental review. I have recommended this method to many students, but I am not aware of any that adopted it. For me it worked like a charm. Naturally, the daily quotas were increased as time went on.

On other resolution I followed with very rare exceptions. I always started a work at the beginning and read on to the end. No skipping, no selections.
Stefan Mart, Don Quixote
(Hat tip: Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges)

Related posts:

Sunday, January 25, 2009


The Latin Author Lucan

A.E. Housman, Miscellaneous Verses, Chiefly Educational, [iv]:
The Latin author Lucan
When bitten by a toucan,
  Exclaimed in anguish "O!
That bird must have been frantic
To cross the broad Atlantic
  From distant Mexico,
And come to ancient Rome,
And bite me in my home,
And make me cry in anguish
And in the Latin language

Saturday, January 24, 2009



Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack won unanimous confirmation from the Senate as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on January 22, 2008, although outside of the Senate not everyone was overjoyed at his selection. Vilsack owns a 590 acre farm in Iowa, but he probably wasn't plowing his land, like Cincinnatus, when he was called to serve his country.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus 10.17.4-6 (tr. Earnest Cary) tells the story of Cincinnatus:
[4] It chanced that Quintius was just then ploughing a piece of land for sowing, he himself following the gaunt oxen that were breaking up the fallow; he had no tunic on, wore a small loin-cloth and had a cap upon his head. Upon seeing a crowd of people come into the field he stopped his plough and for a long time was at a loss to know who they were or what they wanted of him; then, when some one ran up to him and bade him make himself more presentable, he went into the cottage and after putting on his clothes came out to them.

[5] Thereupon the men who were sent to escort him all greeted him, not by his name, but as consul; and clothing him with the purple-bordered robe and placing before him the axes and the other insignia of his magistracy, they asked him to follow them to the city. And he, pausing for a moment and shedding tears, said only this: "So my field will go unsown this year, and we shall be in danger of having not enough to live on." Then he kissed his wife, and charging her to take care of things at home, went to the city.

[6] I am led to related these particulars for no other reason than to let all the world see what kind of men the leaders of Rome were at that time, that they worked with their own hands, led frugal lives, did not chafe under honourable poverty, and, far from aiming at positions of royal power, actually refused them when offered.
I tried without success to find a copy of Constantino Brumidi's fresco Calling of Cincinnatus from the Plow, which adorns the wall of the Committee Room on Agriculture (1st Floor, H-144) in the U.S. Capitol Building, but all I could find was an illustration in an article about its restoration (.pdf). So instead, here is a caricature of Cincinnatus by John Leech:

If Barack Obama had asked my opinion about the post of Secretary of Agriculture, I would have recommended poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry.

I've been rereading Berry's Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981). Berry uses draft horses on his 125 acre Kentucky farm for jobs such as spreading manure (Home of the Free, pp. 183-188, at 187), and he gave up a gas-powered scythe for a human-powered one (A Good Scythe, pp. 171-175).

If Barack Obama truly wanted real, radical change, Wendell Berry would have been the best choice. Some good advice from Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), pp. 139-140:
But don't neglect your garden.
Household economy
Makes family and land
An independent state.
Never buy at a store
What you can grow or find
At home—this is the rule
Of liberty, also
Of neighborhood. (And be
Faithful to local merchants
Too. Never buy far off
What you can buy near home.)
As early as you can,
Plant peas, onions, and greens,
Potatoes, radishes,
Cabbage and cauliflower,
Lettuce, carrots, and beets—
Things that will stand the frost.
Then as the weather warms
Plant squashes, corn, and beans,
Okra, tomatoes, herbs,
Flowers—some for yourself
And some to give away.
In the cornfield plant pole beans,
Pumpkins, and winter squash;
Thus by diversity
You can enlarge the yield.
Hat tip: Roger Kuin.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


A Mind of Winter

Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
Walter Launt Palmer, Winter Haze

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


What's That to My Books and Me?

John Norris (1657-1711), The Retirement:
Well, I have thought on't, and I find,
This busie World is Nonsense all;
I here despair to please my mind,
Her sweetest Honey is so mixt with Gall.
Come then, I'll try how 'tis to be alone,
Live to my self a while, and be my own.

I've try'd, and bless the happy change;
So happy, I could almost vow
Never from this Retreat to range,
For sure I ne'r can be so blest as now.
From all th' allays of bliss I here am free,
I pity others, and none envy me.

Here in this shady lonely Grove
I sweetly think my hours away,
Neither with Business vex'd, nor Love,
Which in the World bear such Tyrannic sway:
No Tumults can my close Apartment find,
Calm as those Seats above, which know no Storm nor Wind.

Let Plots and News embroil the State,
Pray what's that to my Books and Me?
Whatever be the Kingdom's Fate,
Here I am sure t' enjoy a Monarchy.
Lord of my self, accountable to none,
Like the first Man in Paradice, alone.

While the Ambitious vainly sue,
And of the partial Stars complain,
I stand upon the Shore and view
The mighty Labours of the distant Main.
I'm flush'd with silent joy, and smile to see
The Shafts of Fortune still drop short of me.

Th' uneasie Pageantry of State,
And all the Plagues to Thought and Sense
Are far remov'd; I'm plac'd by Fate
Out of the Road of all Impertinence.
Thus, tho my fleeting Life runs swiftly on,
'Twill not be short, because 'tis all my own.
Isaak Levitan, Small Hut in a Meadow

Monday, January 19, 2009


Communion with the Ancients

In an email about Virginia Woolf's essay On Not Knowing Greek, David Norton drew my attention to a delightful passage from A.E. Housman's Cambridge inaugural lecture (1911, published as The Confines of Criticism in 1969):
When Horace is reported to have said seu mobilibus veris inhorruit adventus foliis, and when pedants like Bentley and Munro object that the phrase is unsuitable to its context, of what avail is it to be assured by persons of taste—that is to say persons of British taste, Victorian taste, and sub-Tennysonian taste—that these are exquisite lines? Exquisite to whom? Consider the mutations of opinion, the reversals of literary judgment, which this one small island has witnessed in the last 150 years: what is the likelihood that your notions or your contemporaries' notions of the exquisite are those of a foreigner who wrote for foreigners two millenniums ago? And for what foreigners? For the Romans, for men whose religion you disbelieve, whose chief institution you abominate, whose manners you do not like to talk about, but whose literary tastes, you flatter yourself, were identical with yours. No: in this aspect we must learn to say of our tastes what Isaiah says of our righteousnesses: they are as filthy rags.

