Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Bit of Latin: arma virumque

I don't expect to be able to maintain this "Bit" posting with any regularity, but I promised this one back when I wrote on the ACS blogg, so here it is.

I seem to recall that I was talking about the name "Smith" (or rather GKC was), as I quoted that wonderful encomium from Heretics. Just for your reference, there is a parallel essay which appeared in The Daily News and was reprinted in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, and in my notes I find there is a link on the topic in the essay "What I Found In My Pocket" (Gollum would be curious...) which is in Tremendous Trifles. Anyway, in both the AWD and the Heretics you will find GKC quoting these two Latin words: arma virumque.

If Virgil's Aeneid had been a papal encyclical, that would be its title, since those are the first two words of his epic tale... did you ever realize that the Aeneid is a SEQUEL to Homer? Oh yes. But let us just explain the words and leave the cross-links for another time.

Actually you need the third word in order to make sense. The first line is:
Arma virumque cano...
which means:
Arms and the man I sing...
The man, of course is Aeneas. If you need help you can get your local Latin scholar to explain about the accusative, and about the enclitic -que which means "and". (What a cool trick.) And if you want to poke at a dull topic you can get into a lively discussion on how vir means "man-the-male" not "man-the-species". You can even go into some speculation about how the verb canere connects to lively-discussion-inducing words like "incantation" or "enchanted"... but also connects to "canticle" - which may cause some even more lively discussion.

You will also find these words in one other place, where GKC discusses them, rather than merely using them as an example or for classical support. They appear in his discussion of Shaw's play, "Arms and the Man":
No one who was alive at the time and interested in such matters will ever forget the first acting of Arms and the Man. It was applauded by that indescribable element in all of us which rejoices to see the genuine thing prevail against the plausible; that element which rejoices that even its enemies are alive. Apart from the problems raised in the play, the very form of it was an attractive and forcible innovation. Classic plays which were wholly heroic, comic plays which were wholly and even heartlessly ironical, were common enough. Commonest of all in this particular time was the play that began playfully, with plenty of comic business, and was gradually sobered by sentiment until it ended on a note of romance or even of pathos. A commonplace little officer, the butt of the mess, becomes by the last act as high and hopeless a lover as Dante. Or a vulgar and violent pork-butcher remembers his own youth before the curtain goes down. The first thing that Bernard Shaw did when he stepped before the footlights was to reverse this process. He resolved to build a play not on pathos, but on bathos. The officer should be heroic first and then everyone should laugh at him; the curtain should go up on a man remembering his youth, and he should only reveal himself as a violent pork-butcher when someone interrupted him with an order for pork. This merely technical originality is indicated in the very title of the play. The Arma Virumque of Virgil is a mounting and ascending phrase, the man is more than his weapons. The Latin line suggests a superb procession which should bring on to the stage the brazen and resounding armour, the shield and shattering axe, but end with the hero himself, taller and more terrible because unarmed. The technical effect of Shaw's scheme is like the same scene, in which a crowd should carry even more gigantic shapes of shield and helmet, but when the horns and howls were at their highest, should end with the figure of Little Tich. The name itself is meant to be a bathos; arms - and the man.
[GKC George Bernard Shaw CW11:416-7]


At 23 October, 2010 16:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you mean "Canto"?

At 24 October, 2010 21:58, Blogger Sheila said...

No, "cano" is a word too -- meaning "to sing, to chant" and sometimes even "to play an instrument." And it was the word Virgil used.


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