Thoughts Arising from an Endnote in Hofstadter’s Translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”

I love the writings of Douglas Hofstadter. For many, many years I’ve been inspired, influenced, and provoked to unexpectedly deep thought by those writings. On many subjects, not least translation and mourning, I feel his words are essential reading. After seeing Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre I was in equal measure startled into surprise and overcome with excited anticipation to learn that Hofstadter had translated Pushkin’s masterpiece. And somehow I had never noticed.

Translation is an endeavour of the human spirit that has fascinated me, haunted me, and obsessed me for most of my life, at least since the summer of 1967, riding the Montreal Metro and hearing the oddly understandable-to-a-five-year-old-anglo announcement of arrival at “Expo soixante-sept!” Translation, from Old English, Latin, and, more recently, Greek, is daily in my thoughts. I have at times helped friends and relatives puzzle out passages of Swahili and Nahuatl, because friends and relatives have the impression that I “just know stuff”. There is no experience quite like working out the expression of the human mind behind a text and helping another make a connection to that mind.

Translation is important to me, an ongoing challenge, mystery, and joy.

In his translation of Pushkin, Hofstadter is in near constant with another great mind, the Goliath-like figure of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, Hofstadter, a native English speaker, fluent in French, and with a journeyman knowledge of Russian, is a David figure in the face of such a brilliant native Russian-speaker and exquisite English wordsmith as Nabokov. The battle of these two, both giants to me, is almost as entertaining as the glittering work of Pushkin which has brought them — the three of them — together across time.

So much to consider, but I will focus on one (and maybe a moment with a second) endnote in Hofstadter’s glittering “novel versification” of Pushkin’s “novel in verse”, Eugene Onegin.

acacias and cherries: Nabokov, in his commentary, flies into a botanicolinguistic paroxysm here, heaping pages of bile and scorn on previous translators’ renderings of черёмуха (“a kind of cherry tree”, says my dictionary), and акация (“acacia”, says my dictionary), and going into all the profound and elusive cultural nuances of these words (and which, it is tacitly implied, are universal among Russians). After over four pages of ranting, Nabokov winds up revealing to his faithful readers what “the correct way” to translate these words is – namely, as “racemosas and pea trees”. Obviously, he would consider my dictionary-lookup methodology of “translation” of tree-names beneath contempt.

This gives a bit of the flavour of things. Nabokov is portrayed by Hofstadter as a bit of a nitpicking, pedantic, know-it-all prone to paroxysms. Meanwhile, Hofstadter has his own defensive paroxysms about his dictionary-lookup, neophyte translation method.

And I stand outside with no Russian and little botany and consider . . .

What does “Acacia” mean to me? Not much more than “ акация”, to be honest. Acacias are not a type of tree I’ve met with, by that name, in my half-century of life in the forests and groves of Canada (with a bit of time in the wooded mountains of Basilicata and Chiapas). But “pea-tree” does mean something to me. I have a hedge at the front of my house of a certain leguminous shrub introduced to my part of the world a century and more ago. It grows wild in the ravine just by my house and throughout the River Valley at Edmonton’s heart. We call it “Caragana”, but I know that it was introduced from Russia, and that it is sometimes called “Siberian Pea-Tree”. Whatever Nabokov’s native-speaker’s intuition (prejudice?) or Hofstadter’s dictionary might say, “pea-tree” is evocative for me of far more than is “acacia”. “Acacia” is descriptive of something outside my experience, however botanically accurate it might be. On the other hand, “pea-tree” evokes springtime walks in the Mill Creek Ravine, of the history of my city, of the long-faded Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway, whose rail-bed is now a very popular and unbearably beautiful caragana-lined foot- and cycle-path through our wonderful urban forest. And, of course, “pea-tree” evokes for me that hedge I sit behind as I write these words, that hedge of pea-tree that connects me, through Hofstadter and Nabokov to Pushkin and Onegin, Lensky, Tanya and the rest. “Acacia” doesn’t quite do that.

So. Which is the “better” translation? And why?

Well, acacia sensu lato, are members of Fabaceae, the same family to which the pea-tree belongs, and acacias and pea-trees certainly bear a superficial resemblance to each other in some cases. It is perhaps understandable that the term акация has been applied to the pea-tree. And even more understandable that lexicographers have lazily transliterated rather than actually defined the term in Hofstadter’s dictionary. Nabokov’s paroxysm is a democratic shout: “every bloody Russian peasant knows to point to the pea-tree at the edge of the road when some Akademician from Petersburg asks about акация.”

I guess what I’m saying is that both translations are “correct” depending on what is meant by “correct”. But I can’t help feeling that Nabokov is more correct for me (and for English speaking Russians, perhaps) than is Hofstadter, in this particular instance. Unusually for Hofstadter, he defends a dry, unfeeling, dictionary-narrow, non-evocative understanding of the life in акация: “The dictionary says ‘acacia’. If it’s good enough for the dictionary, it’s good enough for me!” Meanwhile, Nabokov: “the people point to the pea-tree. The people live with the pea tree. The people eat the pods of the pea tree. The pea tree is physically in communion with the people. Акация is pea-tree, and pea-tree is part of a living, human narrative.”

As much as I love Hofstadter’s writings on life, death, consciousness, language, and translation, I must side with Nabokov on this not insignificant point: “pea-tree” is a better translation of акация than is “acacia”. “Pea-tree” is life; “acacia” is marks on the page on a dictionary.

I suppose Hofstadter doesn’t help his case for me when in the immediately preceding note he completely mistranslates the very common Latin word “alia”, claiming that “sed alia tempora” means “But time has wings.” Hofstadter seems to have lost his way in his Latin dictionary, mistaking “ala”, “wing” for “alius”, “other”, and thereby strangely grafting wings onto a transitional “but, other times . . . .” (Perhaps Hofstadter is thinking of the common translation of “tempus fugit” as “time flies”, despite the more clearly accurate rendering “Time flees”.)

