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Sunday: February 5, 2012

More Significant Than ’42’?

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On his fifty-sixth birthday, Terry Teachout laments that “56 is a thoroughly uninteresting number”. Au contraire: it is quite significant as a birthday, perhaps the most significant birthday of all.

Solon was the first (or one of the first) to write on the ‘Ages of Man’ theme, best known to English-speakers from Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue in As You Like It, II.7. Where Shakespeare distinguished seven ages with no specific lengths in years, Solon had divided the life of man into ten ‘hebdomads’ or periods of seven years each. I quoted the whole passage (Fragment 27, in M. L. West’s English translation) without comment on my fifty-sixth birthday. The most important part for Terry is lines 13-18:

With seven hebdomads and eight – fourteen more years –
    wisdom and eloquence are at their peak,
while in the ninth, though he’s still capable, his tongue
    and expertise have lost some of their force.

For the mathematically-impaired, that means that one’s mental peak (or perhaps plateau, given its extent) is from the 42nd to the 56th birthday, and after that it’s all downhill. Welcome to the downhill slope, Terry.

Monday: November 9, 2009

An Unfortunate Coincidence of Names

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Prufrock Press is “the nation’s leading resource for gifted and talented children and gifted education programs”. I hope the name is not a literary allusion. Gifted and talented children have enough trouble with accusations of nerdliness and worse: they really don’t need to be associated with J. Alfred Prufrock, who couldn’t decide whether he dared to eat a peach or whether he should “wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach”.

Wednesday: May 13, 2009

Quotation of the Day

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Emily Dickinson at her coldest and clearest:

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

Saturday: January 3, 2009

Horace Kippled

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D. A. West, in Horace Odes I: Carpe Diem, Oxford 1995, 6-7:

In Horace the tone is often elusive. Perhaps the nearest thing in English is the parody [of Odes 1.1] by Kipling in ‘A Diversity of Creatures’:

There are whose study is of smells,
    Who to attentive schools rehearse
How something mixed with something else
    Makes something worse.

Some cultivate in broths impure
    The clients of our body; these,
Increasing without Venus, cure
    Or cause disease.

Others the heated wheel extol,
    And all its offspring, whose concern
Is how to make it farthest roll
    And fastest turn.

Me, much incurious if the hour
    Present, or to be paid for, brings
Me to Brundisium by the power
    Of wheels or wings,

Me, in whose breast no flame has burned
    Life long, save that by Pindar lit,
Such lore leaves cold; nor have I turned
    Aside for it,

More than when, sunk in thought profound
    of what the unaltered Gods require,
My steward (friend but slave) brings round
    Logs for my fire.

Tuesday: November 11, 2008


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I’m not sure why my comments aren’t working, and why I can’t even use FTP. Until I can fix that, readers may contact me by e-mail at the following address, after carefully reversing it: gro.liveewrd@liveewrd.

Saturday: November 1, 2008

Milton on Reading

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                              However many books
Wise men have said are wearisom; who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep verst in books and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a spunge;
As Childern gathering pibles on the shore.

(Paradise Regain’d, 4.322-30)

Sunday: May 25, 2008

Paradise Lost II

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Notes from my reading of Book II:

1. Again the passage that most struck me was a classicizing bit, a simile describing Satan’s journey through Chaos (943-50):

As when a Gryfon through the Wilderness
With winged course ore Hill or moarie Dale,
Persues the Arimaspian, who by stelth
Had from his wakeful custody purloind
The guarded Gold: So eagerly the Fiend
Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet persues his way,
And swims or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flyes:

This has some resemblance rhetorically to 7.501-3, though the latter is more neatly laid out in threes:

                    Earth in her rich attire
Consummat lovly smil’d; Aire, Water, Earth,
By Fowl, Fish, Beast, was flown, was swum, was walkt

Milton does not mention that the Arimaspians were traditionally one-eyed: did he not think it important, or assume that his readers already knew? ‘Moarie’ is not in the Shorter O.E.D. or www.dictionary.com, and must be a form of ‘moory’, meaning ‘marshy, fenny’.

