His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the tag “literature”

When knowing Greek literature saves you

Bust of Euripides. Source.

Bust of Euripides. Source.

I recently read Plutarch’s Life of Nicias, Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War, and at the end of it come a few fascinating lines that show how knowing Greek literature, and knowing it by heart, may turn out to be a savior, so long as you happen to be at the mercy of others who also value it! A win for the humanities!

Here is the passage (29.2-3), my translation adapted from Bernadotte Perrin’s (LCL, Plutarch, Lives, 3, pp. 308-309), with the Greek below.

2 … Some [captives] were also saved for the sake of Euripides. For the Sicilians, it seems, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, craved his poetry [mousa]: learning by heart the little samples and morsels that visitors brought them from time to time, they would happily share them with one another. 3 In the present case, at any rate, they say that many [Athenians] who reached home in safety kindly greeted Euripides and told him, some that they had been set free from slavery for thoroughly teaching what they remembered of his works, and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they would get food and drink for singing some of his songs [melos]. It is not surprise, then, that they say [the Sicilians], when the Caunians’ ship was pursued by pirates and about to put in at the harbor [of Syracuse], at first did not allow them and kept them out, but when they asked if they knew any songs [asma] of Euripides, and [the Caunians] declared that they did, they allowed them entry and brought the ship in.

2 … ἔνιοι δὲ καὶ δι᾽ Εὐριπίδην ἐσώθησαν. μάλιστα γάρ, ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν ἐκτὸς Ἑλλήνων ἐπόθησαν αὐτοῦ τὴν μοῦσαν οἱ περὶ Σικελίαν: καὶ μικρὰ τῶν ἀφικνουμένων ἑκάστοτε δείγματα καὶ γεύματα κομιζόντων ἐκμανθάνοντες ἀγαπητῶς μετεδίδοσαν ἀλλήλοις. 3 τότε γοῦν φασι τῶν σωθέντων οἴκαδε συχνοὺς ἀσπάσασθαι τὸν Εὐριπίδην φιλοφρόνως, καὶ διηγεῖσθαι τοὺς μέν, ὅτι δουλεύοντες ἀφείθησαν ἐκδιδάξαντες ὅσα τῶν ἐκείνου ποιημάτων ἐμέμνηντο, τοὺς δ᾽, ὅτι πλανώμενοι μετὰ τὴν μάχην τροφῆς καὶ ὕδατος μετέλαβον τῶν μελῶν ᾁσαντες. οὐ δεῖ δὴ θαυμάζειν ὅτι τοὺς Καυνίους φασὶ πλοίου προσφερομένου τοῖς λιμέσιν ὑπὸ λῃστρίδων διωκομένου μὴ δέχεσθαι τὸ πρῶτον, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπείργειν, εἶτα μέντοι διαπυνθανομένους εἰ γινώσκουσιν ᾁσματα τῶν Εὐριπίδου, φησάντων ἐκείνων, οὕτω παρεῖναι καὶ καταγαγεῖν τὸ πλοῖον.

Xenophon on a barley-beer in Armenia

A preface. A few days ago I chanced upon an example of one of those infestations of the internet, a graphic with a quote attributed to some famous person. This one, due to the subject matter, caught my attention, and I thought it worth investigating a little further. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “People are often misquoted on the internet.” The bearded and tall-hatted president is also made to say, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t be sure of their accuracy.” Of these two humorous attributions, the former puts the facts more truly. As for the second, while the internet has provided a breeding ground for misattribution and garbled words even when the attribution is seemingly correct, it also provides, thanks to full-text searchability in various languages, the means to check any attribution for those with interest and energy to do so. That said, if we think someone else’s words so much worth sharing, if those words are in a citeable place, why not clearly indicate what the place is along with the words themselves? This is not pedantic overactivity: text editions, and often translations made on their basis, include easy ways — book, chapter, and section numbers, etc. — to point out the source of a text, and anyone quoting them thus sees them, and they do well to take the extra few seconds and extra few keystrokes to throw them in along with any quotation. (Of course, some proffered quotations do not even go so far as to indicate the work from which the quote might come, only the speaker.) So there is a series of concentric circles, the center being the quote itself, next perhaps the section number, then the chapter, then the book (in the older sense, e.g. the Odyssey having 24 books, Augustine’s Confessions 13), then the work with its unique title (as in De re rustica, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Toxophilus, A Canticle for Leibowitz), and the more precise we are when text-pointing, the better.