The looking-it-up-in-the-dictionary translator must be ever vigilant. Translation is not about dictionaries: translation is about communicating one human’s expression of human experience to another human with as much fidelity as possible for the translator. Solutions to translational problems are many and various, and different translators and readers will find different solutions effective for the same problem. That infinitely varied challenge is something that constantly brings me to states of wonder as both a reader and a translator. What a wonderful conversation across cultures and times translation is.

Such joyful frustration and happy satisfaction a word can bring!

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Of Anglo-Saxon Drink and Old-Style Philology

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery . . .
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, ll. 15-18

 

Part One

On the Taste and Strength of Anglo-Saxon Drink: A formal effort

Much ink has been spilled on the Old English words, beor, ealu, medu, and win, but little perhaps by critics familiar with both Old English and brewing. There has often been an underlying assumption that the words refer to some sort of standardized and distinct beverages, and so, we have a number of broad efforts to identify the qualities of the various beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons. When one considers that the Anglo-Saxon period covers at least five centuries of human development, defining Anglo-Saxon beverages should be at least as difficult as trying to pin down the distinctions between such products of the last five centuries as purl, lager, ale, claret, icewine, stout, beer, small beer, imperial stout, India pale ale, and bock.

It is clearly a mug’s game, but . . .

Apparently very clear and important information, although much cited, has been largely misunderstood or overlooked. British Library MS Royal 12D17 was published in 1851 by Thomas Cockayne. This manuscript, commonly referred to as Leechdoms, from a bit of the title of Cockayne’s multi-volume work, provides a seemingly clear picture of the relative specific gravities of water, win, beor, and ealu, and so, as most home brewers would see immediately, a fairly clear idea of sweetness, and perhaps, of alcohol content, of the beverages familiar to the author of Royal 12D17. There certainly would have been regional variations we may never understand in beverages produced by the Anglo-Saxons, but very clear information seems to have survived about one particular suite of libations:

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2
— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298

If one concludes, as may seem reasonable given the long history of 240 pence to the pound, whatever the actual weight indicated by “pund”, that there are 240 “penegum” to a “pund”, then it is a quite simple of matter of arithmetic to work out specific gravities of the Royal MS’s beor, ealu, and win:

Water: 240 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.00
Beor: 218 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 0.90
Ealu: 246 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.025
Win: 255 penegum ÷ 240 penegum = 1.0625

Ann Hagen (p. 200) and Christine Fell (p. 84, etc.) argue that Beor is a sweet drink, “sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk” (Hagen p. 200). If the Royal MS is accurate this cannot be the case: Beor, at a specific gravity of 0.908 must be very dry or, if sweet, impossibly high in alcohol. A modern wine is considered to be sweet at a specific gravity from 1.010 to 1.025. A modern wine of higher gravity is likely made from concord grapes and either sacramental or kosher. The Royal win was apparently a very sweet wine and ealu either very sweet, very full bodied, or both. But Royal’s beor, no matter how high we might reasonably speculate its alcohol content, can never be argued to be a sweet beverage. Even at 40% alcohol, such a sweet modern drink as Cointreau measures at 1.040. At 0.908, Beor must have a sweetness equivalent to a modern dry wine or a strong beer such as an imperial stout or a barley wine.

Whatever the tastes may have been in other regions and periods of Anglo-Saxon England, at the time and place the information in Royal 12D17 was recorded – if accurate – the taste was for sweet wine and ealu and for dry, strong beor.

It must be noted that Hagen (p. 200) makes a patently false claim: “a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticably less than the same volume of water.” Despite the evidence of Cointreau mentioned above, I have myself tested Hagen’s claim with a nice bottle of Madeira standing in for the port she mentions. I measured the specific gravity of my Madeira by weighing equivalent volumes of both it and ordinary tap water and doing the simple arithmetic. The Madeira was noticeably heavier than was the water, despite the former’s 20% alcohol. Apparently Hagen neglected to consider that sugar is far, far heavier than alcohol and a small amount of sweetness easily outweighs a fairly high amount of alcohol.

 

Part Two

Revisiting the Land of Cockayne: A conversational effort

One evening (for the sake of the narrative I’m assuming it to have been an evening) I was sitting quietly reading Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink when I was struck by a passage which included words “quoted” from Leechdoms:

An interesting passage from Leechdoms states that ‘a pint of ale weighs six pence more than a pint of water, and a pint of wine weighs 15 pence more . . . and a pint ofbeor weighs 22 pence less . . .’ (pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres . . . ond pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres). p. 200<

I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the word “mare” has been dropped from Hagen’s transcription of the passage from Leechdoms – thing are dropped at times in every scriptorium.

As a homebrewer and home winemaker, I immediately recognized that if the numbers in this passage of Old English accurately represented a Medieval reality, it would be only a matter of simple arithmetic to roughly calculate the alcohol content of Anglo-Saxon ale, wine, and beor. Hagen is correct in stating “if we could be sure of the volume of an Anglo-Saxon pint, and weighed it against some Anglo-Saxon pennies, it would be possible to discover the alcohol content of beor”(p. 200) provided we can trust the numbers provided by the Anglo-Saxon scribe, but we may not need to know the volume of that old pint. But Hagen makes a sad and incorrect assumption when she states that “Alcohol weighs only four-fifths of the same volume of water, and a port at twenty percent alcohol, even if sweet, will weigh noticeably less than the same volume of water.” (p. 200) In fact, I have conducted the experiment and found that a nice Madeira (a convenient stand-in for Port), sweet by any standard, weighs 14% more than an equal volume of water. Even and extremely high alcohol liqueur such as Cointreau, at 40% alcohol, has a specific gravity of 1.04, making even such a high alcohol sweet beverage noticeably heavier than water.

Obviously, between transcription error and easily tested and dismissed false assumption, I was not going to take Hagen at her word for what was in Leechdoms – I both sought out the original passage she quotes and decided to do my own arithmetic.

