Sunday 31 December 2023

A Drinking Proverb

Humanum est potare
to drink is to be human.
Rodney M. Thomson (ed.), Tractatus garsiae or the translation of the relics of ss. gold and silver (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), p. 44 [479]. T.P.Q: May 1099.

Saturday 30 December 2023

I Prefer Reading

 Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (London: Constable & Company, 1933), p. 155:

People say that Life is the thing, but I prefer Reading.

Friday 29 December 2023

Memorising Poetry

At school some learning by heart was compulsory, though not irksome. But this intake was out-distanced many times, as it always is among people who need poetry, by a private anthology, both of those automatically absorbed and of poems consciously chosen and memorized as though one were stocking up for a desert island or for a stretch of solitary.
Patrick Leight Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (London: John Murray, 2004), p. 71.

Thursday 28 December 2023

I Told You So

Dylan Thomas, The Doctor and the Devils (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1953), p. 109:

Outside the gates of hell are not the words ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,’ but ‘I Told You So.’

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Love of Learning

     Passing from the law into wider avenues of thought and endeavor, I won infinite instruction and a larger view. I studied the achievement of each people sympathetically, fascinated by the efforts of men to bring their lives into harmony with their convictions. In every instance, it seemed to me, something was won of truth and general value. Ancient China with its great Confucius presented enduring social verities. Indian thought plumbed the depths of sorrow-stricken transience. But in the bright light of Greece what did I not learn of glorious acts and strivings, of shifting civic governments, and the often futile plans of men to curb their own violence? The very course of Greek philosophy taught me much even when declining from speculation to utility in Stoicism. The last sets one on the road to Rome, practical-minded, legal, imperial civilizer. If there was intellectual shrinkage, the ageing world showed broadening of feeling and sympathy even such as came to my own rather individual self. 
Henry Osborn Taylor, A Historian’s Creed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939), pp. 80-81.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Enthusiam about the Past

Also, it is so much easier to be enthusiastic about what exists than about what doesn’t. The future doesn’t exist. The past does. For, whereas all men can learn the gift of prophecy has died out.
Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson or an Oxford Love Story (London: William Heinemann, 1949),  pp. 86-87.

Monday 25 December 2023


John Selden, Table talk: being the discourses of John Selden, Esq. (London: printed for Joseph White, 1789; first pub. 1689), p. 25:

CHRISTMAS succeeds the Saturnalia, the same time, the same number of holy days, then the master waited upon the servant like the Lord of Misrule.
David Teniers the Younger - The King drinks
David Teniers the Younger - The King drinks (c.1650-1660), Prado

Sunday 24 December 2023

Christmas Eve

   ‘Christmas Eve.
   ... The opposite of New Years:
   It is the time of the year for family reunions, for Yule logs and trees blazing—for gifts, and for the eating of special foods and drinks.
   It is the personal time, rather that the social time; it is the time of focusing upon self and family, rather than society at large; it is the time of rimed windows, star-coated angels, of burnish bushes, captured rainbows, of fat Santas with two pairs of trousers (because the youngsters who sit upon their laps are easily awed); and the time of cathedral windows, blizzards, carols, bells, manger scenes, season’s greetings from those far removed (even if they live but a short distance away), of broadcast Dickens and holly and candles, of poinsettia and evergreen, of snowbanks, firs, spruces, pines, of the Bible and Medieval England, of “What Child is This?,” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” of the birth and the promise, of light in the darkness; the time, and the time to be, the feeling before the realization, the realization before the happening, the trafficking of red and green, the changing of the year’s guard, of tradition, of loneliness, sympathy, empathy, sentimentality, singing, faith, hope, charity, love, desire, aspiration, fear, fulfilment, realization, faith, hope, death; a time of the gathering together of stones, of embracing, getting, losing, laughing, dancing, mourning, rending, silence, speaking, death and not speaking. It is a time to break down and time to build up, a time to plant, and a time to pluck that which is planted....’
Roger Zelazny, The Dream Master (New York: Ace, 1966), pp.61-62. First published as He Who Shapes.

Saturday 23 December 2023

Notes on a Christmas Carol

 ‘I Saw Three Ships’
I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day?
And what was in those ships all three,
    On Christmas day in the morning?

Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Pray whither sailed those ships all three,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day?
Pray whither sailed those ships all three,
    On Christmas day in the morning?

O they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
O they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the Souls on Earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
And all the Souls on Earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.

Then let us all rejoice amain,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
William Sandys, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (London: Richard Beckley, 1833), pp. 112-13.

It is sometimes asserted that the earliest version of this carol is the one published by John Forbes in 1666. An earlier copy of the Forbes’ version, however, is found, written in an early seventeenth-century hand, in the St Andrews Psalter (also known as the Thomas Wood or Thomas Wode Psalter).

Wilhelm Bolle, ‘Forbes’ “Songs and fancies”, das erste in Schottland gedruckte Liederbuch’, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, 131 (1913), 320-33 (p. 320).

The Forbes/Wode version includes Saint Michael and Saint John on the miraculous voyage to (landlocked) Bethlehem:
         Cantus. Three Voices.
All sones of Adam, rise up with me,
Go praise the blessed Trinitie.
Go praise the blessed Trinitie.
Cry Kyrie, with Hosanna, sing Alleluja now.
Save us all, Emanuel.
Then spake the Archangel Gabriel, said,
Ave, Mary mild, the Lord of Lords is with thee,
now shall you go with child:
Ecce ancilla domini.
Then said the Virgin, as thou hast said, so mat it be,
Welcom be heavens King welcom be heavens King.
There comes a ship far sailing then,  
Saint Michel was the stieres-man:
Saint John sate in the horn:
Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of heaven they rang,
On Christs Sunday at morn, On Christs Sunday at morn,
Then sang the Angels all and some,
Lauda Deum tuum, Si-on.
The sons of Adam answered, then sang,
Glore be to the God and man, The Father and the Sprite,
Also with honor and perpetual joy, with honor and perpetual joy.
John Forbes, Cantus, Songs and Fancies, 2nd edn (Aberdeen: Printed by John Forbes, 1666), fols. K1v-K2v.

Another interesting version, noted by Lewis Davis, includes mention of the medieval transfer of the relics of the Magi to Cologne:
I saw three ships come sailing by, by, by,
I axed ’em what they’d got aboard-board-board,
They said they’d got three crawns-crawns-crawns,
I axed ’em where they was taken to-to-o, to-o; to-ooö,
They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine, Co-ln, Co-ln,
I axed ’em where they came frae-frae-frae,
They said they came frae Bethlehem-Beth-Beth
   ‘The above version of the story of the translation to Cologne of the crania of the Magi in 1162 by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who carried them off from S. Eustorgio, Milan, and presented them to Cologne Cathedral, was noted by Mr. Lewis Davis of Pinner, and sent by him to Mr. Baring Gould, probably c. 1895, as the latter prints it in his Garland of Country Songs under the unpromising, indeed deterrent heading of “All round my hat” from a fancied resemblance of the melody to that street-tune as it had then become! In the legend, the original number of the ships seems to have been three, the reputed skulls of the Magi having each been carried in a separate ship, presumably for the greater honour of each. But when persons were substituted for these relics the number of ships was made to correspond-so we get two ships for “Joseph and his fair lady,” and still later, one only for “The Saviour.” ’

Anne G. Gilchrist, ‘The Three Kings of Cologne’, Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, 5.1 (1946), 31-40 (pp. 33-34).

