And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good, / And do not, on the other hand, be bad;

I’ve been reading Luis de Gongora‘s The Solitudes (Las Soledades) the last couple of days and, without intending mockery, can’t shake treating the whole thing in the vein of A.E. Housman’s parodic sendup of ancient tragedy, Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.

The setup here is that Alcmaeon has been ordered by his father Amphiarus to kill his mother Eriphyle. Amphiarus had earlier discovered that Eriphyle had accepted a bribe to urge him into the campaign against Thebes (of Seven Against Thebes fame) where he, being a prophet, knew he was doomed to die.

Most of the lines are either borrowed from or heavily modeled on surviving tragedy. My title is, I think, a pained reflection of Housman’s dealing with how students insist on translating μέν … δέ constructions.

Chorus. O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed are you come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in enquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Alcmaeion. I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Cho. Sailing on horseback or with feet for oars?
Alc. Plying by turns my partnership of legs.
Cho. Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Alc. Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my legs.
Cho. To learn your name would not displease me much.
Alc. Not all that men desire do they obtain.
Cho. Might I then hear at what your presence shoots?
Alc. A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that –
Cho. What? for I know not yet what you will say.
Alc. Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
Cho. Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
Alc. – this house was Eriphyla’s, no one’s else.
Cho. Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
Alc. Might I then enter, passing through the door?
Cho. Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is very much the safest plan.
Alc. I go into the house with heels and speed.

CHORUS

In speculation
I would not willingly acquire a name
For ill-digested thought,
But, after pondering much,
To this conclusion I at last have come:
Life is uncertain.
This truth I have written deep
In my reflective midriff,
On tablets not of wax.
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there
For many reasons: Life, I say, is not
A stranger to uncertainty.
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphic tripod bark it out,
Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed
My self-taught diaphragm.

Why should I mention
The Inachian daughter, loved of Zeus,
Her whom of old the gods,
More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
A gift not asked for:
And sent her forth to learn
The unfamiliar science
Of how to chew the cud?
She, therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
Nor did they disagree with her.
Yet, howso’er nutritious, such repasts,
I do not hanker after.
Never may Cypris for her seat select
My dappled liver!
Why should I mention lo? Why indeed?
I have no notion why.

But now does my boding heart
Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
A strain not meet for the dance.
Yea, even the palace appears
To my yoke of circular eyes
(The right, nor omit I the left)
Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
Garnished with woolly deaths
And many shipwrecks of cows.

I therefore in a Cissian strain lament,
And to the rapid,
Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.

Eriphyla (within). O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
Cho. I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
Erip. He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
Cho. I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
Erip. O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
Cho. If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

What were they but dew from the meadows?

From Jorge Manrique‘s Verses on the Death of His Father (Coplas por la muerte de su padre). For all its fame in Spanish literature, this work seems sadly unattended to by English translators. The two verse renderings I can find are an old Longfellow that, borrowing a phrase from Sarah Caudwell, is more than a bit ’emancipated’ and a more recent online-only version by Alan Steinle. There’s also a prose by J.M. Cohen in The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse that I’ve not been able to check yet.

Here are the three opening stanzas from Steinle’s version plus the XIX since it has my favorite line of the poem. Steinle’s full version – from which I’ve also lifted this lovely side-by-side formatting – is available here. And Longfellow is here for comparison.

I.I.
Recuerde el alma dormida,Arouse your sleeping soul,
avive el seso y despierteRevive your brain, wake up
__contemplando__And you will see
cómo se pasa la vida,How life goes by so fast,
cómo se viene la muerteHow death creeps up on us
__tan callando;__So quietly;
cuán presto se va el placer,How pleasures quickly fade,
cómo después de acordadoAnd when we think of them
__da dolor,__We feel malaise;
cómo a nuestro parecer,How always it appears
cualquiera tiempo pasadoThat former times comprised
__fue mejor.__Much better days.
II.II.
Pues si vemos lo presenteThe present times will go
cómo en un punto se es idoWithin a second’s tick,
__y acabado,__An hour’s chimes,
si juzgamos sabiamente,And if we judge with sense,
daremos lo no venidoThe future will be seen
__por pasado.__Like former times;
No se engañe nadie, no,So do not be deceived;
pensando que ha de durarDon’t think that future things
__lo que espera__Will come to stay;
más que duró lo que vio,Those things will not endure;
pues que todo ha de pasarThey all must disappear
__por tal manera.__The selfsame way.
III.III.
Nuestras vidas son los ríosOur lives are like the streams
que van a dar en la mar,That flow into the sea
__que es el morir:__And terminate;
allí van los señoríos,That’s where the manors go—
derechos a se acabarThey meet their end and they
__y consumir;__Disintegrate;
allí los ríos caudales;Just as the rivers large,
allí los otros medianosThe medium and small
__y más chicos,__Go to the sea,
y llegados son iguales,We all arrive as one,
los que viven por sus manosAs workers in the field
__y los ricos.__Or rich and free.
XIX.XIX.
Las dádivas desmedidas,The boundless gifts of men,
los edificios realesThe royal palaces
__llenos de oro,__So full of gold;
las vajillas tan fabridas,The shiny cups and bowls,
los enriques y realesThe golden coins and all
__del tesoro,__The wealth untold;
los jaeces y caballosThe trappings of the steeds,
de su gente, y atavíosThe people’s finery
__tan sobrados,__All unconcealed—
¿dónde iremos a buscallos?Where can we find them now?
¿qué fueron sino rocíosWhat were they but the dew
__de los prados?__In yonder field?

