He uses his folly like a stalking-horse

From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (5.4.104-05):

He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the
presentation of that he shoots his wit.

I had a vague sense of stalking-horse from its still-extant extended use in bankruptcy settlements – the stalking horse offer being one designed as a sort of reserve on the assets up for auction, a means of guaranteeing a minimum value they will go for. There’s also apparently another still-extant sense – closer to the original – used in business and politics, an explanation of which can be read here.

But the original use and definition is much more picturesque. It’s also unwieldy so here’s the OED’s refinement first:

1. A horse trained to allow a fowler to conceal himself behind it or under its coverings in order to get within easy range of the game without alarming it. Hence, a portable screen of canvas or other light material, made in the figure of a horse (or sometimes of other animals), similarly used for concealment in pursuing game.

More fun is Gervase Markham’s from his 1621 treatise Hungers Preuention: or The Whole Art of Fowling By Water and Land (online here but requiring some textual restoration as read):

Now forasmuch as these shelters or couerts are after a way then found, and that Fowle doe many times lye so farre remoued within the water, that vnlesse a man doe goe into it where no shelter at all is, more then a man bringeth with him, he cannot possibly compasse a shoote; so that of necessity a man must haue some moouing shaddow or shelter to walke by him; In this case there is nothing better then the stalking Horse, which is any old Iade trayned vp for that vse, which being stript naked and hauing nothing but a string without the neather chappe, of two or three yards longe, will gently and as you giue ocation to vrge him, walke vp and downe in the water which way you will haue him; flodding and eating vpon the grasse or other stuffe that growes there-in; and then being hardy & stoute without taking any affright at the report of the Peice, you shall shelter your selfe and your Peice behind his fore shoulder, bending your body downe low by his side, and keeping his body still full betweene you and the Fowle; Then haueing (as was before shewed) chosen your marke, you shall take your leuell from before the fore part of the Horse, shooting as it were betweene the Horses knees and the water, which is more safe and further then taking the leuell vnder the Horses belly, and much lesser to be perceaued; the shoulder of the Horse covering the body of the man, and the Horse’s legges shaddowing the legges of the man also: and as thus you stalke vpon the greate blanke waters, so you may stalk also along the bankes of Brookes in great Riuers, by little and little winning the Fowle to as neare a station as can be desired, and thus you may doe also vpon the firme ground, whether it be on moor, Heath, or other rotten earth, or else up the tylthe where greene Corne groweth; or generally, in any other haunt where Fowle are accustomably vsde to feede or abide.

Now forasmuch as these Stalking horse, or Horses to stalke withall, are not euer in readinesse, and at the best aske a good expence of time to bee brought to their best perfection: as also, in that euery poore man or other which taketh delight in this exercise, is either not master of a Horse, or if hee had one yet wanteth fit meanes to keepe him: and yet neuerthelesse this practise of Fowling must or should bee the greatest part of his mantenance. In this case he may take any pieces of oulde Canuasse, and hauing made it in the shape or proportion of a Horse with the head bending downeward, as if hee grased, and stoping it with dry Strawe, Mosse, Flocks, or any other light matter, let it be painted as neere the colour of a Horse as you can deuise; of which the Browne is the best, and in the midst let it be fixt to a Staffe with a picke of Iron in it to sticke downe in the ground at your pleasure, and stand fast whilest you chuse your marke, as also to turne and winde any way you please, either for your aduantage of the winde, or for the better taking of your leuell, and it must be made so portable that you may beare it easily with one hand, mooving and wagging it in such wise that it may seeme to mooue and graze as it goeth; nether must this in any wise exceed the ordinary stature or proportion of a common Horse, for to bee too low or little will not couer the man, and to be two big and huge will be both monstrous & troublesome, and giue affright to the Fowle, therefore the meane in this is the best measure, and only worth the obseruation.

This sort of thing lends itself to illustrations. Here’s the stuffed canvass stalking-horse from Markham’s text:

From Nicholas Cox’s 1686 The Gentleman’s Recreation (where he also makes mention of a stalking-cow, a search for which produced this modern equivalent):

One I can’t identify the origin of but Wikipedia dates as 1875:

It’s easy to see how the term shifts into the figurative uses given by the OED (A person whose agency or participation in a proceeding is made use of to prevent its real design from being suspected and An underhand means or expedient for making an attack or attaining some sinister object; usually, a pretext put forward for this purpose). In drama alone we see the above lines from Shakespeare in 1599. Then John Marston in The Malcontent (4.3.126) in 1603:

Yea, provident: beware an hypocrite;
A churchman once corrupted, O, avoid!
A fellow that makes religion his stalking-horse,
He breeds a plague: thou shalt poison him.