Also compare:
‘The North Ship’
I saw three ships go sailing by,
Over the sea, the lifting sea,
And the wind rose in the morning sky,
And one was rigged for a long journey.

The first ship turned towards the west,
Over the sea, the running sea,
And by the wind was all possessed
And carried to a rich country.

The second ship turned towards the east,
Over the sea, the quaking sea,
And the wind hunted it like a beast
To anchor in captivity.

The third ship drove towards the north,
Over the sea, the darkening sea,
But no breath of wind came forth,
And the decks shone frostily.

The northern sky rose high and black
Over the proud unfruitful sea,
East and west the ships came back
Happily or unhappily:

But the third went wide and far
Into an unforgiving sea
Under a fire-spilling star,
And it was rigged for a long journey.
Philip Larkin, Collected Poems (London: The Marvell Press, 2003), p. 36.

Friday 22 December 2023

An Unpublished Chronogram

This portrait of Ferdinand von Plettenberg (1690-1737) is from the Schloss Nordkirchen in Westphalia. 

Schloss Nordkirchen Chronogram

The following is a transcription of the writing at the bottom of the portrait.
Left Panel:
LaVrIs ornan                 per faCta notanDa proba  
                           DVs                                                 tVs.
Est FerDInan                 PLettenberg stIpIte na
EX zeLo pat                    gratas sIbI DeserIt    
                           rIæ                                                  oras.
Terras    BaVa                peragranDas fLore DeC
e qVIbVs Ipse                BaVarVM fLorente VIg
                          DVXIt                                              ore.
AVgVstVLeo re          per WestphaLa regna nIt
Ars hæC In Cæ               SteLLIs aLbata pates
                              Lo                                                 Cet.
non VnqVaM Ve              nIgrICante neCata senes
Right Panel:
O fortVna                             ALphæ PaDeræqVe CLI
                                 tos                                                  entes.
Monstro sInVs gra                fortes persIstIte       g
CLeMens AVg                    VobIs eX asse fa
                                 VstVs                                             VebIt.
Verè DVX  I                         terras VIrtVte fo
Hos ferDIn                            popVLos sVasore reg
                                 anDo                                                ente.
SaCro sIgno bL                     rIDebIt gente stVp
Ergo SaCer Cr                       per fLorea saCVLa prIn     
                                 esCas                                               Ceps.
Et tV fLor                              tItVLIs FernanDe DeIn

This forms the following poem in leonine hexameters:
Lauris ornandus per facta notanda probatus.  
Est Ferdinandus Plettenberg stipite natus.  
Ex zelo patriae gratas sibi deserit oras.
Terras Bavariae peragrandas flore decoras.
E quibus ipse duxit Bavarum florente vigore.
Augustus Leo reduxit per Westphala regna nitore.
Ars haec in caelo stellis albata patescet.
non unquam velo nigricante necata senescet.
O fortunatos alphae paderaeque clientes
Monstro sinus gratos fortes persistite gentes.
Clemens augustus vobis ex asse favebit.
Vere dux iustus terras virtute fovebit.
Hos Ferdinando populos suasore regente.
Sacro signo blando ridebit gente stupente.
Ergo sacer crescas per florea sacula princeps.
Et tu florescas titulis Fernande deinceps.
My translation:

Honoured with laurels for his commendable deeds,
Ferdinand von Plettenberg was born of noble stock.
Out of zeal for his fatherland he abandoned pleasant shores,
He travelled the Bavarian landscape adorned with flowers,
Where he governs the Bavarians with his flourishing vigour.
Augustus Leo returned to the Westphalian kingdom in style.
This art will appear in the white sky amongst the stars.
It will never grow old, suppressed by a blackened veil.
O fortunate tributaries of the Aa and Pader rivers
A strong people support your pleasing banks in wonder.
Clemens August will favour you alone.
A just leader will truly sustain the lands though his virtue,
When these people are ruled by the good counsel of Ferdinand,
He will jest charmingly at an astonished nation with a sacred sign.
Therefore, sacred prince may you thrive through the flowery ages.
And may you, Ferdinand, increase in one distinction after another.

Each couplet forms the chronogram ‘1719’.

Ferdinand von Plettenberg was from Westphalia, hence the geographical references to the Aa and Pader rivers. In the year of this painting, 1719, he was appointed the Elector of Cologne and Elector of Bavaria Privy Councillor, though the poem is subtle about the nature of his successes in Bavaria.

He also held the positions was Chief Chamberlain and Hereditary Marshal to the Prince-elector Clemens August of Bavaria, who is named in line 11.

facta notanda, cf. Ovid, Her. II.86.

Thursday 21 December 2023

Scire tuum

                                  o mores, usque adeone
scire tuum nihil est nisi te scire hoc sciat alter?
O mores! Does your knowledge count for nothing then, unless others know you know it?
Persius, I.26-27. My translation. I recognize the irony of sharing this here, in a public account of my reading and observations of nature.

Szechuan Symplocos

Szechuan Symplocos (Symplocos setchuensis, 四川山矾).

Most of the trees on Yuelu Mountain have borne their fruit already but this late bloomer was still in flower, deep and solitary in the forest.

Szechuan Symplocos on Yuelu Mountain

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Marriage and Manuscripts

Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon 1559-1614, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), pp. 26-27:
   [...] in April  [1586] Casaubon married a second wife. Prudent it cannot have been in the middle of the public calamities, when even his poor £10 a year was precarious, to marry a girl of eighteen without fortune. But in times of distress men seek consolation, not welfare, and prudence is in abeyance. And there were many things to recommend the match. The lady had beauty, sense, worth, and her grandfather’s gentleness of disposition. Above all, Florence Estienne was the daughter of the great printer, Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus). Casaubon was naturally attracted to the editor of the Thesaurus, and had probably fallen in love with Estienne’s manuscript collections, before he began to pay his court to the daughter. 
In spite of marrying his daughter, Casaubon never succeeded in gaining full access to Estienne’s library. It is perilous to marry for books.

Tarenna mollissima

Tarenna mollissima (白花苦灯笼).

Very abundant as a shrub or medium-sized tree throughout Yuelu mountain: it thrives in the shade and red soil. This time of year clusters of its hard green and black berries seem to be everywhere.

Tarenna mollissima on Yuelu Mountain

Tuesday 19 December 2023


Karel Čapek (1890-1938), ‘Giddiness’, Tales from Two Pockets, trans. by Paul Selver (London: The Folio Society, 1962; 1926), pp. 176-81 (p. 176):

‘Conscience,’ said Mr Lacina, ‘is a word that’s no longer used. Now they call it repressions, but it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other.’


Taro (Colocasia esculenta, 野芋).

Wild taro plants, growing among the undergrowth provided by patches of trees within the Xiang river mudflats. I wonder what ancient or modern farmer accidentally brought it there.

Wild Taro in the Xiang River

Monday 18 December 2023

Cutleaf Groundcherry

Cutleaf Groundcherry (Physalis angulata, 苦蘵).