The arithmetic first. Not being certain of the weight of the Anglo-Saxon penny or pound or the volume of the pound (pint), I thought, why not just assume for a moment that a pound (pint) is a measurement of both weight and volume. Furthermore, why not assume that there are a very British 240 pennies in a pund. One could run the numbers and see what one finds out.

As preliminary, lets look at ealu:

One pund of ealu equals 1 pund six pennies of water. If we assume that the six pennies are 6/240 of the pund of water, that would give ealu a specific gravity of 1.025, which is roughly equivalent to a Russian Imperial Stout.

So far so good. What about wine and beor? Long story short: Wine, 1.0625, Beor 0.95. These numbers put Beor into an American “lite” lager range and wine becomes something very sweet, in the range of a Reisling Icewine.

Hagen’s conclusions, based largely on evidence from other texts, in contrast, are that beor was sweeter than wine, ale, or skim milk. Furthermore, she argues that was probably dry (p. 295). As mentioned, Hagen is drawing on many other lines of evidence than just the specific gravity measurements recorded in Leechdoms.

But why such a disparity?

Well, as it turns out, the numbers recorded in Leechdoms are manifestly and obviously inaccurate and unreliable, but to see this one must actually look at the entire passage rather than (mis)quoting an expurgated version from a secondary source, which Hagen has apparently done.

Christine Fell, in “Old English Beor” (Leeds Studies in English, 8(1975), p. 84, quotes the same passage from Leechdoms, with the same ellipsis Hagen includes (excludes?). Clearly Hagen didn’t bother in this instance to go back to Cockayne’s 1851 edition which she cites. If one examines the complete list of comparative weights in Cockayne’s edition (as I have), one finds that there can be little certainty about any of the numbers or comparative weights, and one is left with little more than a word list.

Pund eles gewihð xii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund ealoð gewihð vi penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund wines gewihð xv penegum mare þonne 1 pund wætres & 1 pund huniges gewihð xxxiiii penegum mare þonne pund wætres & 1 pund buteran gewihð lxxx penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & pund beores gewihð xxii penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & 1 pund melowes gewihð vi penegum læsse cxv þonne pund wætres & 1 pund beana gewihð lv penegum læsse þonne pund wætres & xv pund1 wætres gaþ to sestre.2

— Cockayne, Leechdomes, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, volume II, p. 298.

 

Part Three

In For a Penny, In For a Pound: a lot of numbers

Leechdoms lists Oil, Ale, Wine, Honey, Butter, Beor, Meal, and Beans. In the following chart I compare the Leechdoms’ specific gravity numbers to modern measurements. Oil, Honey, and Butter are fairly safe comparisons. Beans and Meal are less safe as there is no indication of what type of meal or beans is meant and the state of dryness (which makes a very significant difference of specific gravity for beans) is unknown. The Oil numbers look very promising, but both the Honey and particularly the Butter numbers are quite far from expectation. Leechdoms says honey weighs 34 pennies more than water and butter weighs 80 less but honey actually weighs 40% more than water and butter weighs just 9% less. I can see no way to reconcile these numbers from Leechdoms’ with physical reality, no matter the weight of the Anglo-Saxon Pennies and Pund.

               Leechdoms5               Actual

Oil          0.95                         0.92 (Olive)
Ale         1.025                        ?
Wine     1.0625                      ?
Honey   1.14                          1.4
Butter   0.666                         0.959
Beor      0.908                         ?
Meal      0.975                        0.61 (Oatmeal)
Beans    0.77                          0.64 (Fresh, Fava) 0.908 (Dry)

When examined in their textual context, it becomes clear that the apparent specific gravities preserved in Leechdoms, if they were ever to any degree accurate, have become garbled into hopeless inaccuracy in textual transmission.

 

Part Four

The Incredible Lightness of Being an Old-Style Philologist

 

The proper response to the hero on the beach is likely not a recognition of a familiar literary convention, but the recognition of a situation intimately known to every individual — for every [one] is at some point in [their] life “on the beach.”

— Me, “The Critic on the Beach,” Neophilologus 71 (1987), 118.

A long time ago I wrote a very pretentious and apparently unpublishable paper titled “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba: The Hero on the Beach and Faith in Eternal Life in the Popul Vuh, Arnold’s Dover Beach, and The Wanderer”. It was a study of what had first been described as an “oral-formulaic theme” in Old English poetry, but with the passage of scholarly time, the object of study came to be discovered so widely that if had become clear that the Emperor was somewhat underdressed, if he were an emperor at all, as I came to demonstrate in “The Critic on the Beach”. After an epigraph of a few lines from Arnold’s poem, I began my unacceptable piece with:

I can well remember sitting one evening in a cafe with friends discussing some books I’d just bought, including a copy of Virgil’s Eclogues. At the time I had been expending a good deal of energy wrestling with the concept of the Hero on the Beach, a staple of Old English oral-formulaic theory. It was with a certain amount of surprise that while reading aloud from Virgil my friends and I discovered that the old Roman poet had used the same elements in the same combination that Old English poets were thought to have used. I had by that time already finished a paper on the Hero on the Beach in The Wanderer and I had considered my little work to be modestly revolutionary, taking, as it did, the theme to be more metaphorical, or even allegorical, than merely descriptive. But here we had stumbled onto something much more revolutionary: Virgil seemed to be anticipating the Old English convention by about a millennium. Even if one does not accept the bilingual pun suggested by my friends in their paper on the subject, there is a suggestion of something not yet fully understood about the Hero on the Beach.