And John Webster in The White Devil (3.1.34-38) in 1612:

Oh, my unfortunate sister!
I would my dagger’s point had cleft her heart
When she first saw Bracciano. You, ’tis said,
Were made his engine and his stalking-horse
To undo my sister

What should trouble me? In the face of harsh destiny what can a man do but try?

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s departure to meet the Green Knight (lines 530-565). I finally watched last year’s film adaptation – The Green Knight. It was beautiful visually but it wasn’t Gawain. But it also didn’t want to be so that’s not a fair statement about the film as executed, only as conceived. Still, what I missed more than anything throughout was the atmosphere and outlook of this passage below, especially its conclusion.

And winter comes back again as the world would have it, in the way of things.

Until the Michaelmas moon
When first the days feel wintry
And Gawain is reminded then
Of his dread journey.


Still he stays until All Saints’ Day with Arthur
And kept that feast with them for the sake of the knights,
With revelry and high spirits at the Round Table.
Noble knights and beautiful ladies
Were all grieving out of love for that knight,
But nevertheless they gave words to nothing but mirth.
Many made jests who were joyless because of that gentle knight.
And after the meal he speaks sadly to his uncle
About his journey, and in plain words he said,
“Now, liege lord of my life, I must ask to take leave of you.
You know the terms of this promise. I do not care
To mention the trouble of it, not a word about that.
But I am bound to set out for that stroke tomorrow without fail,
To search for the Green Knight, as God may guide me.”
Then the best of the knights gathered around:
Ywain and Eric and many others,
Sir Doddinaval de Savage, the Duke of Clarence,
Lancelot and Lionel, and the good Lucan,
Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere, big men both of them,
And many other noble knights, with Mador of the Gate.
All this company of the court crowded close to the King
To counsel the knight, out of the care in their hearts.
There was a great sharp grief passing through the hall
At so noble a one as Gawain going on that errand
To suffer a terrible blow and handle the sword no more.

Still, the knight spoke cheerfully,
Saying, “What should trouble me?
In the face of harsh destiny
What can a man do but try?”


And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage,

Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.


Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage, and pertly he sayde,
‘Now, lege lorde of my lyf, leue I yow ask;
Ȝe knowe þe cost of þis cace, kepe I no more
To telle yow tenez þerof neuer bot trifel;
Bot I am boun to þe bur barely to-morne
To sech þe gome of þe grene, as God wyl me wysse.’
Þenne þe best of þe burȝ boȝed togeder,
Aywan, and Errik, and oþer ful mony,
Sir Doddinaual de Sauage, þe duk of Clarence,
Launcelot, and Lyonel, and Lucan þe gode,
Sir Boos, and Sir Byduer, big men boþe,
And mony oþer menskful, with Mador de la Port.
Alle þis compayny of court com þe kyng nerre
For to counseyl þe knyȝt, with care at her hert.
Þere watz much derue doel driuen in þe sale
Þat so worthé as Wawan schulde wende on þat ernde,
To dryȝe a delful dynt, and dele no more wyth bronde.

Þe knyȝt mad ay god chere,
And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?’

W.S. Merwin’s translation above is my favorite but it of course makes some sacrifices along the way. Here’s a comparison of the final three lines from above:

Original – And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Merwin – Saying, “What should trouble me?
Literal – And said, “for what should I hesitate/hold back in fear? (wonden)

Original – Of destinés derf and dere

Merwin – In the face of harsh destiny
Literal – With fate dread and dear (derf and dere, see note below)

Original – What may mon do bot fonde?’

Merwin – What can a man do but try?”
Literal – What can a man do but put it to the test (fonden, with a possible metaphorical sense of ‘take a taste’)

For derf and dere Tolkien’s edition has a note: ‘dere coudl be either ‘dear, pleasant’, OE. deore, or ‘fierce, cruel’, OE. deor. The latter, as a synonym of derf, is possible; and, though not elsewhere in Gawain, is part of the poet’s vocabulary: it occurs in Purity 214. But the former, making an inclusive phrase of a common type (‘young and old’, etc) is more likely: “What can one do but face whatever Fate may send, whether painful or pleasant?’ Gollancz usefully compares 1507 ‘druryes greme and grace’.

From the smoke into the smother

From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1.2.276), Orlando speaking.

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

I had this phrase marked from a past reading as something to look into, expecting to find several parallels elsewhere. It turns out there are none (at least none easily found). It also turns out that its interpretation feels shakier than most commentaries suggest in equating it to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The short version of everything below – and it is far more than I wished when I started writing – is that the surrounding context, line structure, and wording do allow the sense of ‘out of the frying-pan…’ but don’t require it. They also allow a second interpretation that is closer to ‘from one trouble to another [equivalent trouble].’ I tend to prefer this second reading.