Our first task is to get rid of them, and to acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression, the tastes of the classics; not to come stamping into the library of Apollo on the Palatine without so much as wiping our shoes on the doormat, and cover the floor with the print of feet which have waded through the miry clay of the nineteenth century into the horrible pit of the twentieth. It is not to be supposed that this age, because it happens to be ours, has been specially endowed with a gift denied to all other modern ages; that we, by nature or by miracle, have mental affinity with the ancients, or that we can lightly acquire it, or that we can even acquire it at all. Communion with the ancients is purchasable at no cheaper rate than the kingdom of heaven; we must be born again. But to be born again is a process exceedingly repugnant to all right-minded Englishmen. I believe they think it improper, and they have a strong and well-grounded suspicion that it is arduous. They would much rather retain the prevalent opinion that the secret of the classical spirit is open to anyone who has a fervent admiration for the second-best parts of Tennyson.
The lines from Horace quoted by Housman come from Ode 1.23 (translated here by Christopher Smart, with the Latin and relevant portions of the critical apparatus from Wickham and Garrod's Oxford Classical Text):
You shun me, Chloe, like a fawn that is seeking its timorous mother in the pathless mountains, not without a vain dread of the breezes and the thickets:

for she trembles both in her heart and knees, whether the arrival of the spring has terrified by its rustling leaves, or the green lizards have stirred the bush.

But I do not follow you, like a savage tigress, or a Gaetulian lion, to tear you to pieces. Therefore, quit your mother, now that you are mature for a husband.

Vitas inuleo me similis, Chloe,
quaerenti pavidam montibus aviis
      matrem non sine vano
      aurarum et siluae metu.

nam seu mobilibus veris inhorruit
adventus foliis, seu virides rubum
      dimovere lacertae,
      et corde et genibus tremit.

atqui non ego te tigris ut aspera
Gaetulusve leo frangere persequor:
      tandem desine matrem
      tempestiva sequi viro.

5 vepris Gogavius: vitis Muretus 6 ad ventum Muretus: ad ventos Keller
Bentley discussed lines 5-6 in a Latin letter (XCIII, to J.G. Graevius), Munro in Q. Horatii Flacci Opera Illustrated from Antique Gems by C.W. King...The Text Revised, with an Introduction, by H.A.J. Munro (London: Bell and Daldy, 1869), p. xxi. Here are Munro's comments:
From habit many of us look on the first verse as highly poetical: it seems to me scarcely classical, and surely it is not common sense. The fawn's heart is said to beat, its knees to shake, if the advent of spring shivers with (or to, or whatever the construction may be) the lightly moving leaves; or the lizards stir the bramble. The scholiasts explain it as an hypallage for 'folia inhorruerunt adventu veris'. The advent of spring then must mean when the 'genitabilis aura favoni' begins to blow freshly and steadily ; that is, on some day in the month of February. But in the Italian forests the lightly moving leaves come almost or quite as late as in the English; and the zephyr blowing steadily for days together would be the last thing to startle a fawn. Now just suppose with Bentley and some others before him, that VERIS took the place of VEPRIS: then adventum or ad ventum would at once be changed to adventus. Then how admirably 'mobilibus vepris inhorruit Ad ventum foliis' tallies with what goes before and what comes after.
Nisbet and Hubbard, in their commentary on these lines from Horace, are less enthusiastic about the conjecture:
vepris ('a thorn-bush') was conjectured for veris independently by Gogau, Salmasius, and Bentley; together with ad ventum this gives a reading that deserves serious consideration. For the combination of vepris with rubus cf. Plin. nat. 12.89 'densissimis in vepribus rubisque', Colum. 7.6.1 'nec rubos aversatur nec vepribus offenditur', Sen. Phaedr. 1103 'acutis asperi vepres rubis'. Yet vepres is normally listed among the semper pluralia, although admittedly veper was used by an Aemilius (anon. gramm. 5.592.20). Moreover, the diminutive veprecula suggests that the nominative singular should rather be vepres, and vepris is condemned by Prob. gramm. 4.198.16; cf., however, Prop. 4.10.44 for torquis (also condemned by some grammarians). In addition to these oddities of accidence (never desirable in a conjecture), a more general point may be made. We find references to the rustling of pines (Pl. anth. Pl. 13.1 f., Theoc. 1.1 f., anon. anth. Pl. 12.1 f.), cornfields (Virg. georg. 3.198 ff.), reeds (Ov. met. 1.707 f.), and the golden bough (Virg. Aen. 6.209). But though a thorn-bush does rustle in certain circumstances, it is not typically associated with rustling in the conventionally minded ancient poets (though it must be admitted that other rustling plants equally lack parallels).
For a spirited defense of the paradosis, see Robert Renehan, Classical Philology 83 (1988) 320-324.

It may be possible to identify at least one of the "persons of British taste, Victorian taste, and sub-Tennysonian taste" excoriated by Housman. I suggest Thomas Ethelbert Page (1850-1936), master at Charterhouse. In his school edition of Horace's Odes, Page commented on Ode 1.23.5-6:
Bentley and other editors object to these exquisite lines because, they say, when 'spring arrives' the trees are not yet in leaf.
(Emphasis added.) These are the very words criticized by Housman. In his school edition of Vergil, Page also quotes some of the "second-best parts of Tennyson," namely his ode To Virgil, that ends with the stanza:
I salute thee, Mantovano,
    I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
    ever moulded by the lips of man.
I haven't seen Niall Rudd, T.E. Page: Schoolmaster Extraordinary (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1981).

Of course, what Housman said about "the exquisite" could also be said about "the beautiful," namely:
What is the likelihood that your notions or your contemporaries' notions of the beautiful are those of a foreigner who wrote for foreigners two millenniums ago?
In an unguarded moment recorded by one of his students, Housman let his own notions of the beautiful and exquisite show:
One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.' This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said: 'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.' Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. 'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room. A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. 'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said. 'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'
Related post: Spring: Horace, Ode 4.7.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Excerpts from Letters of Charles Lamb

"When found, make a note of," Captain Cuttle was fond of saying, and I'm following his advice. Here are passages by which I've pencilled a tick in volume 1 of the Everyman edition of Charles Lamb's letters. In one or two places I've adopted E.V. Lucas' text instead.