I went exploring a part of the wild mudflats in the Xiang which had been inaccessible for many months: the river water is reaching its winter low. There were many flocks of starlings and myna, and a few other birds. Amongst the marshy vegetation I found only a single groundcherry still in bloom, and displaying dozens of its lantern-like sepals.
Cutleaf Groundcherry Flower at Xiang River
Cutleaf Groundcherry Sepals at Xiang River

Hock and Soda-water!

 I would to heaven that I were so much clay,  
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were pass’d away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,  
Having got drunk exceedingly to-day,  
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)  
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda-water!
Lord Byron, On the Back of the Poet’s MS. of Canto I of Don Juan.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Common Asian Yellowjacket

Common Asian Yellowjacket (Vespula flaviceps, 细黄胡蜂).

Most insects seem to be asleep or hiding, but I found one wasp nest that is still active. Here the yellowjackets were perturbed by fallen leaves blocking the entrance to their nest; some worked hard to remove the obstructing foliage while others came and went. The larva of this species are quite edible, but nevertheless I left them undisturbed.

Common Asian Yellowjacket on Yuelu Mountain

Our Greatest Pursuit

 Qui sequitur me non ambulat in tenebris: dicit Dominus. Haec sunt verba Christis quibus admonemur, quatenus vitam eius et mores imitemur: si velimus veraciter illuminari, et ab omni caecitate cordis liberari. Summum igitur studium nostrum sit: in vita Iesu Christi meditari.
‘He who follows Me, walks not in darkness’ [John 8:12], sayeth the Lord. With these words of Christ, we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we verily wish to be enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our greatest pursuit therefore be to study the life of Jesus Christ.
Thomas à Kempis, De imitatione Christi libri quatuor, ed. by Karl Hirsche (Berlin: C. Habel, 1874), p.3. My translation
*Although this text is from an autograph ms, ‘volumus’ would be better grammatically than ‘velimus’.

Saturday 16 December 2023

White Beggartick

White Beggarticks (Bidens alba, 白花鬼针草).

Known to me as butterfly needles, they are popular with a variety of pollen-seeking insects. Through much of the year one patch or another can be found flowering, usually near the Xiang river or other waterways.

White Beggarticks by the Xiang River

Knowledge and Shouting

Mustrum Ridcully believed that knowledge could be acquired by shouting at people, and was endeavouring to do so.
Terry Pratchett Hogfather (London: Victor Gollancz. 1996), p. 154.

Friday 15 December 2023


Pondcypress (Taxodium ascendens, 池杉).

A sign that Winter is replacing Autumn: the pondcypress trees along the Xiang River are joining the ginkgoes, maples and other trees in finally changing its slender scaly-looking leaves.

Autumn Pondcypress by the Xiang River

Modern Decadence

‘Man to the Plough’
          1722                                1822
Man to the plough;                   Man tally-ho;
Wife to the cow;                        Miss piano;
Girl to the yarn;                        Wife silk and satin;
Boy to the barn;                        Boy Greek and Latin;
And your rent will be netted.    And you’ll all be Gazetted.
W.J. Bernhard Smith, ‘Man to the Plough’, Notes and Queries, 2.9 (19 May 1860), p. 392.
Notes: ‘gazetted’: ‘mentioned in The London Gazette’. This could mean the family is listed in the paper as bankrupt. Alternatively, it could mean the various members of the family are recipients of miscellaneous hours and superfluous commendations, as the Gazette prints appointments to public office, military commissions or honours, the granting of coat of arms or titles of nobility, etc.  

Thursday 14 December 2023

White Clover

White Clover (Trifolium repens, 白花三叶草).

A common Old World Plant that is now common all the world over. There is something nice about seeing simple common plants and the familiarity they provide. I cannot resist searching the patches for flour-leaf clovers whenever passing by.

White Clover by the Xiang River

Polar Bears the Great Wanderers

The bear is a great wanderer not solely because it travels far, but because it travels with curiosity, and tirelessly. The Eskimo hunters in Greenland mean that it covers the ground successfully and intelligently when they pronounce the word pisugtooq.

Eskimos, long-time, keen observers of the polar bear, have advanced other thoughts about polar bears that science has treated with skepticism, and in some quarters with cynical disdain. Eskimos widely assert, for example, that most polar bears are left-pawed, that if one must leap in desperation from a charging bear it should always be to the bear’s right.6 Eskimos have also asserted that polar bears push blocks of ice ahead of them as shields when they are stalking seals; that a wounded bear will staunch the flow of its blood with snow; that they will hurl ice and rocks at walrus to wound and distract them, hoping to snatch an unprotected calf; and that females use anal plugs when they den.

Refuting any of these things is a complicated business. It becomes not only a denial of the integrity of the person telling the story, but a denial of the resourcefulness of the polar bear. Too, because of poor translations, you might end up refuting something that was never meant. The best field biologists, with a fundamental grasp of the animal’s behavior, take the attitude that these things could happen, though they themselves have not seen them. The anthropologist Richard Nelson has offered succinct advice on this issue. “Eskimos,” he writes, “are highly reliable observers of animal behavior, and many of their least believable statements have been proved to me by personal observation.” Some scientists strongly resisted the notion that bears might use tools until a Canadian biologist found evidence in 1972, on the north coast of Devon Island, that a female with two cubs had smashed in the roof of a ringed-seal lair with a 45-pound piece of ice. Scientists have also found that bears intentionally stalk small prey like lemmings, which Eskimos have long claimed they do. And that a polar bear will hunt sea ducks by coming up underneath a flock of them in the water like a killer whale.
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape  (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013; 1986). p.101.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Eccentric Teachers

Ysenda Maxtone Graham (1962-), Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (London: Slightly Foxed, 2012), p. 64:

Boys’ prep schools have always attracted eccentric teachers.  Young, dishevelled men who leave university without having a clue what to do next; fresh-faced railway-map enthusiasts unsuited to a job in the City; retired Army officers with very white legs who wear shorts in winter; blue-stocking women in a vain search for a husband; Catholic converts with a Third in History from Oxford, and so on.

Fringed Iris

Fringed Iris (Iris japonica, 蝴蝶花).

In spring, there are many different irises along the Xiang river. More surprisingly, during our very recent influx of cold weather, while much of nature has become dormant, there have been several beds of fringed irises rising out of the crisp earth.

Fringed Iris by Xiang River

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Paradasynus Spinosus

Paradasynus spinosus (刺副黛缘蝽).

A subtropical leaf-footed bug: they are easiest to find around Yuelu Mountain in the fall, especially between September and October, though I more infrequently spot them in other seasons (including winter) as well. The markings on their backs, especially their little white dot, are distinct enough that identification is rarely a challenge.

Paradasynus spinosus in Changsha

They Told Me

Walter de la Mare
‘They Told Me’

They told me Pan was dead, but I
   Oft marvelled who it was that sang
Down the green valleys languidly
   Where the grey elder-thickets hang.
Sometimes I thought it was a bird
   My soul had charged with sorcery;
Sometimes it seemed my own heart heard
   Inland the sorrow of the sea.
But even where the primrose sets
   The seal of her pale loveliness,
I found amid the violets
   Tears of an antique bitterness.

Monday 11 December 2023

Masked Laughingthrush

Masked Laughingthrush (Pterorhinus perspicillatus, 七姊妹).

The Chinese name means 'seven sisters' and groups of seven (more or less) are often found chattering together. Their chattering is easy to hear but they are not always easy to see as they forage deep in the shrubs and bushes.

