Monday, April 30, 2012


The Only Real Elysium

Henry David Thoreau, Journals (October 18, 1856):
I feel that my life is very homely, my pleasures very cheap. Joy and sorrow, success and failure, grandeur and meanness, and indeed most words in the English language do not mean for me what they do for my neighbors. I see that my neighbors look with compassion on me, that they think it is a mean and unfortunate destiny which makes me to walk in these fields and woods so much and sail on this river alone. But as long as I find here the only real elysium, I cannot hesitate in my choice.


Old Age

John Milton (1608-1674), Paradise Lost 11.538-546:
This is old age; but then thou must outlive
Thy youth, thy strength, thy beauty, which will change
To withered weak and gray; thy senses then
Obtuse, all taste of pleasure must forego,
To what thou hast, and for the air of youth
Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign
A melancholy damp of cold and dry
To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume
The balm of life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Journals (Spring? 1864):
Old age brings along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it—which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums as we are. To be out of the war, out of debt, out of the drouth, out of the blues, out of the dentist's hands, out of the second thoughts, mortifications & remorses that inflict such twinges & shooting pains, out of the next winter, & the high prices, & company below your ambition, surely these are soothing hints. And, harbinger of this, what an alleviator is sleep, which muzzles all these dogs for me every day! Old Age. 'Tis proposed to call an indignation meeting.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


The Romance of the Sower

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), chapter XXIV:
It was the new-fashioned agricultural implement called a horse-drill, till then unknown, in its modern shape, in this part of the country, where the venerable seed-lip was still used for sowing as in the days of the Heptarchy.
"We are looking at the wonderful new drill," Miss Templeman said. "But practically it is a stupid thing—is it not?" she added, on the strength of Henchard’s information.
"Stupid? O no!" said Farfrae gravely. "It will revolutionize sowing heerabout! No more sowers flinging their seed about broadcast, so that some falls by the wayside and some among thorns, and all that. Each grain will go straight to its intended place, and nowhere else whatever!"
"Then the romance of the sower is gone for good," observed Elizabeth-Jane, who felt herself at one with Farfrae in Bible-reading at least. "'He that observeth the wind shall not sow,' so the Preacher said; but his words will not be to the point any more. How things change!"
"Ay; ay....It must be so!" Donald admitted, his gaze fixing itself on a blank point far away. "But the machines are already very common in the East and North of England," he added apologetically.
Yet the romance of the sower did not entirely die out, at least in some remote spots. See Edwin Muir (1887-1959), An Autobiography (London: Hogarth Press, 1954), p. 31:
Another stage in the spring was the sowing. About that time of the year the world opened, the sky grew higher, the sea deeper, as the summer colours, blue and green and purple, woke in it. The black fields glistened, and a row of meal-coloured sacks, bursting full like the haunches of plough-horses, ran down each one; two neat little lugs, like pricked ears, stuck up from each sack. They were opened; my father filled from the first of them a canvas tray strapped round his middle, and strode along the field casting the dusty grain on either side with regular sweeps, his hands opening and shutting. When the grain was finished he stopped at another sack and went on again. I would sit watching him, my eyes caught now and then by some ship passing so slowly against the black hills that it seemed to be stationary, though when my attention returned to it again I saw with wonder that it had moved. The sun shone, the black field glittered, my father strode on, his arms slowly swinging, the fan-shaped cast of grain gleamed as it fell and fell again; the row of meal-coloured sacks stood like squat monuments on the field. My father took a special delight in the sowing, and we all felt the first day was a special day.
Hat tip: Karl Maurer.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


I Shan't Bow

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (February 11, 1838):
He [Thoreau] told as we walked this afternoon a good story about a boy who went to school with him, Wentworth, who resisted the school mistress' command that the children should bow to Dr Heywood & other gentlemen as they went by, and when Dr Heywood stood waiting & cleared his throat with a Hem! Wentworth said, "You need not hem, Doctor; I shan't bow."


Language Learning

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (May 30, 1834):
Languages as discipline, much reading as an additional atmosphere or two, to gird the loins & make the muscles more tense. It seems time lost for a grown man to be turning the leaves of a dictionary, like a boy, to learn German, but I believe he will gain tension & creative power by so doing. Good books have always a prolific atmosphere about them & brood upon the spirit.
Id. (December 9?, 1834):
There is great delight in learning a new language. When the day comes in the scholar’s progress unawares when he reads pages without recurrence to his dictionary, he shuts up his book with that sort of fearful delight with which the bridegroom sits down in his own house with the bride, saying, 'I shall now live with you always.'

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Idly I Read

Tao Yuan-Ming (372?-427), Reading the Book of Strange Places and Seas (tr. Yang Yeh-tzu):
In early summer the woods and herbs are thriving,
Around my cottage thick sway the branches and shades.
The numerous birds delight in their sanctuaries,
And I too love my cottage.
After I have planted and sown,
Then I return to read my books.
The narrow lane which has no deep ruts
Has often turned back an old friend's coach.
Joyfully I pour my spring wine,
And pluck the lettuce growing in my garden.
A fine rain comes from the east
And a sweet wind follows it.
Idly I read the legends of King Chou
And glance at the map of the strange places.
In a moment I am flying through the universe.
How could such a man ever be unhappy?


