A very paltry gift, of no account, My father, for a scholar like to thee

The dedication by Walafrid Strabo of his poem Hortulus to a former teacher (or brother of a former teacher, depending) Grimald of Weissenburg. The full text of Hortulus can be found here (Latin only). The translation is from Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics.

The garden pictured is that of St. Gall where Grimald was abbot. I’d have gone there – largely for the library – last fall had corona not struck….

A very paltry gift, of no account,
My father, for a scholar like to thee,
But Strabo sends it to thee with his heart.
So might you sit in the small garden close
In the green darkness of the apple trees
Just where the peach tree casts its broken shade,
And they would gather you the shining fruit
With the soft down upon it; all your boys,
Your little laughing boys, your happy school,
And bring huge apples clasped in their two hands.
Something the book may have of use to thee.
Read it, my father, prune it of its faults,
And strengthen with they praise what pleases thee.
And may god give thee in thy hands the green
Unwithering palm of everlasting life.

Haec tibi servitii munuscula vilia parvi
Strabo tuus, Grimalde pater doctissime, servus
Pectore devoto, nullius ponderis offert.
Ut cum conseptu viridis consederis horti
Super opacatas frondenti germine malos,
Persicus imparibus crines ubi dividit umbris,
Dum tibi cana legunt tenera lanugine poma
Ludentes pueri, schola laetabunda tuorum,
Atque volis ingentia mala capacibus indunt;
Grandia conantes includere corpora palmis:
Quo moneare habeas nostri pater alme laboris
Dum relegis quae dedo volens, interque legendum
Ut vitiosa seces deposco, placentia firmes.
Te Deus aeterna faciat virtute virentem,
Immarcescibilis palmam contingere vitae;
Hoc Pater, hoc Natus, hoc Spiritus annuat almus.

He laid down a rule of continence for himself

From Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers – in Fragments From the Paradisus of Palladius (pg 256-7):

A certain Apollonius, that had been a merchant and renounced the world, came to live on Mount Nitria: and since he could learn no art, hindered as he was by weight of years, nor could practice the abstinence laid down in Holy Write, he laid down a rule of continence for himself. For out of his own purse and labour he bought every kind of remedy and food-stuffs in Alexandria, and provided the brethren that were ailing with whatever they needed. You might see him from early morning till the ninth hour traversing up and down through all the monasteries, whether of men or women, in and out of door after door where there were any sick, carrying with him raisins, and pomegranates, and eggs, and fine wheaten flour, especially necessary for the ailing. To such a life for which alone he was adapted, did this servant of Christ devote his old age.

To which can be compared Bhagavad Gita 3.35

Better is one’s own dharma, though imperfectly performed, than the dharma of another well performed. Better is death in the doing of one’s own dharma: the dharma of another is fraught with peril.

Who sits in solitude and is quiet hath escaped from three wars

A few more from The Sayings of the Fathers in Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers

Book 2, Of Quiet
2. The abbot Antony said, “who sits in solitude and is quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing shall he continually battle: this is, his own heart.”

9. A certain brother came to the abbot Moses in Scete seeking a word from him. And the old man said to him, “Go and sit in they cell, and they cell shall teach thee all things.”

Book 7, Of Patience or Fortitude
34. A brother asked an old man, saying, “What shall I do, Father, for I do nothing a monk should, but in a kind of heedlessness I am eating and drinking and sleeping and always full of bad thoughts and great perturbation, going from one task to another, and from one thought to another?” And the old man said, “Sit thou in they cell, and do what thou canst, and be not troubled: for the little that thou dost now is even as when Antony did great things and many in the desert. For I have this trust in God, that whoever sits in his cell for His name and keeps his conscience shall himself be found in Antony’s place.”

