His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Latin”

An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org
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Nullus locus dulcior

To begin with, for those that care, the title is a paraphrase of Cicero, “Nunc vero nec locus tibi ullus dulcior esse debet patria…” (Epist. Fam. IV.9.3, “Now, indeed, no place should be sweeter to you than your homeland…”). I borrow those fine words to talk about my homeland.

What it looks like in Minn. now.

What it looks like in Minn. now.

I’m a native of Alabama, but I’ve lived in Minnesota for the past two and a half years. On the morning that I write this, at my northern residence, I saw, the temperature was 1°F. Snow has been on the ground since November and all of the water seen out-of-doors, most obviously Minnesota’s myriad lakes, have been solidly slick and frozen, and with Minnesota’s winter comes a cold unknown in Alabama, a coldness that the clichéd “bitter cold” doesn’t even ably describe. Lest, dear readers, you imagine that Minnesota’s charms, even in winter, have been lost on this writer, know well that I’ve found much to like there that will not easily escape my memory, but for now I dwell on things Alabam(i)an. Incidentally, being unable to avoid citing another line in Latin, there are occasions in Minnesota when I have empathy for Ovid, whose words

Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor ulli (Tristia V.10.37)

Here, I’m a barbarian, because I’m understood by no one.

fit well my placement in a sometimes strange land, and I’m sure the feeling would be found mutual, if those Minnesotans with whom I have regular contact were asked. (I purposely do not quote the following line, lest I give the impression that I consider my current fellow-citizens of Minnesota are stolidi!)

I went back to my patria for a brief sojourn, the direct cause itself not being a welcome one, but one attended by a number of benefits, some foreseen, some unforeseen. It always lends refreshment to return home, and neither did this trip fail to refresh. The time spent with family members, the freedom from regular structured work, the blue — as opposed to gray, as commonly this time of year in Minnesota — sky, against which the bright clouds are sharply set, the more flavorful food; all these things made it a fine and needed trip for me, but not only for me, since my wife and children also reckon it a definite refuge of safety, sweetness, and deep recognition, even though they do not have the years of experience spent there that I have, years polished in a way that only childhood can. This solidarity makes visits there all the better.

Some IPA I like, hitherto not seen in Minn., but readily drinkable in Ala.!

Some IPA I like, hitherto not seen in Minn., but readily drinkable in Ala.!

Lunch with my mother.

Lunch with my mother.

IMG_0013

I enjoyed several cigars and my pipe in the relatively warm weather, including one cigar with my grandfather, eighty-seven years old and whom I’ve not seen in too long a time. He is retired now, but worked most of his life as a carpenter. He went to school only through the eighth grade, and had to begin working all the time at a young age to provide for his family. I always enjoy talking with him, not only because of our shared familial history, but to hear of his experiences, and that in his accent and idiolect, which I appreciate both as his grandson and as a linguist. I confess that I was surprised to hear him use the word “brogue”, a word I don’t think I’ve heard anyone in my family use before, and a word rarely heard from the mouth of someone that reached only the eighth grade.

Talking with my grandfather.

Talking with my grandfather.

A giant cow spotted on the way through Wisc.

A giant cow spotted on the way through Wisc.

Because the number in our traveling party was large, we traveled by road rather than air. As you can imagine, the road from central Minnesota to central Alabama is no short road. My children, fortunately, are usually hardy travelers who only rarely complain overmuch. The way down wasn’t eventful, but on the way back, we met some nasty roads in Illinois and Wisconsin, thanks to an assault of snow, which led to de-roaded cars left and right and a truck pulling two trailers on its side and blocking traffic south.

Snowy travel on the return trip.

Snowy travel on the return trip.

I’m now back in Minnesota, but my eyes are patiently turned southward, looking forward to the next stay there, where there will surely again be more meetings of this and that person, of south and midwest, and of experiences all around of different ages and memories.

A trilingual epigram on music

The few lines I share here are from my own pen — and yes, I did write them before typing them! — and partly an exercise in composition. I first put them to paper a couple of weeks ago in Latin unversified, and thus they remain in that language (but I’m hoping to make them elegiac), then I English’d them, and finally I put them into Syriac in the dodecasyllabic meter of Jacob of Serug (451-521). I find the less strict system of Syriac meter easier to write verse in than that of either Greek or Latin, but in all three of these specific cases, once the ideas are there, it’s a question of one’s own knowledge of the language’s flexibility, that is, how to say the same or similar things in different ways, ways made up of differing numbers of syllables, different orders of long and short syllables, &c.
Here, then, are the quatrains in the order in which they were composed. The sentiment of all three is surely the same, though the exact wording of each line is a little different for each language.