The commentaries that make the phrase equivalent to ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ point for support to Dent’s Shakespeare’s Proverbial Language, the standard reference for exactly what the title suggests. Dent, however, is himself a middleman here and simply lists the proverb in connection to entry S570 from Wilson’s The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (pg. 574):

Smoke, shunning the | they fall into the fire. Cf. Frying pan.

[Erasm. Adag. 184c: Fumum fugiens, in ignem incidi].

c. 1530 Lucian Necromantia – As the comen proverb is of every man Out of the smoke into the fyre I ran

1535 T. Lupset Exhort Young Men ed. Gee 256 – What faute so ever you may do, let it not be defended with a flase tale: for that were to fle out of the smoke in to the fire.

1549. H. Bullinger Treatise or Sermon B4 – Magistrates had nede of much … fear of god, in takyng vp or in laying downe their warres, les perchaunse in flying the smoke thei fall into the fyre

1576 Pettie ii. 89 – Thinking to quench the coals of his desire, he fell into hot flames of burning fire.

1599 Shakes. A.Y. I.ii.266 – Thus must I from the smoke into the smother.

1666 Torriano It. Prov. 96 no. 22 – Many an one flies the smoke, who afterward falls into the fire.

The structure of the proverb in all given examples is ‘purposefully attempting to evade threat A, a person falls into greater threat B’. So Erasmus’ original ‘fleeing the smoke, I fall into the fire’. So also all senses of the related ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ The current version of that proverb has lost any verb of motion but the two earliest examples from the entry in Wilson’s English Proverbs (pg 292) show that it was originally there – 1530 Barclay Eclog. – ‘out of the water thou leapest into the fyre’ and 1528 More – ‘Lepe they lyke a flounder out of a frying-panne into the fyre’. See also the decent entry for the proverb’s history on wikipedia.

This structure can be mapped onto Shakespeare’s line if you assume a condensed phrasing where ‘Thus must I from the smoke into the smother‘ is in conception something closer to ‘Thus must I [in attempting to flee from] the smoke [fall] into the smother.’ The smoke here would be Duke Frederick – La Beau has just warned Orlando at 1.2.250-256 to ‘leave this place‘ because the Duke ‘misconstrues all that you have done.’ And the smother would be Orlando’s brother Oliver – whom we’ve already learned (1.1) has mistreated Orlando throughout his life and, as we soon will learn (2.3), intends to get rid of him by (almost too appropriately) burning him alive. Orlando is then using this scene-end couplet to announce his sense that in turning from the Duke he only returns to a more threatening situation with his brother.

There are issues with this reading though. First is that Orlando at the moment of speaking has no knowledge of his brother’s plot against him. Rather, his sense of his standing with his brother must match Oliver’s concluding remarks from their earlier encounter (1.1.72-74) – ‘Well, sir, get you in. I will not long be troubled with you; you shall have some part of your will. I pray you leave me.‘ ‘Will’ here is a pun that captures both ‘your wish’ and ‘your inheritance.’ It can be given a sinister turn by the audience but it’s clear from Orlando’s response (75-76) – ‘I will no further offend you than becomes me for my good‘ – that he doesn’t himself take it that way. Accordingly, it’s not obvious to me that he’d be conceiving of the turn from Frederick to Oliver as a movement from a bad situation to a worse.

A second issue is with smother. This is Shakespeare’s only use of the noun – though he uses the verb nine times elsewhere – so we have to rely for meaning on the OED. It gives smother as ‘Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.).’ I’m not convinced that either this definition or the usage examples on which it is based (provided in full below) justify treating smoke … smother as parallel to smoke … fire in the sense of the latter element representing an increased danger. Instead – and especially given the OED’s note of smother’s frequent coupling with smoke – they seem to point more to treating smoke … smother as functional synonyms.

In this reading Orlando is saying no more than ‘I am now moving from one threatening situation to another.’ You don’t have to supply a sense of ‘trying to avoid bad Frederick, I fall into the worse Oliver’ and you don’t have to understand ‘smother‘ as heightened in danger over smoke. You can instead treat the choice of smoke…smother as dictated by two complementary desires – the wish for parallel internal sound repetitions each line of a rhyming couplet (italics below) and the need for line-end rhymes in that couple (bold below):

Thus must I from the smoke into the smother;
From tyrant Duke unto a tyrant brother.

This blew right through the work day.


