Herodotean Laconica (cont.)

I have heard, however, another tale, very different from this, which is told by the Peloponnesians: they say, that Anacharsis was sent by the king of the Scyths to make acquaintance with Greece — that he went, and on his return home reported that the Greeks were all occupied in the pursuit of every kind of knowledge, except the Lacedaemonians; who, however, alone knew how to converse sensibly. A silly tale this, which the Greeks have invented for their amusement!

Herodotus, The Histories, IV.77 (Rawlinson translation) [emphasis added].

February 23, 2005 | Comments (0)

Laconic

la·con·ic adj. Terse, concise, or succinct, with attitude.

When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid. Accordingly at this first sitting the Spartans answered them, that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing of the remainder. Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, "The bag wants flour." The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said "the bag;" however, they resolved to give them aid.

Herodotus, The Histories, III.46 (Rawlinson translation).

February 19, 2005 | Comments (0)

Amenity

The BROWSING BOOKS of which this is one, were given by Friends of the University for unrequired and pleasurable reading by faculty and students. They are not intended for utilitarian reading, and may not be taken from the room. They may be neither reserved nor loaned, and are not for class use. We hope their purpose will be respected and that each on his honor will see that they serve as specified. University of Washington Library

February 14, 2005 | Comments (0)

1859

We are reminded by the Anal(ytic) Philosopher that both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on this day in 1809. We recall as well that this interesting coincidence elicited from Thomas Hornsby Ferril the following long poem (from the 1934 collection Westering). Thanks to Argus-eyed readers for help with typos.

Fiftieth Birthday - 1859
Regarding Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln,
born the same day, February 12, 1809

I.

It's February, eighteen-fifty-nine:
Stephen Douglas is sleeping like a baby,
But young men are lying awake in Missouri and Kansas,
Along the Wakarusa, the Marais des Cygne,
Wondering whether they ought to murder each other
Or go out to the Rocky Mountains looking for gold.

Up in Gregory Gulch and under Pike's Peak
The long-tom rockers frozen in the sluices
Can hear the miners coughing all night long.
Their boots are wet. Their boots are never dry,
Not even when the camp-birds go to sleep.
There is no gold. The rockers warp like coffins.

A girl is standing by a well in Georgia.
There's going to be a war. There will be war.
She knows what the men are saying in the house:
How soon?
          And up in self-reliant Boston
A bell jerks all the sparrows out of midnight.
Pale children taste the clanging in their mouths
Like brassy fur when they grope out to the pump.
They smell their tanbark fingers and slough off
To work until it's time to work by daylight.

The slaves in Mississippi sleep, and sleep
The passenger pigeons, still enough of them
This side of Mackinaw to make the orchards
Crack down as if the wind had carried millstones.

The grassy fetlocks of the bison drift
Across another last meridian,
All westering, and under the prairie yucca,
Safe from the wet-nosed dogs that follow the Sioux,
Drowses in earth the numb Pronuba moth.
The moth will die without the yucca plant.
The yucca plant will die without the moth:
A thousand lilies in a torpid worm,
In one cocoon, lilies and bayonets.

II.

It's February, eighteen-fifty-nine:
Over in England proof-sheets lie on a table,
A book so far away, so far ahead,
Nobody hears it yet: There's no Design.

There is no Destiny! There's no Design!

Can your hear what the book is saying, yucca moth?
You who are about to die, wild pigeons?
You barnacles? You orchids? Weary bison?
You apes? You black men? White men? Can you hear it?

There is no Destiny! There's no Design!
Only the Known! Only the Undiscovered!

III.

But back in Illinois Bill Herndon's worried.
He takes another drink of pop-skull whisky.
Morning's all right with Mr. Lincoln writing
How many letters the good Lord only knows.
And briefs. The law business is picking up.
Rich clients now. More railroad litigation.
But along toward three o'clock he goes to pieces.

Billy, I'm coming to a tragic end.

This whispering of his. This Destiny.
If he'd only come right out with it: I'm licked!
No more show than a tallow cat in hell
And I'm going to kill myself.

                           That would be easy.

You will be President of the United States.
There will be four white horses groomed within
A year to take you smack up to the White House.
But how can you make that sound as if there would
When he flops back on all this Destiny ?
An old man with a night-shirt in the stars!