A Simple Saying

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, II.1, §301 (tr. R.J. Hollingdale):
The party man.— The genuine party man no longer learns, he only experiences things and judges them: whereas Solon, who was never a party man but pursued his aims beside and above the parties or in opposition to them, is significantly the father of that simple saying in which there lies enclosed the health and inexhaustibility of Athens: 'I grow old and still I go on learning.'
Der Parteimann.— Der echte Parteimann lernt nicht mehr, er erfährt und richtet nur noch: während Solon, der nie Parteimann war, sondern neben und über den Parteien oder gegen sie sein Ziel verfolgte, bezeichnenderweise der Vater jenes schlichten Wortes ist, in welchem die Gesundheit und Unausschöpflichkeit Athens beschlossen liegt: "alt werd' ich und immer lern' ich fort."
Solon, fragment 18:
γηράσκω δ' αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Stability and Mobility

Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection (41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, 2012):
My grandfather, on the contrary, and despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.
He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. 
Related posts:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


The Human Race

W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer's Notebook (1949; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 2009), pp. 32-33:
If the actions and ideas of men had any importance whatever, there would be no excuse for the human race. Men are mean, petty, muddle-headed, ignoble, bestial from their cradles to their death-beds; ignorant, slaves now of one superstition, now of another, and illiberal; selfish and cruel.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Crassus Agelastus

M. Licinius Crassus, praetor in 126 or 127 BC, was nicknamed Agelastus (Ἀγέλαστος = not laughing). Here are some testimonia.

Cicero, About the Ends of Goods and Evils 5.30.92 (tr. H. Rackham):
We say that a man is a cheerful fellow; but if he is once in rather low spirits, has he therefore lost his title to cheerfulness for ever? Well, the rule was not applied to Marcus Crassus, who according to Lucilius [fragment 1299 Marx] laughed but once in his life; that one exception did not prevent his being called agelastos as Lucilius has it.
dicimus aliquem hilare vivere; ergo, si semel tristior effectus est, hilara vita amissa est? at hoc in eo M. Crasso, quem semel ait in vita risisse Lucilius, non contigit, ut ea re minus ἀγέλαστος, ut ait idem, vocaretur.
Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 3.15.31 (discussing Socrates, tr. J.E. King):
And his was in no way the severe brow of our old M. Crassus, who, according to Lucilius, laughed but once in the whole course of his life, but a calm and sunny look.
nec vero ea frons erat, quae M. Crassi illius veteris, quem semel ait in omni vita risisse Lucilius, sed tranquilla et serena.
Pliny, Natural History 7.19.79 (tr. H. Rackham):
It is stated that Crassus the grandfather of Crassus who fell in Parthia never laughed, and was consequently called Agelastus.
ferunt Crassum, avum Crassi in Parthis interempti, numquam risisse, ob id Agelastum vocatum.
Fronto, On Eloquence 3.6 (tr. C.R. Haines):
As in old days a morose Crassus hated laughter, as in our time a Crassus hid from the daylight...
ut olim Crassus tristis risum oderat, ut nostra hic memoria Crassus lucem fugitabat...
Tertullian, On the Soul 52.3 (tr. Peter Holmes):
For although a man may breathe his last for joy, like the Spartan Chilon, while embracing his son who had just conquered in the Olympic games; or for glory, like the Athenian Clidemus, while receiving a crown of gold for the excellence of his historical writings; or in a dream, like Plato; or in a fit of laughter, like Publius [sic] Crassus,—yet death is much too violent, coming as it does upon us by strange and alien means, expelling the soul by a method all its own, calling on us to die at a moment when one might live a jocund life in joy and honour, in peace and pleasure.
nam etsi prae gaudio quis spiritum exhalet, ut Chilon Spartanus, dum victorem Olympiae filium amplectitur, etsi prae gloria, ut Clidemus Atheniensis, dum ob historici stili praestantiam auro coronatur, etsi per somnium, ut Plato, etsi per risum, ut P. Crassus, multo violentior mors quae per aliena grassatur, quae animam per commoda expellit, quae tunc mori affert, cum iucundius vivere est in exultatione in honore in requie in voluptate.
Ammianus Marcellinus (330-391) 26.9.11 (tr. J.C. Rolfe):
Procopius departed this life at the age of forty years and ten months. Personally he was a tall man and not bad looking; he was somewhat dark complexioned, and walked with his gaze always fixed on the ground. In his secretive and gloomy nature he was like that Crassus who, as Lucilius and Cicero declare, laughed only once in his life; but the surprising thing is, that throughout all his life he was not stained with bloodshed.
excessit autem vita Procopius anno quadragesimo, amplius mensibus decem: corpore non indecoro nec mediocris staturae, subcurvus humumque intuendo semper incedens, perque morum tristium latebras illius similis Crassi, quem in vita semel risisse Lucilius adfirmat et Tullius, sed, quod est mirandum, quoad vixerat, incruentus.
St. Jerome, Against Rufinus 1.30 (tr. W.H. Fremantle):
I shall make you laugh though you are a man of such extreme gravity; and you will have at last to do as Crassus did, who, Lucilius tells us, laughed but once in his life, if I recount the memories of my childhood: how I ran about among the offices where the slaves worked; how I spent the holidays in play; or how I had to be dragged like a captive from my grandmother's lap to the lessons of my enraged Orbilius.
ego certe, ut homini severissimo risum moveam, ut imiteris aliquando Crassum , quem semel in vita risisse scribit Lucilius, memini me puerum cursitasse per cellulas servulorum, diem feriatum duxisse lusibus, et ad Orbilium saevientem de aviae sinu tractum esse captivum.
St. Jerome, Letters 7.5 (to Chromatius, tr. W.H. Fremantle):
Moreover, to use a well-worn proverb, the dish has a cover worthy of it; for Lupicinus is their priest. Like lips like lettuce, as the saying goes—the only one, as Lucilius tells us, at which Crassus ever laughed—the reference being to a donkey eating thistles.
accessit huic patellae iuxta tritum populi sermone proverbium dignum operculum, Lupicinus sacerdos—secundum illud quoque, de quo semel in vita Crassum ait risisse Lucilius: "similem habent labra lactucam asino carduos comedente."
[St. Jerome], Letters 130.13.2 (to Demetrias, tr. W.H. Fremantle):
Leave to worldlings the privileges of laughing and being laughed at. One who is in your position ought to be serious. Cato the Censor, in old time a leading man in your city, (the same who in his last days turned his attention to Greek literature without either blushing for himself as censor or despairing of success on account of his age) is said by Lucilius to have laughed only once in his life, and the same remark is made about Marcus Crassus.
ridere, et rideri, saecularibus derelinque. gravitas tuam personam decet. Catonem quoque (illum dico Censorium) et vestrae quondam urbis principem, qui extrema aetate graecas litteras, nec erubuit censor, nec desperavit senex discere: et M. Crassum semel in vita scribit risisse Lucilius.
Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems 24.12-13 (tr. W.B. Anderson; Crassus is not named here but is probably meant):
For even the man who, they say, laughed only once in his life was not as critical as he.
tam censorius haud fuit vel ille
quem risisse semel ferunt in aevo.
Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.1.6 (tr. Robert A. Kaster):
I'm perfectly aware that you all do not count as goods either gloom or a cloudy visage, and do not much admire the famous Crassus, who according to Cicero (following Lucilius) laughed just once in his life.
neque ego sum nescius vos nec tristitiam nec nubilum vultum in bonis ducere, nec Crassum illum quem Cicero auctore Lucilio semel in vita risisse scribit magnopere mirari.
Related posts:

Saturday, April 21, 2012


A One-Way Road

Anacreon, fragment 395, tr. Richmond Lattimore:
I have gone gray at the temples,
yes, my head is white, there’s nothing
of the grace of youth that’s left me,
and my teeth are like an old man’s.
Life is lovely. But the lifetime
that remains for me is little.
For this cause I mourn. The terrors
of the Dark Pit never leave me.
For the house of Death is deep down
underneath; the downward journey
to be feared; for once I go there
I know well there’s no returning.

πολιοὶ μὲν ἡμὶν ἤδη
κρόταφοι κάρη τε λευκόν,
χαρίεσσα δ' οὐκέτ' ἥβη
πάρα, γηραλέοι δ' ὀδόντες.
γλυκεροῦ δ' οὐκέτι πολλὸς
βιότου χρόνος λέλειπται·
διὰ ταῦτ' ἀνασταλύζω
θαμὰ Τάρταρον δεδοικώς·
Ἀίδεω γάρ ἐστι δεινὸς
μυχός, ἀργαλῆ δ' ἐς αὐτὸν
κάτοδος· καὶ γὰρ ἑτοῖμον
καταβάντι μὴ ἀναβῆναι.
On the road to the underworld as a one-way road, see M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (1997; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 154-155.

Update: Eric Thomson writes to say he prefers M.L. West's translation of Anacreon, and I agree:
My temples are grey
    my hair is white,
        youth's beauty past;

my teeth rot away;
    life's sweet delight;
        not long now can last.

So I often lament,
    afraid of Hell:
        it's a dreadful tip,
with a grim descent,
    as you know full well
        it's a one-way trip.


A Natural Niggler

J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Rayner Unwin (December 30, 1961):
I am a natural niggler, alas!
Si parva licet componere magnis, I too am a natural niggler.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines niggler, n.2 as "A person who niggles (niggle v.2); esp. a person who pays excessive attention to detail; a pedant" and niggle, v.2 (sense 1.a) as "To do something in a painstaking, finicky, fussy, or ineffective manner; to trifle, fiddle; to waste effort or time on petty details."

According to Anatoly Liberman, Unpronounceable Words As An Object of Etymology, niggle is related to that unjustly maligned word niggard:
Niggard, first recorded in Chaucer (who had his ear attuned to popular speech), is akin to niggle “to do anything in a trifling or ineffective way” (from gniggle ~ kniggle?) and is, most likely, a borrowing from Scandinavian. There is a good chance that at one time it sounded like gniggard or kniggard; hn- does not count: it is only a weakened form of them both (for instance, knife has a counterpart in Icelandic, and there it begins with hn-). If I am right, niggard was a name for a penny pincher, a miser who would amass wealth in a “niggling,” painstaking way.
Quite different are the meanings of the homonyms niggler, n.1 ("A lascivious person") and niggle, v.1 ("To have sexual intercourse with").

