I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street, without a tutor by my side

From Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (my page numbers are from the original printing, though there is a recent reprint by Pushkin Press).  Vignettes of Giacomo Leopardi’s father, whose own autobiography – surprisingly still in print, blessed be small Italian publishers – I’m now trying to obtain of a copy of.

…And a few days later Napoleon himself rode through [Recanati], on his way to Rome.  He rode hastily, Conte Monaldo related, surrounded by guards with their hands on the trigger of their muskets, and all the population turned out to see him. “But I”, wrote the Count, “refused to approach the window, thinking it too great an honour for such a villain, that an honest man should rise to see him pass.” (pg4)


…When barely eighteen, he assumed, as head of the family, the complete management of the whole property – yet he was still forbidden by his mother to go out of the house, unless accompanied by his preceptor.  This restriction, although not unusual in families such as his, was particularly galling to Monaldo. “To this day,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “although I am the father of twelve children (living and dead), a magistrate of the city, and forty-eight years of age, I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street, without a tutor by my side.” (pg5)


Conte Monaldo himself, when he required a little pocket-money [from his wife, who controlled the purse strings], was forced to resort to subterfuge; he would plot with the bailiff, to sell a barrel of wine or a sack of wheat behind his wife’s back, or he would take to her two books from his own library, saying that he needed a few scudi to pay for them. “Thus,” he remarked, “I used to steal from myself.”

It must be added that often these subterfuges were practised by Conte Monaldo in the cause of charity: the cloister, for instance, of the monastery of the Minori Osservanti was built entirely at his expense, but, to avoid his wife’s vigilance, the building materials had to be carried there at night.  And the story is even told that on one winter’s evening, on being accosted by a half-naked beggar, the Count retired into the shadow of a doorway, took off his trousers, gave them to the wretched man – and thus, wrapping himself in his cloak, made his way home. (pg14-15)

As a plate of marmalade would improve a pan of sirreverence

From Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker – in Jeremy’s letter of April 30.

In the mean time, I must entertain you with an incident, that seems to confirm the judgment of those two cynic philosophers [my uncle Matthew Bramble and his friend Mr Quin]. I took the liberty to differ in opinion from Mr Bramble, when he observed, that the mixture of people in the entertainments of this place [Bath] was destructive of all order and urbanity; that it rendered the plebeians insufferably arrogant and troublesome, and vulgarized the deportment and sentiments of those who moved in the upper spheres of life. He said such a preposterous coalition would bring us into contempt with all our neighbours; and was worse, in fact, than debasing the gold coin of the nation. I argued, on the contrary, that those plebeians who discovered such eagerness to imitate the dress and equipage of their superiors, would likewise, in time, adopt their maxims and their manners, be polished by their conversation, and refined by their example; but when I appealed to Mr Quin, and asked if he did not think that such an unreserved mixture would improve the whole mass? ‘Yes (said he) as a plate of marmalade would improve a pan of sirreverence.

The OED gives sirreverence as in origin a shortening of saving your reverence -> save reverence -> sareverence -> sirreverence.  The ‘beg your pardon’ sense would initially have followed whatever was said that may have been found indecent but the phrase/word itself later – to avoid the indecency altogether – came in as substitute.  Presumably becoming an indecency itself.  The first appearance in the clear sense of ‘excrement’ is from 1592 in R. Greene’s Black Bookes Messenger (sig. D3):

His face,… and his necke, were all besmeared with the soft sirreverence, so as hee stunke.

Peter Motteux’s 1694 translation of Rabelais (bk4.52) includes another instance:

For four … Days I hardly scumber’d one poor Butt of Sir~reverence

Scumber itself is from Old French descombrer (modern decombrer) which means ‘to relieve of a load’.  The evacuation sense adds itself.

Incidentally, Rabelais’ original text is:

ie ne fiantay qu’une petite crotte

Fienter has the meaning “Débarrasser (un cheval) de la fiente” (relieve [a horse] of shit) and crotte itself just means fiente.

Another reminder that Motteux is always the best Rabelais translator.

τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας

From the embassy’s arrival in Iliad 9.180.

They went along the shore of the splashing sea
praying much to the earth-holding Earth-Shaker
to readily persuade the great heart of the son of Aeacus.
To the tents and ships of the Myrmidons they came,
and him they found delighting his heart with a clear-toned lyre
beautiful and skillfully embellished, and the bridge on it was made of silver,
then he took from the spoils when he had sacked the city of Etion:
With it he used to delight his spirit, and he sang the famous deeds of men.
Patroklos, alone with him, sat opposite keeping silence,
waiting until the son of Aeacus should leave off his singing….