I went on for close to thirty pages and fifty-something footnotes referencing and/or quoting at length the popular music of Jane Siberry and The Bangles, the Quiché Maya epic The Popul Vuh, Eliot’s Prufrock, Sophocles’ Antigone, and, perhaps most satisfyingly, my own published scholarly work. It’s a rambling, impressionistic piece which concludes, after a few more cups of coffee and tea:

One of the first incidents which lead me to question the conventional view of the Hero on the Beach occurred as I sat at a traffic light with an old friend I had not seen for some months. We were at a crossroads, about to turn from a country road onto the main road into the city. As I sat, I realized that we were ourselves “on the beach”. The question in my mind became, is the significance of the theme dependent on the details being written down, on being described? Or can the details be significant on their own? It has been recently that I have seen that the details make up a vitally malleable situation, a situation which is magically able to express a perhaps infinite number of profound meanings, often a number of meanings in a single work. In the three works discussed in the present study, the Hero on the Beach is a means of expressing a faith which must necessarily be a paradox: a faith in a form of eternal existence in the face of a painfully evident human mortality. Whether the theme’s ability to express profound meaning is merely a wide-spread coincidence or a result of the inherent wiring of the human brain is a question I do not feel qualified to address. But it should be pointed out that C. G. Jung suggested that there is an underlying principal in man’s universe which leads to “meaningful coincidences.” Perhaps my discoveries in the cafe with Virgil, while listening idly to music, and while sitting at traffic lights are examples of Jung’s synchronicity. The speculation tells us little about The Wanderer as an independent entity, but it suggests a wealth of questions about The Wanderer, and literature in general, as expressions of mankind’s relationship with, and understanding of his universe. These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.

Of rejection letters I’ve received over the years, one of those I received for “Playing Ball on the Road to Xibalba” stands out as my favourite because of the included anonymous peer reviewer’s comments. They are truly a wonderfully funny piece of literature, and so, I include most of them:

On the validity of the argument, dependability of the method and data:

This is a shockingly untheorized paper. There is no sense (at all) of where things are going or why. I did like the informal style, however inappropriate for an academic discussion, since it is lively and irreverent. But underneath all the fizz, there lurks an old-style philologist with an old-style textual problem: He has discovered some analogies and wants the world to know. One might, in the author’s personal mode, compare the procedure to an [sic] weary beachcomber, staggering along, dried up in the sun, rancid from the heat, but spraying himself with Old Spice. (He could also be imagined, given the egotistic self-reference of the discussion, as singing love-songs to himself.) There is simply no concpetual [sic] map provided here. Why are analogies significant? Do they show something about the commanalities [sic]/banalities of the human “wiring”? Or merely the restrictions of a narrow genre (if the hero is on the beach without a bright light then he isn’t a HERO ON THE BEACH but something else, like Leopold Bloom or Edgar, perhaps)? Or an archetype? But if the latter, there should be empirical, as well as textual, evidence to show its true universality.

On the style:

The author’s style is informal and self-referential, but lively. There is some fizz (but lots of fluff) to decorate the dead(ly) body of philology. The chief objection to the paper is more a question of method than style; it lacks any theoretical grounding, it is mapless, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of the problems (some interesting) that it touches upon but does not take up. . .

Well. This was the 1980s when Theory had at last become fully ensconced and fortified in Academia, and I was about to give my academic sandals a few good shakes and move on to fresh forests and pastures new. Academia had determined that the time for young Old Philologists had passed.

But now I am become old, and I find I like being an old philologist, with leisure and no ties to the fashions and fetters of theory-bound academia. A philologist is a bit of a magpie. A philologist outside academia is a free-range magpie, able to gather information where ever fancy is struck. Because I am a homebrewer, I recognized the potential of that old list in Leechdoms. Being a philologist, I dug into the source. Unlike many contemporary scholars, who seem to merely quote each other’s references rather than consulting the primary sources, I looked at Cockayne’s full transcription. And I did the arithmetic. And I conducted actual real-world experiments. And out of the happy fizz and fluff, I drew some conclusions: Leechdoms is unreliable as evidence of the character of Anglo-Saxon drink; theory is no substitute for the leisurely collection of and rumination on evidence; theory is too often a hammer for which everything must be a nail; there is still lots of beach combing waiting for an old-style philologist.

Pass the Old Spice, please.

We have to go down deep to play this game of literature and literary criticism. But it is a game, a game of searching for questions and then searching for answers. I think that anonymous reviewer knew well that it is a game, and I take his playful comments less as criticism and more as a hat tip to a fellow player. But his apparent dismissal of old-style philology troubles me. “These questions might never have been asked if the Hero on the Beach had continued to be studied only in the context of Old English poetry.” Or only in the context of theory. Or only in the context of reused quotes from tertiary sources. Experiments call out to be conducted. Old texts wait to be read and reread. Arithmetic must be done and redone. And, always, we sit on the shoulders of a vast and various army of giants.

The poetry that goes by this misleading and unfortunate title attracts occasionally from afar people of various sort — philologists, historians, folklorists, and others of that kidney, but also poets, critics, and connoisseurs of new literary sensations. The philologists (in a wide sense) have as usual done most of the work, and their ardour has not more than usual (probably less than in Beowulf ) been diverted from at least intelligent appreciation of the literary value of these documents.

It is unusually true here that a real judgement and appreciation of these poems — whose obscurity and difficulty is such that only the devoted labour of many philologists has made them available — is dependent on personal possession of a knowledge of the critical, metrical, and linguistic problems. Without the philologist, of course, we should not know what many of the words meant, how the lines ran, or what the words sounded like: this last is in old Scandinavian verse of possibly more importance even than usual. . .

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, p. 16.

Now and then we each bring a little tidbit to the meticulously crafted groaning board of human expression. I am happy with participation, whether it ends in rejection or acceptance. I have no interest in throwing over the banquet table of the ages in favour of a rickety TV tray of this week’s theory. If I am to sit at this banquet, on the shoulders of these giants, I would prefer to look to the horizon now and then as I pick at the philological crumbs on their bibs, rather than turn my blindfolded eyes to a wall, untouched by experiment, trailing flatulent clouds of theory.

 

______________________

1Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

2Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

3Cockayne reads pund here as an error for yntsan, “ounce”.

4Cockayn has note: “Sexterius medicinalis habet uncias decem. Plin. Valer. Pref.”