Friday, April 20, 2012


A Professor

Ausonius 5.18, tr. Guy Davenport (1927-2005) in Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 57, with the title A Professor at Bordeaux:
Let us say of you, Marcellus, that Fortune
took you in when your mother threw you out.
Her cold fury drove you to Narbonne
where strangers were kinder to you than your kin.
Clarence kindly gave you his noble daughter,
the hall was full of students when you lectured,
you became known, rich, and promoted.
Then Fortune, liking turns, varied her hand,
perhaps because she saw a weakness in her pet.
I will not join your critics. I merely mention
your sudden collapse. Professor you remain,
I grant the title, justly, for it admits
the half-talented, the glib, and the lucky.
The Latin:
Nec te Marcello genitum, Marcelle, silebo,
  aspera quem genetrix urbe, domo pepulit:
sed fortuna potens cito reddidit omnia et auxit:
  amissam primum Narbo dedit patriam.
nobilis hic hospes Clarentius indole motus
  egregia natam coniugio adtribuit.
mox schola et auditor multus praetextaque pubes
  grammatici nomen divitiasque dedit.
sed numquam iugem cursum fortuna secundat,
  praesertim pravi nancta virum ingenii.
verum oneranda mihi non sunt, memoranda recepi
  fata; sat est dictum cuncta perisse simul:
non tamen et nomen, quo te non fraudo, receptum
  inter grammaticos praetenuis meriti.
A prose version by H.G. Evelyn-White (split by me into lines roughly corresponding to the Latin):
I will not pass you by without a word, Marcellus, son of Marcellus.
The harshness of your mother drove you from your home and your city,
but all-powerful Fortune soon restored all you had lost and added more.
For firstly, in Narbo you found the country you had lost;
and here Clarentius, a stranger of high birth, was led
by your noble nature to give you his daughter to wife.
And in due time your classes and lectures, thronged with crowds of boys,
brought you the title of grammarian and wealth.
But Fortune never favours a career of unvarying success,
especially when she finds a man of a crooked nature.
Howbeit, 'tis not for me to make heavier your destiny: my task is to recall it.
It is enough to say that you lost all at one stroke;
yet not your title also, whereof I do not rob you, but give you a place
amongst grammarians of very scant deserving.
Hmm. A possible epitaph: Grammaticus praetenuis meriti.

Thursday, April 19, 2012



Saigyō (1118-1190), Spring Showers in a Mountain Dwelling—written at Ōhara, tr. Burton Watson:
Curtained by spring showers
pouring down from the eaves,
a place where someone lives,
idle, idle,
unknown to others.

Saigyō, by Iwasa Matabei


Taking Sides

John Muir (1838-1914), A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, ed. William Frederic Badè (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), p. 122:
"They were made for us," say these self-approving preachers; "for our food, our recreation, or other uses not yet discovered." As truthfully we might say on behalf of a bear, when he deals successfully with an unfortunate hunter, "Men and other bipeds were made for bears, and thanks be to God for claws and teeth so long." 
Let a Christian hunter go to the Lord's woods and kill his well-kept beasts, or wild Indians, and it is well; but let an enterprising specimen of these proper, predestined victims go to houses and fields and kill the most worthless person of the vertical godlike killers,—oh! that is horribly unorthodox, and on the part of the Indians atrocious murder! Well, I have precious little sympathy for the selfish propriety of civilized man, and if a war of races should occur between the wild beasts and Lord Man, I would be tempted to sympathize with the bears.
Related post: Avicide and Homicide.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The Elephant and the Sage

Mahabharata 12.104.51, tr. Arthur William Ryder in Original Poems, together with Translations from the Sanskrit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1939), p. 163:
The pole-tusked elephant
  Is like the sage; for he
Lives lonely in the woods,
  Gladly, and frugally.
The same, tr. Kisari Mohan Ganguli in The Mahabharata...Çanti Parva, [I] (Calcutta: Bhārata Press, 1890), p. 340:
He that cheerfully leads such a life in the forest, with large-tusked elephants for companions, with no human being by his side, and contented with the produce of the wilderness, is said to act after the manner of the wise.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Alas for the Lost Lore

J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (1936):
Alas for the lost lore, the annals and old poets that Virgil knew, and only used in the making of a new thing!


Bleeding Trees

From Eric Thomson, via email:
I thought of you yesterday in the National Gallery looking at a painting by Giovanni Bellini, The Assassination of St Peter Martyr. The grisly deed is perpetrated against a background of woodsmen felling a forest, so that the raised dagger of the assassin comes into alignment with the raised axe of one of the woodsmen. It's a parallelism underscored in another version (in the Courtauld Institute) in which the stumps bleed and so share in St Peter's martyrdom.
The National Gallery version:

The Courtauld Institute version:

Note the bleeding stump in the lower right hand corner of the Courtauld Institute version.

I haven't seen Jennifer Fletcher and David Skipsey, "Death in Venice: Giovanni Bellini and The Assassination of St Peter Martyr," Apollo 133, no. 347 (January 1991) 4-9, or Donald S. Prudlo, The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (†1252) (Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 2008), but I did read Prudlo's fascinating account of the murderer, "The Assassin-Saint: The Life and Cult of Carino of Balsamo," Catholic Historical Quarterly 94.1 (January 2008) 1-21. The murder weapon may have been a bill-hook, usually used in tree pruning: see Prudlo's article, p. 5 (with footnote 13) and pp. 11-12 (with footnotes 37-38).

Some examples of bleeding trees in literature:The following discussions are unavailable to me:


Sunday, April 15, 2012


Consider the Lilies

John Muir (1838-1914), A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, ed. William Frederic Badè (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), pp. 23-25:
When he came in after his hard day's work and sat down to dinner, he solemnly asked a blessing on the frugal meal, consisting solely of corn bread and bacon. Then, looking across the table at me, he said, "Young man, what are you doing down here?" I replied that I was looking at plants. "Plants? What kind of plants?" I said, "Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,—almost everything that grows is interesting to me."