τὼ δὲ βάτην παρὰ θῖνα πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης
πολλὰ μάλ᾽ εὐχομένω γαιηόχῳ ἐννοσιγαίῳ
ῥηϊδίως πεπιθεῖν μεγάλας φρένας Αἰακίδαο.
Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.
Πάτροκλος δέ οἱ οἶος ἐναντίος ἧστο σιωπῇ,
δέγμενος Αἰακίδην ὁπότε λήξειεν ἀείδων,

The scene is well-known for the depiction of Achilles playing the lyre himself for himself (the only amateur singer in Homer and only song not performed for a group) and for the thematic resonance of his singing κλέα ἀνδρῶν (deeds of men).  It’s also been routinely observed that Achilles didn’t bring the lyre with him (which potentially suggests that the pleasure of song was felt to be incompatible with war, a social stricture which would explain why there are no singers in the Iliad otherwise), but I’ve never seen anyone poke at the potential character implications of the timeline and circumstances of its acquisition.  But I’m lazy and do no more than point the way.



One day the landscape will pass through me

From Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace in Rome (Terrasse a Rome).  I only have the Wakefield Press translation from a few years ago – this passage is from pg.60.

“Leaving the shadow of the cliffs, we were dazzled by the glittering of the sun and the waves, the reflections of houses and boasts as far as the eyes could see. Abraham Van Berchem put his hand on the engraver’s shoulder.  He said: “in getting old, it becomes more and more difficult to tear oneself away from the splendor of the landscape one passes through.  The skin, worn out by wind and age, stretched by fatigue and many joys, the various kinds of body hair, tears, fluids, nails, and hair that have fallen to the ground like dead leaves and twigs, allow the soul to emerge and lose itself more and more beyond the limits of the skin.  The final flight is, in truth, only a dispersion.  The older I get, the more I feel at ease everywhere.  I do not inhabit my body so much anymore.  I feel my death coming someday soon.  I feel my skin becoming much too thin and more porous.  I say to myself: One day the landscape will pass through me.”

Tiens, mon enfant, je ne vois que moi qui aie toujours raison

From the Memoires de Madame de Staal-Delaunay (in the Temps retrouve edition, pg128)

[The reputation] I won in society, however, brought me some return of the Duchess de la Ferte’s good graces.  My first successes annoyed her, but at last public approval brought around her own … It was following the return of her good graces that she said to me one day: “Look here, my child, I see no one except myself who is always right.”  This speech has served – more than any precept – to teach me mistrust of myself.  And I recall it every time I am tempted to believe that I am right.

Cependant ce que j’avais gagne dans le monde m’attira quelques retours des bonnes graces de la duchesse de la Ferte.  Mes premiers succes la piquerent; mais enfin le suffrage public ramena le sien … ce fut depuis le retour de ses bonnes graces qu’elle me dit un jour: “Tiens, mon enfant, je ne vois que moi qui aie toujours raison.” Cette parole a servi, plus qu’aucun precepte, a m’apprendre la defiance de soi-meme; et je me la rappelle toutes les fois que je suis tentee de croire que j’ai raison

ἔνθα διαγνῶναι χαλεπῶς ἦν ἄνδρα ἕκαστον

The truce and burial of the dead in Iliad 8.420.  The scene generally is touching but all the more so for the specific detail that ‘Priam did not allow his people to weep’ – which I can’t help but contrastingly connect with the lengthy lament for Hector at the end of the work.  There’s also the unifying parallelism of the final six lines here.

And Helios just now was striking the fields
climbing heaven from the soft-gliding, deep-flowing ocean.
And [the armies] met one another.
There it was difficult to distinguish each man,
but washing off the blooded gore with water
and shedding warm tears they lifted them onto carts.
But great Priam did not allow his people to weep. They in silence
heaped the corpses on pyres, grieving in their hearts,
and after they had burned them they went to holy Ilium.
So likewise on the other side the well-greaved Achaeans
heaped the corpses on pyres, grieving in their hearts,
and after they had burned them they went to their hollow ships.

Ἠέλιος μὲν ἔπειτα νέον προσέβαλλεν ἀρούρας
ἐξ ἀκαλαρρείταο βαθυρρόου Ὠκεανοῖο
οὐρανὸν εἰσανιών: οἳ δ᾽ ἤντεον ἀλλήλοισιν.
ἔνθα διαγνῶναι χαλεπῶς ἦν ἄνδρα ἕκαστον:
ἀλλ᾽ ὕδατι νίζοντες ἄπο βρότον αἱματόεντα
δάκρυα θερμὰ χέοντες ἀμαξάων ἐπάειραν.
οὐδ᾽ εἴα κλαίειν Πρίαμος μέγας: οἳ δὲ σιωπῇ
νεκροὺς πυρκαϊῆς ἐπινήνεον ἀχνύμενοι κῆρ,
ἐν δὲ πυρὶ πρήσαντες ἔβαν προτὶ Ἴλιον ἱρήν.
ὣς δ᾽ αὔτως ἑτέρωθεν ἐϋκνήμιδες Ἀχαιοὶ
νεκροὺς πυρκαϊῆς ἐπινήνεον ἀχνύμενοι κῆρ,
ἐν δὲ πυρὶ πρήσαντες ἔβαν κοίλας ἐπὶ νῆας.