To Coleridge (1796):
There are times when one is not in a disposition thoroughly to relish good writing.
To Coleridge (June 16, 1796):
In the words of Terence, a little altered, Taedet me hujus quotidiani mundi, I am heartily sick of the every-day scenes of life.
To Coleridge (Oct, 3, 1796):
I mention these things because I hate concealment, and love to give a faithful journal of what passes within me.
To Coleridge (Oct. 28, 1796):
Have you made it up with Southey yet? Surely one of you two must have been a very silly fellow, and the other not much better, to fall out like boarding-school misses. Kiss, shake hands, and make it up.
To Coleridge (Nov. 14, 1796):
But there is a monotony in the affections, which people living together or, as we do now, very frequently seeing each other, are apt to give in to: a sort of indifference in the expression of kindness for each other, which demands that we should sometimes call to our aid the trickery of surprise.
To Coleridge (Dec. 5, 1796):
I am glad you love Cowper. I could forgive a man for not enjoying Milton, but I would not call that man my friend, who should be offended with the "divine chit-chat of Cowper."
To Coleridge (Dec. 9, 1796; cf. such changes in Psalms):
There is a pensive state of recollection, in which the mind is disposed to apostrophise the departed objects of its attachment, and, breaking loose from grammatical precision, changes from the 1st to the 3rd, and from the 3rd to the 1st person, just as the random fancy or the feeling directs.
To Coleridge (Dec. 10, 1796):
I can only converse with you by letter and with the dead in their books.
To Coleridge (Jan 10, 1797):
I gain nothing by being with such as myself—we encourage one another in mediocrity—I am always longing to be with men more excellent than myself.
To Coleridge (Jan. 10, 1797):
Books are to me instead of friends.
To Coleridge (Feb. 5, 1797):
I grow dull; I'll go walk myself out of my dullness.
To Coleridge (Feb. 13, 1797):
'Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.
To Coleridge (April 7, 1797):
Do what you will, Coleridge, you may hurt me and vex me by your silence, but you cannot estrange my heart from you all. I cannot scatter friendships like chuck-farthings, nor let them drop from mine hand like hour-glass sand. I have two or three people in the world to whom I am more than indifferent, and I can't afford to whistle them off to the winds.
To Coleridge (June 24, 1797):
I am ashamed of what I write. But I have no topic to talk of. I see nobody, and sit, and read or walk, alone, and hear nothing. I am quite lost to conversation from disuse; and out of the sphere of my little family (who I am thankful are dearer and dearer to me every day), I see no face that brightens up at my approach.
To Coleridge (Jan. 28, 1798):
Any society almost, when I am in affliction, is sorely painful to me. I seem to breathe more freely, to think more collectedly, to feel more properly and calmly, when alone.
To Southey (July 28, 1798):
To Southey (March 15, 1799):
A moral should be wrought into the body and soul, the matter and tendency, of a poem, not tagged to the end, like a "God send the good ship into harbour," at the conclusion of our bills of lading.
To Southey (March 15, 1799):
These remarks, I know, are crude and unwrought; but I do not lay claim to much accurate thinking. I never judge system-wise of things, but fasten upon particulars.
To Manning (Feb. 13, 1800):
But you see it in one view, I in another. Rest you merry in your opinion! Opinion is a species of property; and though I am always desirous to share with my friend to a certain extent, I shall ever like to keep some tenets and some property properly my own.
To Manning (March 1, 1800):
Public affairs—except as they touch upon me, and so turn into private,—I cannot whip up my mind to feel any interest in....I cannot make these present times present to me.
To Coleridge (summer 1800):
You know I am homo unius linguae: in English—illiterate, a dunce, a ninny.
To Manning (Oct. 16, 1800):
I can employ myself in Cambridge very pleasantly in the mornings. Are there not libraries, halls, colleges, books, pictures, statues?
To Coleridge (Nov. 4, 1802):
If you find the Miltons in certain parts dirtied and soiled with a crumb of right Gloucester blacked in the candle (my usual supper), or peradventure a stray ash of tobacco wafted into the crevices, look to that passage more especially: depend upon it, it contains good matter.
To Manning (1803, of the Parisians):
Are the women all painted, and the men all monkeys?
To Manning (1803):
You are Frenchified. Both your tastes and morals are corrupt and perverted.
To Wordsworth (Oct. 13, 1804):
I am not plethorically abounding in cash at this present.
To Manning (Feb. 26, 1808):
Why, in general (here I suppose you to ask a question) my spirits are pretty good, but I have my depressions, black as a smith's beard, Vulcanic, Stygian.
To Manning (March 28, 1809):
What a dislocation of comfort is comprised in that word "moving"! Such a heap of little nasty things, after you think all is got into the cart: old dredging-boxes, worn-out brushes, gallipots, vials, things that it is impossible the most necessitous person can ever want, but which the women, who preside on these occasions, will not leave behind if it was to save your soul; they'd keep the cart ten minutes to stow in dirty pipes and broken matches, to show their economy. Then you can find nothing you want for many days after you get into your new lodgings. You must comb your hair with your fingers, wash your hands without soap, go about in dirty gaiters. Was I Diogenes, I would not move out of a kilderkin into a hogshead, though the first had had nothing but small beer in it, and the second reeked claret.
To Manning (Jan. 2, 1810):
I have made a little scale, supposing myself to receive the following various accessions of dignity from the king, who is the fountain of honour—As at first, 1, Mr. C. Lamb; 2, C. Lamb, Esq.; 3, Sir C. Lamb, Bart.; 4, Baron Lamb of Stamford; 5, Viscount Lamb; 6, Earl Lamb; 7, Marquis Lamb; 8, Duke Lamb. It would look like quibbling to carry it on further...I have sometimes in my dreams imagined myself still advancing, as 9th, King Lamb; 10th, Emperor Lamb; 11th, Pope Innocent, higher than which is nothing but the Lamb of God.
To Basil Montagu (July 12, 1810):
Travelling is not good for us—we travel so seldom. If the Sun be Hell, it is not for the fire, but for the sempiternal motion of that miserable Body of Light. How much more dignified leisure hath a mussel glued to his unpassable rocky limit, two inch square!
To William Godwin (n.d.):
I hate the pedantry of expressing that in another language which we have sufficient terms for in our own.
To Wordsworth (1815):
Confusion blast all mercantile transactions, all traffic, exchange of commodities, intercourse between nations, all the consequent civilization and wealth and amity and link of society, and getting rid of prejudices, and knowlege of the face of the globe; and rot the very firs of the forest that look so romantic alive, and die into desks.
To Wordsworth (Aug. 9, 1815):
What any man can write, surely I may read.
To Wordsworth (April 9, 1816):
Nature, who conducts every creature by instinct to its best end, has skilfully directed C. to take up his abode at a Chemist's Laboratory in Norfolk Street. She might as well have sent a Helluo Librorum for cure to the Vatican.
To Wordsworth (April 26, 1816):
Izaak Walton hallows any page in which his reverend name appears.
To the Kenneys (Oct. 1816):
Lord, what things you see that travel! I dare say the people are all French wherever you go. What an overwhelming effect that must have! I have stood one of 'em at a time, but two I generally found overpowering, I used to cut and run; but, then, in their own vineyards may be they are endurable enough.
To Mrs. Wordsworth (Feb. 18, 1818):
O the pleasure of eating alone!—eating my dinner alone! let me think of it....I am never C.L. but always C.L. and Co.
To Mrs. Wordsworth (Feb. 18, 1818):
I was deceived in the length to which Heads of offices, those true Liberty haters, can go. They are the tyrants, not Ferdinand, nor Nero—by a decree past this week, they have abridged us of the immemorially observed custom of going at one o'clock of a Saturday, the little shadow of a holiday left us. Blast them.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