Below is the OED definition of smother and list of uses.

a. Dense, suffocating, or stifling smoke, such as is produced by combustion without flame. (Frequently coupled with smoke.)
α.
c1175 Lamb. Hom. 43 Þet þridde [was] fur,..þe siste smorðer.
?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 199 Þe deofles chef. þet nis nocht bute to helle smorðere.
1393 W. Langland Piers Plowman C. xx. 303 When smoke and smorþre smyt in hus eyen.
c1540 (▸?a1400) Destr. Troy 11796 Hit fest was on fyre, & flappit out onone, Vnto smorther & smoke.
β., γ.
a1300 Body & Soul in Map’s Poems (Camden) 339 Þe erþe it openede anon, smoke and smoþer op it wal.
a1400 Adultery 87 in Herrig Archiv LXXIX. 420 Smoþer & smoke þer come owte wylde.
a1400 Stockh. Medical MS. ii. 598 in Anglia XVIII. 322 Ȝif vnder nethyn þer hennys sate Of hennebane a smoþer thou make.
a1470 Dives & Pauper (1496) vi. xxii. 270/2 There shall be brennynge fyre and smoder without ende.
a1618 J. Sylvester Urania lxxxii A thick, dark, pitchy Cloud of smoak, That round-about a kindling Fire suppresses With waving smother.
1657 P. Henry Diaries & Lett. (1882) 33 When a fire is first kindled there’s a great deale of smoke and smother.
1748 B. Robins & R. Walter Voy. round World by Anson iii. viii. 381 The great smother and smoke of the oakum.
1789 G. White Nat. Hist. Selborne 20 Nothing is to be seen but smother and desolation.
1828 J. R. Planché Desc. Danube i. 25 The distant dome of Saint Paul’s rising above the smother of our huge metropolis.
1882 R. D. Blackmore Christowell l Filled with blue sulphureous fog, and smother of bitumen.
proverbial.
a1616 W. Shakespeare As you like It (1623) i. ii. 277 Thus must I from the smoake into the smother .
1890 Daily News 25 June 5/1 They had gone from the smoke into the smother.
figurative.
1565 J. Jewel Replie Hardinges Answeare Concl. sig. IIi3v Now the Sonne is vp: your Smooder is scattered.
1654 T. Gataker Disc. Apol. 12 A great smother of foggie fumes, raised by slanderous tongues.
1695 J. Collier Misc. upon Moral Subj. 2 Why else do they..spend their Taper in smoke and smother?
1809 B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas IV. x. i. 20 The mad blockhead was so suffocated by the smother of authorship.
1975 N. Nicholson Wednesday Early Closing ix. 176 A dull smother of hopelessness hung over the town like the smutch from a smoking rubbish dump.

Yes, ma’am, salvation for their little, stunted minds

From Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels:

I don’t pay much over fifty cents for books as a rule, because country folks are shy of paying much for them. They’ll pay a lot for a separator or a buggy top, but they’ve never been taught to worry about literature! But it’s surprising how excited they get about books if you sell ’em the right kind. Over beyond Port Vigor there’s a farmer who’s waiting for me to go back—I’ve been there three or four times—and he’ll buy about five dollars’ worth if I know him. First time I went there I sold him ‘Treasure Island,’ and he’s talking about it yet. I sold him ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and ‘Little Women’ for his daughter, and ‘Huck Finn,’ and Grubb’s book about ‘The Potato.’ Last time I was there he wanted some Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t give it to him. I didn’t think he was up to it yet.”

I began to see something of the little man’s idealism in his work. He was a kind of traveling missionary in his way. A hefty talker, too. His eyes were twinkling now and I could see him warming up.

“Lord!” he said, “when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean. Jiminy! If I were the baker or the butcher or the broom huckster, people would run to the gate when I came by—just waiting for my stuff. And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation—yes, ma’am, salvation for their little, stunted minds—and it’s hard to make ’em see it. That’s what makes it worth while—I’m doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It’s a new field, but by the bones of Whitman it’s worth while. That’s what this country needs—more books!”

That afternoon the speakeasy was visited by a fairly representative crowd

From ch. 5 of John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 (which is not a typo). Clipped cataloging can be such effective satire and O’Hara pans across 1930s New York as effectively as Juvenal did 2nd century Rome or Alexander Pope Augustan London.

She went home and there was a telegram there from Liggett, asking her to meet him at their favorite speakeasy at four. They had told her at his office that he was out of town, but her life was full of inconsistencies like that.

