Saturday, May 17, 2014

`The Call Is to a Civic Virtue'

The May 15 OED Online Word[s] of the Day are saeva indignatio, a phrase from Jonathan Swift’s self-penned epitaph on a plaque in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin: 

Hic depositum est corpus
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem 

Swift’s most recent biographer, Leo Damrosch, renders a literal translation: 

“Here is deposited the body
of Jonathan Swift S.T.D. [Sacrae Theologiae Doctor]
of this Cathedral church
the Dean
where savage indignation
can no longer
lacerate his heart.
Go, traveler,
and imitate, if you can,
a valiant champion
of manly freedom.” 

Aware of myriad mistranslations and misunderstandings, Damrosch writes (in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, 2013): “Swift left directions in his will for an epitaph in Latin, and it was duly engraved on a large black wall plaque. It should be read as he intended it, not as a prose statement but as a series of telling phrases.” The best-known version of Swift’s epitaph is Yeats’: 

“Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.” 

In a 1971 essay, “Yeats and Swift” (The Avoidance of Literature: Collected Essays, 1978), C.H. Sisson pokes fun at Yeats’ lifelong attraction to and distaste for his Irish forebear, noting, “there is an irony in a man with his head full of the clumsy generalities of A Vision living familiarly with the writings of the Dean of St. Patrick’s….No doubt Yeats liked the idea of Swift—his idea of him—but if he read him with attention it was certainly not in order to take what he said seriously.” And a few paragraphs later: “Yeats’s struggles against his romantic self are not without their comic element.” Sisson (for whom Swift was a hero) documents Yeats’ use of Swift in his poems, and judges the epitaph his “best tribute.” Then Sisson gets serious: 

“Yeats weakens the whole by substituting the first ten words—mere fact, he must have thought, and therefore beneath an artist’s notice…The version is vague `and thus has passion’ [quoting a Yeats letter], he might have said. The rest of the translation attempts the impossible, as translations are doomed to do.” 

Sisson speculates that the antecedent to Yeats’ “there” is “that shadowy land where Swift was taking his rest with the Irish heroes.” He continues to boost the withering irony, pointing out, “It is moreover not `Imitate him if you dare’—with a boyish or romantic flourish—but if you can [see Damrosch’s translation]. It is not a `world-besotted’ traveler—no Swiftian epithet that—but the passer who stands there, who is addressed. `Human’ liberty? Not at all in Swift’s words; that emphasis belongs to the world after Rousseau. The call is to a civic virtue.” 

Damrosch the biographer bolsters Sisson’s argument: “The Latin indignatio comes from the satirist Juvenal, and perhaps from the Bible as well: `Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?’ In his will, Swift used the word vindex, translated here as `champion.’  It’s not clear why the word on the plaque is vindicator, whose meaning is closer to avenger. The challenge to the viewer is not in doubt: go and imitate if you can, but you probably can’t.” 

The pithiest understanding of Swift I know comes from, of all people, Coleridge. In his Table Talk entry for June 15, 1830 (The Table Talk and Omniana, Oxford University Press, 1917), in which he talks at length about Rabelais, the bloviating poet says: “Swift was anima Rabelaisii habitans in sicco—the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place.” If Yeats is warm and moist, Swift is cool and dry, like a good place to camp for the night.

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