"Well, young man," he queried, "you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?" "No," I said, "I am not employed by any one except just myself. I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible."

"You look like a strong-minded man," he replied, "and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms. These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able. Picking up blossoms doesn't seem to be a man's work at all in any kind of times."

To this I replied, "You are a believer in the Bible, are you not?" "Oh, yes." "Well, you know Solomon was a strong-minded man, and he is generally believed to have been the very wisest man the world ever saw, and yet he considered it was worth while to study plants; not only to go and pick them up as I am doing, but to study them; and you know we are told that he wrote a book about plants, not only of the great cedars of Lebanon, but of little bits of things growing in the cracks of the walls.1

"Therefore, you see that Solomon differed very much more from you than from me in this matter. I'll warrant you he had many a long ramble in the mountains of Judea, and had he been a Yankee he would likely have visited every weed in the land. And again, do you not remember that Christ told his disciples to 'consider the lilies how they grow,' and compared their beauty with Solomon in all his glory? Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ's? Christ says, 'Consider the lilies.' You say, 'Don't consider them. It isn't worth while for any strong-minded man.'"

This evidently satisfied him, and he acknowledged that he had never thought of blossoms in that way before. He repeated again and again that I must be a very strong-minded man, and admitted that no doubt I was fully justified in picking up blossoms.

1 The previously mentioned copy of Wood's Botany, used by John Muir, quotes on the title page I Kings iv, 33: "He spake of trees, from the cedar of Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall."

Friday, April 13, 2012


A Catalogue of Irish Trees

In an anonymous medieval Irish poem, Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), there is a catalogue of trees (lines 972-1015 = part 40, stanzas 3-13). The catalogue starts with the verse "A dhair dhosach dhuilledhach..."

Seamus Heaney translated the entire poem as Sweeney Astray (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984, c1983), which is unavailable to me. However, I find an excerpt, containing the catalogue of trees, in Heaney's Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), pp. 187-188:
The bushy leafy oak tree
is highest in the wood,
the forking shoots of hazel
hide sweet hazel-nuts.

The alder is my darling,
all thornless in the gap,
some milk of human kindness
coursing in its sap.

The blackthorn is a jaggy creel
stippled with dark sloes;
green watercress in black on wells
where the drinking blackbird goes.

Sweetest of the leafy stalks,
the vetches strew the pathway;
the oyster-grass is my delight,
and the wild strawberry.

Low-set clumps of apple trees
drum down fruit when shaken;
scarlet berries clot like blood
on mountain rowan.

Briars curl in sideways,
arch a stickle back,
draw blood and curl up innocent
to sneak the next attack.

The yew tree in each churchyard
wraps night in its dark hood.
Ivy is a shadowy
genius of the wood.

Holly rears its windbreak,
a door in winter's face;
life-blood on a spear shaft
darkens the grain of ash.

Birch tree, smooth and blessed,
delicious to the breeze,
high twigs plait and crown it
the queen of trees.

The aspen pales
and whispers, hesitates:
a thousand frightened scuts
race in its leaves.

But what disturbs me most
in the leafy wood
is the to and fro and to and fro
of an oak rod.
There is another translation in James G. O'Keeffe, Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne). Being the Adventures of Suibhne Geilt. A Middle-Irish Romance. Edited, with Translation, Introduction, Notes and Glossary (London: D. Nutt, 1913) = Irish Texts Society Publications, XII, also unavailable in Google Books. I copy O'Keefe's translation of the catalogue of trees from here:
Thou oak, bushy, leafy,
thou art high beyond trees;
O hazlet, little branching one,
O fragrance of hazel-nuts.

O alder, thou art not hostile,
delightful is thy hue,
thou art not rending and prickling
in the gap wherein thou art.

O little blackthorn, little thorny one;
O little black sloe-tree;
O watercress, little green-topped one,
from the brink of the ousel(?) spring.

O minen of the pathway,
thou art sweet beyond herbs,
O little green one, very green one,
O herb on which grows the strawberry.

O apple-tree, little apple-tree,
much art thou shaken;
O quicken, little berried one,
delightful is thy bloom.

O briar, little arched one,
thou grantest no fair terms,
thou ceasest not to tear me,
till thou hast thy fill of blood.

O yew-tree, little yew-tree,
in churchyards thou art conspicuous;
o ivy, little ivy,
thou art familiar in the dusky wood.

O holly, little sheltering one,
thou door against the wind;
o ash-tree, thou baleful one,
hand-weapon of a warrior.

O birch, smooth and blessed,
thou melodious, proud one,
delightful each entwining branch
in the top of thy crown.

The aspen a-trembling;
by turns I hear
its leaves a-racing—
meseems 'tis the foray!

My aversion in woods—
I conceal it not from anyone—
is the leafy stirk of an oak
swaying evermore.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines stirk as "A young bullock or heifer, usually between one and two years old," which doesn't make sense in the penultimate line of O'Keefe's translation. Perhaps stirk here is a misprint for stick. I'm also puzzled by minen ("minen of the pathway").

Related posts:

Thursday, April 12, 2012


What Is More Delightful?

