Mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountes

Some of what is best in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are the transit passages – moving through nature in passing from one human zone to another.  For all the poet enjoys describing life at court, he also shows a surprising – for the time – attentiveness to natural landscapes.


And went on his way with his wyye one,
That schulde teche hym to tourne to that tene place
Ther the ruful race he schulde resayve.
They bowen bi bonkkes ther boghes ar bare,
Thay clomben bi clyffes ther clenges the colde,
The heven was up half, bot ugly therunder;
Mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountes,
Uch hille hade a hatte, a myst hakel huge,
Brokes byled and breke bi bonkkes aboute,
Schyre schaterande on schores ther thay doun schowved.
Wela wylle was the way ther thay bi wod schulden…. (2074-2084)

Then he went on his way with the one whose task
was to point out the road to that perilous plcae
where the knight would receive the slaughterman’s strikel
They scrambled up bankings where branches were bare,
clambered up cliff faces crazed by the cold.
The clouds which had climbed now cooled and dropped
so the moors and the mountains were muzzy with mist
and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head.
The streams on the slopes seemed to fume and foam,
whitening the waysid with spume and spray.
They wandered onwards through teh wildest woods (Simon Armitage translation)

We are gripped by the anguish of one who is always turning away from wonderful riches in whichever direction he goes

From Ernst Junger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios:

It often appears to us that the purpose of the depths is to generate the surface, that rainbow-colored skin of the world whose sight so intensely moves us.  In other moments, this colorful patterns appears to be composed only of signs and letters by which the depths speak to us of their secrets.  Consequently, whether we live within or without, we are gripped by the anguish of one who is always turning away from wonderful riches in whichever direction he goes.  Anxiety seizes us during the austere enjoyment of solitude, just as at the festively decorated table of the world. (On Crystallography, pgs 3-4)

Knowledge of the world is the dissolution of the solidity of the world

From Italo Calvino’s Lezioni Americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (translated as Six Memos for the Next Millenium):

For Ovid too everything can be transformed into new forms; so also for Ovid knowledge of the world is the dissolution of the solidity of the world;  And for Ovid there is an essential parity among all things that exist – in contrast to every hierarchy of powers and values.  If the world of Lucretius is made of unchangeable atoms, that of Ovid is made of qualities, attributes, and forms that define the diversity of all things – plants, animals, and people; But these are only weak casings of a common substance that – if stirred with deep passion – can be changed into what is most different.

Anche per Ovidio tutto può trasformarsi in nuove forme; anche per Ovidio la
conoscenza del mondo è dissoluzione della compattezza del mondo;
anche per Ovidio c’è una parità essenziale tra tutto ciò che
esiste, contro ogni gerarchia di poteri e di valori. Se il mondo
di Lucrezio è fatto d’atomi inalterabili, quello d’Ovidio è fatto
di qualità, d’attributi, di forme che definiscono la diversità
d’ogni cosa e pianta e animale e persona; ma questi non sono che
tenui involucri d’una sostanza comune che, – se agitata da
profonda passione – può trasformarsi in quel che vi è di più

For thagh men ben mery quen they han mayn drynk

I don’t properly know Middle English.  I can mostly get through it with a crib translation, but my grammar is too hazy to come out on top in some alliterative clusters where the context alone doesn’t make the different roles clear – as is the case in line 4 of the below excerpt from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which has stumped me for a while now.

The original:
Gawan watz glad to begynne those gomnes in halle,
Bot thagh the ende be hevy, haf ye no wonder;
For thagh men ben mery quen they han mayn drynk,
A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldez never lyke;
The forme to the fynisment foldez ful selden (495-499)

The Simon Armitage poetic rendering (Norton, 2007):
And Gawain had been glad to begin the game,
but don’t be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped:
for men might be merry when addled with mead
but each year, short lived, is unlike the last
and rarely resolves in the style it arrived

The James Winny mostly literal rendering (Broadview, 1992):
Gawain was glad enough to begin those games in the hall,
But if the outcomes prove troublesome don’t be surpised;
For though men are light-hearted when they have strong drink,
A year pass swiftly, never bringing the same:
Beginning and ending selom take the same form.

My literal but illiterate rendering:
Gawain was glad to to begin those games in the hall,
but that the conclusion was harsh, have no wonder;
For though men become merry when they have many a drink,
A year seeks fulfillment swiftly but never yields the same [kind of year],
The [initial] appearance full seldom agrees with the conclusion.