Back to the quote-graphic I mentioned. It will be found here. (The date 500 BC(E) in the title there is wrong, given the author’s lifetime: c. 430-c.350 BCE.) The words are said to be Xenophon‘s, and from his well-known work, which used to be youthful fodder of many a student of ancient Greek, the Anabasis. Unlike many such quote-graphics, this one thankfully does give an accurate citation (§ 4.5, and subsections 26-27, to be more precise), so its creator deserves our gratitude. A look at the work in question reveals the quote, but the surrounding sections are of equal interest so here they are in full, below the map, in Greek and English.

For the Greek text and a (somewhat different) translation, see Carleton L. Brownson, Xenophon, Anabasis, Books IV-VII, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1922), available at https://archive.org/details/xenophon04xenogoog and at the Perseus Project at http://tinyurl.com/loyzqux. The translation presented here has been adapted from Brownson’s. I have changed some of the wording and sentence structure and generally brought the translation more in line with the Greek text as given below. (For those that appreciate finer typography than is typically present on a webpage, here is a PDF of the Greek and my translation revised from Brownson: xenophon_beer_barley_armenia.)

P.S. I gave a talk on alcoholic beverages in Syriac literature some time ago, and the paper based on that lecture is available here. Found there are also a few references to alcoholic beverages elsewhere in the near / middle east besides Syriac.


The route of the Greeks in the Anabasis

Xenophon, Anabasis 4.5.25-34

Greek text
[25] αἱ δ᾽ οἰκίαι ἦσαν κατάγειοι, τὸ μὲν στόμα ὥσπερ φρέατος, κάτω δ᾽ εὐρεῖαι: αἱ δὲ εἴσοδοι τοῖς μὲν ὑποζυγίοις ὀρυκταί, οἱ δὲ ἄνθρωποι κατέβαινον ἐπὶ κλίμακος. ἐν δὲ ταῖς οἰκίαις ἦσαν αἶγες, οἶες, βόες, ὄρνιθες, καὶ τὰ ἔκγονα τούτων: τὰ δὲ κτήνη πάντα χιλῷ ἔνδον ἐτρέφοντο. [26] ἦσαν δὲ καὶ πυροὶ καὶ κριθαὶ καὶ ὄσπρια καὶ οἶνος κρίθινος ἐν κρατῆρσιν. ἐνῆσαν δὲ καὶ αὐταὶ αἱ κριθαὶ ἰσοχειλεῖς, καὶ κάλαμοι ἐνέκειντο, οἱ μὲν μείζους οἱ δὲ ἐλάττους, γόνατα οὐκ ἔχοντες: [27] τούτους ἔδει ὁπότε τις διψῴη λαβόντα εἰς τὸ στόμα μύζειν. καὶ πάνυ ἄκρατος ἦν, εἰ μή τις ὕδωρ ἐπιχέοι: καὶ πάνυ ἡδὺ συμμαθόντι τὸ πῶμα ἦν.

[28] ὁ δὲ Ξενοφῶν τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς κώμης ταύτης σύνδειπνον ἐποιήσατο καὶ θαρρεῖν αὐτὸν ἐκέλευε λέγων ὅτι οὔτε τῶν τέκνων στερήσοιτο τήν τε οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ ἀντεμπλήσαντες τῶν ἐπιτηδείων ἀπίασιν, ἢν ἀγαθόν τι τῷ στρατεύματι ἐξηγησάμενος φαίνηται ἔστ᾽ ἂν ἐν ἄλλῳ ἔθνει γένωνται. [29] ὁ δὲ ταῦτα ὑπισχνεῖτο, καὶ φιλοφρονούμενος οἶνον ἔφρασεν ἔνθα ἦν κατορωρυγμένος. ταύτην μὲν τὴν νύκτα διασκηνήσαντες οὕτως ἐκοιμήθησαν ἐν πᾶσιν ἀφθόνοις πάντες οἱ στρατιῶται, ἐν φυλακῇ ἔχοντες τὸν κώμαρχον καὶ τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ ὁμοῦ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς. [30] τῇ δ᾽ ἐπιούσῃ ἡμέρᾳ Ξενοφῶν λαβὼν τὸν κώμαρχον πρὸς Χειρίσοφον ἐπορεύετο: ὅπου δὲ παρίοι κώμην, ἐτρέπετο πρὸς τοὺς ἐν ταῖς κώμαις καὶ κατελάμβανε πανταχοῦ εὐωχουμένους καὶ εὐθυμουμένους, καὶ οὐδαμόθεν ἀφίεσαν πρὶν παραθεῖναι αὐτοῖς ἄριστον: [31] οὐκ ἦν δ᾽ ὅπου οὐ παρετίθεσαν ἐπὶ τὴν αὐτὴν τράπεζαν κρέα ἄρνεια, ἐρίφεια, χοίρεια, μόσχεια, ὀρνίθεια, σὺν πολλοῖς ἄρτοις τοῖς μὲν πυρίνοις τοῖς δὲ κριθίνοις. [32] ὁπότε δέ τις φιλοφρονούμενός τῳ βούλοιτο προπιεῖν, εἷλκεν ἐπὶ τὸν κρατῆρα, ἔνθεν ἐπικύψαντα ἔδει ῥοφοῦντα πίνειν ὥσπερ βοῦν. καὶ τῷ κωμάρχῳ ἐδίδοσαν λαμβάνειν ὅ τι βούλοιτο. ὁ δὲ ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν ἐδέχετο, ὅπου δέ τινα τῶν συγγενῶν ἴδοι, πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ἀεὶ ἐλάμβανεν.

