Wednesday, October 25, 2017

`A Bitter-Sweet Passion'

“He saith our whole life is a Glucupicron, a bitter-sweet passion.”

A reader sent me a page-long passage from The Anatomy of Melancholy and asked what I made of it. Burton’s prose is always stocked with little miracles. The sentence above contains a mystery in the middle: Glucupricon. The OED spells it glycyˈpicron, cites Burton’s usage and gives a straightforward definition: “something composed of sweet and bitter.” In Greek it’s literally sweetbitter, the reverse of our familiar bittersweet. Here is Burton’s full paragraph:

“Discontents and Grievances are the lot of man: our whole life, as Apuleius well observes, is a Glucupricon, a bitter-sweet passion, a mixture of pleasure and of pain, from which no man can hope to go free: but as this condition is common to all, no man should be more disquieted than another.”

Burton expresses an essential human truth in language of uncharacteristic clarity and directness. Bittersweet I associate with Sappho, as in Jim Powell’s translation of a fragment (The Poetry of Sappho, 2007): “Eros limbslackener shakes me again-- / that sweet, bitter impossible creature.” Anne Carson, most of whose work is pretentiously unreadable, writes in Eros the Bitttersweet (1986), her least unreadable book: “It was Sappho who first called eros `bittersweet.’ No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?” Here is Carson’s version: “Eros once again limb loosener whirls me / Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.”

I like Burton’s “bitter-sweet passion.” 

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