She was there before four, and took a small table by herself and watched the world come in. That afternoon the speakeasy was visited by a fairly representative crowd. On their lips soon would be her name, with varying opinions as to her character. Most of these people were famous in a way, although in most cases their fame did not extend more than twenty blocks to the north, forty blocks to the south, seven blocks to the east and four blocks to the west. There were others who were not famous, but were prominent in Harrisburg, Denver, Albany, Nashville, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Atlanta, Houston, Portland, Me., Dayton and Hartford. Among these was Mrs. Dunbar Vicks, of Cleveland, in town on one of her three or four visits a year to see a friend’s private collection of dirty movies and to go to bed with a young man who formerly worked for Finchley. Mrs. Vicks was standing at the bar, with her back to Walter R. Loskind, the Hollywood supervisor, who was talking to Percy Luffberry, the director. Percy owed a great deal to Walter. When Percy was directing “War of Wars” he had small charges of explosive buried here and there in the ground, not enough to hurt anyone, but enough so that when the charge was set off the extras in German uniforms would be lifted off the ground. The extras had been warned about that and were being paid a bonus for this realism. It went all right until Percy decided he wanted to have one extra crawling along the ground instead of walking. When the charge was set off the extra lost both eyes, and if Walter hadn’t stood by Percy, Percy would have been in a hell of a fix. Seated directly across the room was Mrs. Noel Lincoln, wife of the famous sportsman-financier, who had had four miscarriages before she found out (or before her doctor dared tell her) that a bit of bad luck on the part of her husband was responsible for these misfortunes. Mrs. Lincoln was sitting with pretty little Alicia Lincoln, her niece by marriage, who was the source of cocaine supply for a very intimate group of her friends in society, the theater, and the arts. Alicia was waiting for a boy named Gerald, whom she took to places where girls could not go unescorted. Bruce Wix, the artists’ representative, came in and tried to get the eye of Walter R. Loskind, but Walter did not look. Bruce stood alone at the bar. Henry White, the writer, was told he was wanted on the telephone—the first move, although he did not know it, in the house technique of getting rid of a drunk. On the way out he bowed to Dr. (D.D.S.) Jack Fry, who was arriving with one of his beautiful companions. It was afternoon, so the companion was not wearing the Fry pearls, which Dr. Fry always loaned to show girls and actresses while they were out with him. Mr. and Mrs. Whitney Hofman, of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, arrived at this time, wishing they had been better friends so they could find something to talk about without self-consciousness. They were joined by Whitney’s cousin Scott Hofman, a cross-eyed fellow who at the age of thirty did not have to shave more than once a week. Mike Romanoff came in, looked around the room, and went out again. A party of six young people, Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer House, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Whitehall, and Miss Sylvia House and Mr. Irving Ruskin, were told at the door that they could not come in because they had not made reservations. They had to make way for a Latin-American diplomat whose appointment to Washington showed what his country thought of this. He had had malaria before he caught siflis, which is the wrong order for an automatic cure. Inside again, banging on his table for a waiter, sat Ludovici, the artist, who had several unretouched nude photographs of Gloria which she wished she had back. He was with June Blake, show girl and model, who after four days was still cheerful over winning nearly a thousand dollars on Twenty Grand. The bet had not been made through a bookmaker, and involved no cash outlay on her part. It was a slightly intricate arrangement between herself and Archie Jelliffe, the axle man, who told June he would place the bet for her if she would agree to bring to his country place a certain virgin he wanted to know better. Was it June’s fault that the former virgin was at this minute in a private hospital? Robert Emerson, the magazine publisher, came in with his vice-president, Jerry Watlington. Emerson was trying to make life pleasanter for Watlington, who had just been blackballed at a good club which Emerson belonged to. Emerson sincerely regretted the blackball, now that he had put it in. Mad Horace H. Tuttle, who had been kicked out of two famous prep schools for incendiarism, was there with Mrs. Denis Johnstone Humphries (whose three names seldom were spelled right), of Sewickley Heights, near Pittsburgh. Mrs. Humphries was telling Horace how she had to drive around in a station wagon because strikers stoned her Rolls. The worst of it was she was riding in the Rolls at the time, personally holding her entry for the Flower Show, and when the stones began to beat against the car she had presence of mind enough to lie on the floor, but forgot about the roses and crushed them. Her story was not interrupted when Horace nodded to Billy Jones, the gentleman jockey, who walked quickly to the bar with two dollars in his hand, had a quick double whiskey-soda, and walked out, with the two dollars in his hand. The bartender simply entered it against Billy’s account—Billy was supposed to be a little screwy from knocks on the head. Kitty Meredith, the movie actress, came in with her adopted son, four years old, and everybody said how cute he was, what poise, as he took a sip of her drink.

They hate us youth; down with them; fleece them

A portion of the Gadshill robbery scene from Henry IV part 1 (2.2), the joke being that Falstaff is himself an old (and quite fat) man.