Masked Laughingthrush by Xiang River

The Great Pan is Dead

    “Περὶ δὲ θανάτου τῶν τοιούτων ἀκήκοα λόγον ἀνδρὸς οὐκ ἄφρονος οὐδ’ ἀλαζόνος. Αἰμιλιανοῦ γὰρ τοῦ ῤήτορος, οὗ καὶ ὑμῶν ἔνιοι διακηκόασιν, Ἐπιθέρσης ἦν πατήρ, ἐμὸς πολίτης καὶ διδάσκαλος γραμματικῶν. οὗτος ἔφη ποτὲ πλέων εἰς Ἰταλίαν ἐπιβῆναι νεὼς, ἐμπορικὰ χρήματα καὶ συχνοὺς ἐπιβάτας ἀγούσης: ἑσπέρας δ’ ἤδη περὶ τὰς Ἐχινάδας νήσους ἀποσβῆναι τὸ πνεῦμα, καὶ τὴν ναῦν διαφερομένην πλησίον γενέσθαι Παξῶν: ἐγρηγορέναι δὲ τοὺς πλείστους, πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ πίνειν ἔτι δεδειπνηκότας: ἐξαίφνης δὲ φωνὴν ἀπὸ τῆς νήσου τῶν Παξῶν ἀκουσθῆναι, Θαμοῦν τινος βοῇ καλοῦντος, ὥστε θαυμάζειν. ὁ δὲ Θαμοῦς Αἰγύπτιος ἦν κυβερνήτης οὐδὲ τῶν ἐμπλεόντων γνώριμος πολλοῖς ἀπ’ ὀνόματος. δὶς μὲν οὖν κληθέντα σιωπῆσαι, τὸ δὲ τρίτον ὑπακοῦσαι τῷ καλοῦντι: κἀκεῖνον ἐπιτείνοντα τὴν φωνὴν εἰπεῖν, ‘ ὁπόταν γένῃ κατὰ τὸ Παλῶδες, ἀπάγγειλον ὅτι Πὰν ὁ μέγας τέθνηκε.’ τοῦτ’ ἀκούσαντας, ὁ Ἐπιθέρσης ἔφη, πάντας ἐκπλαγῆναι: καὶ διδόντας ἑαυτοῖς λόγον εἴτε ποιῆσαι βέλτιον εἴη τὸ προστεταγμένον εἴτε μὴ πολυπραγμονεῖν ἀλλ’ ἐᾶν, οὕτω γνῶναι τὸν Θαμοῦν, εἰ μὲν εἴη πνεῦμα, παραπλεῖν ἡσυχίαν ἔχοντα, νηνεμίας δὲ καὶ γαλήνης περὶ τὸν τόπον γενομένης ἀνειπεῖν ὃ ἤκουσεν. ὡς οὖν ἐγένετο κατὰ τὸ Παλῶδες, οὔτε πνεύματος ὄντος οὔτε κλύδωνος, ἐκ πρύμνης βλέποντα τὸν Θαμοῦν πρὸς τὴν γῆν εἰπεῖν, ὥσπερ ἤκουσεν, ὅτι Πὰν ὁ μέγας τέθνηκεν. οὐ φθῆναι δὲ παυσάμενον αὐτόν, καὶ γενέσθαι μέγαν οὐχ ἑνὸς ἀλλὰ πολλῶν στεναγμὸν ἅμα θαυμασμῷ μεμιγμένον. οἷα δὲ πολλῶν ἀνθρώπων παρόντων, ταχὺ τὸν λόγον ἐν Ῥώμῃ σκεδασθῆναι, καὶ τὸν Θαμοῦν γενέσθαι μετάπεμπτον ὑπὸ Τιβερίου Καίσαρος. οὕτω δὲ πιστεῦσαι τῷ λόγῳ τὸν Τιβέριον, ὥστε διαπυνθάνεσθαι καὶ ζητεῖν περὶ τοῦ Πανός: εἰκάζειν δὲ τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν φιλολόγους συχνοὺς ὄντας τὸν ἐξ Ἑρμοῦ καὶ Πηνελόπης.”
   As for death of the gods, I have heard the story of a man who was neither fool nor fraud: the father of Aemilianus, the rhetorician whom some of you have heard speak, Epitherses, who was from my hometown and taught me grammar.  He said he was once sailing on a ship laden with goods for sale and numerous passengers to Italy. And it was already evening when, near to the Echinades islands, the wind stopped and the ship drifted close to Paxi. Most of the passengers were still awake and many had not yet even finished their digestifs, when from the isle of Paxi was heard a voice loudly calling Thamus, which astonished everyone—as Thamus was an Egyptian helmsmen whose name was unknown even to many of the passengers. Two times Thamus was called without reply, but the third time he headed the call, and the man raised his voice, shouting: ‘When you sail down to Palodes, announce that the Great Pan is dead.’ Epitherses said that when they heard this, everyone was astounded and they deliberated among themselves whether it were better to carry out the instruction or better not to meddle and let the matter rest. Thamus then decided that if there was a wind he would sail on and remain silent, but that if there was a calm air and a still sea about the place, then he would proclaim what he heard. And so when he came opposite the Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus peering landward from the stern spoke exactly he had heard, that Pan the Great was dead. And before he had finished there was great groaning, not from one man but from many and at the same time mixed with cries of astonishment. And as many men were present, the story soon spread throughout Rome and Thamus was summoned by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius was so convinced by his story that he made inquiries and investigations concerning Pan and the classical philologists, who were many, offered the conjecture that this message was made in regards to the son of Hermes and Penelope, [a lesser deity also named Pan].

Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum, 419A-E. My translation.