[33] ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἦλθον πρὸς Χειρίσοφον, κατελάμβανον κἀκείνους σκηνοῦντας ἐστεφανωμένους τοῦ ξηροῦ χιλοῦ στεφάνοις, καὶ διακονοῦντας Ἀρμενίους παῖδας σὺν ταῖς βαρβαρικαῖς στολαῖς: τοῖς παισὶν ἐδείκνυσαν ὥσπερ ἐνεοῖς ὅ τι δέοι ποιεῖν.
[34] ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἀλλήλους ἐφιλοφρονήσαντο Χειρίσοφος καὶ Ξενοφῶν, κοινῇ δὴ ἀνηρώτων τὸν κώμαρχον διὰ τοῦ περσίζοντος ἑρμηνέως τίς εἴη ἡ χώρα. ὁ δ᾽ ἔλεγεν ὅτι Ἀρμενία.

English translation

[25] The houses here were underground, with an opening like that of a well, but spacious below, and while entrances had been dug for the beasts of burden, people went down by a ladder. In the houses were goats, sheep, cattle, chickens, and their young, and all the animals ate their fodder there in the houses. [26] There was also wheat, barley, beans, and barleywine in large bowls. These barley-corns were in the drink up to the brim, straws were in it, some larger and some smaller, without joints. [27] When someone was thirsty, they had to take these straws into their mouths and suck. It was quite pure unless it was diluted with water, yet quite pleasant when one was used to it.

[28] Xenophon made the chief of this village his dinner-guest and commanded him not to worry, telling him that he would not be deprived of his children, and that before they went away they would fill his house with provisions as compensation, if he should turn out to have directed the army well until they should reach another tribe. [29] He promised to do this and kindly told them where there was some wine buried. That night  all [Xenophon’s] soldiers, thus billeted, went to bed in plenty, with the village-chief under guard and his children all together within sight. [30]On the next day Xenophon took the village chief and set out [to visit] Cheirisophus. Whenever he passed a village, he would stop [to see about] those in the villages, and everywhere on arrival he found them to be sumptuously entertained and happy. The [people] did let them go from any place without setting lunch before them, [31] and there was nowhere where they did not set before them on the same table lamb, kid, pork, veal, and chicken, together with lots of bread, some wheat and some barley. [32] And whenever someone wanted kindly to drink to another’s health, they would take him to the bowl, and they had drink like an ox, having bent over and gulped it down. To the village-chief they offered the privilege of taking whatever he wanted. He accepted nothing, but whenever he saw one of his kinsmen, he would always take hold of him.

[33] When they got to Cheirisophus, on arrival they also found [those soldiers] billeted and crowned with wreaths of hay, and Armenian boys in their strange, foreign dress, serving them, and they were showing the boys what to do [by signs], as if they were deaf and dumb. [34] When Cheirisophus and Xenophon had greeted each other, they together asked the village-chief, through their Persian-speaking interpreter, what this land was. He replied that it was Armenia.

From Conan Doyle’s “Lot № 249”

https://i1.wp.com/img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/t0/t534.jpgI recently got a used copy of Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural, ed. Henry Mazzeo, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1968). I’m about a third of the way through it and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s “Lot № 249” (pp. 61-93), first published in 1892, is so far, and will probably remain, a favorite. (Text online here.) Here are a few especially fine lines:

  • “Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.” (62)
  • “…but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men — men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.” (63)
  • “They knew each other very well–so well that they could sit now in that soothing silence which is the very highest development of companionship.” (63)
  • “There’s something damnable about him — something reptilian. My gorge always rises at him. I should put him down as a man with secret vices — an evil liver.” (64)
  • Of a textbook of anatomy: “…plunged into a formidable, green-covered volume, adorned with great, colored maps of that strange, internal kingdom of which we are the hapless and helpless monarchs.” (65)
  • “With his firm mouth, broad forehead, and clear-cut, somewhat hard-featured face, he was a man who, if he had no brilliant talent, was yet so dogged, so patient, and so strong that he might in the end overtop a more showy genius.” (66)
  • “What a chap you are to stew! I believe an earthquake might come and knock Oxford into a cocked hat, and you would sit perfectly placid with your books among the ruins.” (75)
  • “He has spoiled my night’s reading, and that’s reason enough, if there were no other, why I should steer clear of him in the future.” (77)
  • “Bellingham’s face when he was in a passion was not pleasant to look upon.” (77)
  • “…as he was a bachelor, fairly well-to-do, with a good cellar and a better library, his house was a pleasant goal for a man who was in need of a brisk walk.” (80)
  • “With his fat, evil face he was like some bloated spider fresh from the weaving of his poisonous web.” (84)
  • The story’s closing line: “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” (93)

In addition, on p. 63 is the usage of “liquor” as a verb (= to drink liquor): “I don’t liquor when I’m training.” (For some other examples, see the OED s.v., mng. 6, where it is said to be slang.)

Conan Doyle is known, of course, especially for the Sherlock Holmes stories, but there’s more to his œuvre than that, and this story merits Mazzeo’s selection and reprinting in Hauntings, as well as, perhaps, your reading.

Mark the music

From an enquiry in the OED on the word “savage” I was led to a line from The Merchant of Venice, which in turn led me to the broader context in Act V of the play. Here is a delightful part of Act V, sc. i about the effects of music.

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 1.31.56 PM

The image above is from this edition, which exhibits such fine typography that I thought it worth giving as such, rather than retyping it; the same text can be found in the original-spelling edition from Oxford, p. 506, and here it is in modernized orthography (from here):


I am never merry when I hear sweet music.


The reason is, your spirits are attentive:
For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

I don’t know that this is one of the better known parts of the play, but it deserves to be.


Orpheus mosaic from Edessa (dated 194 CE)

Proust II

The next paragraph from À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, pt. I. Read on! As always, your responses to the passage are welcome in the comments section. And as an addendum to the previous post, here is the famous Summarize Proust Competition from Monty Python, which I neglected to mention there!

Quant au professeur Cottard, on le reverra, longuement, beaucoup plus loin, chez la Patronne, au château de la Raspelière. Qu’il suffise actuellement, à son égard, de faire observer ceci : pour Swann, à la rigueur le changement peut surprendre puisqu’il était accompli et non soupçonné de moi quand je voyais le père de Gilberte aux Champs-Élysées, où d’ailleurs ne m’adressant pas la parole il ne pouvait faire étalage devant moi de ses relations politiques (il est vrai que s’il l’eût fait, je ne me fusse peut-être pas aperçu tout de suite de sa vanité car l’idée qu’on s’est faite longtemps d’une personne bouche les yeux et les oreilles ; ma mère pendant trois ans ne distingua pas plus le fard qu’une de ses nièces se mettait aux lèvres que s’il eût été invisiblement dissous entièrement dans un liquide ; jusqu’au jour où une parcelle supplémentaire, ou bien quelque autre cause amena le phénomène appelé sursaturation ; tout le fard non aperçu cristallisa, et ma mère, devant cette débauche soudaine de couleurs déclara, comme on eût fait à Combray, que c’était une honte, et cessa presque toute relation avec sa nièce). Mais pour Cottard au contraire, l’époque où on l’a vu assister aux débuts de Swann chez les Verdurin était déjà assez lointaine ; or les honneurs, les titres officiels viennent avec les années ; deuxièmement, on peut être illettré, faire des calembours stupides, et posséder un don particulier qu’aucune culture générale ne remplace, comme le don du grand stratège ou du grand clinicien. Ce n’est pas seulement en effet comme un praticien obscur, devenu, à la longue, notoriété européenne, que ses confrères considéraient Cottard. Les plus intelligents d’entre les jeunes médecins déclarèrent – au moins pendant quelques années, car les modes changent étant nées elles-mêmes du besoin de changement – que si jamais ils tombaient malades, Cottard était le seul maître auquel ils confieraient leur peau. Sans doute ils préféraient le commerce de certains chefs plus lettrés, plus artistes, avec lesquels ils pouvaient parler de Nietzsche, de Wagner. Quand on faisait de la musique chez Mme Cottard, aux soirées où elle recevait, avec l’espoir qu’il devînt un jour doyen de la Faculté, les collègues et les élèves de son mari, celui-ci, au lieu d’écouter, préférait jouer aux cartes dans un salon voisin. Mais on vantait la promptitude, la profondeur, la sûreté de son coup d’œil, de son diagnostic. En troisième lieu, en ce qui concerne l’ensemble de façons que le professeur Cottard montrait à un homme comme mon père, remarquons que la nature que nous faisons paraître dans la seconde partie de notre vie n’est pas toujours, si elle l’est souvent, notre nature première développée ou flétrie, grossie ou atténuée ; elle est quelquefois une nature inverse, un véritable vêtement retourné. Sauf chez les Verdurin qui s’étaient engoués de lui, l’air hésitant de Cottard, sa timidité, son amabilité excessives, lui avaient, dans sa jeunesse, valu de perpétuels brocards. Quel ami charitable lui conseilla l’air glacial ? L’importance de sa situation lui rendit plus aisé de le prendre. Partout, sinon chez les Verdurin où il redevenait instinctivement lui-même, il se rendit froid, volontiers silencieux, péremptoire quand il fallait parler, n’oubliant pas de dire des choses désagréables. Il put faire l’essai de cette nouvelle attitude devant des clients qui, ne l’ayant pas encore vu, n’étaient pas à même de faire des comparaisons, et eussent été bien étonnés d’apprendre qu’il n’était pas un homme d’une rudesse naturelle. C’est surtout à l’impassibilité qu’il s’efforçait, et même dans son service d’hôpital, quand il débitait quelques-uns de ces calembours qui faisaient rire tout le monde, du chef de clinique au plus récent externe, il le faisait toujours sans qu’un muscle bougeât dans sa figure d’ailleurs méconnaissable depuis qu’il avait rasé barbe et moustaches.