2. The account of the origins of Sin and Death, featuring rape, incest, head-birth, and bestial transmogrification, manages to outdo Hesiod in gruesomeness.

3. It’s interesting that the music of the fallen angels (546-51) is epic or panegyric, sung “With notes Angelical to many a harp” about themselves and their deeds. The effect is rather Homeric.

Saturday: May 24, 2008

Paradise Lost I

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I started a new job two months ago, and now teach part-time at two different high schools. Oddly, I seem to have more spare time for reading now, partly because I have to get to work at the new school at 7:00 to avoid rush-hour traffic, but don’t meet any of my students until 8:15. In the last month, I’ve read half a dozen novels and the first seven books of Paradise Lost, a work I had not read since college. (That would have been 1972 or 1973.) It seems appropriate to blog some desultory thoughts on the work, perhaps three per book. I’ll write about the novels tomorrow.

1. The passage in Book I that most struck me as particularly worth quoting was the description of Mammon, principal architect in Heaven and now in Hell (738-51):

Nor was his name unheard or unador’d
In ancient Greece; and in Ausonian land
Men calld him Mulciber; and how he fell
From Heav’n, they fabl’d, thrown by angry Jove
Sheer ore the Crystal Battlements: from Morn
To Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve,
A Summers day; and with the setting Sun
Dropd from the Zenith like a falling Starr,
On Lemnos th’ Aegaean Ile: thus they relate,
Erring; for hee with this rebellious rout
Fell long before; nor aught availd him now
To have built in Heav’n high Towrs; nor did he scape
By all his Engins, but was headlong sent
With his industrious crew to build in Hell.

2. The only non-famous line that was particularly familiar after all these years was 307:

Busiris and his Memphian Chivalrie

3. Right from the start, I’ve found the poem entertaining, sometimes even hypnotic, but also insubstantial: far more words than matter. So far from being a peer of Homer, Vergil, and Dante, Milton seems a poet in roughly the same class as Statius or Claudian. Is this unfair? He seems to do a mediocre job of justifying the ways of God to men.

Thursday: March 1, 2007

An Epitaph by Lope de Vega

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Enseñé, no me escucharon;
escribí, no me leyeron;
curé mal, no me entendieron;
maté, no me castigaron;

Ya con morir satisfice;
oh muerte, quiero quejarme,
bien pudieras perdonarme
por servicios que te hice.

I lectured, they did not listen to me;
I wrote, they did not read me;
I ministered badly, they did not understand;
I killed, they did not punish me;

Now, by dying, I have paid in full.
Death, I wish to lodge a complaint:
you might well have pardoned me
for my services to you.

Sunday: July 16, 2006


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Just as some of the minor poetasters of the 17th century would be utterly forgotten today if they had not been fortunate enough to be mocked in Pope’s Dunciad, some of the bands of the late 20th century, including many that were and are admired by critics or the general public or both, will only be remembered in a century or two because they were fortunate enough to be mocked by Beavis and Butt-Head.

Monday: May 29, 2006

Memorial Day Texts

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(This is a rewrite of a previous Memorial Day post.)

1. Simonides’ epitaph on the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae:

o xeîn’, aggéllein Lakedaimoníois hóti têide
    keímetha toîs keínon peithómenoi nomímois.

Stranger, tell the Lacedemonians that we lie here, obedient to their laws/customs.

(I’ve underlined the etas and omegas to distinguish them from epsilon and omicron.) The epitaph appeals to the passerby to deliver the message because these men died and were buried far from Sparta: with no post offices or telephones in the ancient world, epitaphs for those who died away from home were often in the form “If you are ever in the town of X, tell Y the son of Z that his son is buried here, far from home”. The only way to send the message was to have it ‘hitchhike’ with someone who happened to be headed in the right direction. In this case, specific names are unnecessary.