Sunday 10 December 2023


 John Ferriar (1761-1815)
‘The Bibliomania, An Epistle, to Richard Heber, Esq.’
   What wild desires, what restless torments seize
The hapless man, who feels the book-disease,
If niggard Fortune cramp his gen’rous mind,
And Prudence quench the Spark by heaven assign’d!
With wistful glance his aching eyes behold
The Princeps-copy, clad in blue and gold,
Where the tall Book-case, with partition thin,
Displays, yet guards the tempting charms within:
So great Facardin view’d, as sages tell,
Fair Crystalline immur’d in lucid cell.
   Not thus the few, by happier fortune grac’d,
And blest, like you, with talents, wealth and taste,
Who gather nobly, with judicious hand,
The Muse’s treasures from each letter’d strand.
For you the Monk illumin’d his pictur’d page,  
For you the press defies the Spoils of age;
FAUSTUS for you infernal tortures bore,
For you ERASMUS starv’d on Adria’s shore.
The FOLIO-ALDUS loads your happy Shelves,
And dapper ELZEVIRS, like fairy elves,
Shew their light forms amidst the well-gilt Twelves:
In slender type the GIOLITOS shine,
And bold BODONI stamps his Roman line.
For you the LOUVRE opes its regal doors,
And either DIDOT lends his brilliant stores:
With faultless types, and costly sculptures bright,
IBARRA’S Quixote charms your ravish’d sight:
LABORDE in splendid tablets shall explain
Thy beauties, glorious, tho’ unhappy SPAIN!
O, hallowed name, the theme of future years,  
Embalm’d in Patriot-blood, and England’s tears,
Be thine fresh honours from the tuneful tongue,
By Isis’ streams which mourning Zion sung!
   But devious oft’ from ev’ry classic Muse,
The keen Collector meaner paths will choose:
And first the Margin’s breadth his soul employs,
Pure, snowy, broad, the type of nobler joys.
In vain might HOMER roll the tide of song,
Or HORACE smile, or TULLY charm the throng;
If crost by Pallas’ ire, the trenchant blade
Or too oblique, or near, the edge invade,
The Bibliomane exclaims, with haggard eye,
   ‘No Margin!’ turns in haste, and scorns to buy.
He turns where PYBUS rears his Atlas-head,
Or MADOC’s mass conceals it veins of lead.
The glossy lines in polish’d order stand,
While the vast margin spreads on either hand,
Like Russian wastes, that edge the frozen deep,
Chill with pale glare, and lull to mortal sleep.  
   Or English books, neglected and forgot,
Excite his wish in many a dusty lot:
Whatever trash Midwinter gave to day,
Or Harper’s rhiming sons, in paper gray,
At ev’ry auction, bent on fresh supplies,
He cons his Catalogue with anxious eyes:
Where’er the slim Italics mark the page,
Curious and rare his ardent mind engage.
Unlike the Swans, in Tuscan Song display’d,
He hovers eager o’er Oblivion’s Shade,
To snatch obscurest names from endless night,
To give COKAIN or FLETCHER back to light.
In red morocco drest he loves to boast
The bloody murder, or the yelling ghost;
Or dismal ballads, sung to crouds of old,
Now cheaply bought for thrice their weight in gold.
Yet to th’unhonoured dead be Satire just;
Some flow’rs ‘smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.’
‘Tis thus ev’n SHIRLEY boasts a golden line,
And LOVELACE strikes, by fits, a note divine.
Th’unequal gleams like midnight-lightnings play,
And deepen’d gloom succeeds, in place of day.
   But human bliss still meets some envious storm;
He droops to view his PAYNTER’s mangled form:
Presumptuous grief, while pensive Taste repines
O’er the frail relics of her Attic Shrines!
O for that power, for which magicians vye,
To look through earth, and secret hoards descry!
I’d spurn such gems as Marine beheld,
And all the wealth Aladdin’s cavern held,
Might I divine in what mysterious gloom
The rolls of sacred bards have found their tomb:
Beneath what mould’ring tower, or waste champain,
Is his MENANDER, sweetest of the train;
Where rests ANTIMACHUS’ forgotten lyre,
Where gently SAPPHO’s still seductive fire;
Or he, whom chief the laughing Muses own,
Yet skill’d with softest accents to bemoan
Sweet Philomel, in strains so like her own.
   The menial train has prov’d the Scourge of wit,
Ev’n OMAR burnt less Science than the spit.
Earthquakes and wars remit their deadly rage,
But ev’ry feast demands some fated page.
Ye towers of Julius, ye alone remain
Of all the piles that saw our nation’s stain.
When HARRY’s sway opprest the groaning realm,
And Lust and Rapine seiz’d the wav’ring helm.
Then ruffian-hands defaced the sacred fanes,
Their saintly statues, and their storied panes;
Then from the chest, with ancient art embost,
The Penman’s pious scrolls were rudely tost;
Then richest manuscripts, profusely spread,
The brawnt Churl’s devouring Oven fed:
And thence Collectors date the heav’nly ire,
That wrapt Augusta’s domes in sheets of fire.
   Taste, tho’ misled, may yet some purpose gain,
But fashion guides a book-compelling train.
Once, far apart from Learning’s moping crew,
The travell’d beau display’d his red-heel’d shoe,
Till ORFORD rose, and told of rhiming Peers,
Repeating noble words to polish’d ears;
Taught the gay croud to prize a flutt’ring name,
In trifling toil’d, nor ‘blush’d to find it fame.’
The letter’d fop now takes a larger scope,
With classic furniture, design’d by HOPE,
(HOPE, whom Upholst’rers eye with mute despair,
The doughty pedant of an elbow-chair;)
Now warm’d by ORFORD and by GRANGER school’d,
In Paper-books, superbly gilt and tool’d,
He pastes, from injur’d volumes snipt away,
His English Heads, in chronicled array.
Torn from their destin’d page, (unworthy meed
Of knightly counsel, and heroic deed)
Not FAITHORNE’s stroke, nor FIELD’s own types can save
The gallant VERES, and one-eyed OGLE brave.
Indignant readers seek the image fled,
And curse the busy fool, who wants a head.
   Proudly he shews, with many a smile elate,
The scrambling subjects of the private plate;
While Time their actions and their names bereaves,
They grin forever in the guarded leaves.
   Like Poets, born, in vain Collectors strive
To cross their Fate, and learn the art to thrive.
Like Cacus, bent to tame their struggling will,
The tyrant-passion drags them backward still:
Ev’n I, debarr’d of ease, and studious hours,
Confess, mid’ anxious toil, its lurking pow’rs.
How pure the joy, when first my hands unfold
The small, rare volume, black with tarnish’d gold!
The Eye skims restless, like the roving bee,
O’er flowers of wit, or song, or repartee,
While sweet as Springs, new-bubbling from the stone,
Glides through the breast some pleasing theme unknown.
Now dipt in ROSSI’s terse and classic style,
His harmless tales awake a transient smile.
Now BOUCHET’s motley stores my thoughts arrest,
With wond’rous reading, and with learned jest.
Bouchet, whose tomes a grateful line demand,
The valued gift of STANLEY’s lib’ral hand.
Now sadly pleased, through faded Rome I stray,
And mix regrets with gently DU BELLAY;
Or turn, with keen delight, the curious page,
Where hardy Pasquin braves the Pontiff’s rage.
   As in the fragrant garden blooms the rose,  
So my rich manuscript in crimson glows.  
‘Sweet,’ cries the Sage, ‘to view the infant-dress,  
The first rude efforts of the dawning press!  
But sweeter far to me these bright designs,  
Ere Caxton’s blocks imprest their clumsy lines.  
“But oh! my muse,” what madness would engage  
To sing the miniatures, and vellum-page?  
Steal from some happy bard a spark of fire,  
Whose never-check’d descriptions never tire!  
   “Pictures a score this curious work adorn,  
