His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the tag “Latin”

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 (I purposely do not quote the following line, lest I give the impression that I consider my current fellow-citizens of Minnesota are stolidi!)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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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