A fragment of Hermesianax

The opening third of a fragment from book 3 of Leontion by the Hellenistic poet Hermesianax. The full passage is nearly 100 lines long and only survives thanks to Athenaeus’ quoting it at Deipnosophistae 13.597 (though this text and translation are from the Loeb Hellenistic Collection). This book of the work is what Athenaeus describes as a κατάλογον … ἐρωτικῶν – a catalogue of love affairs. Some of these will be sillier to ponder than others.

Such as Oeagrus’ dear son [Orpheus] summoned back
From Hades, furnished with his lyre: Agriope [= Eurydice]
Of Thrace. He sailed to that implacable, harsh place
Where Charon draws into his public craft
Departed souls, and cries across the lake
That pours its stream through beds of lofty reed.
That lone musician Orpheus suffered much
Beside the wave, but won the various gods;
Lawless Cocytus with his menacing scowl
And the dread regard of Cerberus he withstood,
His voice sharpened in fire, in fire his cruel eye,
On triple rank of heads freighted with fear.
With song he won the underworld’s great lords,
For Agriope to regain the gentle breath of life.

Nor did the Graces’ master, Mene’s son,
Musaeus, leave Antiope unsung,
Who, to the adepts by Eleusis’ strand,
Expressed glad cries from secret oracles,
Leading Demeter’s Rarian celebrant
With ordered step; in Hades still she’s known.

And I say that even Boeotian Hesiod
Lord of all knowledge, left his home and came,
In love, to Ascra, Heliconian town;
And, wooing Eoie, Ascraean maid,
He suffered much, composed whole catalogues
In homage, with the girl heading the list.

The very bard, whom Zeus’ fate upholds
Sweetest divinity of all versed in song,
The godlike Homer set mean Ithaca
To verse for love of wise Penelope.
Smarting for her, he settled in a tiny isle,
Leaving his own broad homeland far behind;
And hymned Icarius’ race, Amyclas’ town
And Sparta, touching on his own distress.


οἵην μὲν φίλος υἱὸς ἀνήγαγεν Οἰάγροιο
Ἀγριόπην Θρῇσσαν στειλάμενος κιθάρην
Ἁιδόθεν· ἔπλευσεν δὲ κακὸν καὶ ἀπειθέα χῶρον,
ἔνθα Χάρων κοινὴν ἕλκεται εἰς ἄκατον
ψυχὰς οἰχομένων, λίμνης δ᾿ ἐπὶ μακρὸν ἀυτεῖ
ῥεῦμα διὲκ μεγάλων χευομένης δονάκων.
πόλλ᾿ ἔτλη παρὰ κῦμα μονόζωστος κιθαρίζων
Ὀρφεύς, παντοίους δ᾿ ἐξανέπεισε θεούς·
Κωκυτόν τ᾿ ἀθέμιστον ὑπ᾿ ὀφρύσι μηνίσαντα
ἠδὲ καὶ αἰνοτάτου βλέμμ᾿ ὑπέμεινε κυνός,
ἐν πυρὶ μὲν φωνὴν τεθοωμένου, ἐν πυρὶ δ᾿ ὄμμα
σκληρὸν, τριστοίχοις δεῖμα φέρον κεφαλαῖς.
ἔνθεν ἀοιδιάων μεγάλους ἀνέπεισεν ἄνακτας
Ἀγριόπην μαλακοῦ πνεῦμα λαβεῖν βιότου.

οὐ μὴν οὐδ᾿ υἱὸς Μήνης ἀγέραστον ἔθηκεν
Μουσαῖος, Χαρίτων ἤρανος, Ἀντιόπην·
ἥ τε πολὺν μύστῃσιν Ἐλευσῖνος παρὰ πέζαν
εὐασμὸν κρυφίων ἐξεφόρει λογίων,
Ῥάριον ὀργειῶνα νόμῳ διαπομπεύουσα
Δημήτρᾳ· γνωστὴ δ᾿ ἐστὶ καὶ εἰν Ἀίδῃ.

