Wednesday, August 03, 2011

`One on Whom the Black Ox Hath Trod'

I’ve described my discovery of an inscription by Yvor Winters in the Fondren Library’s copy of Twelve Poets of the Pacific (New Directions, 1937). His brief note was written to Hardin Craig, a scholar of Renaissance literature at Stanford University while Winters was on the faculty. I’ve since found a copy of Renaissance Studies in Honor of Hardin Craig, a reprint of the July 1941 issue of Philological Quarterly, published by Stanford University Press. Among the editors is William Dinsmore Briggs, the Ben Jonson scholar at Stanford about whom Winters wrote his sonnet “To William Dinsmore Briggs Conducting His Seminar”:

“Amid the walls’ insensate white, some crime
Is redefined above the sunken mass
Of crumbled years; logic reclaims the crass
And purifies the non-Euclidean mime.
Your fingers spin the pages into Time;
And in between, moments of darkness pass
Like undiscovered instants in the glass,
Amid the image, where the demons climb.

“Climb and regard and mean, yet not emerge.
And in the godless thin electric glare
I watch your face spun momently along
Till the dark instants close and wrinkles verge
On the definitive and final stare:
And that hard tome shall integrate this wrong.”

Briggs was Winters’ mentor in teaching and scholarship, and it would be interesting to read some of his work. Among the thirty-two pieces collected in Renaissance Studies, however, none is by Briggs. I’ve browsed the contents, read several of the papers, and found one that held my interest: “The Proverb `The Black Ox Has Not Trod on His Foot’ in Renaissance Literature” by Archer Taylor (1890-1973). Starting in 1939, Taylor was Professor of German Literature and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. His scholarly focus was the oral and literary tradition of proverbs and riddles. In 1955 he published a volume with a title out of Borges: A History of Bibliographies of Bibliographies.

I knew the “Black Ox” proverb from a passage near the conclusion of Fulke Greville’s Life of Sir Philip Sidney:

“For my own part, I found my creeping genius more fixed upon the images of life than the images of wit and therefore chose not to write to them on whose foot the black ox had not already trod, as the proverb is, but to those only that are weather-beaten in the sea of this world, such as having lost the sight of their gardens and groves, study to sail on a right course among rocks and quicksands; and if, in thus ordaining, and ordering matter and form together for the use of life, I have made those tragedies no plays for the stage, be it known, it was no part of my purpose to write for them, against whom so many good and great spirits have already written.”

I had always thought the foot-trodding black ox was a metaphor for depression or melancholy, in the Burtonian sense. Now I realize I had confused the expression with a similar one used by Winston Churchill, "black dog," to describe his bouts of bipolar disorder. In his paper, Taylor identifies four related meanings for the phrase, citing forty-one uses of it between 1546 and 1883. Here are his definitions:

“He has not known trouble in the married state.”

“He is inexperienced, has not known sorrow or care.”

“She has not suffered the ravages of old age.”

“He has not known want.”

Archer’s sources include great writers – George Gascoigne, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Greville, Jonson, Burton, Swift. In a footnote, he cites a rare twentieth-century usage in Wyndham Lewis’ The Apes of God, but the Burton is my favorite:

“…all in an instant, disfigures all ; child-bearing, old age, that Tyrant Time will turn Venus to Erinnys; raging Time, care, rivels [wrinkles] her upon a sudden; after she hath been married a small while, and the black ox hath trodden on her toe, she will be so much altered, and wax out of favour, thou wilt not know her. One grows too fat, another too lean, & c.”

In contrast to Taylor’s array of nuances, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a single meaning: “adversity, hardship, misfortune; the cares of life. Chiefly in the black ox has trod on his (also her, etc.) foot and variants. Now arch[aic].” The OED cites ten usages, most also noted by Taylor. The OED’s most surprising citation is from 1985. An unidentified writer in the Christian Science Monitor contributes this:

“Go any deeper into Stevie Smith, and you may wish you hadn't. She was one on whom the black ox hath trod.”

I would be grateful to an enterprising reader who could track down the Monitor piece, as I like Smith's poetry and fiction very much. For now, let’s enjoy this passage from “Syler’s Green: A Return Journey,” from A Very Pleasant Evening with Stevie Smith: Selected Short Prose (1995):

“But do you know sometimes in a black-dog moment I wish that the great trees that I remember in my childhood and the even greater trees and the dense forest that were in these parts long before I was born, would come again, thrusting up their great bodies and throwing up the paving stones, the tarmac roads and the neat rows of pleasant houses, and that once again it could be all forest land and dangerous thickets where only the wolves and the wild bores had their homes.”


Anonymous said...

"The years like great black oxen tread the world,
And God the herdsman goads them on behind,
And I am broken by their passing feet."

--W.B. Yeats, The Countess Cathleen

Anonymous said...

"Hold your peace, young man," said Master George, with a tone of
authority; "never mock the stranger or the poor--the black ox has not
trod on your foot yet--you know not what lands you may travel in, or
what clothes you may wear, before you die.
(Sir Walter Scott, "Rob Roy")