Enter the Travellers

First Traveller
Come, neighbour: the boy shall lead our horses down
the hill; we’ll walk afoot awhile, and ease our legs.
Thieves
Stand!
Travellers
Jesus bless us!
FALSTAFF
Strike; down with them; cut the villains’ throats:
ah! whoreson caterpillars! bacon-fed knaves! they
hate us youth; down with them; fleece them.
Travellers
O, we are undone, both we and ours for ever!
FALSTAFF
Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone? No, ye
fat chuffs: I would your store were here! On,
bacons, on! What, ye knaves! young men must live.
You are Grand-jurors, are ye? we’ll jure ye, ‘faith.

Here they rob them and bind them. Exeunt

I keep thinking of the ‘they hate us youth’ line at work. I am mostly remote now but when in person I spend more of my chatting time with the students who work for me than with my co-workers proper. The students are funnier, complain less, and teach me more. Before the pandemic I could round our age difference down to 10 years. Now I have to round it up to 15 – which is the good majority of their life but less than half of mine. So as I talk with them I increasingly feel lodged somewhere between Falstaff here and Steve Buscemi in the ‘how’s it going, fellow kids’ meme.

There’s no way this boy won’t someday govern the people

From Aristophanes’ Knights, two commentaries on the qualities it takes to become a politician. The first (lines 211-220) is the milder sort of shot that could be found anywhere, the second (lines 427-428) is Old Comedy at full-mast.

Sausage Seller
The prophecies are flattering, but it’s an amazing idea, me being fit to supervise the people.

First Slave
Nothing’s easier. Just keep doing what you’re doing: make a hash of all their affairs and turn it into baloney, and always keep the people on your side by sweetening them with gourmet bons mots. You’ve got everything else a demagogue needs: a repulsive voice, low birth, marketplace morals—you’ve got all the ingredients for a political career. Plus, the oracles and Delphic Apollo agree. (extending the cup and garland) So put on this garland, pour a libation to the god Dimwit, and see that you settle our enemy’s hash.


ΑΛΛΑΝΤΟΠΩΛΗΣ
τὰ μὲν λόγι᾿ αἰκάλλει με· θαυμάζω δ᾿ ὅπως
τὸν δῆμον οἷός τ᾿ ἐπιτροπεύειν εἴμ᾿ ἐγώ.

ΟΙΚΕΤΗΣ Α΄
φαυλότατον ἔργον· ταῦθ᾿ ἅπερ ποιεῖς ποίει·
τάραττε καὶ χόρδευ᾿ ὁμοῦ τὰ πράγματα
ἅπαντα, καὶ τὸν δῆμον ἀεὶ προσποιοῦ
ὑπογλυκαίνων ῥηματίοις μαγειρικοῖς.
τὰ δ᾿ ἄλλα σοι πρόσεστι δημαγωγικά,
φωνὴ μιαρά, γέγονας κακῶς, ἀγοραῖος εἶ·
ἔχεις ἅπαντα πρὸς πολιτείαν ἃ δεῖ·
χρησμοί τε συμβαίνουσι καὶ τὸ Πυθικόν.
ἀλλὰ στεφανοῦ καὶ σπένδε τῷ Κοαλέμῳ·
χὤπως ἀμυνεῖ τὸν ἄνδρα.

And a bit later:

Sausage Seller
I swear, when I was I boy I had a lot more monkey tricks. I used to fool the butchers by saying things like, “Look, boys, don’t you see? Spring is here, there’s a swallow!” And just when they were looking up, I swiped some meat.

First Slave
A most meaty machination; smart planning! You got your booty, like eating nettles before the swallows come.

Sausage Seller
And I never got caught in the act, because if any of them spotted me, I’d stash it up my crotch and swear to god I’m innocent. So when one of the politicians saw me doing that he said, “There’s no way this boy won’t someday govern the people.”

First Slave
That was a good guess! But it’s obvious how he figured it out: you perjured yourself about a robbery and took meat up your arse.


ΑΛΛΑΝΤΟΠΩΛΗΣ
καὶ νὴ Δί᾿ ἄλλα γ᾿ ἐστί μου κόβαλα παιδὸς ὄντος·
ἐξηπάτων γὰρ τοὺς μαγείρους ἂν λέγων τοιαυτί·
“σκέψασθε, παῖδες· οὐχ ὁρᾶθ᾿; ὥρα νέα, χελιδών.”
οἱ δ᾿ ἔβλεπον, κἀγὼ ᾿ν τοσούτῳ τῶν κρεῶν ἔκλεπ τον.

ΟΙΚΕΤΗΣ Α΄
ὦ δεξιώτατον κρέας, σοφῶς γε προὐνοήσω·
ὥσπερ ἀκαλήφας ἐσθίων πρὸ χελιδόνων ἔκλεπτες.