Book 10, Of Discretion
15. They told of a certain old man that he had lived fifty years neither eating bread nor readily drinking water: and that he said, “I have killed in me lust and avarice and vainglory.” the abbot Abraham heard that he said these things, and he came to him and said, “Hast thou spoken thus?” And he answered, “Even so.” And the abbot Abraham said, “Behold, thou dost enter they cell, and find upon they bed a woman: canst thou refrain from thinking that it is a woman?” And he said, “No: but I fight my thoughts, so as not to touch that woman.” And the abbot Abraham said, “So then, thou has not slain lust, for the passion itself liveth, but it is bound. Again, if thou art walking on the road and sees stones and potsherds, and lying amongs them gold, canst thou think of it but as stones?” And he answered, “No: but I resist my thought, so as not to pick it up.” And the abbot Abraham said, “So then, passion liveth: but it is bound.” And again the abbot Abraham said, “If thou shouldst hear of two brethren, that one loves thee and speaks well of thee, but the other hates thee and disparages thee, and they should come to thee, wouldst though give them an equal welcome?” And he said, “No: but I should wrest my mind so that I should do as much for him that hated me as for him that loved me.” And the abbot Abraham said, “So then these passions live, but by holy men they are in some sort bound.”

This last can be difficult and I wish I had the original Latin at hand. I want to connect the sentiment to Bhagavad Gita 3.34

The love and hatred that the senses feel for their objects are inevitable. But let no one come under their sway; for they are one’s enemies

and 3.28

But, O mighty Arjuna, he who knows the truth about the gunas and action, and what is distinct from them [atman, the self] holds himself unattached, perceiving that it is the gunas that are occupied with the gunas (guna gunesu vartanta).

Guna here can, with grand unsatisfying imprecision, be taken as ‘senses and sensory objects.’

They wander in deep woods, in mournful light

From Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics, an atmospheric excerpt from a longer poem of Ausonius’ (Cupido Cruciatur) that she gives as The Fields of Sorrow (pg. 31).

They wander in deep woods, in mournful light,
Amid long reeds and drowsy headed poppies,
and lakes where no wave laps, and voiceless streams,
Upon whose banks in the dim light grow old
Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings.

errantes silva in magna et sub luce maligna
inter harundineasque comas gravidumque papaver
et tacitos sine labe lacus, sine murmure rivos,
quorum per ripas nebuloso lumine marcent
fleti, olim regum et puerorum nomina, flores

A bunch of grapes in the desert

From Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers – in the History of the Monks of Egypt, translated from the Greek by Rufinus of Aquileia (pg. 80). Her introduction and selections try to rehumanize the early monks by swapping focus from the excesses of someone like Simeon Stylites to the simple kindness and community of the mass of brothers.

They tell that once a certain brother brought a bunch of grapes to the holy Macarius: but he who for love’s sake thought not on his own things but on the things of others, carried it to another brother, who seemed more feeble. And the sick man gave thanks to God for the kindness of his brother, but he too thinking more of his neighbour than of himself, brought it to another, and he again to another, and so that same bunch of grapes was carried round all the cells, scattered as they were far over the desert, and no one knowing who first had sent it, it was brought at last to the first giver. But the holy Macarius gave thanks that he had seen in the brethren such abstinence and such loving-kindness and did himself reach after still sterner discipline of the life of the spirit.

Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas – an addendum

Another to yesterday’s list of translations – Helen Waddell’s rendering of Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas from her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics:

Delight of lust is gross and brief
And weariness treads on desire.
Not beasts are we, to rush on it,
Love sickens there, and dies the fire.
But in eternal holiday,
Thus, thus, lie still and kiss the hours away.
No weariness is here, no shamefastness,
Here is, was, shall be, all delightsomeness.
And here no end shall be,
But a beginning everlastingly.

Pangur Bán and I at work

I discovered this poem years ago in Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars and just today found that Seamus Heaney had done a translation:


Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.
More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.
Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.
Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.
All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.
With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.
So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.
Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.
There is a text and alternate – more to the word – translation here