Monday, August 25, 2014

`At Their Dapatical Banquets'

One of the joys of reading late Auden is the pleasure he takes in rare words used correctly. Like his friend Dr. Oliver Sacks, he loved trolling the Oxford English Dictionary for good catches. In his translation of Horace’s Odes (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) David R. Slavitt acknowledges (and presumably shares) Auden’s predilection. Here is his version of the final stanza of I.14: 

“And will your heirs mourn, or will they revel,
Breaking out the wines you have locked away
To guzzle and spill on the floor
At their dapatical banquets?” 

My spell-check doesn’t recognize dapatical, though frayed memory and context figured it out. In his gloss, Slavitt says it is “exactly the right word to convey the idea of `the pontiff’s banquets,’ which was the way Romans referred to extravagance.” He goes on: 

“Auden uses the word in About the House; it comes from the Greek dapaien and means `to spend lavishly.’ It was Auden’s habit to use such low-frequency words to get them into the OED as a source—his idea of immortality. Without this note, I’m sure a number of readers would have had to look it up. My hope is that with the definition here, they will remember it. It’s a lovely word.” 

Agreed. And it gets lovelier if you follow the linguistic trail. The OED gives us the late Latin dapāticus, “sumptuous,” and uses the same English word to define, plus “costly.”

The most recent citation dates from 1721, and all three are from earlier reference. But no Auden. The unnamed poem Slavitt refers to in About the House (1965) is “To-Night at Seven-Thirty,” the tenth poem in a twelve-part sequence titled “Thanksgiving for a Habitat.” Auden dedicates the poem to the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, for whom he wrote an introduction to The Art of Eating (1963). In it he makes a rather dapatical claim: "I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose.” 

“I see a table
at which the youngest and the oldest present
keep the eyes grateful
for what Nature’s bounty and grace of Spirit can create:
for the ear’s content
one raconteur, one gnostic with amazing shop,
both in a talkative mood but knowing when to stop,
and one wide-traveled worldling to interject now and then
a sardonic comment, men
and women who enjoy the cloop of corks, appreciate
dapatical fare, yet can see in swallowing
a sign act of reverence,
in speech a work of re-presenting
the true olamic silence.”

More low-frequency words: cloop and olamic, and elsewhere in the poem: flosculent, cenacle, semble, curmurr, maltalents. Language, like life, is a dapatical feast. [For Auden’s essay on Fisher, “The Kitchen of Life,” see Forewords and Afterwords (1973).]23—1721

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