“Of men esteem’d in learning’s early morn.  
“On vellum stands inscrib’d each sage’s name,  
“Their portraits rich with gold and minium flame;  
“Some walk in gardens trim, or books peruse,  
“Or white-rob’d bards address a gothic muse,  
“No brisk, deep-bosom’d, Attic maiden she.  
“But starch and prim, and scarcely fair to see.  
“Square beards, and long-ear’d caps, and furs abound,  
“And decent robes depending sweep the ground;  
“Nay, strange extreme of fashion’s sov’reign rule.  
“Some hold what belles have term’d a Ridicule.  
“(The lovely triflers think not as they trip.  
“Their bag was fashion’d from the Cynic’s scrip.)  
   “Then happy seats appear in beauteous dyes,  
“The softest verdure, and the clearest skies;  
“Stately and fair the porch and airy hall.  
“And costly tapestry clothes the naked wall.  
“St. Gregory hard at study there I spy,  
“His glory and tiara strike the eye;  
“His books well-bound, with many a gilded spot,  
“A clever reading-desk has Gregory got!  
“Had the tenth Leo thus his leisure spent,  
“We yet hal pray’d in Latin, and kept Lent.  
   “But greater bliss the cliarming picture fills,  
“When golden sun-beams smile on verdant hills,  
“Or soft retreats in flow’ry vales are made,  
“Where the young forest rears its tender shade.  
“Then at a safe distance pinnacles are seen,  
“And glitt’ring towers surmount the swelling green;  
“Gay belts of war! the city’s specious pride.  
“Which sullen cares, and quiv’ring anguish hide.  
“For near the lofty fane or op’ning square,  
“The sad blind alley teems with hopeless care.  
“Dire, in those ancient times, the wretch’s plight.  
“Ere the dim pane transmitted scanty light:  
“When ill-join’d shutters barr’d the longing view,  
“And where light flow’d, the winter enter’d too.  
“As shiv’ring hands the wooden leaf withdrew.  
“Their’s was the shapeless bolt, the dunghill-floor,
“And blacken’d thatch the humble caves peep’d o’er:  
“Without, the putrid kennel chok’d the way,  
“And all was filth, disgust, and deep dismay.
“No ballads then bedeck’d the lab’rer’s cot,  
“Nor Francis Moore foreboded cold or hot:  
“Whose cuts grotesque, and artless rhymes supply,  
“(What ev’n the poor require) (he poor man’s library.
“More solid good the mystic church with-held:  
“Their eyes the sacred volume ne’er beheld,  
“Save when at church the reader turn’d with care,  
“The glitt’ring leaves, and spoke the foreign prayer:  
“With doubtful hope the pauper’s bosom beat,  
“He left, unedified, his gloomy seat.  
“Or when the Freer, on some high festal day  
“Would relics rare, and miracles display;  
“And prate, as tell the sly Italian drolls.  
“Of Gabriel’s feather, or St. Lawrence’s coals.  
“In sin the wretch might live, in sin might die;  
“Give money—money, was the preacher’s cry.  
   “Then light arose — the darkling cot was blest,  
“When Tindal’s volume came, a hoarded guest.  
“Fierce, whisker’d guards that volume sought in vain,  
“Enjoy’d by stealth, and hid with anxious pain,  
“While all around was penury and gloom.  
“It shew’d the boundless bliss beyond the tomb;  
“Freed from the venal priest, the feudal rod,  
“It led the suff’rer’s weary steps to God;  
“And when his painful course on earth was run,  
“This, his sole wealth, descended to his son.  
   “Now, when no tyrant-statutes cramp belief,  
“When Smithfield’s only martyrs are its beef,  
“Amidst the crouds whom rarer books entice,  
“Still Tindal’s Bible is a gem of price.  
“True, the blest owner now no longer fears  
“The bishop’s summons thund’ring in his ears  
“No more he turns the leaves with trembling hope,  
“Or dreads lest Satan come, in guise of Pope;  
“On that stout shelf, where ev’n Polemics sleep,  
“He shews its boards, inclosed in lasting sheep.  
“There long untouch’d may Tindal’s labours lie,  
“For book-collectors read not what they buy.”
   Can I forget my CASSAS’s? fav’rite theme!  
Where truth exceeds Romances boldest dream.  
In those rude wilds, by wand’rers scarcely trod,  
Before the pencil, Fancy drops her rod;  
O’eraw’d she sees transcendant nature reign,  
And trembling copies what she dar’d not feign.  
   But scarcer books had kept their station here.  
Had warning Cynthius touch’d my infant-ear.  
And shew’d the grave collector’s toil employ’d.  
To gain the works my childish sport destroy’d.  
PARISMUS then had shone in decent pride,  
And bold ST. GEORGE, with SABRA at his side:  
And REYNARD’s wiles, by learned clerks pourtray’d,  
Dame PARTLET wrong’d, and ISGRIM sore bewray’d:  
And eke that code, of wit the peerless store,  
Where peruk’d beaux their hooded dames adore.  
These once wore mine, till, reckless of their scope,  
I left their charms for Milton and for Pope.  
And who can say, what books, matur’d by age.  
May tempt, in future days, the reader’s rage?  
How, flush’d with joy, the Bibliomane may shew  
His CARRS uncut and COTTLES, fair in row;  
May point, with conscious pride, to env’ying throngs  
His HOLCROFT’S dramas, and his DIMOND’S songs?  
So winter-apples, by the prudent Dame  
Are hoarded late, and wither into fame.  
So Antiquarians pierce the Barrow’s soil,
And loads of crockery pay their learned toil;  
The wond’rous fragments rich museums grace.  
And ev’ry Pipkin rises up a Vase.  
   With deep concern, the curious bid me tell,  
Why no Black-Letter dignifies my cell:  
No Caxton? Pynson? in defence I plead  
One simple fact; I only buy to read.  
I leave to those whom headstrong fashion rules.  
The cheapest page of wit, or genuine sense  
Outweighs the uncut copy’s wild expense.  
What coxcomb would avow th’absurd excess.  
To choose his friends, not for their parts, but dress?  
Yet the choice Bard becomes some ancient stains;  
I love, in Gothic type, my CHAUCER’S strains;
And SPENCER’S dulcet song as deeply charms,  
When his light folio boasts ELIZA’s arms.  
Nay doubly fair the Aldine pages seem,  
Where, broadly gilt, illumin’d letters gleam.  
For stupid prose my fancy never throbs,  
In spite of vellum-leaves, or silver knobs.  
   But D______n’s strains should tell the sad reverse,
When Business calls, invet’rate foe to verse!
Tell how ‘the Demon claps his iron hands,’
‘Waves his lank locks, and scours along the lands.’
Though wintry blasts, or summer’s fire I go,
To scenes of danger, and to sights of woe.
Ev’n when to Margate ev’ry Cockney roves,
And brainsick poets long for shelt’ring groves,
Whose lofty shades exclude the noontide glow,
While Zephyrs breathe, and waters trill below,
Me rigid Fate averts, by tasks like these,
From heav’nly musings, and from letter’d ease.
   Such wholesome checks the better Genius sends,
From dire rehearsals to protect our friends:
Else when the social rites our joys renew,
The stuff’d Portfolio would alarm your view,
Whence volleying rhimes your patience would o’ercome,
And, spite of kindness, drive you early home.
So when the traveller’s hasty footsteps glide
Near smoaking lava, on Vesuvio’s side,
Hoarse-mutt’ring thunders from the depths proceed,
And spouting fires incite his eager speed.
Appall’d he flies, while rattling show’rs invade,
Invoking ev’ry Saint for instant aid:
Breathless, amaz’d, he seeks the distant shore,
And vows to tempt the dang’rous gulph no more.
John Ferriar, Illustrations of Sterne: with Other Essays and Verses, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: Printed for Cadell and Davies, By J. and J Haddock, Warrington, 1812), II, pp. 201-15.