Another drink.
                           Too much New Testament?
If he feels that way, why doesn't he read the prophets?
Read Amos! Jeroboam was as good
A politician as Buchanan. Micah!
Let him read Micah! Micah skinning the rich.
Horse trading with Jehovah. Good old humbug.
A border row. Israel against Judah.
What's more he knows it better than anybody.
Destiny is swapping votes and winning.

All overcast with it. His birthday too.
Fifty tonight and mooning like a corpse.
Sorry, sir. Mr. Lincoln isn't here.
He's gone out walking. Is there any word?

IV.

Talk to him, grass. Tell him he knows where the world is
In the dark because he can hear his feet and tell him
Take a post-hole digger where there isn't grass
And find where there isn't water and how deep.

Show him the bones of a cornfield after the hogs
Have grunted off with the nitrogen, potash, phosphorus.
Tell him the stubble's saying to the cattle
Many happy returns of the nitrogen.

Tell him to use his lips, his hands, his throat.
You can drag your elbow up with the wrist hung loose,
Then snap that index finger bright as steel
Like an exclamation point at the end of a phrase
That wouldn't be horse sense if they stopped to think.

Tell him make faces. Keep it plausible.
Tell him write letters till his brain knots up.
And keep them low. Too easily understood.

Tell him to leave the stars alone tonight
For more than lighting the skull of a hog in the stubble.

V.

Lincoln, why do you walk so far tonight?

Do long steps on those words they said again
Today about your being president
Next year make this cold prairie Washington?

Tonight you're fifty and it's February,
And fifty is a kind of February
Against which doubtful harvest has been stored.

A few more flings at Douglas and it's over,
Leaving the phrase maker, whom you've defeated
In all but victory, victorious.
You're fifty and you're clever and you're old,
With all your bright redemptions ebbing back.

So now you're coming home to be our lawyer?
Knowing too much of justice to remember
How pens were once the flight feathers of eagles,
And ink, pressed from the roots of blackberries,
Could reckon wood lots into more than cities.
You're coming back to be the other lawyer,
Salting the wheat with prudent mortgages,
And scratching sober wills dividing houses.

This is an eagle's quill, provided, however . . .

VI.

Lincoln, the more you fail, the more you talk
Of Destiny.

             But one more weak than you
This night has said: There is no Destiny.
He says There is no Plan!

                                    For saying that
He'll go a long long way, the way you're going,
Into a myth the people will remember.

Behind this prairie and behind the sea,
Tonight this other man is fifty, Lincoln.
This man was born the day that you were born,
Allowing for an ocean's gulf between you.

His mother was Josiah Wedgwood's daughter.
Charles Darwin is his name. He lives in Kent.
He lies in bed now, for there's too much pain,
Which he would call too much of Nature in him.

But all day, Lincoln, they were telling him
What they were telling you of being fifty.
He smiled the way you did, but in his eyes
Was something that his father used to see
From a dark windowpane in Shrewsbury
Those afternoons that made his father say:
    "I'll walk no more too late among these hills
Remembering so many Shropshire dead."

And like his father now, he walks no more,
But if he could walk further than his garden,
Some might mistake you for him at a distance.
This Darwin has a beard, but wears a shawl
Like yours, and crouches over six feet tall.

You'd like to know this pale and certain man:
He is a naturalist. He measures doves,
Excepting Noah's, which he hasn't seen.
A black man taught him how to stuff a bird.
He was a boy. They bled the lark together.

And Lincoln, he's a Whig, the way you were,
But he'd as soon change to Republican,
Or any sort, if quickening the hoofbeats
In Africa, or Kansas, or Brazil,
Might yet unlock the bleeding chains he's heard,
Or bathe those fly-blown eyes of quiet slaves
That stared at him one morning in Bahia,
As if this were a world, and he a man.
He must have seen his first slave market, Lincoln,
About the time you saw yours in New Orleans.

VII.

But Whig or no, it's something to be fifty,
Or does it seem like half of something, Lincoln?
Who knows how many centuries there are?
Or too much more than half, the way it feels
To Darwin when he looks at any tree?

All day there's been an oak tree by his door,
With February grinding in its boughs,
While good friends wore the house away with wishes.
But Lincoln, Darwin's not a politician;
The tree has asked him things he cannot answer.

Walk slower, Lincoln, and remember trees:
Off yonder are the Indiana beeches,
And to your right, the dark oaks of Kentucky.