A poem by Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah

Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah (1889-1988) — his last name is sometimes spelled Naimy in English — was born of Christian heritage in Lebanon in the village of Baskinta. He was educated early on in Russian Orthodox schools and later spent around twenty years in America (1911-1932) where he was closely associated with Al-Rābiṭah al-qalamiyyah, “The Pen League,” whose most well-known member was Kahlil Gibran. Nuʿaymah later returned to Lebanon and to this day is considered a luminary of Arabic letters. He is known for The Book of Mirdad, which, I confess I’ve not read yet, but when I was first learning Arabic I studied closely his short story Sāʿat al-kūkū (“The Cuckoo Clock”), of which, as far as I know, there is still unfortunately no English translation. Finally, I will say that there is available here a paper on Nuʿaymah, in particular his views on America and the west, which (despite some irksome typos) is worth the half hour it will take to read it. Nuʿaymah’s work is often of a mystical and pantheistic bent, and whether one is moved by his general philosophical approach or not, there are probably some good hints and reminders for everyone in it, almost all of it in very fine language (at least in Arabic).

This poem comes from a collection titled Hams al-ǧufūn (The Whispering of Eyelids). An English translation of it by Roger Monroe (along with the Arabic text) will be found in Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974). Here I offer my own translation, not because there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned one, but as an exercise for myself and because there’s often merit in variety of renderings. I include the Arabic text in transliteration so that those who don’t know Arabic or its script can at least have some idea of the poem’s sound patterns, notably the line-ending -a/āk.

daḫala ‘l-šayṭānu qalbī fa-raʾá fīhi malʾak
wa-bi-lamḥi ‘l-ṭarfi mā baynahumā ‘štadda ‘l-ʿirāk
ḏā yaqūlu ‘l-baytu baytī fa-yuʿīdu ‘l-qawla ḏāk
wa-ʾanā ʾašhadu mā yaǧrī wa-lā ʾubdiya ḥarāk

sāʾilan rabbī ʾa-fī ‘l-ʾakwāni min rabbi siwāk
ǧabalat qalbī mina ‘l-badʾi yadāhu wa-yadāk

wa-ʾilá ‘l-yawmi ʾarānī fī šukūkin wa-‘rtibāk
lastu ʾadrī ʾa-raǧīm fī fuʾādī ʾam malʾak

Satan entered my heart and saw there an angel,
And in the blink of an eye a quarrel intensified between them.
One said, “This house is mine!” and the other answered back,
I watching without movement,

Asking my Lord, “Is there in all that exists a Lord like you,
Whose hand, and yours, formed my heart?”

Till today I see myself in doubt and bewilderment,
Not knowing whether the Cursed or an angel is in my mind.

