Monday, March 31, 2008

Beowulf for Everyday Use

It is not the sole nature of memorable and famous lines to compress profundity or give space to the sublime, although it is as equally no vicissitude of taste alone which is the foundation of fame. Yet there do remain many lines whose reputations have been raised beyond their due by the excellence of their authors, and which have been granted currency among the well-read on this account. All cultures have their classics, which the learned plunder with care for those unassuming phrases whose sentiment, though neither weighty nor lofty, may yet be made the gilt of conversation.

It may well be the misfortune of Beowulf never to have attained such a status, for it is a poem whose style lends greatly to quotation. The treasury of classical and Shakespearean letters from which we draw is certainly neither poor nor wanting, but it is an amusing exercise to wonder which phrases from the nameless Bard might stand beside arcades ambo, carpe diem and their brethren. I present a few offerings, and some advice for usage:

"Þæt wæs god cyning!" (line 11; "That was a good king!"). Rather straightforward and hardly to be limited to politics.

"Wæs þu, Hroðgar, hal!" (line 407; "Good health to you, Hrothgar!") Beowulf's greeting to Hrothgar and an all-purpose word of greeting in learned and friendly company. Combine with "It is I, Hamlet the Dane," to casually insinuate the peculiarity with which Denmark has fired the English genius.

"Đa wæs swigra secg sunu Ecglafes" (line 980; "Then was the son of Ecglaf a more silent man.") So the poet describes Unferth, who had questioned and mocked Beowulf's capabilities, after the defeat of Grendel; useful after anyone has been shown up, but especially to be applied to the more vain and pompous among us.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Some Wit of Dr. Johnson's

As I am busy with finals, I can only provide you, dear reader, with the fruit of another man's mind.

Samuel Johnson on Rousseau (from Boswell's Life):

Boswell: My dear sir, you don't call Rousseau bad company. Do you really think him a bad man?
Johnson: Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don't talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him; and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.
Boswell: I don't deny, sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.
Johnson: Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man's intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.
Boswell: Sir, do you think him as bad a man as Voltaire?
Johnson: Why, sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.

On Swift

Swift having been mentioned, Johnson, as usual, treated him with little respect as an author. Some of us endeavored to support the Dean of St. Patrick's, by various arguments. One in particular praised his "Conduct of the Allies." Johnson: "Sir, his 'Conduct of the Allies' is a performance of very little ability." "Surely, sir (said Dr. Douglas), you must allow it has strong facts." Johnson: "Why, yes, sir; but what is that to the merit of the composition? In the Sessions-paper of the Old Bailey there are strong facts. Housebreaking is a strong fact; robbery is a strong fact; and murder is a mighty strong fact; but is great praise due to the historian to those strong facts? No, sir; Swift has told what he had to tell, distinctly enough, but that is all. He had to count ten, and he has counted it right." Then, recollecting that Mr. Davies, by acting as an informer, had been the occasion of his talking somewhat too harshly to his friend Dr. Percy [the sting of Johnson's wit, given an opening by a comment of Mr. Davies, had compelled Dr. Percy to leave the dinner], for which, probably, when the first ebullition was over, he felt some compunction, he took an opportunity to give him a hit: so added, with a preparatory laugh, "Why, sir, Tom Davies might have written 'The Conduct of the Allies.'" Poor Tom being thus suddenly dragged into ludicrous notice in presence of the Scottish Doctors, to whom he was ambitious of appearing to advantage, was grievously mortified. Nor did his punishment rest here; for upon subsequent occasions, whenever he, "statesman all over," assumed a strutting importance, I used to hail him "the Author of the Conduct of the Allies."

When I called upon Dr. Johnson the next morning, I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial prowess the preceding evening. "Well (said he), we had good talk. Boswell: "Yes, sir; you tossed and gored several persons."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Billy Graham

Courtesy of Kevin Davis over at After Existentialism, Light, here's a good piece from Time magazine a few months ago about Billy Graham. The article is mainly a response to some rather ugly comments by Christopher Hitchens but nonetheless does a good job of showing how Billy Graham cannot at all be likened to Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, or similar antichrists, an unfortunate mistake made by so many of the religiously illiterate.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

To My Querimonious Peers

The hours, you say, that sound the course of night
Yield up their rest in rend'ring products right;
Those too that stretch the sun across the day
Exhaust themselves in studying, you say.
But say, my friend, when time's so wisely spent,
How can the spender be so ignorant?