φημὶ δὲ καὶ Βοιωτὸν ἀποπρολιπόντα μέλαθρα
Ἡσίοδον, πάσης ἤρανον ἱστορίης,
Ἀσκραίων ἐσικέσθαι ἐρῶνθ᾿ Ἑλικωνίδα κώμην·
ἔνθεν ὅ γ᾿ Ἠοίην μνώμενος Ἀσκραϊκὴν
πόλλ᾿ ἔπαθεν, πάσας δὲ λόγων ἀνεγράψατο βίβλους
ὑμνῶν, ἐκ πρώτης παιδὸς ἀνερχόμενος.

αὐτὸς δ᾿ οὗτος ἀοιδός, ὃν ἐκ Διὸς αἶσα φυλάσσει
ἥδιστον πάντων δαίμονα μουσοπόλων,
λεπτὴν ᾗς Ἰθάκην ἐνετείνατο θεῖος Ὅμηρος
ᾠδῇσιν πινυτῆς εἵνεκα Πηνελόπης·
ἣν διὰ πολλὰ παθὼν ὀλίγην ἐσενάσσατο νῆσον,
πολλὸν ἀπ᾿ εὐρείης λειπόμενος πατρίδος·
ἔκλεε δ᾿ Ἰκαρίου τε γένος καὶ δῆμον Ἀμύκλου
καὶ Σπάρτην, ἰδίων ἁπτόμενος παθέων.

They have taken me from a place where there was gin to a place where there is no gin

From Sarah Caudwell‘s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, the first of her four Hilary Tamar mysteries. This post’s title phrase has echoed in me for years as a means of capturing declined situations.

Heathrow Airport.
Thursday afternoon.

Dearest Selena,

“Twelve adulteries, nine liaisons, sixty-four fornications and something approaching a rape” are required of me for your innocent entertainment. Well, you will have to be patient—the aeroplane is not designed to accommodate such adventures. I am beginning, however, as I mean to go on, and in accordance with your own instructions—that is to say, with an exactly contemporaneous account of everything that happens.

It occurs to me that to abide literally by this resolution may have a slightly inhibiting effect on the adulteries, liaisons, etc. In certain circumstances, therefore, I shall hope, as regards precise contemporaneity, for a measure of indulgence—which, since you are the most reasonable of women, I do not doubt to receive.

It is about an hour and a half since you left me at the airport. Things, since you left, have not gone well with me: they have taken me from a place where there was gin to a place where there is no gin, and from a place where I could smoke to a place where I cannot smoke. That is to say, from the departure lounge to the aeroplane. They have also taken my passport.

….

And it’s no use your saying, Selena, that I am a British subject and they can’t do that to me. They have done. It began with a difference of opinion about my suitcase; I had thought it was hand luggage, which I could keep with me; the stewardess, at the last moment, decided that it was not. Deferring to the expert view, I handed it over, and she pushed it down a sort of chute. Only as it slid, with irreversible momentum, into the bowels of the aircraft, did I remember that my passport is in the side pocket. I shall not see my passport again until I get my luggage back: which will be, if my memory of airport procedure is not at fault, on the other side of the Passport Control Barrier. We have the makings of an impasse.

Too late, too late, Selena, I recall your as always excellent advice, to keep my passport at all times in my handbag. Together with such other essential documents as my ticket, my traveller’s cheques, my Italian phrasebook, Ragwort’s Guide to Venice and my copy of this year’s Finance Act. Will any of these, do you think, be accepted as proof of my identity? Or am I doomed to be shuffled for ever between Venice and London, with occasional diversions, on account of administrative error, to Ankara and Bangkok?

A flame in his burning mouth can be suppressed more easily by a wise man than he can hold back witticisms

Another line from an unidentified tragedy of Ennius, reported by Cicero in De Oratore (2.221):

what is extremely difficult for funny and sharp-tongued men is to take account of people and circumstances and to forego opportunities that arise when something could be said most wittily. And so some humorous men explain this very point not inelegantly. For they say that Ennius says that “a flame in his burning mouth can be suppressed more easily by a wise man than he can hold back witticisms”…


quod est hominibus facetis et dicacibus difficillimum, habere hominum rationem et temporum et ea quae occurrant, cum salsissime dici possunt, tenere. itaque nonnulli ridiculi homines hoc ipsum non insulse interpretantur. dicere enim aiunt Ennium, “flammam a sapiente facilius ore in ardente opprimi, quam bona dicta teneat”…

Philosophandum est, paucis; nam omnino haud placet

Reported by Aulus Gellius (5.15.9) and from an unidentified tragedy of Ennius – though speculation seems to lean toward Andromache.