A few remarks: The first line about Satan entering the heart may be a reflection of Luke 22:3 (Εἰσῆλθεν δὲ σατανᾶς εἰς Ἰούδαν τὸν καλούμενον Ἰσκαριώτην), John 13:2 (τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα παραδοῖ αὐτὸν Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου), and/or 13:27 (εἰσῆλθεν εἰς ἐκεῖνον ὁ σατανᾶς). The phrase at the beginning of the second line may hark back to 1 Corinthians 15:52 (but the widely propagated Smith-Van Dyke version differently hasفي لحظة في طرفة عين, which strikes me as rather unnatural). In the last line, the word Cursed is an old epithet of Satan in Arabic. The theme of conflicting influences or presences in one’s mind or heart (two words are used in the poem here: qalb in lines 1 and 6, fuʾād in line 8) is, of course, not unique. I’m not in a philosophical enough temperament at the moment to muse on the subject much, so I’ll leave the poet’s words with you for you to have the opportunity to do so when it suits you!

On missing

One way to review the course of your life is by considering the relationships (think of the Beatles’ “In My Life”) — familial, professional, romantic, &c. — that grow and then perhaps die away (only a very small few escape the latter fate, I think). Naturally, not every person with whom we have relationships will ever be missed — some we’re quite happy to be rid of! — and not every time we miss someone occurs thanks to the dying away of a relationship: this latter case may arise merely due to a physical absence of proximity — even when we can still communicate, but sometimes not even that is possible — that has come about due to a confluence of events putting one person in one place and circumstance, one person in another. And there are, too, times when relationships are thought to be dead or moribund, but there is in either party or both of them a palpable sense of loss, be it a loss of habit, of mere company, of mutual sharing and service, of present and future memory, of sex, or of something else still. Look up the word “miss” in your dictionary and you’ll be reminded of its various meanings, but the one in mind here is “to feel — not merely to notice — the absence of someone.” By nature, that someone is a loved or desired someone, else you would not miss them in the first place!

In English we say, “X misses Y,” where the agent X feels the absence of Y and that relationship is construed with X as subject and Y the object in the predicate (type I), but in some other languages, a different construction is the used, with the missed person (or thing) as grammatical subject and the person experiencing the emotional sensation of that person’s absence in the slot of (in)direct object, that is, the person affected by the agent’s being missing (type II). In terms, then, of the English example above, this comes out as “Y is missing to (the detriment of) X.” Languages with this construction include, but are certainly not limited to, French “elle me manque.” Some languages actually have both constructions, as, for example, Latin with the verb carere (type II) over against desiderare and requirere (both type I), and German “ich vermisse dich” (type I) or “du fehlst mir” (type II). (Ancient) Greek constructions with ποθεῖν would be type I, but with the adjective ποθεινός type II, and Arabic اوحشتِني (awḥaštinī) type II, but (from the same root) استوحشتُ لكِ (istawḥaštu laki) type I.

I’ve already hinted at a Beatles song above, but of course there’s a lot more music of various genres and time periods that hangs on the sharp sensation of another’s absence, whether whole songs, like Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” (check out the version from the Dylan/Cash sessions!), or just a line or two, as from “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing\\Many many men can’t see the open road.” From Dylan, among those that immediately come to mind are “Girl from the North Country,” “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “If You See Her, Say Hello,” and, of course, “Tangled Up in Blue” (“But all the while I was alone\\The past was close behind,\\I seen a lot of women\\But she never escaped my mind,\\and I just grew\\Tangled up in blue…. So now I’m goin’ back again,\\I got to get to her somehow.”). Aside from memories themselves making someone missed, there are even things, things looking backward or things looking forward, that may stoke the reminding flames of another’s existence to us, as is reflected in some lines from “Boots of Spanish Leather”: “I might be gone a long ol’ time\\And it’s only that I’m askin’\\Is there something I can send you to remember me by\\To make your time more easy passin’?” Of course, for the singer, the prospect of those boots and the past is all he’s left with by the end of the song.

Allow me a little excursus: while neither directly nor solely tied to the theme of missing, it does have some bearing on it. Do the people for whom songwriters or poets have written love songs, songs of forlornness, or songs of departure come to mind, more to self-referenced existence, during the performance of those songs and poems (not to mention the initial writing), even years later when that loved one is absent, departed (relationally), or dead? It’s hard to imagine that they do not, but for them as well as for those who hear songs or read their poems, the characters in some lyric narrative may be played by different actors at different times; that is, when someone sings or hears some line like “As long as I love you, I’m not free” (the line is from “Abandoned Love”), the “I” may be the same, but the “you” may have some altogether other referent! When we take part in music, poetry, or other literature, we interpret it and even endow it with meaning according to our present circumstances, the current concoction of our memories and experiences, and those circumstances are, of course, also part of a broader net of human memory and experience (such as the song we’re hearing or the text we’re reading). This is something Gadamer (1900-2002 — apparently his philosophy is good for longevity!) points to in Truth and Method (1960):

The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion. (ET, p. 304).