5Based on 240 pennies to the pund.

Guenevere: A Tragedy

A long time ago, before Netflix or Google, almost before the Internet, when I was a young man, and people read books and used typewriters, I set myself an exercise. I was on the cusp between university and the real world, steeped in Classical and Medieval Literature, wanting to write something that might last. I set myself the task of writing an Aeschylean Drama. And I chose as my subject the last days of Camelot. Yes, a Medieval Classic Greek Tragedy. Sort of like attempting to write an Elizabethan Tragedy featuring Vladimir Putin (my current work-in-progress).

So, I sat down and wrote a thing called Guenevere. Some bits had been around for a while — a nostalgic bit of a lament addressed by Lancelot to Guenevere is the earliest kernel. All of it came out in verse, some of it, the odes of the Chorus, with an elaborate rhyme scheme emphasizing the strophic structure. It all came out quickly, a function of a few intense years of learning ancient languages by studying ancient poetry. Punctuation was inconsistent, like old manuscripts. Speeches were not always attributed to specific characters, again like old manuscripts. Stage directions were entirely absent, like — you see the pattern. I figured Guenevere would never see a stage, certainly not in my lifetime, and if it did, it would be interpreted as whatever group of thespians might perform it might wish.

Well, this August, at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, my little exercise will be performed and interpreted. I would be very pleased if you went to see Guenevere. My play is deeply rooted in some very old traditions, is deeply conventional, is at once both very unfamiliar and extremely accessible, and is, I think, not quite like anything you have likely seen before.

Camelot is an empty shell. King Arthur and his knights have long been at war in a grey and fading landscape. Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot, is a monk. Guenevere, with all the ladies of Camelot, has gone to a nunnery. The Holy Grail has been found, but, is it too late? Golden memories of youth and dreams of happiness stand against a reality of war, decay, incestuous betrayal, and inevitable death. Guenevere, the woman, and Guenevere, the play, resolve to Myth, to human meaning in the face of universal meaninglessness, to the Life that lives in memory in the face of the endless Death of forgetting.

Just a little something I tossed off as a young man back in those mythic times of typewriters, fountain pens, and real books. I’d love it if you would give it an hour of your Fringe time. I guess I’m blowing my own horn, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Times and tickets will be available at the Edmonton Fringe webpage.

For those who remember real books, a limited number of printed copies of the play will be available for purchase.

Idle Musings on Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Arab Slave Trade

Here again the Demon of Slavery will reign over a solitude of his own creation. Can it be, that, by some inexplicable law, where Nature has done her best for the happiness of mankind, man, doomed to misery, must work out his own unhappiness?

The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Volume I, p. 85.

I didn’t learn about the Arab Slave Trade in school. I don’t remember the Arab Slave Trade ever being the subject of any conversation I’ve ever been involved in, until recently, when I’ve started a few such conversations. Slavery, in modern times at least, seemed to always be assumed to be something White People made happen.

The other night I finished reading Sir Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. Sir Richard Burton, the eccentric Nineteenth Century British explorer, not Richard Burton (CBE) the eccentric Twentieth Century British actor. The adventures of Burton and his rarely named “companion”, John Hanning Speke, read alternately like a dull economic travelogue, an extremely extended and excessively juvenile Monty Python sketch, a presentation and presumption of accuracy of the racist Hamitic Hypothesis, and, dissonantly, a lament for the tragic state of the people of East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. As well, for a moment, Burton’s book is a sketch of a plan to eliminate slavery in the region. Clearly Burton was a conflicted fellow in a conflicted time, in East Africa, a terribly conflicted place in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

A particular incident of Burton’s journey has haunted me, as it seems to have haunted Burton — he mentions it twice in his book:

The Kirangozi or Mnyamwezi guide, who had accompanied the Expedition from the coast, remained behind, because his newly-purchased slave-girl had become foot-sore, and unable to advance; finding the case hopeless, he cut off her head, lest of his evil good might come to another.

Volume II, pp. 161-2

This indescribably horrible and likely oft repeated moment came at a time when there were perhaps a half dozen Europeans on the mainland of East Africa, at a time when the internal and Arabian slave trade had continued for untold generations. This was a developed, agricultural society whose economy was driven almost completely by the internal marketing and exporting to Arab lands of slaves and, to a lesser extent, the export of elephant ivory across the Indian Ocean. I can’t help but think that at that moment, unlike almost any other time in White, Upper Class, British, Victorian Burton’s life, there was no such thing as Race. In that moment, there was only Good and Evil, and Burton was seeing the Horror of Evil. Yes, that is a Heart of Darkness reference.

But what could Burton do? The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa was at least 1000 years old. It had been 700 years old when the European Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Burton was almost alone. To hear Burton describe him, his companion, Speke, wasn’t much better than useless. And they were lone Europeans, both very ill, in an extremely violent slaving society which saw them as nothing but (possibly) wealthy interlopers whose lives were worth nothing more than their merchandise that might be bought or stolen.

Burton stayed silent on that bloody path on that bloody day. The foot-sore young woman died, unnamed and unremembered but for Burton’s written memorial.

But, long before Burton ever laid eyes on the poor victim, he was campaigning in his way to end the slave trade in East Africa. Although he had almost died on an earlier journey, speared through the face at the hands of Somali warriors, he wrote home from a ship off the coast with concern for the people he had met and was yet to meet and a suggestion of a military/diplomatic remedy:

By means of two such steamers we shall, I believe, be prepared for any contingencies which might arise in the Red Sea; and if to this squadron be added an allowance for interpreters and a slave approver in each harbour, in fact a few of the precautions practised by the West African Squadron, the slave-trade in the Red Sea will soon have received its deathblow, and Eastern Africa its regeneration at our hands.

From a letter from R. F. Burton, sent to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, from HEIC Sloop-of-War Elphinstone, 15 December 1856, reprinted in Appendix 2 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Volume II, p. 428.