ΑΛΛΑΝΤΟΠΩΛΗΣ
καὶ ταῦτα δρῶν ἐλάνθανόν <γ᾿.> εἰ δ᾿ οὖν ἴδοι τις αὐτῶν,
ἀποκρυπτόμενος εἰς τὼ κοχώνα τοὺς θεοὺς ἀπώμνυν·
ὥστ᾿ εἶπ᾿ ἀνὴρ τῶν ῥητόρων ἰδών με τοῦτο δρῶντα·
“οὐκ ἔσθ᾿ ὅπως ὁ παῖς ὅδ᾿ οὐ τὸν δῆμον ἐπιτροπεύσει.”

ΟΙΚΕΤΗΣ Α΄
εὖ γε ξυνέβαλεν αὔτ᾿· ἀτὰρ δῆλόν γ᾿ ἀφ᾿ οὗ ξυνέγνω·
ὁτιὴ ᾿πιώρκεις θ᾿ ἡρπακὼς καὶ κρέας ὁ πρωκτὸς
εἶχεν.

It’s been a few years since I read any Aristophanes and I found myself wondering – in a purely neutral way – with this second passage whether some of his humor has become too risky to play in a campus setting now – at least without warning via contextualizing commentary. I’ve always thought of Aristophanes as the easiest sell to non-Classics people so it would be a shame to lose him, especially since it’s only ~50 years he’s had uncensored. But then it’s probably worse for someone encountering this remark to carry away an impression that rounds all Greek culture into homophobia. Another reason the library is a simpler place to live than the classroom.

The history of the epigraph from Appointment in Samarra

The epigraph from John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra was much of what I remembered from an earlier reading of the novel, but I realized today that I’d never looked into its background – the cited W. Somerset Maugham seeming an unlikely true origin for a tale about death in Samarra. So below is my reconstruction of the tale’s journey to O’Hara.

The ultimate written source of the tale is almost certainly the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 53a5 with Hebrew here):

The Gemara relates with regard to these two Cushites who would stand before Solomon: “Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha” (I Kings 4:3), and they were scribes of Solomon. One day Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was sad. He said to him: Why are you sad? He said to him: They are asking me to take the lives of these two Cushites who are sitting here. Solomon handed them to the demons in his service, and sent them to the district of Luz, where the Angel of Death has no dominion. When they arrived at the district of Luz, they died.

The following day, Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was happy. He said to him: Why are you happy? He replied: In the place that they asked me to take them, there you sent them. The Angel of Death was instructed to take their lives in the district of Luz. Since they resided in Solomon’s palace and never went to Luz, he was unable to complete his mission. That saddened him. Ultimately, Solomon dispatched them to Luz, enabling the angel to accomplish his mission. That pleased him. Immediately, Solomon began to speak and said: The feet of a person are responsible for him; to the place where he is in demand, there they lead him.

The Talmud‘s version is usually cited online as background to Maugham’s, but I think it’s far more likely there were a couple of intermediary sources along the way. First of these is Rumi’s 13th century Persian telling (Mathnawi bk.1 950-970, Reynold Nicholson trans.):

How ‘Azrá‘íl (Azrael) looked at a certain man, and how that man fled to the palace of Solomon; and setting forth the superiority of trust in God to exertion and the uselessness of the latter.

One forenoon a freeborn (noble) man arrived and ran into Solomon’s hall of justice,
His countenance pale with anguish and both lips blue. Then Solomon said, “Good sir, what is the matter?”
He replied, “Azrael cast on me such a look, so full of wrath and hate.”
“Come,” said the king, “what (boon) do you desire now? Ask (it)!” “O protector of my life,” said he, “command the wind,

To bear me from here to India. Maybe, when thy slave is come thither he will save his life.”
Lo, the people are fleeing from poverty: hence are they a mouthful for (a prey to) covetousness and expectation.
The fear of poverty is like that (man’s) terror: know thou that covetousness and striving are (like) India (in this tale).
He (Solomon) commanded the wind to bear him quickly over the water to the uttermost part of India.
Next day, at the time of conference and meeting, Solomon said to Azrael:

“Didst thou look with anger on that Moslem in order that he might wander (as an exile) far from his home?”
Azrael said, “When did I look (on him) angrily? I saw him as I passed by, (and looked at him) in astonishment,
For God had commanded me, saying, ‘Hark, to-day do thou take his spirit in India.’
From wonder I said (to myself), ‘(Even) if he has a hundred wings, ’tis a far journey for him to be in India (to-day).’”
In like manner judge of all the affairs of this world and open your eye and see!

From whom shall we flee? From ourselves? Oh, absurdity! From whom shall we take (ourselves) away? From God?
Oh, crime!

There are actually several variations I found in the Islamic tradition but Rumi’s seems far the likeliest crossing point for the move to European literature. For interest though, here’s another version by a 15th century Egyptian scholar named Al-Suyuti (recently translated as Angels in Islam here).

