Wednesday, August 07, 2013

`Not Melancholy, But Dreamy'

“to content oneself with little, to hope for no attention
from the great; to scale one’s plans to what is manageable.” 

No, not the expectations of a book blogger. In fact, these lines number among the prerequisites of happiness according to Christophe Plantin (1514-1589), the French-born humanist, poet, printer and publisher. Chief among his accomplishments was publication in 1572 of the Polyglot Bible, which collected Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Syriac and Aramaic texts in eight large folio volumes. Plantin’s descendants remained in business as printers and publishers in Antwerp under the Plantin name until 1867. Mike Gilleland, as usual, was here before me and posted another translation of Plantin’s poem. Here is the French text ofLe bonheur de ce monde.” 

Karl Kirchwey liked the sonnet enough to translate it and lend its title to his 2007 collection The Happiness of This World: Poems and Prose (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). After thirteen lines of ingredients for happiness, Kirchwey concludes: “this is to wait at home for death comfortably.” Plantin’s Gallic stoicism echoes his younger contemporary, Montaigne (1533-1592). Much plagued, like most of us, with thoughts of death, the essayist writes in “That to philosophize is to learn to die” (trans. Donald Frame): “He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint.” Five sentences later, Montaigne makes one of his breathtaking reversals, a declaration of mortal honesty: 

“I am by nature not melancholy, but dreamy. Since my earliest days, there is nothing with which I have occupied my mind more than images of death.”

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