Can you remember on the Sangamon
An oak tree taller than the Andes mountains
With roots that wrapped the oceans to the world?
There's such an oak in this strange Darwin's garden,
And wrens that come to peck the fallen acorns
Have sometimes opened planets with their beaks.
They've frightened choirs of angels through the wicket
That Darwin's dog can open with his nose.
And sometimes when the wrens are gone the worms,
That creep from nowhere into fallen acorns,
Have whispered graves are surer things than tombs,
And whispered till the whipping thrushes found them.
Darwin has heard these worms and he has called
A thrush a tomb and a worm a resurrection.

VIII.

Now Lincoln, lick and lift your finger to
The night. The cool side is where Darwin is,
Like a new wind slowly circling all the world,
Blowing a certainty against the flowers,
The weary mountainsides, the bleating lambs.

Now turn your body, Lincoln, with the wind:
The wind is blowing over you to Kansas.
A civil war has started out in Kansas,
And all the West is blacker than the South.

If you believe in stars, look to the West.
Can you hear the Kansas war chant in the night?
They sing It's hard wayfaring to the stars:
It's the click of a spur and a cinching girth and a whisper
A dark Missourian breathes to a sleepy horse.

That border is a fleck of bridle foam.
The dogwood stems are turning red like wine
To hide the winter's blood till thunder comes;
But April rain will never never mend
The osage orange hedges trampled down
By phantom stallions on the Wakarusa.

IX.

You're going to that Kansas in December,
And that would interest this curious Darwin.
He too would call your Kansas a warring place,
For drouth is breeding less of seed than beetles.
He'd ask you, Lincoln, if he met you there,
If corn the movers brought from Illinois
Fared better than the maize the squaws had planted.
He'd lay his great hand on the trembling prairie,
The way he does on the heads of frightened children;
And if the bitter horsemen paused an instant,
He'd listen for some crackle in the ages.

The tall Pawnees are breathing into mouths
Of dark and hollow ash stems they have painted.
They're catching owls and mixing clay with tallow
To halt the passage of the nodding bulls.

The Kanza clan-mothers are singing to
The mothers of the bison in the evening;
But over the pits where fish and cinnamon
Have turned to stone the slow calves walk away
To leaner grasses nearer the grassless mountains.

He'd say that Kansas was a warring place.

X.

Turn, Lincoln, it's the hour for going home.
That little glimmering two miles away
Is your dim town. One of those lamps is yours,
But only one.

       That's something else about him:
This Darwin's always walking back against
Some town that other people think is real,
And finding that it is, and they were wrong.

He's ever dreaming backward with precision,
As if the things which happened might have happened.
He's measuring against his death a book.
Even today, after his friends were gone,
He scrawled at proofs until he cracked with pain.

He's calling it The Origin of Species
Or Preservation of the Favored Races,
Which sounds as if it had a timely flavor,
But that depends on how you look at time;
But read it, Lincoln, if it drifts to Springfield.

It's not a handbook for a politician,
Unless he feel himself a kinsman of
The seas that are no more and seeds that spin
Into the sunny furrows of the glaciers.
The only rules of caucus and the forum
Are integrations and constituencies
Rising from earth itself through misty clods
And feathered things, through beasts and silent blossoms,
Into a testament of loneliness
For hearts that lean too hard on Destiny.

XI.

Lincoln, he'd say that lamp of yours off there
Might do as well as any of these stars
For guiding you until we know them better.
He'd tell you there is no Design in Nature,
Not even Chance as gamblers use the word:
Only the Known, only the Undiscovered,
And he'd say that of barnacles or Kansas.

Lincoln, you have your hands and lips that are
A summary of more experience
Than sleeps within these February grasses.
Out of a deep that is, but is not charted,
Your dream, uncommon to the meadow crickets,
Is Nature moving, and your words are Nature,
Uttered of air by flesh resolved of earth,
Each word a member syllable at war
With other syllables, to die tonight,
Or cry against the luminous distances,
Where legendary men grow out of men,
Like reefs the polyps build on bones of polyps
To hurl the ocean back against itself.

Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Westering (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934). The copy I'm reading now hasn't been checked out of the library since 1968. The poem seems not to be otherwise available on the Great Web.

February 12, 2005 | Comments (0)