In Leisure and Obscurity

John Norris (1657-1711), The Choice (after Seneca):
No, I shan't envy him who're he be
That stands upon the Battlements of State;
    Stand there who will for me,
    I'd rather be secure than great.
Of being so high the pleasure is but small,
But long the Ruin, if I chance to fall.

Let me in some sweet shade serenely lye,
Happy in leisure and obscurity;
    Whilst others place their joys
    In Popularity and noise.
Let my soft moments glide obscurely on
Like subterraneous streams, unheard, unknown.

Thus when my days are all in silence past,
A good plain Country-man I'll dye at last;
    Death cannot chuse but be
    To him a mighty misery,
Who to the World was popularly known,
And dies a Stranger to himself alone.
Seneca, Thyestes 391-403:
Stet quicumque volet potens
aulae culmine lubrico:
me dulcis saturet quies.
obscuro positus loco
leni perfruar otio,
nullis nota Quiritibus
aetas per tacitum fluat.
sic cum transierint mei
nullo cum strepitu dies,
plebeius moriar senex.
illi mors gravis incubat
qui, notus nimis omnibus,
ignotus moritur sibi.
Hat tip: Brandon Watson at Siris.

Related post: In Calm Leisure Let Me Rest.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Indefeasible Indolence

Charles Lamb, letter to William and Dorothy Wordworth (Sept. 28, 1805):
Hang work! I wish that all the year were holiday. I am sure that indolence—indefeasible indolence—is the true state of man, and business the invention of the old Teazer, whose interference doomed Adam to an apron and set him a hoeing. Pen and ink, and clerks and desks, were the refinements of this old torturer some thousand years after, under pretence of "Commerce allying distant shores, promoting and diffusing knowledge, good," &c. &c.
Related post: Darling Laziness.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Nought Doing, Saying Little, Thinking Less

In Charles Lamb's play John Woodvil, Margaret asks, "What sports do you use in the forest?" and Simon answers:
Not many; some few, as thus:—
To see the sun to bed, and to arise,
Like some hot amourist with glowing eyes,
Bursting the lazy bands of sleep that bound him,
With all his fires and travelling glories round him.
Sometimes the moon on soft night clouds to rest,
Like beauty nestling in a young man's breast,
And all the winking stars, her handmaids, keep
Admiring silence, while those lovers sleep.
Sometimes outstretcht, in very idleness,
Nought doing, saying little, thinking less,
To view the leaves, thin dancers upon air,
Go eddying round; and small birds, how they fare,
When mother Autumn fills their beaks with corn,
Filch'd from the careless Amalthea's horn;
And how the woods berries and worms provide
Without their pains, when earth has nought beside
To answer their small wants.
To view the graceful deer come tripping by,
Then stop, and gaze, then turn, they know not why,
Like bashful younkers in society.
To mark the structure of a plant or tree,
And all fair things of earth, how fair they be.
Lamb also quotes these lines in a letter to Southey (May 20, 1799).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Reading Greek

Virginia Woolf, On Not Knowing Greek, from The Common Reader:
For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?


For the most part the choruses, with all their obscurities, must be spelt out and their symmetry mauled. But we can guess that Sophocles used them not to express something outside the action of the play, but to sing the praises of some virtue, or the beauties of some place mentioned in it. He selects what he wishes to emphasize and sings of white Colonus and its nightingale, or of love unconquered in fight.


But again (the question comes back and back), Are we reading Greek as it was written when we say this? When we read these few words cut on a tombstone, a stanza in a chorus, the end or the opening of a dialogue of Plato's, a fragment of Sappho, when we bruise our minds upon some tremendous metaphor in the Agamemnon instead of stripping the branch of its flowers instantly as we do in reading Lear—are we not reading wrongly? losing our sharp sight in the haze of associations? reading into Greek poetry not what they have but what we lack? Does not the whole of Greece heap itself behind every line of its literature? They admit us to a vision of the earth unravaged, the sea unpolluted, the maturity, tried but unbroken, of mankind. Every word is reinforced by a vigour which pours out of olive-tree and temple and the bodies of the young. The nightingale has only to be named by Sophocles and she sings; the grove has only to be called ἄβατον, 'untrodden', and we imagine the twisted branches and the purple violets. Back and back we are drawn to steep ourselves in what, perhaps, is only an image of the reality, not the reality itself, a summer's day imagined in the heart of a northern winter. Chief among these sources of glamour and perhaps misunderstanding is the language. We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English. We cannot hear it, now dissonant, now harmonious, tossing sound from line to line across a page. We cannot pick up infallibly one by one all those minute signals by which a phrase is made to hint, to turn, to live. Nevertheless, it is the language that has us most in bondage; the desire for that which perpetually lures us back.
When Woolf says, "The nightingale has only to be named by Sophocles and she sings; the grove has only to be called ἄβατον, 'untrodden', and we imagine the twisted branches and the purple violets," she is probably referring to Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 668-680, a passage in which both the nightingale and the word ἄβατον (abaton) appear. But does ἄβατον really mean "untrodden" in this passage?