When we heard or read these and other similar stimuli to clever and delightful inactivity and did not see in these philosophical problems either some genuine advantage referring to the conduct of life or any purpose to the inquiry, we approved of the Ennian Neoptolemus, who indeed spoke thus:

one must do philosophy, but in moderation; for it does not please completely


hos aliosque talis argutae delectabilisque desidiae aculeos cum audiremus vel lectitaremus neque in his scrupulis aut emolumentum aliquod solidum ad rationem vitae pertinens aut finem ullum quaerendi videremus, Ennianum Neoptolemum probabamus, qui profecto ita ait:

philosophandum est, paucis; nam omnino haud placet

Reminded me of the Proustian Often but a little at a time.

Some lines of Philitas of Cos

Reported by Stobaeus (Florilegium 2.4.5) as an extract from Philitas of Cos’ Παίγνια (‘play, sport, game’ – a very rare word). Philitas (born ~340 BCE) was both poet and scholar and one side of his scholarship – his love for rare archaic words (also illustrated here) – comes through well in these few lines.

No lumbering rustic snatching up a hoe
Shall bear me from the mountains—me, an alder tree;
But one who knows the marshalling of words, who toils,
Who knows the pathways of all forms of speech.


οὐ μέ τις ἐξ ὀρέων ἀποφώλιος ἀγροιώτης
αἱρήσει κλήθρην, αἰρόμενος μακέλην·
ἀλλ᾿ ἐπέων εἰδὼς κόσμον καὶ πολλὰ μογήσας,
μύθων παντοίων οἶμον ἐπιστάμενος.

The note to the Loeb edition (titled The Hellenistic Collection) adds:

If the second line is to be taken literally, the speaker may be the tree itself, or, derived from it, a poet’s staff (cf. Hes. Th. 30) (so Maass), or writing-tablet (so Kuchenmüller). Other scholars have suggested that a Philitan poem, or collection of poems, or poetry itself is speaking. Alternatively, the speaker could be a girl who prefers to marry a poet rather than a rustic (so Reitzenstein). On any reading, the lines contain an image, perhaps self-image, of the refined, learned, and dedicated poet.

There is more of interest in these lines than first looks. A few quick observations – the flavor of ἀποφώλιος ἀγροιώτης feels a condensed reminiscence of Hesiod’s ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ᾽ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον at Theogony 26 (Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies). Hesiod actually has ποιμένας ἀγροιώτας in the same line-end position at Scutum 39 but if Philitas is recalling the phrase, he punches it up with the rare (and exclusively Odyssean in Homer) ἀποφώλιος (’empty, vain, idle’) memorably used by Odysseus of Euryalus in Odyssey 8.177 – νόον δ᾽ ἀποφώλιός ἐσσι (‘but in mind thou art stunted’ in the old Loeb translation).

The phrase ἐπέων εἰδὼς κόσμον is in the same family as κόσμον ἐπέων ὠιδὴν in Solon’s Salamis Elegy (fr.1-3 in West’s edition) and Parmenides’ µάνθανε κόσµον ἐµῶν ἐπέων ἀπατηλὸν ἀκούων (Learn as you listen the deceptive order of my words, line 52 in Diels) – but feels less a direct reference than a pull from a shared early poetic stockpile.

The same feels true of μύθων παντοίων οἶμον – the metaphor is seen in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ Μούσῃσιν Ὀλυμπιάδεσσιν ὀπηδός, / τῇσι χοροί τε μέλουσι καὶ ἀγλαὸς οἶμος ἀοιδῆς (And though I am a follower of the Olympian Muses who love dances and the bright path of song, 451) and in Pindar Olympian 9 ἔγειρ᾽ ἐπέων σφιν οἶμον λιγύν (Arouse for them a clear-sounding path of song, 47).

Otio qui nescit uti, plus negoti habet quam cum est negotium in negotio

A passage from one of Ennius’ plays, reported by Aulus Gellius (19.10.11). The translation here – from the Loeb Fragmentary Republican Latin v.2 – goes as far to capturing the wordplay of the original as possible. Curiously, the passage is cited for a rare word at the end, not the tongue-twister.

And here Iulius Celsinus1 called attention to the fact that also in Ennius’ tragedy that is entitled Iphigeneia this very word that was being investigated [praeterpropter, “more or less”] had been written and was normally spoiled rather than explained by grammarians. Therefore he ordered Ennius’ Iphigeneia to be brought forward immediately. We read the following verses written in a chorus of this tragedy:

He who does not know how to use otium [“leisure”]
has more negotium [“work”] than in negotium [“when occupied”] when there is negotium [“work”].
For he, for whom what he should do is arranged, does this, he devotes himself to this with no negotium [“difficulty”] at all,
therein he delights his intellect and mind;
in otiosum otium [“leisurely leisure”] the mind does not know what it wants.
This is the same: look, we are now neither at home nor on campaign:
we go here, then there; when one has gone there, it pleases to move from there.
The mind wanders doubtfully; one lives a life more or less.