Abū ‘l-Shaykh from Dā’ūd ibn Abī Hind; he said: It reached me that the Angel of Death was made responsible for Solomon (peace be upon him), and he was told: ‘Go into his presence every day, and ask what he needs; then do not leave him until you have performed it.’ He used to enter upon him in the image of a man, and he would ask him how he was. Then he would say: ‘Messenger of God, do you need anything?’ If he said: ‘Yes’, then he did not leave him until he had done it; and if he said: ‘No’, then he left him until the following morning. One day he entered upon him while there was an old man with him. [Solomon] stood up, and greeted [him], then [the Angel of Death] said: ‘Do you need anything, Messenger of God?’ He said: ‘No.’ The [angel] glanced at [the old man] and the old man trembled; the Angel of Death left and the old man stood up and said to Solomon: ‘I beg you, by the truth of God! to command the wind to carry me and throw me down on the furthest lump of mud in the land of India (hind)!’ So [Solomon] commanded it and it carried him [there].

The Angel of Death came unto Solomon the next morning and asked him about the old man. [The Angel of Death] said: ‘His book came down to me yesterday, [saying] that I should take his soul tomorrow at the rising of dawn in the furthest lump of mud in the land of India; but when I came down, and thinking that he was there, I then found him with you. I was astonished and could not think of [anything] other than him; I came down to him today at the break of dawn and found him on the highest lump of mud in the land of India, and he trembled, and I took his soul (rūh).’

Jean Cocteau is the next link in the chain, through his 1923 novel Le Grand Écart. Chapter 2 of that work opens (my translation):

Our life’s map is folded such that we do not see a single great road crossing it but, gradually as it opens, always a small new road. We believe we chose and we have no choice.

A young Persian gardener said to his prince:

– I met Death this morning. She made a threatening gesture. Save me. I want to be, by some miracle, in Isfahan this evening.

The good prince loaned his horses. In the afternoon, this prince meets Death.

– Why, he asked her, did you make a threatening gesture to our gardener this morning?

– I didn’t make a threatening gesture, she replied, but one of surprise. Because I saw him far from Isfahan this morning and I have to take him at Isfahan this evening.


La carte de notre vie est pliée de telle sorte que nous ne voyons pas une seule grande route qui la traverse, mais au fur et à mesure qu’elle s’ouvre, toujours une petite route neuve. Nous croyons choisir et nous n’avons pas le choix.

Un jeune jardinier persan dit à son prince:

—J’ai rencontré la mort ce matin. Elle m’a fait un geste de menace. Sauve-moi. Je voudrais être, par miracle, à Ispahan ce soir.

Le bon prince prête ses chevaux. L’après-midi, ce prince rencontre la mort.

—Pourquoi, lui demande-t-il, avez-vous fait ce matin, à notre jardinier, un geste de menace?

—Je n’ai pas fait un geste de menace, répond-elle, mais un geste de surprise. Car je le voyais loin d’Ispahan ce matin et je dois le prendre à Ispahan ce soir.


I’d prefer a more definite connection between Rumi and Cocteau but I think the ‘Persian’ element and especially the confusion over Death’s response/gesture allows a reasonable assumption (though knowledge of the translation history of Rumi into French would be a nice addition). The link from Cocteau to Maugham 10 years later fortunately feels more firm, Maugham’s telling in his 1933 play Sheppey clearly being a padded and altered expansion of Cocteau’s.

DEATH SPEAKS:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

O’Hara had initially intended his novel to be called The Infernal Grove but neither his publisher nor friends cared for the title so he changed it to Appointment in Samarra after Dorothy Parker showed him the above passage in Maugham’s play. Although he included it as epigraph in the 1934 first edition, he apparently didn’t cite Maugham as the source until the 1952 reprint.

It was wrong, this idea that you know someone better because you have shared a bed and a bathroom

From early in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra, what feels somehow a very Musil-esque observation.

He stood at the table, looking down at the handkerchief case and stud box, and was afraid. Upstairs was a girl who was a person. That he loved her seemed unimportant compared to what she was. He only loved her, which really made him a lot less than a friend or an acquaintance. Other people saw her and talked to her when she was herself, her great, important self. It was wrong, this idea that you know someone better because you have shared a bed and a bathroom with her. He knew, and not another human being knew, that she cried “I” or “high” in moments of great ecstasy. He knew, he alone knew her when she let herself go, when she herself was not sure whether she was wildly gay or wildly sad, but one and the other. But that did not mean that he knew her. Far from it. It only meant that he was closer to her when he was close, but (and this was the first time the thought had come to him) maybe farther away than anyone else when he was not close. It certainly looked that way now. “Oh, I’m a son of a bitch,” he said.