Jebb translates ἄβατον (line 675) not as untrodden, but as inviolate:
Stranger, in this land of goodly steeds thou hast come to earth's fairest home, even to our white Colonus; where the nightingale, constant guest, trills her clear note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the god's inviolate bowers, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by wind of any storm; where the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed him.

εὐίππου, ξένε, τᾶσδε χώρας
ἵκου τὰ κράτιστα γᾶς ἔπαυλα,
τὸν ἀργῆτα Κολωνόν, ἔνθ᾽
ἁ λίγεια μινύρεται
θαμίζουσα μάλιστ᾽ ἀηδὼν
χλωραῖς ὑπὸ βάσσαις,
τὸν οἰνωπὸν ἔχουσα κισσὸν
καὶ τὰν ἄβατον θεοῦ
φυλλάδα μυριόκαρπον ἀνήλιον
ἀνήνεμόν τε πάντων
χειμώνων· ἵν᾽ ὁ βακχιώτας
ἀεὶ Διόνυσος ἐμβατεύει
θεαῖς ἀμφιπολῶν τιθήναις.
Similarly, Hugh Lloyd-Jones in his Loeb Classical Library translation renders ἄβατον as inviolable:
In this country of fine horses, stranger, you have come to the choicest rural dwellings, to white Colonus, where the melodious nightingale most likes to stay and sing her song among the inviolable leafage of the goddess, rich in fruit, never vexed by the sun or by the wind of many winters, where the reveller Dionysus ever treads the ground, in company with his divine nurses.
In Liddell-Scott-Jones, the primary meaning of ἄβατος is "untrodden," but a secondary meaning is "of holy places, not to be trodden," which corresponds to the "inviolate" and "inviolable" of Jebb and Lloyd-Jones. A pedant might also point out that Dionysus and his nymphs tread on (ἐμβατεύει) the holy ground, so it is not "untrodden" by everyone, just "not to be trodden" by mortals.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Dear Friends

Edwin Arlington Robinson, Dear Friends:
Dear friends, reproach me not for what I do,
Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say
That I am wearing half my life away
For bubble-work that only fools pursue.
And if my bubbles be too small for you,
Blow bigger then your own: the games we play
To fill the frittered minutes of a day,
Good glasses are to read the spirit through.

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;
And some unprofitable scorn resign,
To praise the very thing that he deplores;
So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,
The shame I win for singing is all mine,
The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.
13 singing Robinson, blogging Gilleland


The Much Maligned Passive Voice

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946):
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Many teachers and self-proclaimed authorities cling to this prohibition against the passive voice like Queequeg to his idol Yojo. I am curious to learn when the prohibition first arose.

I've been reading some of Samuel Johnson's essays from the Rambler and observing how he used the passive voice. I suspect, although in the absence of statistics I can't prove, that Johnson and other great English prose stylists alternated on purpose between the active and passive voices for the sake of variety. See, for example, the first sentence of Rambler 186 (Dec. 28, 1751):
Of the happiness and misery of our present state, part arises from our sensations, and part from our opinions; part is distributed by nature, and part is in a great measure apportioned by ourselves.
Related post: Tense and Voice.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Housecleaning of the Mind

Charles Burchfield, Journal (Feb. 22, 1912):
Everyone is complaining about it. "Is it cold enough for you?" (most common); "This is the worst yet"; "I hoped we wouldn't have any more of it"; "Hope it don't last long"; etc. are among the common deprecatory remarks. I love it; I love a blizzard more than a calm winter day. I love nature in her wildest mood. A blizzard, a windy day, a thunderstorm—all of them I love. To experience any one of them is a veritable housecleaning of the mind; some of the dash and spirit of the wind enters into us; on such days we could conquer the world if necessary. Perhaps a calm quiet day has the same effect on someone else. For me, let me have a wild ragged sky, an icy wind, and some snow, and I am content.

What I would not give to be out in the woods on days like this! The roaring of the wind through some dense copse would be the most enjoyable thing imaginable.

Sunday, January 11, 2009



Asyndeton is "The omission of conjunctions from constructions in which they would normally be used" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language). A famous example is Caesar's Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered," instead of "I came and I saw and I conquered," or "I came, I saw, and I conquered"). Caesar omits conjunctions (Latin et or atque, meaning "and").

The Greek rhetorician Demetrius, On Style 192-194 (tr. Doreen C. Innes), comments on the disjointed, dramatic effect of asyndeton:
(192) First, it [clarity] involves the use of normal words, secondly the use of connectives. Sentences which are unconnected and disjointed throughout are always unclear. For the beginning of each clause is obscured by the lack of connectives, as in the prose of Heraclitus, for it is mostly this lack which makes it darkly obscure. (193) The disjointed style is perhaps better for immediacy, and that same style is also called the actor's style since the asyndeton stimulates dramatic delivery, while the written style is easy to read, and this is the style which is linked closely together and, as it were, safely secured by connectives. This is why Menander, who mostly omits connectives, is acted, while Philemon is read. (194) To show that asyndeton suits an actor's delivery, let this be an example: "I conceived, I gave birth, I nurse, my dear." In this disjointed form the words will force anyone to be dramatic, however reluctantly—and the cause is the asyndeton. If you link it together to say, "I conceived and I gave birth and I nurse," you will by using the connectives substantially lower the emotional level, and anything emotional is always undramatic.
Asyndeton also creates the effect of speed, according to other Greek rhetoricians, e.g. Hermogenes, Types of Style 2.1 (tr. Cecil W. Wooten):
Now we shall deal with those figures that are necessarily concise and rapid. The following are of this kind. First of all there is asyndeton, or lack of connectives, used in conjunction with short phrases or words: "He came to the council, a degree was proposed" (24.11) or "Amphipolis, Potidaea, Methone, Pagasae" (1.9).
Hermogenes' examples are from the speeches of Demosthenes. See also Apsines of Gadara, Art of Rhetoric 3.26 (tr. George A. Kennedy):
Some, as I say, are encomiastic and they give a detailed account of good works; these, then, are rather stately and panegyrical but there is in them something tiresome. This then should be counteracted either by apology in advance or by showing that the account is necessary while claiming to leave out much or by introducing many points as confutation (of what an opponent claims), or (by listing items) without connecting particles; for this figure creates an impression of swiftness or at least of moving on.
Among Latin rhetoricians Quintilian 9.3.50 (tr. H.E. Butler) discusses asyndeton:
But both the last example and the last but one involve a different figure as well, which, owing to the absence of connecting particles, is called dissolution (asyndeton), and is useful when we are speaking with special vigour [instantius]: for it at once impresses the details on the mind and makes them seem more numerous than they really are. Consequently, we apply this figure not merely to single words, but to whole sentences, as, for instance, is done by Cicero in his reply to the speech which Metellus made to the public assembly: "I ordered those against whom information was laid, to be summoned, guarded, brought before the senate: they were led into the senate," while the rest of the passage is constructed on similar lines. This kind of figure is also called brachylogy, which may be regarded as detachment without loss of connexion. The opposite of this figure of asyndeton is polysyndeton, which is characterised by the number of connecting particles employed.
as does the author of Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.30.41 (tr. Harry Caplan):
Asyndeton is a presentation in separate parts, conjunctions being suppressed, as follows: "Indulge your father, obey your relatives, gratify your friends, submit to the laws." Again: "Enter into a complete defence, make no objection, give your slaves to be examined, be eager to find the truth." The figure has animation and great force, and is suited to concision.
The word asyndeton is derived from the Greek adjective ἀσύνδετος (asyndetos), defined by Liddell-Scott-Jones as "I. unconnected, loose" and "II. of language, without conjunctions." The Greek adjective asyndetos is one of a large class of words with an "alpha privative" prefix (a-), which negates the rest of the word following the prefix. In Latin, the prefix in- often has the same function, as do the prefixes a-, non-, un-, and the suffix -less in English.