For the Teutonophiles out there, here’s the original:

Es macht die geschichtliche Bewegtheit des menschlichen Daseins aus, daß es keine schlechthinnige Standortgebundenheit besitzt und daher auch niemals einen warhaft geschlossenen Horizont. Der Horizont ist vielmehr etwas, in das wir hineinwandern und das mit uns mitwandert. Dem Beweglichen verschieben sich die Horizonte. So ist auch der Vergangenheitshorizont, aus dem alles menschliche Leben lebt und der in der Weise der Überlieferung da ist, immer schon in Bewegung. (4t ed., p. 288)

So, while the original person for whom or about whom a song, poem, &c. was written will probably never be out of the author’s memory nor will the person first closely associated with some text or song in the memory of a hearer or reader whenever one comes to any such memory-inducer, that doesn’t mean that their “you,” “she,” or “he” will always reflect the same other person.

While thinking on this theme, in my mind I happened upon the line from the book of Jeremiah, “Rachel, weeping for her children, refused to be comforted, because they are not” (Rāḥēl mǝḇakkā ʾel-bānéhā mēʾănā lēhinnāḥēm ʿal-bānéhā kī ʾēnénnū, Jeremiah 31:15), which was also used to notable effect in an episode of Moby Dick‘s plot. Existentially speaking (and speaking at least partly from a notably selfish viewpoint, which is in any case the commonest way most of us have a viewpoint about anything, whether or not we consider ourselves overly selfish!), those people we miss “are not,” that is, from our own perspective we sometimes cannot consider them other than not here, not around. We are obviously not denying their existence in the bald essential sense, although philosophically even that might be considered: how far do I exist to someone who is not thinking of me, in whose presence I am not, but if I am in someone’s presence actively (not necessarily in conversation) or even if I am being missed by that person and not in their physical or even conversational (including phone, email, etc.) presence, to them am I not in some degree more existent from the perspective of their own view?

These are just some admittedly scattered musings. Feel free to sharpen, polish, or expand them with your own reflections in the comments.

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!

A few lines on the devil in Old English

Some of the most appealing parts of ancient and mediaeval — I use these adjectives chronologically, not necessarily culturally — literature are descriptions of gods, heroes, monsters and warlike meetings between any combination of members of those groups. Mythic tales are full of all sorts of such engagements, not infrequently in formulaic language. Of specific battles, the struggle with and defeat of some especially unsavory baddy marks an especial milestone of victory for a hero (see further Neil Forsyth, Satan and the Combat Myth.) One such encounter is described below in one of the Old English poems from the Exeter Book, the poem known as The Panther (lines 58b-64a), in which Jesus’ victory over Satan in the Harrowing of Hell is recounted and celebrated.

                        Þæt is se ealda fēond,
þone hē ġesǣlde on sūsla grund
and ġefeterode fȳrnum tēagum,
beþeahte þrēanīedum, and þȳ þriddan dæġe
of dīgle arās, þæsþe hē dēaþ fore ūs
þrēo niht þolode, Þēoden engla,
sigora Sellend.

Vocabulary and notes

  • eald old (cf. the vowel in “elder”)
  • fēond fiend, enemy. The word is a common epithet of Satan in OE literature (cf. Bosworth-Toller 277), and Luther’s “der alte böse Feind” (from “Ein feste Burg”) also comes immediately to mind.
  • þone masc. acc. sg of the pronoun se “this, that one, he”
  • ġesǣlan to tie up, bind
  • sūsl torment. Often of hell, see Bosworth-Toller 938.
  • grund not only “ground” but, as here, also “abyss”
  • fȳren fiery, from fȳr fire
  • tēag cord, chain (cf. mod. Eng. “tie”)
  • beþeahte is pret. of beþeċċan to cover
  • þrēanīed affliction
  • þȳ masc. instr. sg. of se
  • of note the meaning from, out of, not mod. Eng. “of”
  • dīgol grave (cf. also deāgol, basically “secret, hidden”; note, too, the name of Sméagol’s (i.e. Gollum’s) erstwhile companion and the prior Ring-bearer)
  • arās pret of arīsan to (a)rise
  • þæsþe = when
  • þolian endure, suffer (the pret. here following the conjunction þæsþe probably best rendered with pluperfect)
  • Þēoden prince, lord, chieftain. Cf. the name of Tolkien’s king of Rohan, Théoden.
  • sigor victory
  • sellend giver. The phrases Þēoden engla and sigora Sellend make a nice parallelism with formal chiasm, that is, we have nominative+genitive then genitive+nominative.