His letter was not well received:

From H. L. Anderson, Esquire, Secretary to Government, Bombay, to Captain R. F. Burton, 18th Regiment Bombay N. I.

Dated the 23rd July, 1857.
Sir, — With reference to your letter, dated the 15th December, 1856, to the address of the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, communicating your views on affairs in the Red Sea, and commenting on the political measures of the Government of India, I am directed by the Right Honourable the Governor in Council to state, your want of discretion, and due respect for the authorities to whom you are subordinate, has been regarded with displeasure by Government.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient Servant,

(Signed) H. L. Anderson,
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 23rd July, 1857.”

Volume II, p. 428

It seems the British government had little stomach for interfering with Indigenous and Arab affairs in East Africa, and certainly not in playing the long game Burton had proposed.

But Burton continued. His book about his travels to the Lake Region is certainly a travel narrative, but Burton devotes a remarkable proportion of his tale to description of the economic and political facts and potentials of the region. These details may at first seem to be gathered as a guide to colonial exploitation of East Africa, for example when Burton suggests a Biblical/genetic basis for the European colonial urge to build railroads:

For long centuries past and for centuries to come the Semite and the Hamite have been and will be contented with human labour. The first thought which suggests itself to the sons of Japhet is a tramroad from the coast to the Lake regions.

Volume II, p. 411.

But Burton makes clear a few pages later what his true goal is:

To conclude the subject of commerce in East Africa. It is rather to the merchant than to the missionary that we must look for the regeneration of the country by the development of her resources. The attention of the civilized world, now turned towards this hitherto neglected region, will presently cause slavery to cease; man will not risk his all in petty and passionless feuds undertaken to sell his weaker neighbour ; and commerce, which induces mansuetude of manners, will create wants and interests at present unknown. As the remote is gradually drawn nigh, and the difficult becomes accessible, the intercourse of man — strongest instrument of civilisation in the hand of Providence — will raise Africa to that place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded.

Volume II, p. 419

This is nothing other than a manifesto of economic development and globalisation as tools to give all people a hand up to greater welfare, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Some might argue that it is also a recipe for colonial exploitation, but exploitation is clearly not the dish Burton dreams of cooking up. “That place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded” is an aspirational phrase that ranks alongside any of the great Declarations of the United Nations. Perhaps Burton is expressing some paternalism, but nothing in the final sentiments of The Lake Regions of Africa smacks of colonial exploitation.

Burton returned to Britain after this journey with his health shattered. After a heroic series of dangerous adventures in Arabia, Asia, and finally Africa, he never made another journey of exploration more dangerous than a brief visit to Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City. He took a series of uneventful diplomatic postings and turned his attention to writing and translating works from some of the dozens of languages in which he had become fluent. Thirty years after the death of the footsore young lady on that path in East Africa, Burton died at the age of sixty-nine. The slave trade on the island of Zanzibar was abolished seven years later.

In 1953, almost a century after Burton witnessed the beheading of a tired young woman, slaves were part of the Qatari delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mauritania, in Northwest Africa, banned slavery in 2007.

And I was pretty much unaware of the Arab Slave Trade until I read The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Thank you, Sir Richard Francis Burton, for enlightening me.

“I am just of middle station”: Tolkien’s “Kullervo”, Kirby’s “Kalevala”, and Editorial Responsibility

. . . no one can really write or make anything purely privately.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, in a letter to W. H. Auden, June 7th, 1955

Last night I stayed up late to finish reading Verlyn Flieger’s edition of some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s youthful undergraduate jottings published under the title The Story of Kullervo. I did so with growing annoyance if not anger as I became more and more convinced that the volume was a betrayal of Tolkien and his memory as well as being a betrayal of a key principal of scholarship.

This volume is yet another in the ever growing collection of Tolkien’s posthumous titles, a collection certainly destined to grow as long as there is a single Tolkien grocery list left unpublished (on paper stock of ever declining quality) between hard covers. This particular slim volume consists in part of two rough versions of an informal talk given by undergraduate Tolkien on the subject of the Finnish folkloric pastiche The Kalevala. These talks were delivered at a time when Tolkien, by his own admission, was unable to read Finnish, and are based on his reading of W. F. Kirby’s translation published in Everyman’s Library in 1907. As well, the volume contains Tolkien’s very rough, unfinished, first and only draught of The Story of Kullervo, a recasting of one of the stories in The Kalevala. The volume concludes with a brief essay by Flieger about The Story of Kullervo as the seed of much that came later in Tolkien’s elaborately imagined mythology. Everything in the volume has been previously published separately elsewhere.

Tolkien’s abandoned project of adapting the story of Kullervo is interesting enough to a Tolkien fancier, but the commentary provided by Flieger is thin and seems to have been largely “phoned in”. And the two versions of Tolkien’s talk are — unsurprisingly — repetitive and, as might be expected of an undergrad talk, pretty juvenile and shallow. Tolkien is obviously excited about this new thing he’s found, but he is, at this point in his career, not yet an expert on anything, let alone on the language and literature of Finland.

While the forty pages or so at the heart of the volume are interesting enough, I find what Flieger has done with this text, or rather, what she has not done, to be a bit of a disturbing misrepresentation of both Tolkien and of this text which he obviously never intended to be published.

The Story of Kullervo is a very rough initial draught of an almost immediately abandoned project to transform a long disjointed verse story from The Kalevala into a coherent story told in prose interspersed with characters’ speeches cast in verse. Tolkien’s process, which was interrupted by abandonment of the project, seems to have been to write the prose passages in order and to write the verse speeches when he could, but to lift passages directly from Kirby’s translation to use as placeholders until inspiration came to him to create original passages. A few of the verse passages are wholey Tolkien’s. Others are made up of Kirby’s lines unchanged, Kirby’s lines modified, and Kirby’s lines intermingled with Tolkien’s own lines. And some few passages are transcribed virtually unchanged from Kirby’s translation. But, apart from one mention of two crossed out lines as being “transferred unchanged from Kirby” (p. 143), Flieger makes no mention of the fact that a not insubstantial portion of this book with “Tolkien” in big letters on the cover is actually verse composed by W. F. Kirby.