For some time I have been collecting examples of asyndeton in which juxtaposed adjectives are themselves privative, e.g. Recently Hans van der Hoeven (via email) suggested some additions to my list of asyndetic, privative adjectives. One of his suggestions was Seneca, Phoenissae 223 (tr. John G. Fitch):
nefandus incestificus execrabilis (evil, incestuous, accursed)
If we leave out execrabilis, the pair nefandus incestificus is a series of asyndetic, privative adjectives, despite the different prefixes ne- and in-. Nefandus is literally "unmentionable" (from ne plus fari), hence "heinous, abominable," and incestificus is literally "making unchaste" (from in, castus, and facere).

Friedrich Ritschl, Opuscula Philologica, vol. 4 (Ad Epigraphicam et Grammaticam Spectantia) (Leipzig: Teubner, 1878), p. 285, lists some examples of adjectives in ne- with their counterparts in in-, such as nefandus and infandus; nesciens and insciens; nescius and inscius; nesapius and insipiens, insipiens; necopinus and inopinus. See also E. Barrault, Traité des synonymes de la langue latine (Paris: Hachette, 1853) pp. 247-249 (Synonymes à radicaux identiques: In et ne).

Similar examples in English involving different prefixes are John Milton, Samson Agonistes 1424:
dishonorable, impure, unworthy
and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Octaves II.4:
disqualified, unsatisfied, inert.
Some bibliographical references on asyndeton for my own use:

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Thoreau and the Pyramids

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, chapter 1 (Economy):
As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs. I might possibly invent some excuse for them and him, but I have no time for it.
Walter Harding, The Variorum Walden (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963), p. 270, n. 161, on this passage:
Emerson in his Journals for August 18, 1852 (VIII, 320), attributes a very similar opinion of the worth of the pyramids to Horatio Greenough. But Greenough apparently made his statement that month, whereas Thoreau's is recorded in his own Journal for April 21, 1852 (III, 454).
Here is Emerson's record of Greenough's remark:
In the old Egyptian, and in the middle age architecture, he sees only "cost to the constituency," prodigious toil of prostrate humanity.
Pace Harding, this doesn't seem to me to be "very similar" to the passage from Walden. There is a greater similarity between Thoreau's criticism of the pyramids and some observations of Dominique Vivant-Denon, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte pendant les campagnes du général Bonaparte (1802), p. 97 (tr. Arthur Aitkin):
In reflecting on the object of the construction of the pyramids, the gigantic pride which gave them birth appears more enormous even than their physical dimensions; and one hardly knows which is the most astonishing, the madness of tyrannical oppression, which dared to order the undertaking, or the stupid servility of obedience in the people who submitted to the labour.

Si l'on considere l'objet de la construction des pyramides, la masse d'orgueil qui les a fait entreprendre paroît excéder celle de leur dimension physique; et de ce moment l'on ne sait ce qui doit le plus étonner de la démence tyrannique qui a osé en commander l'exécution, ou de la stupide obéissance du peuple qui a bien voulu prêter ses bras à de pareilles constructions.
Aitkin's translation of this passage from Denon also appeared in an article on the pyramids in The American Penny Magazine and Family Newspaper II.22 (July 5, 1846), pp. 337-339 (at 339). In a letter to Ellen Emerson (July 31, 1849), Thoreau mentions reading the Penny Magazine. Ralph Waldo Emerson mentions Denon in his essays The Conduct of Life and The Man of Letters.

Finally, here is the passage from Thoreau's Journal (April 21, 1852):
We have heard enough nonsense about the Pyramids. If Congress should vote to rear such structures on the prairies to-day, I should not think it worth the while, nor be interested in the enterprise. It was the foolish undertaking of some tyrant. "But," says my neighbor, "when they were built, all men believed in them and were inspired to build them." Nonsense! nonsense! I believe that they were built essentially in the same spirit in which the public works of Egypt, of England, and America are built to-day — the Mahmoudi Canal, the Tubular Bridge, Thames Tunnel, and the Washington Monument. The inspiring motive in the actual builders of these works is garlic, or beef, or potatoes. For meat and drink and the necessaries of life men can be hired to do many things. "Ah," says my neighbor, "but the stones are fitted with such nice joints!" But the joints were nicer yet before they were disjointed in the quarry. Men are wont to speak as if it were a noble work to build a pyramid — to set, forsooth, a hundred thousand Irishmen at work at fifty cents a day to piling stone. As if the good joints could ennoble it, if a noble motive was wanting! To ramble round the world to see that pile of stones which ambitious Mr. Cheops, an Egyptian booby, like some Lord Timothy Dexter, caused a hundred thousand poor devils to pile up for low wages, which contained for all treasure the thigh-bone of a cow. The tower of Babel has been a good deal laughed at. It was just as sensible an undertaking as the Pyramids, which, because they were completed and have stood to this day, are admired.