As soon as this was read, Fronto then said to the grammarian, who was already wavering: “Did you hear, greatest master, that your Ennius used praeterpropter [“more or less”] and indeed with the kind of meaning for which the criticisms of philosophers tend to be most serious? We are therefore seeking—do tell us—since an Ennian word is now being investigated, what the deep sense of this line is: ‘the mind wanders doubtfully; one lives a life more or less.’”


atque ibi Iulius Celsinus admonuit in tragoedia quoque Enni, quae Iphigenia inscripta est, id ipsum, de quo quaerebatur [i.e., “praeterpropter”], scriptum esse et a grammaticis contaminari magis solitum quam enarrari. quocirca statim proferri Iphigeniam Q. Enni iubet. in eius tragoediae choro inscriptos esse hos versus legimus:

otio qui nescit uti,
plus negoti habet quam cum est negotium in negotio.
nam cui, quod agat, institutum est, non ullo negotio
id agit, id studet, ibi mentem atque animum delectat suum;
otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit.
hoc idem est; em neque domi nunc nos nec militiae sumus:
imus huc, hinc illuc; cum illuc ventum est, ire illinc lubet.
incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.

hoc ubi lectum est, tum deinde Fronto ad grammaticum iam labentem “audistine,” inquit “magister optime Ennium tuum dixisse ‘praeterpropter’ et cum sententia quidem tali, quali severissimae philosophorum esse obiurgationes solent? petimus igitur, dicas, quoniam de Enniano iam verbo quaeritur, qui sit remotus huiusce versus sensus: ‘incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.’”


Are you planning to Homer me to death?

This started with something about Philitas of Cos, an early Hellenistic poet and scholar whose works survive only in a few small fragments. But when looking at testimonia for Philitas I found this genuinely hilarious passage from a 3rd century comic poet named Strato in his Phoenicides. The text is reported in Athenaeus at 9.383.

Since there’s no good way to footnote here I’m just linking to definitions of the ‘obscure’ words even though most are defined after use and are common enough Homeric terms anyway. Switch to the Cunliffe or Autenrieth entries for the Homeric definitions.

I’ve taken a male Sphinx into my house,
not a cook! By the gods, I don’t understand
a single word he says. He’s here with a full supply
of strange vocabulary. The minute he entered the house,
he immediately looked me in the eye and asked in a loud voice:
“How many meropes have you invited to dinner? Tell me!”
“I’ve invited the Meropes to dinner? You’re crazy;
do you think I know these Meropes?
None of them’ll be there. By Zeus, this is
too much—inviting Meropes to dinner!”
“So isn’t a single daitumōn going to be present?”
“I don’t think so. Daitumōn?” I did a count:
“Philinus is coming, and Moschion, and Niceratus,
and so-and-so, and so-and-so.” I went through them, name by name;
I didn’t have a single Daitumōn among them.
“No Daitumōn’ll be there,” I said. “What do you mean? Not one?”
He got real irritated, as if I was treating him badly
because I hadn’t invited Daitumōn. Very strange.
“Aren’t you sacrificing an earthbreaker?” “No, I’m not,” I said.
“A cow with a wide forehead?” “I’m not sacrificing a cow, you bastard.”
“So you’re making a sacrifice of mēla?” “No, by Zeus, I’m not.
Neither of these—just a little sheep.” “Aren’t mēla sheep?”,
he said. “Apples are sheep? I don’t understand
any of this, cook,” I said, “and I don’t want to.
I’m quite unsophisticated; so talk to me very simply.”
“Don’t you realize that Homer uses these terms?”
“He could talk however he wanted to, cook!
But what does that have to do with us, by Hestia?”
“In the future, if you don’t mind, keep him in mind.”
“Are you planning to Homer me to death?”
“That’s how I’m used to talking.” “Well, don’t talk
that way when you’re around me!” “For four drachmas”,
he says, “I’m supposed to abandon my principles?
Bring the oulochutai here!” “What’s that?”
“Barley.” “So why, you idiot, do you talk in riddles?”
“Is any pēgos available?” “Pēgos? Suck me!
Say what you want to say to me more clearly!”
“You’re an ignoramus, old man,” he says. “Bring me some salt;
that’s what pēgos is. Let me see a basin.”
I had one. He made the sacrifice and used countless other
words of a sort no one, by Earth, could have understood:
mistulla, moires, diptucha, obeloi. The result was that
I would’ve had to get Philetas’ books
to figure out what all the vocabulary he used meant.
Except now I began to beg him to take a different tack
and talk like a human being. I doubt Persuasion herself would
ever have convinced him, by Earth; I’m sure of that.