I’m a tired, cold, sardonic, bookish sort of chap, I felt

From Antal Szerb’s Musings in the Library in the collection Love in a Bottle.  The narrator, a Hungarian scholar living in Paris, begins to develop an attachment to a visiting Hungarian student he had introduced to the Bibliotheque Nationale.  Telling himself he should act in the spirit of one of his literary favorites – Casanova – he hopes to force a seduction by keeping her out past her residence’s 1am closed-for-the-night deadline, only to find out along the way that she’s been aiming for him for much longer.

“Ilonka, I am so dreadfully ashamed of myself.  And I haven’t given you a thought these past two years.  In fact, for the last two years I haven’t thought about anyone.  Even now I find it difficult to think of anyone but myself.  Tell me, will I ever be able to make up for my shortcomings? I see myself as a sort of water man.”
“What sort of water man?”
“The one they pulled out of the lake at Ferto.  He had grown membranes between his fingers and forgotten how to speak.  His name was Istok Hany.”
“You don’t have to say anything.  And you’ve nothing to make up for.  Those two years were wonderful for me.  I was never alone, and I loved you the way adolescent girls do.  And now I am almost grown up, and a university student, I can travel on my own, and I’ve come to Paris to be with you …. But Tamas, what’s the matter? That’s the third time you’ve looked at your watch.  My god, I’m not late, am I?”
“Not just yet, Ilonka.”
“What’s the time?”
“Just enough for you to get there in a taxi.  It’s ten to one.”
What can I say? I’m not Casanova.  Perhaps if I’d been a few years younger and less broken-down, I would have taken the gamble …. but principally, of course … if she hadn’t confessed her feelings.  But once she had? It would take more than a little bit of love and a miniscule amount of audacity.  The whole thing had become too much for me.
I’m a tired, cold, sardonic, bookish sort of chap, I felt.  It was no good.  I just wasn’t up to the occasion.  Like Janos Arany when summoned by the maiden, I answered: “It’s too late. I’m going home.”

A greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued

From Section III: A Digression Concerning Critics of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub:

The third and noblest sort is that of the true critic, whose original is the most ancient of all.  Every true critic is a hero born, descending in a direct line from a celestial stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcætera the elder, who begat Bentley, and Rymer, and Wotton, and Perrault, and Dennis, who begat Etcætera the younger.

And these are the critics from whom the commonwealth of learning has in all ages received such immense benefits, that the gratitude of their admirers placed their origin in heaven, among those of Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, and other great deservers of mankind.  But heroic virtue itself hath not been exempt from the obloquy of evil tongues.  For it hath been objected that those ancient heroes, famous for their combating so many giants, and dragons, and robbers, were in their own persons a greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued; and therefore, to render their obligations more complete, when all other vermin were destroyed, should in conscience have concluded with the same justice upon themselves, as Hercules most generously did, and hath upon that score procured for himself more temples and votaries than the best of his fellows.  For these reasons I suppose it is why some have conceived it would be very expedient for the public good of learning that every true critic, as soon as he had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver himself up to ratsbane or hemp, or from some convenient altitude, and that no man’s pretensions to so illustrious a character should by any means be received before that operation was performed.


From ‘the bookseller’s’ dedication of Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub to Lord Somers:

I should now, in right of a dedicator, give your Lordship a list of your own virtues, and at the same time be very unwilling to offend your modesty; but chiefly I should celebrate your liberality towards men of great parts and small fortunes, and give you broad hints that I mean myself.  And I was just going on in the usual method to peruse a hundred or two of dedications, and transcribe an abstract to be applied to your Lordship, but I was diverted by a certain accident.  For upon the covers of these papers I casually observed written in large letters the two following words, DETUR DIGNISSIMO, which, for aught I knew, might contain some important meaning.  But it unluckily fell out that none of the Authors I employ understood Latin (though I have them often in pay to translate out of that language).  I was therefore compelled to have recourse to the Curate of our Parish, who Englished it thus, Let it be given to the worthiest; and his comment was that the Author meant his work should be dedicated to the sublimest genius of the age for wit, learning, judgment, eloquence, and wisdom.  I called at a poet’s chamber (who works for my shop) in an alley hard by, showed him the translation, and desired his opinion who it was that the Author could mean.  He told me, after some consideration, that vanity was a thing he abhorred, but by the description he thought himself to be the person aimed at; and at the same time he very kindly offered his own assistance gratis towards penning a dedication to himself.  I desired him, however, to give a second guess.  Why then, said he, it must be I, or my Lord Somers.  From thence I went to several other wits of my acquaintance, with no small hazard and weariness to my person, from a prodigious number of dark winding stairs; but found them all in the same story, both of your Lordship and themselves.  Now your Lordship is to understand that this proceeding was not of my own invention; for I have somewhere heard it is a maxim that those to whom everybody allows the second place have an undoubted title to the first.