Consider the following passages, only a few that might be examples, the first from early in Kullervo’s story:

Now a man in sooth I deem me
Though mine ages have seen few summers
And this springtime in the woodlands
Still is new to me and lovely.
Nobler am I now than erstwhile
And the strength of five within me
And the valour of my father.

Tolkien, The Story of Kullervo, p. 13

“Now I first a man can deem me,
When my hands the axe are wielding.
I am handsomer to gaze on,
Far more noble than aforetime,
Five men’s strength I feel within me
And I equal six in valour.”

Kirby, Kalevala, Runo 31, ll. 239-244

Here, early in the text, Tolkien has already done much to make the passage his own. But as the manuscript proceeds:

Let no sapling sprout here ever
Nor the blades of grass stand greening
While the mighty earth endureth
Or the golden moon is shining
And its rays come filtering fdimly
Through the boughs of Saki’s forest.
Now the seed to earth had fallen
And the young corn shooteth upward
And its tender leaf unfoldeth
Till the stalks do form upon it.
May it never come to earing
Nor its yellow head droop ripely
In this clearing in the forest
In the woods of Sakehonto.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 14

“Let no sapling here be growing,
Let no blade of grass be standing,
Never while the earth endureth,
Or the golden moon is shining,
Here in Kalervo’s son’s forest,
Here upon the good man’s clearing.
“If the seed on earth has fallen,
And the young corn should shoot upward,
If the sprout should be developed,
And the stalk should form upon it,
May it never come to earing,
Or the stalk-end be developed.”

Kirby, Runo 31, ll. 283-294

A little more of Kirby remains in Tolkien’s draught. And then:

Let them herd among the bushes
And the milch kine in the meadow:
These with wide horns to the aspens
These with curved horns to the birches
That they thus may fatten on them
And their flesh be sweet and goodly.
Out upon the open meadows
Out among the forest borders
Wandering in the birchen woodland
And the lofty growing aspens
Lowing now in silver copses
Roaming in the golden firwoods.
. . .
If my herdsman is an ill one
Make the willow then a neatherd
Let the alder watch the cattle
And the mountain ash protect them
Let the cherry lead them homeward
In the milktime in the even.
If the willow will not herd them
Nor the mountain ash protecdt them
And the alder will not watch them
Nor the cherry drive them homeward
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the daughters of Ilwinti
To guard my kine from danger
And protect my horned cattle
For a many are thy maidens
At thy bidding in Manoine
And skilled to herd the white kine
On the blue meads of Ilwinti
Until Ukko comes to milk them
And gives drink to thirsty Keme.
Come thou maidens great and ancient
Mighty daughters of the Heaven . . .

The Story of Kullervo, pp. 21-23

“Send the cows among the bushes,
And the milkers in the meadow,
Those with wide horns to the aspens,
Those with curved horns to the birches,
That they thus may fatten on them,
And may load themselves with tallow,
There upon the open meadows,
And among the wide-spread borders,
From the lofty birchen forest,
And the lower growing aspens,
From among the golden fir-woods,
From among the silver woodlands.
. . .
“If my herdsman is a bad one,
Or the herd-girls should be timid,
Make the willow then a herdsman,
Let the alder watch the cattle,
Let the mountain-ash protect them,
And the cherry lead them homeward,
That the mistress need not seek them,
Nor need other folks be anxious.
“If the willow will not herd them,
Nor the mountain-ash protect them,
Nor the alder watch the cattle,
Nor the cherry lead them homeward,
Send thou then thy better servants,
Send the Daughters of Creation,
That they may protect my cattle,
And the whole herd may look after.
Very many are thy maidens,
Hundreds are beneath thy orders,
Dwelling underneath the heavens,
Noble Daughters of Creation.

Kirby, Runo 32, ll. 37-82

Here Tolkien weaving himself through Kirby. But finally, at the end of Tolkien’s manuscript, he hasn’t done anything much other than place Kirby’s verse onto his own page with only such changes as might arise from incomplete memorization, as a place holder for future work in the end never undertaken:

Nay my race is not a great one
Not a great one nor a small one:
I am just of middle station:
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring
Uncouth boy and ever foolish
Worthless child and good for nothing.
Nay but tell me of thy people
Of the brave race whence thou comest.
Maybe a Might race has born thee
Fairest child of mighty father.

The Story of Kullervo, p. 37

“No, my race is not a great one,
Not a great one, not a small one,
I am just of middle station,
Kalervo’s unhappy offspring,
Stupid boy, and very foolish,
Worthless child, and good for nothing.
Tell me now about your people,
And the brave race that you spring from,
Perhaps from mighty race descended,
Offspring of a mighty father.”

Kirby, Runo 35, ll. 199-208

I have no patience for misattribution. In the case of The Story of Kullervo as published, W. F. Kirby is denied due credit for his creation, and Tolkien is, through dereliction of editorial and scholarly duty, given undue creative credit for what is at times nothing more than transcribing someone else’s work. I do not in any way think that Tolkien can be accused of plagiarizing Kirby: Tolkien had no intention that his very rough working document would ever be published. Tolkien became, and probably already was as an undergraduate, enough of a scholar that he wouldn’t have dreamt of taking credit for another scholar’s work.

It is unfortunate that Flieger, and Harper Collins, the publisher of The Story of Kullervo, seem to have no such scruples about proper attribution.

Reminiscences of the Future

I’m writing this about twenty-four hours after the last burn of the upper stage of the first Falcon Heavy test flight sent a red Tesla Roadster and it’s laid-back space-suited mannequin driver on it’s million year ever-circling picnic to the Asteroid Belt, replete with pop culture references to David Bowie, Star Wars and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and overflowing with Geeee Whizzzz!!!!! excitement and boys with toys eye-rolling. I confess, I enjoyed the ride. After all, I grew up waiting for the latest National Geographic to see six-month-old photos from Apollo moon landings. But now, as a grown up, living in this science fiction future, I can watch it all in real time, on the supercomputer in my pocket.