I take “A yere yernes ful yerne” as:
yere – year (subject)
yernes – desire (verb)
But I’m using the poorly attested secondary meaning from the Univerity of Michigan Middle English Dictionary entry for yernen
yerne – swiftly (adv)

I think there are two problems here.  First – ‘yernen’ has to be taken with a rare secondary sense and the translators I’ve looked at appear – understandably – to glide over this difficulty by giving preference to dictates of context.  Second – I think the poet’s image itself lacks full logical continuity.  The situation in lines 1-2 (Gawain begins his task lightly but concludes in different manner) is supposed to be clarified by a parallel example in lines 3-4.  The import of both examples is then summed up by the gnomic line 5.  Easy enough.  But the shift in focus from 3-4 (men are happy when they drink/ but a year passes quickly..) is so violent that the intended elaborating power feels lost to me.  I can still only guess what 3-4 ‘needs’ to mean by setting it aside what precedes and what follows.  Now it’s lunch and I’ve earned my ‘mayn drynk’

and downe sate Sisyphus uppon his rolling stone

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on Orpheus’ performing in the underworld.  The translation is Arthur Golding’s.

Talia dicentem nervosque ad verba moventem
exsangues flebant animae: nec Tantalus undam
captavit refugam, stupuitque Ixionis orbis,
nec carpsere iecur volucres, urnisque vacarunt
Belides, inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo (10.40-44)

As he this tale did tell,
And played on his instrument, the bloodlesse ghostes shed teares:
To tyre on Titius growing hart the greedy Grype forbeares:
The shunning water Tantalus endevereth not to drink:
And Danaus daughters ceast to fill theyr tubbes that have no brink.
Ixions wheele stood still: and downe sate Sisyphus uppon
His rolling stone.

What is God, what is not God, and what lies between

From Euripides’ Helen:

ὅ τι θεὸς ἢ μὴ θεὸς ἢ τὸ μέσον,
τίς φησ᾽ ἐρευνήσας βροτῶν
μακρότατον πέρας ηὑρεν
ὃς τὰ θεῶν ἐσορᾷ
δεῦρο καὶ αὖθις ἐκεῖσε
καὶ πάλιν ἀντιλόγοις
πηδῶντ᾽ ἀνελπίστοις τύχαις; (1137-42)

What is God, what is not God, and what lies between –
Who among mortals can search out and tell?
The farthest limit has he found,
who looks upon the things sent by the gods
as springing here and now there
and back again with contradictory
and unanticipated fortunes.


Because the butterflies are dying out

From Ernst Junger’s Aladdin’s Problem:

Kornfeld was a renowned sculptor, but he no longer practiced.  He said: “We sculptors are like the butterfly collectors who hang up their nets because the butterflies are dying out.  For us, it is heads that are growing rare …”

He added: “For me, a tyranny would be advantageous, though naturally, I can’t say that out loud.”

“But Herr Kornfeld – our experiences would tend to confirm the opposite.”

“My dear Baroh, you are confusing tyrants and demagogues – that is a common error in our time.  The demagogue stirs one and the same dough; he is a pastry chef, at best a plasterer and painter.  The tyrant supplies individual shapes.  Down to his bodyguards.  Think of the Renaissance: tyrants ruled everywhere, from every small town up to the Vatican.  That was the great era for sculptors, for art in general.”

I recognize the style of the Roman Curia

Paolo Sarpi was a  16th-17th century Venetian monk and later statesman who argued for the liberty of the Venetian Republic against the Pope’s efforts to bring it under closer control and, more broadly, for a division of power between church and state.  In doing so he angered the pope enough to draw down an assassination attempt that left him for dead with 15 stiletto wounds.  But he survived and, through his joking reply to his surgeon’s comment on the nastiness of the wounds, we all gained one of the most spirited puns in history:

Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae

I recognize the style of the Roman Curia

(Stylum as style, stiletto, and pen (that signed the order).)

Sarpi is maybe the only person, real or fictional, whose response to a stabbing beats Mercutio’s in Romeo and Juliet

No, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but ’tis enough,’twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man (3.1.something)

Such a notion could not, of course, coexist with any clear sense of spatial geometry

From Martin West’s The Orphic Poems in his commentary on the Derveni papyrus theogony.

But although civic calendars were based on the moon, it was of no use to those who really needed to know the time of year.  They went by the stars.  If Orpheus’ ‘many’ has a point, I wonder whether he imagined that the moon’s phases were different as seen from different parts of the earth, so that there were always some peoples to whom it was invisible.  Such a notion could not, of course, coexist with any clear sense of spatial geometry. (pg 93)

West was always one of the most dryly funny classicists.  This jab in particular hits home because I had the same debate a few months back on moon phases seen from different places on the earth.  I managed to reason to it but it took shamefully long.