He is the old enemy,
Whom the Prince of angels and victories’ Giver
Bound in the abyss of torments,
Fettered with fiery chains,
Covered with grievous afflictions,
And when for us he’d suffered three nights’ death,
On the third day from the grave arose.

Orlando Furioso and the Hulk

I recently had the opportunity to look through a 1584 Venetian edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s (1474-1533) Orlando Furioso, a classic of Italian and European literature, and a really long poem: it is written in ottava rima, an eight-line rhyming stanza with the pattern abababcc and goes for 38,736 lines, noticeably longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Continuing Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato of 1495, the poem is set among the Frankish-Saracen wars with Charlemagne, with elements of the Arthurian and Carolingian cycles (“the Matter of Britain” and “the Matter of France”) fused together. This edition by Francesco Franceschi that I examined has decorative engravings (from metal) at the beginning of each of the poem’s forty-six cantos, and very brief annotationi end each one. The book is almost entirely in italic. In the copy I saw, a commentary is bound with the text of the poem itself: Alberto Lavezvola’s Osservationi sopra il Furioso, also from Venice in the same year. The annotations to the edition of the poem, Lavezvola’s Osservationi, and another book I also perused, the almost 800-page La spositione sopra l’Orlando Furioso di M. Ludovico Ariosto (Florence, 1549/50; 1549 is on the title page, June 1550 in the colophon) of Simon Fornari da Rheggio, bear witness to the close attention readers devoted to Ariosto’s work. The first English translation of the poem (also in verse), the work of John Harrington, was published in 1591; there have been a number of subsequent translations, including John Hoole’s in rhyming couplets, an excerpt of which appears below.

Orlando’s madness, which gives the poem its name — remember, too, how Achilles’ wrath, a kind of madness, is the very first thing we meet in the Iliad — is born in the wake of his learning that the beautiful Angelica, whom he’s been chasing, has run off in marriage to the Saracen knight Medoro, whom she’s healed (see the end of Canto 23). Upon seeing their joined names inscribed in trees, mountains, etc. (“Infelice quell’antro, ed ogni stelo // In cui Medoro e Angelica si legge!”), he goes mad. While it does not include, I think, many other elements of the Hulk mythology, the scene of Orlando’s entering his raging madness makes a close parallel of the Bruce Banner-Hulk metamorphosis, and when I read Ariosto’s account of Orlando’s unhinged response to Angelica’s marriage with Medoro, the Hulk is just what I thought of. Here are some lines from the event in Hoole’s rendering:

The fourth dire morn, with frantic rage possest,
He rends the armour from his back and breast:
Here lies the helmet, there the bossy shield,
Cuishes and cuirass further spread the field;
And all his other arms, at random strow’d,
In divers parts he scatters through the wood;
Then from his body strips the covering vest,
And bares his sinewy limbs and hairy chest;
And now begins such feats of boundless rage,
As far and near th’ astonished world engage.

His sword he left, else had his dreadful hand
With blood and horror fill’d each wasted land:
But little pole-axe, sword, or mace he needs
T’ assist his strength, that every strength exceeds.
First his huge grasp a lofty pine up-tears
Sheer by the roots; the like another fares
Of equal growth; as easy round him strow’d,
As lowly weeds, or shrubs, or dwarfish wood.
Vast oaks and elms before his fury fall;
The stately fir, tough ash, and cedar tall.
As when a fowler for the field prepares
His sylvan warfare; ere he spreads his snares,
From stubble, reeds, and furze, th’ obstructed land
Around he clears: no less Orlando’s hand
Levels the trees that long had tower’d above,
For rolling years the glory of the grove!
The rustic swains that ‘mid the woodland shade
Heard the loud crash, forsook their flocks that stray’d
Without a shepherd, while their masters flew
To learn the tumult and the wonder view.

Ariosto’s fantastical poem — it includes hippogriffs, for example, and a trip, not only to Ethiopia (surely fantastic at the time), but even to the moon (this was not the first trip to the moon in European literature, though: the 2nd-cent. CE author Lucian had already described such a voyage in his Greek True Story) — seems, while certainly known to and cherished by some littérateurs, generally to be on the further end of literary ken, a position undeserved. Maybe this little highlight will go some small way toward rectifying that state.

In my next “Italian with the Poets” post I’ll go through this passage with a little commentary. Till then, happy metamorphoses, into and out of madness.

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