Japanese Tit

Japanese Tit (Parus minor, 远东山雀).

They are always deep in the forest on Yuelu Mountain, though in winter they are more prone to come out into the open, searching for food. Their songs are complex and interesting to the casual observer, and scientists have discerned evidence of 'compositional syntax' in their calls.

Japanese Tit on Yuelu Mountain

Saturday 9 December 2023

Tiger Shrike

Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus, 虎纹伯劳).

Most shrikes are extroverts: they are loud, often perch out in the open and are unfazed by human activity provided it is neither too boisterous nor too close. The tiger shrike is an exception: it is a shy bird. I have only seen them here at early hours or in cool rainy weather, when people were conspicuously absent.

Tiger Shrike in Changsha

Cities Inflamed with Grammar

Et villas video, urbes, ac oppida studiis fervere grammaticae. Unde a veteribus historicis noluissem, si facultas suppeteret, discrepare.
I see villages, towns, cities fervently studying grammar. Hence, I did not wish, when it was within my capabilities, to deviate from the practices of the ancient historians.
Guibert de Nogent (c. 1055–1124), Gesta dei per Francos in Patrologia Latina, vol.156, col.680. My translation.

Friday 8 December 2023

Fortune's Holly-Fern

Fortune's Holly-Fern (Cyrtomium fortunei, 贯众). 

Wherever there is plenty of shade and there are small cracks in the rocks or masonry on Yuelu Mountain, one invariably discovers that old world fortune's holly-ferns have secured a foothold. Their evergreen leaves reach up to a two feet and, unlike those of many other ferns, they are easy to identify.

The Traveller’s Cure

    Riding long journeys on horseback was one of Sydenham’s favourite remedies, particularly for phthisis. By such means he cured his nephew Mr. Lawrence; and he also mentioned attending “a poor neighbour of my own”, suffering from biliary colic, to whom he lent a horse from his own stable so that he could undertake the treatment. Dr. Paris tells an amusing story of a deception practised by Sydenham in order to get a wealthy patient to undertake a long journey in the saddle. After attending him for several months without alleviating his symptoms, Sydenham frankly told him that he was unable to render any further service. But he added that a certain Dr. Robertson of Inverness had performed several remarkable cures in this particular malady. Armed with Sydenham’s letter of introduction, the patient set out for Inverness where he lost no time in seeking Dr. Robertson. To his dismay he learned that there was no physician of that name in the city, nor had there ever been one in the memory of anyone there. Returning to London the gentleman vented his indignation on Sydenham for having sent him on such a long and fruitless journey. “Well,” inquired Sydenham, “are you any better in health?”
   “Yes, I am now quite well, but no thanks to you.”
   “No,” added Sydenham, “but you may thank Dr. Robertson for curing you. I wished to send you on a journey with some objective interest in view. I knew it would be of service to you; in going you had Dr. Robertson and his wonderful cures in contemplation, and in returning you were equally engaged in thinking of scolding me.” 
Kenneth Dewhurst, Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689): his life and original writings (London: Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1966), pp.53-54.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Japanese Aralia

Japanese Aralia (Fatsia japonica, 八角金盘).

Throughout Yuelu Mountain, Japanese aralia (which is not a true aralia) is displaying its strange umbel blooms, which will slowly become small black fruit by spring. The flowers are very attractive to various species of flies and during the day almost every plant has one or two yellow-legged hornets searching for nectar.

Japanese Aralia in Wangling Park

Practical Tree Test

Alexander Lenard, Valley of the Latin Bear (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1965), pp. 44-45:

Perhaps someday science will recognize the “practical tree test” and a competent psychologist will be able to furnish a “systematic interpretation.” I am ready to help with a few hints: dense, high, very dark hedge of mandarin trees: introvert, shy person. Palm trees in front of the house: proud, sure of himself, lover of the exotic. Pear trees around the house: practical sense, little originality. Plane trees: a nonsuperstitious settler - because the superstitious ones are afraid of a tree whose bark peels off every year. It could be the cause of skin diseases, even leprosy.... Some houses on the way to Inhambu tell even more. Grapevines on a trellis, a kitchen in a building apart: an Italian home. Roses and geraniums: girl in the house.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Young Adult Moorhen

A young moorhen (gallinula chloropus, 黑水鸡), bellowing loudly about something.

Young Common Moorhen

Ablative Absolute

Eavan Boland, Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995), pp. 74-75:

   Then one day in my last year—although this is a figurative use of time—I began to understand something. It was something about the economy of it all: the way the ablative absolute gathered and compressed time. One day, again figuratively, it was a burdensome piece of grammar. The next, with hardly any warning, it was a messenger with quick heels and a bright face. I hardly knew what had happened. I began to respect, however grudgingly the systems of a language which could make such constructs that, although I had no such words for it, they stood against the disorders of love or history. They had described bridges and defined governments. They had left the mouth of the centurion and entered the minds of a Sicilian farm worker. They had forged alliances and named stars. And at that point of my adolescence, where the words I wrote on a page were nothing but inexact, the precision and force of these constructs began to seem both moving and healing.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Large Green Grasshopper

Large Green Grasshopper (Chondracris rosea, 棉蝗).

The largest and most formidable local grasshopper. In flight, their pink rose-coloured wings are instantly recognizable. When perched on vegetation, they are often sedate and approachable, even sometimes tolerate of human contact. They are especially common along the Xiang river. Like many insects this late in the year, this one was looking a little tattered: insect bodies are prone to wear and tear, and a short lifespan.

Large Green Grasshopper by the Xiang River

Oxford and Cambridge in the Mid-1500s

Paolo Giovio (1483-1552):

Vigent et duo Gymnasia, alterum apud Oxonium supra Thamesim, alterum Cantabrigiae, non longe ab Elisiensis urbis paludibus. In haec ingenuorum adolescentium ingens numerus ad perdiscendas liberales disciplinas concurrit: professoribus enim stipendia, alimentaque discipulis antiqua regum liberalitate et optimorum antistitum testamentis persolvuntur. Condidere siquidem multis ante saeculis supra viginti septem collegia, constructis e lapide peramplis aedibus, quibus ad sempiternam beneficentiae laudem conditores cognomenta et insignia reliquerunt. Nihil autem ea iuventutis educatione institutioneque modestius religiosius atque frugalius, ut non mirum sit inde provenisse ingenia quae in Dialectica, Philosophiaque et in sacris demum literis Europam omnem subtilitatis admiratione compleverint, et tum maxime quum maiores nostri, repudiatis optimarum scientiarum antiquis authoribus, nihil potius quam difficiles captionum nodos, et convolata disputantium sophismata mirarentur.  
Two universities flourish in England, one at Oxford on the Thames, and the other at Cambridge not far from the fens of the city of Ely. In these schools, a vast number of noble youths sally forth to master the liberal arts: for the wages for professors and the maintenances for students are paid for by the ancient generosity of kings and the legacies of the noblest bishops. They previously, in fact, preserved for many generations more than twenty-seven colleges, since they built out of stone many large buildings, by which the founders bequeathed their names and ranks to eternal praise for their beneficence. Nothing, however, for the education and instruction of youth is more modestly, more piously and more temperately arranged, so that it is not surprising that such geniuses came forth from there, that in dialectics, philosophy and, of course, in theology, they have filled all of Europe with admiration at their finesse, and moreover at a time when our forefathers, having rejected the classical authorities of the highest learning, regarded nothing other than the difficult knots of sophistry and the convoluted syllogisms of disputation. 
Paolo Giovio, ‘De imperiis et gentibus cogniti orbis’ in Pauli Iovii dialogi et descriptiones, Opera IX, ed. By Ernesto Travi & Mariagrazia Penco (Rome: Instituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 1984), pp.65-128 (p.99). First published in 1548. My translation.