σφίγγ᾿ ἄρρεν᾿, οὐ μάγειρον, εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν
εἴληφ᾿. ἁπλῶς γὰρ οὐδὲ ἕν, μὰ τοὺς θεούς,
ὧν ἂν λέγῃ συνίημι· καινὰ ῥήματα
πεπορισμένος πάρεστιν. ὡς εἰσῆλθε γάρ,
εὐθύς μ᾿ ἐπηρώτησε προσβλέψας μέγα·
“πόσους κέκληκας μέροπας ἐπὶ δεῖπνον; λέγε.”
“ἐγὼ κέκληκα Μέροπας ἐπὶ δεῖπνον; χολᾷς.
τοὺς δὲ Μέροπας τούτους με γινώσκειν δοκεῖς;
οὐδεὶς παρέσται· τοῦτο γάρ, νὴ τὸν Δία,
ἔστι κατάλοιπον, Μέροπας ἐπὶ δεῖπνον καλεῖν.”
“οὐδ᾿ ἄρα παρέσται δαιτυμὼν οὐδεὶς ὅλως;”
“οὐκ οἴομαί γε. Δαιτυμών;” ἐλογιζόμην·
“ἥξει Φιλῖνος, Μοσχίων, Νικήρατος,
ὁ δεῖν᾿, ὁ δεῖνα.” κατ᾿ ὄνομ᾿ ἀνελογιζόμην·
οὐκ ἦν ἐν αὐτοῖς οὐδὲ εἷς μοι Δαιτυμών.
“οὐδεὶς παρέσται,” φημί. “τί λέγεις; οὐδὲ εἷς;”
σφόδρ᾿ ἠγανάκτησ᾿ ὥσπερ ἠδικημένος
εἰ μὴ κέκληκα Δαιτυμόνα. καινὸν πάνυ.
“οὐδ᾿ ἄρα θύεις ἐρυσίχθον᾿;” “οὐκ,” ἔφην, “ἐγώ.”
“βοῦν δ᾿ εὐρυμέτωπον;” “οὐ θύω βοῦν, ἄθλιε.”
“μῆλα θυσιάζεις ἆρα;” “μὰ Δί᾿, ἐγὼ μὲν οὔ,
οὐδέτερον αὐτῶν, προβάτιον δ᾿.” “οὔκουν,” ἔφη,
“τὰ μῆλα πρόβατα;” “<μῆλα πρόβατ᾿;> οὐ μανθάνω,
<μάγειρε,> τούτων οὐδέν, οὐδὲ βούλομαι.
ἀγροικότερός εἰμ᾿, ὥσθ᾿ ἁπλῶς μοι διαλέγου.”
“Ὅμηρον οὐκ οἶσθας λέγοντα;” “καὶ μάλα
ἐξῆν ὃ βούλοιτ᾿, ὦ μάγειρ᾿, αὐτῷ λέγειν.
ἀλλὰ τί πρὸς ἡμᾶς τοῦτο, πρὸς τῆς Ἑστίας;”
“κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνον ἤδη πρόσεχε καὶ τὰ λοιπά μοι.”
“Ὁμηρικῶς γὰρ διανοεῖ μ᾿ ἀπολλύναι;”
“οὕτω λαλεῖν εἴωθα.” “μὴ τοίνυν λάλει
οὕτω παρ᾿ ἔμοιγ᾿ ὤν.” “ἀλλὰ διὰ τὰς τέτταρας
δραχμὰς ἀποβάλω,” φησί, “τὴν προαίρεσιν;
τὰς οὐλοχύτας φέρε δεῦρο.” “τοῦτο δ᾿ ἐστὶ τί;”
“κριθαί.” “τί οὖν, ἀπόπληκτε, περιπλοκὰς λέγεις;”
“πηγὸς πάρεστι;” “πηγός; οὐχὶ λαικάσει,
ἐρεῖς σαφέστερόν θ᾿ ὃ βούλει μοι λέγειν;”
“ἀτάσθαλός γ᾿ εἶ, πρέσβυ,” φησ᾿.“ἅλας φέρε·
τοῦτ᾿ ἔστι πηγός. ἀλλὰ δεῖξον χέρνιβα.”
παρῆν· ἔθυεν, ἔλεγεν ἄλλα ῥήματα
τοιαῦθ᾿ ἅ, μὰ τὴν Γῆν, οὐδὲ εἷς ἤκουσεν ἄν,
μίστυλλα, μοίρας, δίπτυχ᾿, ὀβελούς· ὥστε με
τῶν τοῦ Φιλίτα λαμβάνοντα βυβλίων
σκοπεῖν ἕκαστα τί δύναται τῶν ῥημάτων.
πλὴν ἱκέτευον αὐτὸν ἤδη μεταβαλεῖν
ἀνθρωπίνως λαλεῖν τε. τὸν δ᾿ οὐκ ἂν ταχὺ
ἔπεισεν ἡ Πειθώ, μὰ τὴν Γῆν, οἶδ᾿ ὅτι.

Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!

Le Mauvais Vitrier (The Bad Glazier), from Charles Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris. Translation is David Lehman’s and borrowed from the Antioch Review. See also Edgar Allan Poe’s Imp of the Perverse.

There are people who live entirely in their minds and are totally impractical, utterly abstract, who can nevertheless, under the sway of some mysterious force, act so decisively even they cannot believe it.

One fellow comes home, fearful of bad news, so he paces for a full hour in front of the concierge’s door, too nervous to knock but too irresolute to leave; another one holds onto a letter for a fortnight before he opens it; a third is still wondering, after six months have gone by, whether to do something he should have done a year ago. There are times when even such characters spring into action, rudely propelled by an irresistible force, like an arrow shot from a bow. The moralist and the physician, with their air of infallibility, cannot explain where this energy comes from or how a good-for-nothing idler or voluptuary, ordinarily incapable of running the simplest errand, can somehow tap into that surfeit of bravery that emboldens a man to perform the craziest and most reckless stunts.

A friend of mine, as innocuous a daydreamer as has ever lived, once set a forest on fire just to see, he said, whether fire spreads as speedily as people think. Ten times the experiment failed. On the eleventh it succeeded all too well.

Somebody else will light a cigar near a powder keg just to see, to know, to tempt destiny, to test his mettle, to gamble, to enjoy the pleasures of anxiety, or for no reason at all, on a whim, a piece of mischief born of idleness.

For the twin cause of this energy is ennui and fantasy; and those in whom it manifests itself tend to be, as I have said, the laziest of day-dreaming louts.

Someone too timid to meet your gaze, who needs to pluck up all his courage just to enter a cafe or step into the box office
of a theater, where the ticket vendors appear vested with the majesty of Minos, Eacus, and Rhadamanthus, will suddenly stop an old man in the street, a stranger, and hug him with a big show of affection before an astonished crowd.

Why? Because . . . because the man’s face struck him as irresistibly sympathetic? Maybe. But it is likely he had no idea why he acted as he did.

More than once have I myself been the victim of these crises, these impulses that lead us to believe that we are possessed by malicious Demons, imps of the perverse that make us do their bidding, whether we will it or not.

One morning I woke up in a bad mood, depressed, exhausted, yet motivated, as it seemed to me, to do something spectacular–to attempt some heroic exploit. That is when, alas, I opened the window.

(Observe, please, that the mystical spirit, which, in some of us, is a sign neither of overwork nor affectation but of inspiration and good fortune, suggests, in the intensity of desire it rouses, a certain state of mind–hysterical in the view of doctors, satanic in the view of those who think more deeply than doctors — in the throes of which we may commit deeds as rash and dangerous as they are transgressive.)

The first person I saw in the street below was a maker of window glass loudly hawking his wares. He virtually punctured the pestilential air of Paris with his shouts. I can’t say why the sight of this poor bastard filled me with a surge of violent hatred, but it did.

“Hey,” I shouted, motioning him to come upstairs. I grinned at the thought that the glazier would have to climb six flights of narrow stairs and that his fragile cargo might not survive intact.

And then there he was. I looked at the panes and said, “What! No colored glass? No rose-colored glass, red glass, blue glass? Where are the magic panes, the window-panes of paradise? What impudence! You barge into this humble neighborhood without even the decency to bring the glass that can make life beautiful.” And I pushed him down the stairs.

I went to the balcony with a little flower pot and when he emerged in front of the door, I dropped my engine of war perpendicularly. The shock made him fall backward, breaking all the glass that remained of his itinerant stock. It sounded like the cracking of a crystal palace
split by lightning.

Drunk with the madness of the moment I shouted: “Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!”

These impulsive jests are not without their hazards, and sometimes there is a stiff price to pay. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to one who has found in a single instant
an infinity of joy?


Il y a des natures purement contemplatives et tout à fait impropres à l’action, qui cependant, sous une impulsion mystérieuse et inconnue, agissent quelquefois avec une rapidité dont elles se seraient crues elles-mêmes incapables.