Simonides was one of the greatest Greek poets, though little of his work survives — just enough to show us what we’re missing. He was particularly known for his elegies, epitaphs, and threnodies — all the gloomier genres — which were simple and moving. His epitaphs were written for the actual monuments, not as literary exercises. This is Simonides XXIIb in the Oxford Classical Text of Epigrammata Graeca and (with commentary) Further Greek Epigrams, both edited by D. L. Page. The meter is elegiac couplet. Other sources give the last two words as rhémasi peithómenoi, “obedient to their words”. However, whether he said that the Spartans were “obedient to the words” (= commands) of their kings or “obedient to the customs” of their country, it means that they were willing to follow orders without question even when there was no chance of survival. The word I have translated “obedient to” also means “persuaded by” — a nice example of small-d democracy in the very structure of the Greek language. The movie Go Tell The Spartans takes its title from Simonides’ epitaph, either directly or (perhaps through Cicero) indirectly.

2. Cicero’s paraphrase, from Tusculan Disputations 1.101:

Dic, hospes, Spartae, nos te hic vidisse iacentes
    dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequimur.

Stranger, tell Sparta that you saw us lying here, as we obey the sacred laws of our fatherland.

3. A. E. Housman, More Poems XXXVI:

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

The first two lines are a paraphrase of Simonides, generalized for all nations. The last two are Housman’s own addition, though the thought is very pagan and very Greek. Housman’s little poem achieves an impressive degree of Simonidean simplicity. Every word but two is monosyllabic, and even the exceptions hardly count, since ‘nothing’ was originally ‘no thing’ and ‘because’ originally (I think) ‘by cause’. It’s odd that a professional Latinist should write such a thoroughly unLatin poem: just about every word is pure Anglo-Saxon.

Wednesday: March 1, 2006

Supreme Erudition

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Terry Teachout quotes some words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., on his 90th birthday:

And so I end with a line from a Latin poet who uttered the message more than fifteen hundred years ago:

“Death plucks my ear and says, Live—I am coming.”

I thought it was odd that Holmes did not name the Latin poet, but it turns out that he is anonymous, or at least pseudonymous. The quoted words are a very close translation of the last line of Pseudo-Vergil’s Copa (“The Barmaid”), on-line here:

Mors aurem vellens «vivite» ait, «venio».

Holmes obviously knows that this is Pseudo-Vergil, since the original Vergil had been dead for 1950 years when he spoke. Of course, his 1500 years is just a very rough guess, and von Albrecht’s History of Roman Literature (to look no further) puts the Copa in the Augustan age.

Monday: November 7, 2005

My Favorite Poem

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As promised in the preceding post, here is a very literal prose translation of my favorite poem, Propertius 2.29 (Latin text here and — with vocabulary and translation notes — here). I don’t know how much will come through in translation:

Very late at night, my light, while I was wandering drunk, and no band [1] of slaves was leading me, I don’t know how many boys [2], a tiny crowd, crossed my path (fear forbade me to number them); some of whom seemed to be holding torchlets, some arrows, and part even seemed to be readying chains for me.
But [3] they were naked. One more impudent [or ‘lewder’] than the rest said: “Arrest this man: you already know him well. [4] This was he, this one the angry woman instructed us to deal with.” He spoke, and already the knot was on my neck.
Next another bids them push me into their midst, and another, “Let him go in the middle, [5] who does not think us gods! This one is waiting for undeserving you to all hours [of the night]: but you, fool, are seeking I don’t know what doors. When that one has loosened the nocturnal bonds of her Sidonian nightcap and stirred her heavy eyes, odors will waft upon you not from the Arabs’ herb, but those which Love himself has made with his own hands.
Spare him now, brothers, now he pledges true love; and look, now we have reached the house to which we were ordered to come.” And when my clothes had been thrown back on, they said: “Go now and learn to stay home nights!”
It was dawn, and I decided to visit, if she was resting alone, but Cynthia was alone in her bed. I was stunned: that one had never seemed more beautiful to me, not even when she was in her purple tunic and was on her way to tell her dreams to chaste Vesta, so that they would not harm either herself or me in any way. Thus she seemed to me, released by recent sleep. Oh how strong is the power of beauty in itself!
“What?” she said, “you are an early morning girlfriend inspector [6]. Do you think I am like your habits? [7] I am not so easy: one man known to me will be enough, either you or if someone [else] can be truer. No marks can be seen pressed into the bed, nor any indication that two have lain rolling to and fro. Look how no breath [8] rises up from my whole body, familiar when adultery has been committed.” She has spoken, and driving away my kisses with opposed right hand, leaps forth, resting her foot on a loose slipper.
Thus am I mocked as the guardian of so chaste a love: since then I have had no happy night.