But, when all is said and done, when the last booster core hits the Atlantic just a hundred metres (and five hundred kilometres per hour) from its intended landing spot, there remains a single, brief, glorious moving image which outshines all the hype, the marketing, the inconceivable engineering, and the sheer chutzpah of the technical achievement of the hipster capitalists at SpaceX:

Two rockets, in their fundaments direct descendants of those beautiful, streamlined, V-2-derived, Chesley Bonestell-painted, science fiction spaceships of my childhood settling majestically, magically, balletically, onto the concrete pads of Landing Zones 1 and 2 in Florida in one of the finest pieces of choreography, one of the finest works of art in history. Until that event is duplicated, but with a couple of rocketjocks riding two candles down to the Space Port, I won’t feel more like the dreams and expectations I had in my childhood have finally been met.

2001 is long past and so is the company called Pan Am, with never a single Space Clipper. And the Space Station, as amazing as the ISS is, is not a Blue Danube Waltz-playing wheel in space. But we have found more wonders at Jupiter, and beyond, than Dave Bowman and Frank Poole could have imagined. And, until yesterday, no spaceports with concrete pads welcoming home rockets — in the plural — descending gently on their tails, the way they’re supposed to descend gently! Finally, the Future is here!

And there’s also that supercomputer in my pocket.

Forty years or so ago, a little before the Space Shuttle rekindled (and quite quickly dashed) the dream of a reusable rocketship, I had an adolescent dream of being a Science Fiction writer – nay, a Science Fiction poet. I twice submitted versions of a Space Age elegiac paean, the second a sonnet, to a then-new Science Fiction magazine with a fairly well known name. Both submissions were rejected with the reassurance that my bit of verse was “better than most of the poems we see”.

I thought of that poem today, a bit of a lament of an astronaut grown old, unable to touch the sky as in youth, but finally able to feel the youthful dreams come true. At last. This morning I dug the old, original teenage typescripts (and rejection slips) out of a box in the basement. This evening I revisited the versions – which I won’t post here – and made something just a little bit new. Just a word or two changed from that teenage voice. Just a little bit older. And more hopeful:

Song of an aging astronaut (2018)

Been years since breezes from the concrete pad
have washed across the green grass of my lawn
to bring old feelings back, both good and bad,
with distant sights and voices now far gone.

My eyes rise weakly to the blazing sky
to watch the burning trail, so white, so bright.
At last. A rocketship, a fire-fly
of steel and tin come back from velvet night.

I sit, forgot, too weary to hold rage.
I, too, once flew among the glistening stars
and I have looked on Earth down from afar.
But time has passed. And youth must change to age
I rest, at peace. The breeze blows gently past.
I feel those youthful dreams come true at last.

Yesterday I felt those youthful dreams come real, and that was better than any movie. Better even the biggest stack of space art books.

That was living the future.

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket: A Beverage

Many years ago I heard of an intimidating beverage called “The Hangman’s Blood”, ostensibly invented by Anthony Burgess. Burgess called the Hangman’s Blood “a beery concoction of many liquors and stout and champagne.” Sometime after hearing of Burgess’ “invention”, I was quietly and purely by chance reading an odd children’s novel called “A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. “A High Wind in Jamaica” was published in 1929, a month after Burgess’ twelfth birthday. I don’t know if young Tony Burgess read Hughes’ book, but . . .

Captain Jonsen, however, had his own idea of how to enliven a parochial bazaar that is proving a frost. He went on board, and mixed several gallons of that potion known in alcoholic circles as Hangman’s Blood (which is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter). Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so, once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort. (A High Wind in Jamaica, p. 64 in my Folio edition)

When I realized Hughes’ precedence over Burgess, I edited the Wikipedia entry on Hangman’s Blood to set the record straight. You’ll have to take my word for it that it was me.

But, I’m actually not writing about Hangman’s blood today, except as a prelude to my own variation on that drink which I suspect but can’t prove has a deeper history alluded to in Hughes’ mention: “that potion known in alcoholic circles . . .”

My Office

I was sitting in my office last week having a cold Pimm’s and Sanpellegrino following a hot afternoon of yard work. Apparently Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel was in the back of my mind because suddenly a drink recipe burst fully formed from my forehead like Athena from the brow of Zeus: The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket. Tonight I mixed the first ever (as far as I know) mug of it. And here it is:

The Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket

Into a big glass place

Ice — lots of it — for the Antarctic
Navy Rum — one measure — for the seafaring life
Gordon’s Gin – one measure — for the hero’s middle name
Pimm’s No. 1 Cup — one measure — for the hero’s last name
Amontillado Sherry — one measure — for one of the finest of Poe’s stories
Bourbon — one measure — for Poe’s time south of the Mason-Dixon
Juice of half a Lime — to ward off scurvy

Top the glass up with

Arthur Guinness’ Stout — for the hero’s first name

Garnish with

A healthy pinch of Salt — for the sea spray over the bow in a Southern Ocean gale.

The ingredients and the finished product

I’m happy with it. Definitely an ocean flavour to it, and something mysterious and unidentifiable but pleasant. Unusual, but not a Poe Horror. The aroma may have a little something of the (watery) grave about it, but it’s strangely pleasant. And there’s a distinct earthiness about the flavour. The salt is necessary. This is certainly a drink to savour while savouring Mr. Poe’s writing!

A close-up view

A note: I did not make my Arthur Gordon Pimm’s of Nantucket with the double measures Burgess recommends for his version of the Hangman’s Blood. Singles seemed adequate and more in keeping with the temperance Mr. Poe strived for but did not always achieve in his life.

Public Service Announcement

Please drink responsibly.
At home.
Alone.
Late at night.
In the dark.
Reading something by Poe!