Thursday, January 08, 2009



I subscribe to OED Online Word of the Day. Yesterday's word was Maliseet, meaning "A member of a North American Indian people of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine." The etymology is interesting:
< French Malécite (1722; 1692 in form Marisizis) and its etymon Micmac mali:sit, lit. 'one who speaks poorly or incomprehensibly'
Disparaging terms for foreigners in some other languages also reflect their unintelligible speech. The best-known example is Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros), about which John Heath, The Talking Greeks: Speech, Animals, and the Other in Homer, Aeschylus, and Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 199, says:
The word barbaros, we perhaps do not need to be reminded, originally described the incomprehensible speech of any foreign tongue. It is an adjective, a "reduplicative onomatopoeia" that captures how an exotic language sounds. A modern American creation would be something like "blah-blah-ous."
Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, compares Sanskrit barbara- (stammering), Sumerian barbar (foreigner), and Babylonian-Semitic barbaru (enemy).

For another example, see L.A. Waddell, quoted in The Gazetteer of Sikhim (Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1894), p. 39:
As the term 'Lapcha' is of Nepalese origin, and the Parbatiya dialect of the Nepalese consists mainly of pure Sanskrit roots, the word 'Lapcha' may perhaps be derived from 'lap,' speech, and 'cha,' vile = the vile speakers—a contemptuous term with reference to their non-adoption of the Parbatiya language like the rest of the 'Nepalese' tribes.
See also Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. gringo:
1849, from Mex.Sp. gringo, contemptuous word for "foreigner," from Sp. gringo "foreign, unintelligible talk, gibberish," perhaps ult. from griego "Greek." The "Diccionario Castellano" (1787) says gringo was used in Malaga for "anyone who spoke Spanish badly," and in Madrid for "the Irish."
I recently read a humorous anecdote about the Maliseet in Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), p. 103 (discussing the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine):
The first person to chart this group of small islands, in 1524, was the same man who discovered the bays off the island of Manhattan—the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano. In Maine, Verrazano's landing party had been repelled by Native Americans wielding bows and arrows. In fury Verrazano had scrawled the name "Land of Bad People" across his map. When he left, the natives celebrated his eviction from their land—according to Verrazano's log—"by exhibiting bare buttocks and laughing."
See Verrazano's letter to Francis I (.pdf file), where Verrazano's "marginal notes are italicized and bracketed within the text":
The people were quite different from the others, for while the previous ones had been courteous in manner, these were full of crudity and vices, and were so barbarous that we could never make any communication with them, however many signs we made to them. They were clothed in skins of bear, lynx, sea-wolf and other animals. As far as we could judge from several visits to their houses, we think they live on game, fish, and several fruits which are a species of root which the earth produces itself. They have no pulse, and we saw no sign of cultivation, nor would the land be suitable for producing any fruit or grain on account of its sterility. If we wanted to trade with them for some of their things, they would come to the seashore on some rocks where the breakers were most violent, while we remained in the little boat, and they sent us what they wanted to give on a rope, continually shouting to us not to approach the land; they gave us the barter quickly, and would take in exchange only knives, hooks for fishing, and sharp metal. We found no courtesy in them, and when we had nothing more to exchange and left them, the men made all the signs of scorn and shame that any brute creature would make [such as showing their buttocks and laughing].
I believe the translation is by Susan Tarrow, in Lawrence C. Wroth, ed., The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), although I have not seen Wroth's book.

Related posts:

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Fortune Tellers

Cicero, On Divination 2.24.51-52 (tr. W.A. Falconer):
But indeed, that was quite a clever remark which Cato made many years ago: "I wonder," said he, "that a soothsayer doesn't laugh when he sees another soothsayer." For how many things predicted by them really come true?

vetus autem illud Catonis admodum scitum est, qui mirari se aiebat quod non rideret haruspex haruspicem cum vidisset. quota enim quaeque res evenit praedicta ab istis?
Some books by the modern equivalents of ancient soothsayers:Dow Jones Industrial Average, January 6, 2009: 9,015.10.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Taking Affliction In

Richard Wilbur, Orchard Trees, January:
It's not the case, though some might wish it so
Who from a window watch the blizzard blow

White riot through their branches vague and stark,
That they keep snug beneath their pelted bark.

They take affliction in until it jells
To crystal ice between their frozen cells,

And each of them is inwardly a vault
Of jewels rigorous and free of fault,

Unglimpsed until in May it gently bears
A sudden crop of green-pronged solitaires.
Ansel Adams, Snow in Apple Orchard, Yosemite, California

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Enjoying Isolation

Lu Yün, The Valley Wind (tr. Arthur Waley):
Living in retirement beyond the World,
Silently enjoying isolation,
I pull the rope of my door tighter
And stuff my window with roots and ferns.
My spirit is tuned to the Spring-season:
At the fall of the year there is autumn in my heart,
Thus imitating cosmic changes
My cottage becomes a Universe.
Jasper Francis Cropsey, Cabin on Greenwood Lake

Saturday, January 03, 2009


Words, Words, Words

An email from David Norton, commenting on a reviewer's disapproval of dolorifuge and other such words in Hardy:
A few words—with which I guess you will sympathize—in defense of Hardy.

a) Who supposes Tess to be set in Arcadia?

b) At least four of the words deprecated continue current in their scientific applications 107 years after the novel was published.

c) Hardy chose his words with care. Robert Graves, in "The Poet in a Valley of Dry Bones", relates an anecdote that I have always enjoyed: "The exact right word is sometimes missing from the dictionary. Thomas Hardy told me, in 1924 or so, that he now made it his practice to confirm doubtful words and that, a few days before, when looking up one such in the OED, he had found it, to be sure. But the only reference was 'Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, 1874.'"

An email from Eric Thomson:
Your post this morning has provided the first auto-antonym of 2009 (obscured a little by Kathryn Lindskoog's edited text, and by the fact that 'nor' unhelpfully means 'than') .'Dout' in Scots often has the meaning 'suspect that x is true', as here in George MacDonald's 'doobts', rather than 'suspect that x is false'.