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.36.105 (tr. J.E. King):
For what is more delightful than leisure devoted to literature? That literature I mean which gives us the knowledge of the infinite greatness of nature, and, in this actual world of ours, the sky, the lands, the seas.

Quid est enim dulcius otio litterato? iis dico litteris, quibus infinitatem rerum atque naturae et in hoc ipso mundo caelum, terras, maria cognoscimus.


Something More Than Timber

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (November 9, 1855):
How wild and refreshing to see these old black willows of the river-brink, unchanged from the first, which man has never cut for fuel or for timber! Only the muskrat, tortoises, blackbirds, bitterns, and swallows use them.
Id. (December 3, 1855):
Every larger tree which I knew and admired is being gradually culled out and carried to mill. I see one or two more large oaks in E. Hubbard's wood lying high on stumps, waiting for snow to be removed. I miss them as surely and with the same feeling that I do the old inhabitants out of the village street. To me they were something more than timber; to their owner not so.
Id. (December 14, 1855):
Now I hear, half a mile off, the hollow sound of woodchopping, the work of short winter days begun, which is gradually laying bare and impoverishing our landscape. In two or three thicker woods which I have visited this season, I was driven away by this ominous sound.
Id. (January 22, 1856):
I have attended the felling and, so to speak, the funeral of this old citizen of the town, — I who commonly do not attend funerals, — as it became me to do. I was the chief if not the only mourner there. I have taken the measure of his grandeur; have spoken a few words of eulogy at his grave, remembering the maxim de mortuis nil nisi bonum (in this case magnum). But there were only the choppers and the passers-by to hear me. Further the town was not represented; the fathers of the town, the selectmen, the clergy were not there. But I have not known a fitter occasion for a sermon of late. Travellers whose journey was for a short time delayed by its prostrate body were forced to pay it some attention and respect, but the axe-boys had climbed upon it like ants, and commenced chipping at it before it had fairly ceased groaning. There was a man already bargaining for some part. How have the mighty fallen! Its history extends back over more than half the whole history of the town. Since its kindred could not conveniently attend, I attended. Methinks its fall marks an epoch in the history of the town. It has passed away together with the clergy of the old school and the stage-coach which used to rattle beneath it. Its virtue was that it steadily grew and expanded from year to year to the very last. How much of old Concord falls with it! The town clerk will not chronicle its fall. I will, for it is of greater moment to the town than that of many a human inhabitant would be. Instead of erecting a monument to it, we take all possible pains to obliterate its stump, the only monument of a tree which is commonly allowed to stand. Another link that bound us to the past is broken. How much of old Concord was cut away with it! A few such elms would alone constitute a township. They might claim to send a representative to the General Court to look after their interests, if a fit one could be found, a native American one in a true and worthy sense, with catholic principles. Our town has lost some of its venerableness. No longer will our eyes rest on its massive gray trunk, like a vast Corinthian column by the wayside; no longer shall we walk in the shade of its lofty, spreading dome. It is as if you had laid the axe at the feet of some venerable Buckley or Ripley. You have laid the axe, you have made fast your tackle, to one of the king-posts of the town. I feel the whole building wracked by it. Is it not sacrilege to cut down the tree which has so long looked over Concord beneficently? .... With what feelings should not the citizens hear that the biggest tree in the town has fallen! A traveller passed through the town and saw the inhabitants cutting it up without regret.
Thoreau here eulogizes an elm in front of the house of Charles Davis, cut down by a woodchopper named White and his helpers. "Davis and the neighbors were much alarmed by the creaking in the late storms, for fear it would fall on their roofs" (January 19, 1856), but according to Thoreau, who inspected the remains (January 21, 1856), "The tree was so sound I think it might have lived fifty years longer."


Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Stop It

Euripides, Suppliant Women 949-954, tr. E.P. Coleridge:
O wretched sons of men! Why do you get weapons and bring slaughter on one another? Cease from that, give over your toiling, and in mutual peace keep safe your cities. Short is the span of life, so it would be best to run its course as lightly as we may, free from trouble.
The Greek:
                             ὦ ταλαίπωροι βροτῶν,
τί κτᾶσθε λόγχας καὶ κατ᾽ ἀλλήλων φόνους
τίθεσθε; παύσασθ᾽, ἀλλὰ λήξαντες πόνων
ἄστη φυλάσσεθ᾽ ἥσυχοι μεθ᾽ ἡσύχων.
σμικρὸν τὸ χρῆμα τοῦ βίου· τοῦτον δὲ χρὴ
ὡς ῥᾷστα καὶ μὴ σὺν πόνοις διεκπερᾶν.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012



Henry David Thoreau, Journal (January 20, 1856):
In my experience I have found nothing so truly impoverishing as what is called wealth, i.e. the command of greater means than you had before possessed, though comparatively few and slight still, for you thus inevitably acquire a more expensive habit of living, and even the very same necessaries and comforts cost you more than they once did. Instead of gaining, you have lost some independence, and if your income should be suddenly lessened, you would find yourself poor, though possessed of the same means which once made you rich. Within the last five years I have had the command of a little more money than in the previous five years, for I have sold some books and some lectures; yet I have not been a whit better fed or clothed or warmed or sheltered, not a whit richer, except that I have been less concerned about my living, but perhaps my life has been the less serious for it, and, to balance it, I feel now that there is a possibility of failure. Who knows but I may come upon the town, if, as is likely, the public want no more of my books, or lectures (which last is already the case)? Before, I was much likelier to take the town upon my shoulders. That is, I have lost some of my independence on them, when they would say that I had gained an independence. If you wish to give a man a sense of poverty, give him a thousand dollars. The next hundred dollars he gets will not be worth more than ten that he used to get. Have pity on him; withhold your gifts.