Monday 4 December 2023

Light-vented Bulbul

Light-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis, 白頭鵯).

One of the most common birds in Changsha, and urban southern China in general, on account of its adaptability from forest to park. It is also one the noisiest resident birds, its sometimes ka-ko-wee, wee-wee-ker-wee, or other variations of three or four notes. Sometimes groups of light-vented bulbuls sing together, sending their bubbly cacophony through the woods or over the water.

Light-vented Bulbul by Xiang River

Old Type of Scholarship

Arthur Tilley (1851-1942), ‘The Development of Classical Learning’, The National Review, 4.20 (Oct. 1884), 163-76 (p. 163):

The old type of “scholarship,” the name by which we have been accustomed to honour “a minute acquaintance with the niceties of the dead languages,” is rapidly passing away from us. No longer is the skilful emendation of a Greek play the royal road to a bishopric; no longer do grave statesmen and men of learning beguile their leisure moments with doing Humpty Dumpty into Latin verse; a classical quotation in the House of Commons is almost an event; a false quantity falls there on unheeding ears. Yet, on the other hand, we have Greek plays, and museums of casts from ancient sculptures, and Hellenic societies, and projects of a Hellenic school at Athens; and Professor Jebb says that “probably the study of classical antiquity in the largest sense has never been more really vigorous than it is at the present day.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Silvery Bryum

Silvery Bryum (Bryum argenteum, 银叶真藓).

A hardy moss: it grows on every continent including Antarctica, and can live even in deserts and heavily polluted cities. Often spread via the soles of shoes of clumsy travellers, here it is as a successful colonist growing on the rocks on Yuelu Mountain. Unlike many species of moss require a microscope and trained eye to identity it is also, with its distinctive cylindrical shoots, instantly recognizable.

Silvery Bryum on Yuelu Mountain

Writing an Ideal Poem

Feel irritable these nights: I have an urge to do a poem, but can’t get it going. I suppose basically it isn’t a real poem. Often one spends weeks trying to write a poem out of the conscious mind that never comes to anything – these are sort of ‘ideal’ poems that one feels ought to be written, but I don’t because (I fancy) they lack the vital spark of self-interest. A ‘real’ poem is a pleasure to write. I have been trying this poem on and off for some time.

Philip Larkin, Letters to Monica, ed. by Anthony Thwaite (London: faber & faber, 2010), p. 269 [15 August 1960].

Saturday 2 December 2023

Annual Fleabane

Annual Fleabane (Erigeron annuus, 一年蓬).

There are many invasive plants (pokeweed and alligatorweed seem the most common) spreading along the banks of the Xiang river. Among them, annual fleabane is an assertive but not dominant weed; but it will raise its daisy-like flower heads and roughly-toothed leaves wherever it is allowed to thrive and is particularly swift to grow where the soil has been violently disturbed through human activity.

Annual Fleabane by the Xiang River

Coffee Proverb

John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach (London: Allen Lane, 2013), p. 262:

A good coffee must be as hot as the kisses of a girl on the first day, as sweet as her love on the third day, and as black as her mother’s curses when she finds out.

Friday 1 December 2023

Garden Canna

Garden Canna (Canna × generalis, 大花美人蕉).

Whatever the season, it seems canna is flowering along the park lakes. Sometimes its petals are red as Indian shot, sometimes the petals are pineapple yellow with orange drippings. In summer, the flowers seem to vibrate against the dense green lakeside, in winter they stand, slightly wilted against the grey sky and grey water.

Garden canna at Taozi Lake

A Winter Garden

George Granville, Lord Lansdowne (1666-1735)
‘Written in a Garden in the North’

What Charm is this, that in the midst of Snow,
Of Storms, and Blasts, the choicest fruits do grow?
Melons on Beds of Ice are taught to bear,
And Strangers to the Sun, yet ripen here:
On frozen Ground the sweetest Flowers arise,
Unseen by any Light, but Flavia’s eyes:
Where-e’er she treads, beneath the Charmer’s Feet
The Rose, the Jas’min, and the Lilies meet:
Where-e’er she looks, behold some sudden Birth
Adorns the Trees, and fructifies the Earth:
In midst of Mountains, and unfruitful Ground,
As rich an Eden as the first is found,  
In this new Paradise she reigns in State
With Sov’reign Pride, disdainful of a Mate,  
Like the first Charmer fair, but not so frail,
Against whose Virtue all Temptations fail:
Beneath those Beams that scorch us from her Eyes,
Her snowy Bosom still unmelted lyes;
Love from her Lips spreads all his Odours round,
But bears on Ice, and springs from frozen Ground.  
   So cold the Clime that can such wonders bear,
   The Garden seems an emblem of the Fair.
George Granville, Lord Lansdowne, Poems Upon Several Occassions, 3rd ed. (London: Printed for J. Tonson, 1721), p. 37.

Thursday 30 November 2023

A Little Bird in Winter

Heinrich Bebel (1472-1518)
‘In regulum auiculam tempore frigido et hyemali cantantem.’ 

Regule parue ales partu genuisse sinistro
   Tereor alecto. sub phlegetontis aquis
Ut sileant cunctae volucres sub frigore brumae
   Deliteatque suo vel genus omne specu    
Solus ad innumeros numeros modulamia fundis
   Vocesque multisona gaudia multa refers
Hinc cur rex volucrum possis vel iure vocari
   Ambigo. cum minimus corpus inerme geras
At reor alituum cum sis durissimus ipse
   Tempore quod gelido gaudia solus habes
Uel qui appellauit Parcas quod parcere nulli
   Consuerint. nomen regule parve dedit.
Swift petty king, I fear you have been assigned an  
   Inauspicious birth. For under the waters of Phlegethon,
under the chill of winter, all birds are silent
   And as birds of every feather hide in their hollows,
You alone sing measured melodies to the countless throngs,
   Only you recall the many joyful tidings and boisterous voices.
For this, I contend you can justly be called the king of birds,
   For although you are geared with the smallest unarmed body,
I think you are yet the hardiest of birds,
   For you alone are full of joy during the icy season.
Indeed he who gave you your name, little king, stitched up the Fates,  
   For they are unaccustomed to granting mercy.
Heinrich Bebel, Oratio ad regem Maximilianum (Pforzheim: Ex aedibus Thome Anshelmi, 1504), fol.Oiir. My translation.
alituum, genitive plural of ales, cf. Virgil, Aen. VIII.27.

Scaly-breasted Munia and Common Reed

The common reeds (phragmites australis 芦苇) growing in the Xiang river mudflats make a popular natural background for personal photos. So the river is full of photogenic youths and elderly fishermen. The cold weather, which started today is not keeping either group from the river, but it is encouraging songbirds to come out in search of seeds and insect; scaly-breasted munia (lonchura punctulata, 斑文鸟) were out in abundance, seeking former foodstuff.

Scaly-breasted Munia and Common Reed

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Black-winged Stilt

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus, 黑翅长脚鹬).

They range all over Africa, Europe and Asia, but they are infrequent visitors to Changsha; sometimes they venture into the small lakes, sometimes they feed in the shallow parts of the Xiang river, most likely on small crustaceans but I have not observed this closely. Individuals vary in black and white colouration. Their pink legs stand out anywhere but in the right light, and right angle they easily blend into the shimmering water.

Black-winged Stilt in Changsha