A few necessary notes:

  1. manus is a pun, since it means both “hand” and “band, squad”.
  2. The boys are at the same time fugitivarii (fugitive slave-catchers), cupids, and pueri minuti (impudent children kept for the amusement of adults, like pets).
  3. sed, “but”, because nudity is appropriate only to cupids.
  4. Fugitivarii were often hired among acquaintances of the runaway. Since Propertius was a love-poet, the boys also know him well in their role as cupids.
  5. intereat is another pun, since it means both “let him go in the middle” and “let him die”.
  6. A speculator is actually a “scout”, a military reconnaissance-man, but I couldn’t use that word, since it makes the narrator sound like a Boy Scout.
  7. The “you” implied by “your habits” is plural, so she must mean “the habits of you men”.
  8. Though vague, this seems to refer to an odor, not heavy breathing.

Thursday: October 20, 2005

Never Send A Machine To Do A Man’s Job

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Lileks finds some coded Latin, but concludes that it must be gibberish, since the online Latin translator couldn’t handle it. That just shows how stupid machines are. It is not quite classical Latin, but close enough to have a meaning. Lileks’ text is missing the first letter — easy enough when it’s written in Morse code and the letter is an I. It should read:


Classical Latin would spell the second word GYRUM and the last one IGNE, but this is good Mediaeval (aka Vulgar) Latin. It means “At night we go into a gyre [= whirl/circle/ring] and are consumed by fire”. That’s not a very clear or satisfying meaning, but better than average for palindromes. With one more syllable at the beginning, it would be an epic (dactylic hexameter) line: again, that’s probably the best meter we can expect from a palindrome. The version with ECCE (“look!”) inserted after NOCTE fulfills (barely) the minimum requirements for a hexameter, but the meaning is even clunkier.

This site has some interesting, but not entirely accurate, information on the words (click on Palindromes – it’s the first one on the right). I don’t see anything macaronic about the line, and suspect that a moth would be at least as likely as a mayfly to fly in circles and be consumed by fire. I wonder if this gyre has anything to do with the one Yeats asked someone or other to perne in in “Sailing to Byzantium”.

Wednesday: July 6, 2005

Petronius On Kisses

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Since today is International Kissing Day, here’s a little poem attributed to Petronius (Fragment 54 in the collections, though it doesn’t look particularly fragmentary):

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas
et taedet Veneris statim peractae.
non ergo ut pecudes libidinosae
caeci protinus irruamus illuc
(nam languescit amor peritque flamma);
sed sic sic sine fine feriati
et tecum iaceamus osculantes.
hic nullus labor est ruborque nullus:
hoc iuvit, iuvat et diu iuvabit;
hoc non deficit incipitque semper.

And here is Ben Jonson’s translation (Underwood 88):

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay,
But thus, thus, keeping endless Holy-day,
Let us together closely lie, and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

Line 6 (“thus, thus”) seems to depict or enact the kiss itself, and is even more effectively alliterative in the Latin (sed sic sic sine fine). Jonson’s “Holy-day” is what we would call a holiday. I doubt that our author is particularly sincere in impugning “doing” (coitus) in favor of kissing.

Friday: July 1, 2005

Thought For The Day

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Critical Mass and Our Girl in Chicago both link to an amusing attack on writers’ workshops. I couldn’t help thinking of one of Kingsley Amis’ apophthegms:

If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the War, it’s Workshop.

In searching the web for the exact phrasing, I found that I had forgotten the sequel:

After Youth, that is.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with the sort of workshop that contains power tools or more primitive equivalents.