Henry David Thoreau, Journal (December 13, 1855):
Sanborn tells me that he was waked up a few nights ago in Boston, about midnight, by the sound of a flock of geese passing over the city, probably about the same night I heard them here. They go honking over cities where the arts flourish, waking the inhabitants; over State-houses and capitols, where legislatures sit; over harbors where fleets lie at anchor; mistaking the city, perhaps, for a swamp or the edge of a lake, about settling in it, not suspecting that greater geese than they have settled there.


Akin to Sin

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (November 1, 1855):
It is akin to sin to spend such a day in the house.
Related posts:

Monday, April 09, 2012


How to Read

François Rabelais, The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, tr. J.M. Cohen (1955; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 38 (from the Prologue):
Or did you ever see a dog — which is, as Plato says, in the second book of his Republic, the most philosophical creature in the world — discover a marrow-bone? If ever you did, you will have noticed how devotedly he eyes it, how carefully he guards it, how fervently he holds it, how circumspectly he begins to gnaw it, how lovingly he breaks it, and how diligently he licks it. What induces him to do all this? What hope is there in his labour? What benefit does he expect? Nothing more than a little marrow....Now you must follow this dog's example, and be wise in smelling out, sampling, and relishing these fine and most juicy books, which are easy to run down but hard to bring to bay. Then, by diligent reading and frequent meditation, you must break the bone and lick out the substantial marrow...
In French:
Mais veistez vous oncques chien rencontrant quelque os medullare? C'est, comme dict Platon, li.2 de Rep., la beste du monde plus philosophe. Si veu l'avez, vous avez peu noter de quelle devotion il le guette, de quel soing il le guarde, de quel ferveur il le tient, de quelle prudence il l'entomne, de quelle affection il le brise, et de quelle diligence il le sugce. Qui l'induict à ce faire? Quel est l'espoir de son estude? Quel bien y pretend il? Rien plus qu'un peu de mouelle....A l'exemple d'icelluy vous convient estre saiges, pour fleurer, sentir, et estimer ces beaux livres de haulte gresse, legiers au prochaz et hardiz à la rencontre. Puis, par curieuse leczon et meditation frequente, rompre l'os et sugcer la substantificque mouelle...
Rabelais died on this day in 1553.

Sunday, April 08, 2012


A Poem by Agathias Scholasticus

Greek Anthology 10.14 (Agathias Scholasticus), translated by Guy Davenport in Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), p. 56, with the title Priapos:
The ocean is calm, dark as wine.
No wind to edge the waves with white
or comb them with a wrinkling line,
spray them up rocks, sink them from sight.

Two swallows bright in springtime air
fetch straws to plait into a nest.
Take heart, O sailor, from this pair.
Sail to the Syrtis in the west

And to Sikilia. The price
to pay Priapos, if you wish
to get there, is to sacrifice
One gurnard, one red parrot fish.
A more literal translation by W.R. Paton:
The deep lies becalmed and blue; for no gale whitens the waves, ruffling them to a ripple, and no longer do the seas break round the rocks, retiring again to be absorbed in the depth. The Zephyrs blow and the swallow twitters round the straw-glued chamber she has built. Take courage, thou sailor of experience, whether thou journeyest to the Syrtis or to the beach of Sicily. Only by the altar of Priapus of the harbor burn a scarus or ruddy gurnards.
The Greek:
Εὔδια μὲν πόντος πορφύρεται· οὐ γὰρ ἀήτης
  κύματα λευκαίνει φρικὶ χαρασσόμενα·
οὐκέτι δὲ σπιλάδεσσι περικλασθεῖσα θάλασσα
  ἔμπαλιν ἀντωπὸς πρὸς βάθος εἰσάγεται.
οἱ ζέφυροι πνείουσιν, ἐπιτρύζει δὲ χελιδὼν
  κάρφεσι κολλητὸν πηξαμένη θάλαμον.
θάρσει, ναυτιλίης ἐμπείραμε, κἂν παρὰ Σύρτιν,
  κἂν παρὰ Σικελικὴν ποντοπορῇς κροκάλην·
μοῦνον ἐνορμίταο παραὶ βωμοῖσι Πριήπου
  ἢ σκάρον ἢ βῶκας φλέξον ἐρευθομένους.
Davenport insists on a couple of swallows ("two," "pair"), while Agathias Scholasticus mentions only one (χελιδών). Perhaps Davenport wanted to emphasize the fact that, among some species of swallow, males and females cooperate in nest building.

The sacrifice of fish was rare in ancient Greece.

Saturday, April 07, 2012


New Life and Awakening

George Gissing (1857-1903), The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Spring, IX):
I had stepped into a new life. Between the man I had been and that which I now became there was a very notable difference. In a single day I had matured astonishingly; which means, no doubt, that I suddenly entered into conscious enjoyment of powers and sensibilities which had been developing unknown to me. To instance only one point: till then I had cared very little about plants and flowers, but now I found myself eagerly interested in every blossom, in every growth of the wayside. As I walked I gathered a quantity of plants, promising myself to buy a book on the morrow and identify them all. Nor was it a passing humour; never since have I lost my pleasure in the flowers of the field, and my desire to know them all. My ignorance at the time of which I speak seems to me now very shameful; but I was merely in the case of ordinary people, whether living in town or country. How many could give the familiar name of half a dozen plants plucked at random from beneath the hedge in springtime? To me the flowers became symbolical of a great release, of a wonderful awakening. My eyes had all at once been opened; till then I had walked in darkness, yet knew it not.
Related post: The Desire for Knowledge and the Names for Things.