Tel qui, craignant de trouver chez son concierge une nouvelle chagrinante, rôde lâchement une heure devant sa porte sans oser rentrer, tel qui garde quinze jours une lettre sans la décacheter, ou ne se résigne qu’au bout de six mois à opérer une démarche nécessaire depuis un an, se sentent quelquefois brusquement précipités vers l’action par une force irrésistible, comme la flèche d’un arc. Le moraliste et le médecin, qui prétendent tout savoir, ne peuvent pas expliquer d’où vient si subitement une si folle énergie à ces âmes paresseuses et voluptueuses, et comment, incapables d’accomplir les choses les plus simples et les plus nécessaires, elles trouvent à une certaine minute un courage de luxe pour exécuter les actes les plus absurdes et souvent même les plus dangereux.

Un de mes amis, le plus inoffensif rêveur qui ait existé, a mis une fois le feu à une forêt pour voir, disait-il, si le feu prenait avec autant de facilité qu’on l’affirme généralement. Dix fois de suite, l’expérience manqua ; mais, à la onzième, elle réussit beaucoup trop bien.

Un autre allumera un cigare à côté d’un tonneau de poudre, pour voir, pour savoir, pour tenter la destinée, pour se contraindre lui-même à faire preuve d’énergie, pour faire le joueur, pour connaître les plaisirs de l’anxiété, pour rien, par caprice, par désœuvrement.

C’est une espèce d’énergie qui jaillit de l’ennui et de la rêverie ; et ceux en qui elle se manifeste si opinément sont, en général, comme je l’ai dit, les plus indolents et les plus rêveurs des êtres.

Un autre, timide à ce point qu’il baisse les yeux même devant les regards des hommes, à ce point qu’il lui faut rassembler toute sa pauvre volonté pour entrer dans un café ou passer devant le bureau d’un théâtre, où les contrôleurs lui paraissent investis de la majesté de Minos, d’Éaque et de Rhadamanthe, sautera brusquement au cou d’un vieillard qui passe à côté de lui et l’embrassera avec enthousiasme devant la foule étonnée.

— Pourquoi ? Parce que… parce que cette physionomie lui était irrésistiblement sympathique ? Peut-être ; mais il est plus légitime de supposer que lui-même il ne sait pas pourquoi.

J’ai été plus d’une fois victime de ces crises et de ces élans, qui nous autorisent à croire que des Démons malicieux se glissent en nous et nous font accomplir, à notre insu, leurs plus absurdes volontés.

Un matin je m’étais levé maussade, triste, fatigué d’oisiveté, et poussé, me semblait-il, à faire quelque chose de grand, une action d’éclat ; et j’ouvris la fenêtre, hélas !

(Observez, je vous prie, que l’esprit de mystification qui, chez quelques personnes, n’est pas le résultat d’un travail ou d’une combinaison, mais d’une inspiration fortuite, participe beaucoup, ne fût-ce que par l’ardeur du désir, de cette humeur, hystérique selon les médecins, satanique selon ceux qui pensent un peu mieux que les médecins, qui nous pousse sans résistance vers une foule d’actions dangereuses ou inconvenantes.)

La première personne que j’aperçus dans la rue, ce fut un vitrier dont le cri perçant, discordant, monta jusqu’à moi à travers la lourde et sale atmosphère parisienne. Il me serait d’ailleurs impossible de dire pourquoi je fus pris à l’égard de ce pauvre homme d’une haine aussi soudaine que despotique.

« — Hé ! hé ! » et je lui criai de monter. Cependant je réfléchissais, non sans quelque gaieté, que, la chambre étant au sixième étage et l’escalier fort étroit, l’homme devait éprouver quelque peine à opérer son ascension et accrocher en maint endroit les angles de sa fragile marchandise.

Enfin il parut : j’examinai curieusement toutes ses vitres, et je lui dis : « — Comment ? vous n’avez pas de verres de couleur ? des verres roses, rouges, bleus, des vitres magiques, des vitres de paradis ? Impudent que vous êtes ! vous osez vous promener dans des quartiers pauvres, et vous n’avez pas même de vitres qui fassent voir la vie en beau ! » Et je le poussai vivement vers l’escalier, où il trébucha en grognant.

Je m’approchai du balcon et je me saisis d’un petit pot de fleurs, et quand l’homme reparut au débouché de la porte, je laissai tomber perpendiculairement mon engin de guerre sur le rebord postérieur de ses crochets ; et le choc le renversant, il acheva de briser sous son dos toute sa pauvre fortune ambulatoire qui rendit le bruit éclatant d’un palais de cristal crevé par la foudre.

Et, ivre de ma folie, je lui criai furieusement : « La vie en beau ! la vie en beau ! »

Ces plaisanteries nerveuses ne sont pas sans péril, et on peut souvent les payer cher. Mais qu’importe l’éternité de la damnation à qui a trouvé dans une seconde l’infini de la jouissance ?