Thursday: May 26, 2005

Interesting Locution

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Responding to rumors of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s demise, Will Collier of VodkaPundit writes “I certainly hope the murderous son of a bitch is assuming room temperature in Hell”. And what temperature would that be? I suppose it depends on the room. A toasty 475° F. or so, to broil Zarqawi to a nice golden brown? Or something more thermonuclear, like 8,540° F.? (If I’ve understood it correctly, this site gives 5,000 Kelvin as the temperature of a typical nuclear explosion, and that comes to roughly 8,540° Fahrenheit.) Or would “room temperature in Hell” be icy cold, as depicted in Dante’s Inferno? As I recall (it’s been a while), what Dante and Vergil find at the bottom of Hell’s pit is three-headed Satan, encased in ice up to his waist and chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius with his three mouths. Which raises an interesting question: after the events of the last hundred years, if not before, have Brutus and Cassius been demoted to ordinary lowest-circle traitors and replaced in Satan’s extra mouths by more recent arrivals? By today’s standards, they would find it difficult to make the junior varsity team of great criminals.

Wednesday: May 25, 2005

Quotations on Birth and Death

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A few days ago, Eugene Volokh quoted some “Wisdom from the old country” (Russia), passed along by his father:

We die as we are born: without hair, without teeth, and without illusions.

This sounds rather Senecan, though I’ve been unable to find such a quotation in his works. While searching, I ran across a couple of others that are worth quoting, though only tangentially related. The first is from the rhetorician Cestius Pius, quoted in the Elder Seneca’s Controversiae (7.1.9):

Multas rerum natura mortis vias aperuit, et multis itineribus fata decurrunt, et haec est condicio miserrima humani generis, quod nascimur uno modo, multis morimur: laqueus, gladius, praeceps locus, venenum, naufragium, mille aliae mortes insidiantur huic miserrimae animae.

Nature has opened up many paths of death, the fates arrive by many routes, and the most wretched condition of the human race is this, that we are born in only one way, but die in many: noose, sword, cliff, poison, shipwreck, a thousand other deaths lie in ambush for this most wretched life of ours.

Pedantic footnote: Just plain ‘Seneca’ is the more famous Younger Seneca, Stoic philosopher, tragic poet, adviser and later victim of Nero. This is his father, the Elder Seneca, always distinguished as such, who compiled all the best arguments and wittiest remarks of all the contemporary orators, including Cestius Pius. Before running across this quotation on the web, I had known Cestius only as the target of one of the most brutal put-downs ever. Like many a professor today, he apparently went downhill intellectually as he aged, and the Elder Seneca records that his former student Marcus Argentarius, Latin orator and Greek epigrammatist, used to go around swearing per manes magistri mei Cestii, “by the [dead] soul of my teacher Cestius”, when Cestius was still alive.

The second quotation is modern, and needed no web-search to find: I just had to find the book. In Doctor Drink (1950), J. V. Cunningham expands the comparison to cover three times of life, but with only one thing in common:

Epitaph for Someone or Other

Naked I came, naked I leave the scene,
And naked was my pastime in between.

Friday: April 29, 2005

Variations on a Theme

Filed under: — site admin @ 10:14 PM GMT-0500

The first two are well-known, but I’m particularly (perversely?) fond of the third. I ran across it years ago in a four-volume edition of Belloc’s verse, and have been looking for it ever since. The weblogger who calls herself The Rat recently quoted the second poem, which reminded me to look for the third once again. I was delighted to find that it has finally turned up on the web, though I don’t much care for the I Love Poetry site where I found it (too cutesy, even if the snuggly polar bears would make an excellent wedding card for one particular blogger):

I. Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), from Sonnets pour Hélène:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos:
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Cueillez d´s aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

If you can’t handle 16th-century French, there are English translations here (Humbert Wolfe) and here (Anthony Weir — scroll down past the Albanian stuff).

II. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), “When you are old”:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

III. Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), “The Fragment”:

Towards the evening of her splendid day
Those who are little children now shall say
(Finding this verse), ‘Who wrote it, Juliet?’
And Juliet answer gently, ‘I forget.’