Musica salus est dolentibus,
remedium et cura tristibus;
amplectitur animum maestum,
barathro decarpit pectus claudum.

_____________________________

Music to the hurting is a balm indeed,
A remedy and cure for saddened hearts;
She embraces tight the woeful soul,
And from the pit delivers the halting breast.

_____________________________

Musiqārutā (h)y ḥulmānā la-d-keryat l-hon,
sumsāmā w-yaṣṣiputā l-ʿayyiqay lebbā;
mṭappyā gēr l-ḥadyhon kmirā d-hānon da-šḥiqin,
men dēn hawtā mšawzbā l-napšā hāy d-ḥaššišin.

_____________________________
Addendum: After writing the few lines above, I just happened to read the beginning of an anonymous Hebrew poem that touches on the same theme from another angle (see T. Carmi, Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 364; translation slightly adapted):

אמרו לראש פתן: הבה צרי
ולשון דוה לבב: שיר דברי
You might as well say to the poisonous asp: “Give me balm,”
As to say to one sick at heart, “Let out a song!”

The sad may not be so willing themselves to sing, but they can at least drink up the music made by someone else, dirges most especially.
_____________________________
As always, comments are welcome! Thanks for reading!

Prometheus and Aeneas on relating pain

Pretty early in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 197-198), the titular character, having been asked by the Chorus to give the reasons for his tight incarceration in adamantine chains on a crag at the edge of the world —

Χθονὸς μὲν εἰς τηλουρὸν ἥκομεν πέδον,
Σκύθην ἐς οἶμον, ἄβροτον εἰς ἐρημίαν.

as Might (Κράτος), Zeus’ yes-man and messenger, puts it in the play’s first two lines— responds

ἀλγεινὰ μέν μοι καὶ λέγειν ἐστὶν τάδε,
ἄλγος δὲ σιγᾶν, πανταχῆι δὲ δύσποτμα.

Here’s my English version of the lines. (I cheated a little by stretching the two Greek lines into three in English.)

It’s painful to me these things to tell,
Yet a pain, too, in silence to dwell:
All around are things ill-starred!

These lines require almost no commentary, thanks to their reality known by everyone at some time or other. We might, though, compare Aeneas’ seemingly different remarks before he gets on with the tale of Troy and the Greeks in response to Dido’s request for it (Aeneid II.3-12); for him, bitterness is only explicit, at least, in the telling, not in keeping silent about it.

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nux umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit, incipiam.

A fresh rendering:

Unspeakable, O queen, is the sorrow you bid me renew,
How the Danaeans overthrew the Trojans, their wealth
And wept-for kingdom: things most unhappy that I myself saw
And was a great part of. In telling them, which even of the Myrmidons
Or Dolopians, or Ulysses’ hard soldiers,
Might hold back from tears? Now, too, the moist night from heaven
Goes forth and the falling stars urge sleep,
Yet if there’s such a desire to know our calamities
And briefly to hear the final throes of Troy,
Although my mind shutters to relate them and runs back in grief, I shall begin.

Aeneas, too, was most probably burdened in the silence of his memories, even though he doesn’t say so, but in any case, for Vergil the thrust of Aeneas’ pain is in telling his doleful memories, not merely in having them in his head. More realistically, I think, not to say more concisely, Aeschylus shows that pain is present in silence and in speech, in memory and in making known. Good literature, not least poetry, reminds us of those experiences and emotions common to humanity, including the nasty ones, though the circumstances be as multifarious as you can imagine. Any dourness we know, we know well whether we say it or hold it, but it’s surely worth highlighting that the two Greek lines quoted above from Prometheus are not the end of his part there: he goes on to tell the story, opting for the pain of telling over the pain of tacitness. But whether we speak our pain or stay mute, we can take some small solace in the expressed trials of others, even the trials of a god.

On epigrams

I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.

Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).

The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.

The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.

It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!

Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.

Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!

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