I'm puzzled by Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans on 'avocation'. What about the first line of Bartleby, or is this Melville engaged in un-American activities?

Old trunks ... 'doomed to ... greater girth/ And this is all their wisdom and their art/ To grow, stretch, crack, and not come apart'. Too true, particularly at this time of year.

Apropos morsels of fish smothered with sauce, I share your preference for a thin ribbon of text on the page atop mighty twin towers of commentary, the text almost as pretext.

Kenneth Haynes, English Literature and Ancient Languages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; rpt. 2007), p. 51:
Phonetic proximity to taboo words is a recurrent anxiety in languages, although the particular taboos, and their intensity, keep changing. For centuries, this has brought about linguistic innovations in English: earl rather than count; donkey rather than ass; rooster rather than cock.
Geoffrey Hughes, A History of English Words (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 48:
Even more interesting historically are the substitute terms which have no obvious relationship with the taboo word. For example, donkey, which one would expect to be a common word found in the earliest stages of the language, is actually recorded only in 1785. The traditional synonym, ass, had been in the language since Celtic times, and was the natural word in Scripture, proverb and folklore. However, in the eighteenth century the word started to fall into disrepute through an uncomfortable proximity to arse, so that the lexicographer Francis Grose observed that 'a lady who affected to be extremely polite and modest would not say ass because it was indecent.' Thus donkey, a dialect word, moved into the lexical gap....A similar syndrome is apparent in American English, where cock has traditionally been replaced by euphemisms and substitutions: hence rooster for the farmyard fowl, faucet for cock in the sense of 'tap', and the emasculated form roach for cockroach. (By contrast, in British English cock has never been a taboo term and is found in dozens of compounds, notably cock-horse.)
A comparison of two Bible translations (International Standard Version versus King James Version) illustrates how donkey and rooster have supplanted ass and cock.
John 12.14 (International Standard Version): Then Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it.

John 12.14 (King James Version): And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon.

Matthew 26.34 (International Standard Version): Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny me three times."

Matthew 26.34 (King James Version): Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. pissing, defines pissing contest as "a competition to see who can urinate the furthest or highest; (in extended use) any contest which is futile or purposeless, esp. one pursued in a conspicuously aggressive manner," with the first citation from 1943 Study & Investig. of Federal Communications Comm. (Hearings before U.S. House Select Comm. to Investigate F.C.C.) I. 691:
'You boys have to understand..that I have to deal with a combination like that of Hartley-David; it is like having a pissing contest with a skunk'. I felt rather shocked at that. Of course, I felt that the expression was very rude.
The OED's first citation of pissing match is 1971 Washington Post 7 Dec. A12/6:
One Western diplomat,..discounting the significance of the Sino-Soviet arguments..described it as 'a pissing match, and I'm glad not to be caught in the crossfire'.
See Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), chapter 13, where he describes a literal pissing match:
The American lobster urinates not from some posterior region of its body, but directly out the front of its face. Two bladders inside the head hold copious amounts of urine, which the lobster squirts through a pair of muscular nozzles beneath its antennae. These powerful streams mix with the gill outflow and are carried some five feet ahead of the lobster in its plume....What the researchers discovered during the ensuing fights was that dueling lobsters accompanied their most punishing blows during combat by intense squirts of piss at the opponent's face. What was more, in scenes akin to a showdown at the OK Corral, the winner of the physical combat almost always turned out to be the lobster that had urinated first. And well after the fight was over, the winner kept pissing. By contrast, the loser shuts off his urine valves immediately.

Friday, January 02, 2009


It Canna Be Laitin

George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie, chapter XXX (The Lorrie Meadow):
"There he is!" cried Nicie.

"I see him," responded Ginny, "—with his cows all about the meadow."

Donal sat a little way from the river, reading.

"He's aye at 's buik!" said Nicie.

"I wonder what book it is," said Ginny.

"That wad be ill to say," answered Nicie. "Donal reads a hantle o' buiks—mair, his mither says, nor she doobts he can weel get the guid o'."

"Do you think it's Latin, Nicie?"

"Ow! I daursay. But no; it canna be Laitin—for, leuk! he's lauchin', an' he cudna dee that gien 'twar Laitin."
If you can't understand Nicie, here's the passage as "edited and abridged by Kathryn Lindskoog" for the Young Reader's Library:
"There he is!" cried Nicie.

"I see him," responded Ginny, "—with his cows all about the meadow. I wonder what he is reading."

"That would be hard to say," answered Nicie. "Donal reads so many books that Mother doubts he can well get the good of them."

"Do you think it's Latin, Nicie?"

"Oh, very likely. But no, it can't be Latin—for look! He's laughing, and he couldn't laugh if he were reading Latin."

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Black Birch Bark

Richard Wilbur, A Black Birch in Winter:
You might not know this old tree by its bark,
Which once was striate, smooth, and glossy-dark,
So deep now are the rifts which separate
Its roughened surface into flake and plate.

Fancy might less remind you of a birch
Than of mosaic columns in a church
Like Ara Coeli or the Lateran,
Or the trenched features of an agèd man.

Still, do not be too much persuaded by
These knotty furrows and these tesserae
To think of patterns made from outside-in
Or finished wisdom in a shriveled skin.

Old trees are doomed to annual rebirth,
New wood, new life, new compass, greater girth,
And this is all their wisdom and their art—
To grow, stretch, crack, and not yet come apart.
The scientific name of black birch is Betula lenta; other common names are cherry birch and sweet birch. Charles Fergus, Trees of New England: A Natural History (Guilford: Globe Pequot Press, 2005), pp. 51-52, describes the bark:
The bark of sweet birch is dark brown to purplish black, smooth and shiny when young and becoming rough and plated with age; it does not peel off in papery layers like the bark of other birches, although sometimes thick flanges of it stand off from the trunk.
On p. 53 of Fergus' book there are excellent drawings by Amelia Hansen of the young and old bark of Betula lenta.

See also Forest Trees of Maine, 14th ed. (Maine Forest Service, 2008), p. 94:
The bark on the trunk of old trees is dark to almost black, and separates into large, thick, irregular plates. On young trees and branches, it is smooth, shiny, dark brown tinged with red, aromatic, and has a very pronounced wintergreen flavor.

Betula lenta, with smooth bark
(c) 2004 Steve Baskauf

Betula lenta, with furrowed bark
(c) 2004 Steve Baskauf

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