Friday, April 06, 2012


Some Lines in Lucretius

In Lucretius' De Rerum Natura there are some lines in which the entire hexameter consists of nouns in asyndeton, e.g.:

1.744 aera solem imbrem terras animalia fruges
2.670 (669) ossa cruor venae calor umor viscera nervi
2.726 = 5.438 (441) intervalla vias conexus pondera plagas
2.1021 concursus motus ordo positura figurae
3.1017 verbera carnifices robur pix lammina taedae
5.1336 volneribus clamore fuga terrore tumultu

I don't know if scholars have given a label to this type of line, or if such lines occur in other authors.

Thursday, April 05, 2012



Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), pp. 78-79:
When Vico speaks of the splendour of the Homeric poems and gives reasons why they could only have been produced in a society dominated by a violent, ambitious, cruel and avaricious elite of 'heroes', so that such epics could not be generated in his own 'enlightened' times; when Herder tells us that to understand the Bible we must try to enter the world of nomadic Judaean shepherds, or that men who have seen sailors struggling with the waters of the Skagerrak can better understand the stern beauty of the old Scandinavian sagas and songs; when both thinkers maintain that unless we succeed in doing this we shall not understand what these earlier men lived by, spiritually as well as materially, they are not telling us that the values of these societies, dissimilar to ours, cast doubts on the objectivity of our own, or are undermined by them, because the existence of conflicting values or incompatible outlooks must mean that at most only one of these is valid, the rest being false; or, alternatively, that none belong to the kind of judgements that can be considered either valid or invalid. Rather, they are inviting us to look at societies different from our own, the ultimate values of which we can perceive to be wholly understandable ends of life for men who are different, indeed, from us, but human beings, semblables, into whose circumstances we can, by a great effort which we are commanded to make, find a way, 'enter', to use Vico's term.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Frost on Pound's Knowledge of Greek and Latin

Richard Poirier, "Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2," The Paris Review No. 24 (Summer-Fall 1960), an interview rpt. in Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays (New York: The Library of America, 1995), pp. 873-893 (at 877, 881-882):
FROST: I never wrote prose or verse till 1890. Before that I wrote Latin and Greek sentences.

INTERVIEWER: Some of the early critics like Garnett and Pound talk a lot about Latin and Greek poetry with reference to yours. You’d read a lot in the classics?

FROST: Probably more Latin and Greek than Pound ever did.


INTERVIEWER: Pound was a good linguist, wasn't he?

FROST: I don't know that. There’s a teacher of his down in Florida that taught him at the University of Pennsylvania. He once said to me, "Pound? I had him in Latin, and Pound never knew the difference between a declension and a conjugation." He's death on him. Old man, still death on Ezra. [Breaks into laughter.] Pound's gentle art of making enemies.
Pound's teacher was probably Walton Brooks McDaniel (1871-1978), who taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1901 to 1937, and who spent some of his retirement years in Florida. Pound studied at the University of Pennsylvania from 1901 to 1903.

Related post: Elaborate Defence of Howlers.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Blossom by Blossom the Spring Begins

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), Atalanta in Calydon, lines 65-120 (first chorus):
When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
        The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
        With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain;
And the brown bright nightingale amorous
Is half assuaged for Itylus,
For the Thracian ships and the foreign faces.
        The tongueless vigil, and all the pain.

Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
        Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
        With a clamour of waters, and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
        Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night.

Where shall we find her, how shall we sing to her,
        Fold our hands round her knees, and cling?
O that man’s heart were as fire and could spring to her,
        Fire, or the strength of the streams that spring!
For the stars and the winds are unto her
As raiment, as songs of the harp-player;
For the risen stars and the fallen cling to her,
        And the southwest-wind and the west-wind sing.

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
        And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
        The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remember’d is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
        Blossom by blossom the Spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
        Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
        From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofed heel of a satyr crushes
        The chestnut-husk at the chestnut-root.

And Pan by noon and Bacchus by night,
        Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid,
Follows with a dancing and fills with delight
        The Mænad and the Bassarid;
And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
        The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

The ivy falls with the Bacchanal’s hair
        Over her eyebrows hiding her eyes;
The wild vine slipping down leaves bare
        Her bright breast shortening into sighs;
The wild vine slips with the weight of its leaves,
But the berried ivy catches and cleaves
To the limbs that glitter, the feet that scare
        The wolf that follows, the fawn that flies.
"The mother of months" is of course Artemis and refers to her role as goddess of the moon. In the first line of the play the chief huntsman addresses her as "Maiden, and mistress of the months and stars." This doesn't seem to be a classical epithet of Artemis or Diana. After a quick search the closest classical parallel I can find is Pseudo-Vergil, Culex 284: menstrua virgo. Others have pointed out that Swinburne may have borrowed the phrase from Shelley, who describes the moon as "the mother of the months" in Revolt of Islam IV.1.7 and Prometheus Bound IV.207.

Hat tip: Alan Knell.

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