Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Bit of Latin: sic itur ad astra

Today we again find Chesterton quoting Virgil's Aeneid. It is not an easy book to read - I (alas) read it in an English translation, as I am far from fluent in reading Latin. But even so - it is WORTH your time to read Virgil - just as it is worth your time to read Homer or Dante, in translations, even insipid translations.

Today's phrase is just four words: sic itur ad astra. The literal translation is something like "Thus, (the) way/journey to (the) stars". I have two or three other references but they are pebbles compared to the jewel I have to offer you today. Oh yes! Oh how I look forward to the day whenI might cross the Atlantic and visit those twin islands - and chief among my visits must be to the place Chesterton adorns with these glorious words. Indeed - he gives a dramatic and powerful translation of Virgil - one which magically beckons to me from across the Atlantic. It is a lengthy quote, but such a glorious jewel deserves this grand setting. Please read it slowly, with your imaginator turned up to eleven (or as high as yours may go):
The beauty of Edinburgh as a city is absolutely individual, and consists in one separate atmosphere and one separate class of qualities. It consists chiefly in a quality that may be called "abruptness", an unexpected alternation of heights and depths. It seems like a city built on precipices; a perilous city. Although the actual ridges and valleys are not (of course) really very high or very
deep, they stand up like strong cliffs; they fall like open chasms. There are turns of the steep street that take the breath away like a literal abyss. There are thoroughfares, full, busy and lined with shops, which yet give the emotion of an Alpine stair. It is, in the only adequate word for it, a sudden city. Great roads rush down hills like rivers in spate. Great buildings rush up like rockets. But the sensation produced by this violent variety of levels is one even more complex and bizarre. It is partly owing to the aforesaid variety, the high and low platform of the place. It is partly owing to the hundred veils of the vaporous atmosphere, which make the earth itself look like the sky, as if the town were hung in heaven, descending like the New Jerusalem.

But the impression is odd and even eerie; it is sometimes difficult for a man to shake off the suggestion that each road is a bridge over the other roads, as if he were really rising by continual stages higher and higher through the air. He fancies he is on some open scaffolding of streets, scaling the sky. He almost imagines that, if he lifted a paving-stone, he might look down through the opening, and see the
moon. This weird sense of the city as a sort of starry ladder has so often come upon me when climbing the Edinburgh ways in cloudy weather that I have been tempted to wonder whether any of the old men of the town were thinking of the experience when they chose the strange and splendid motto of the Scotch capital. Never, certainly, did a great city have a heraldic motto which was so atmospherically accurate. It might have been invented by a poet - I might almost say by a landscape painter. The motto of Edinburgh, as you may still see it, I think, carved over the old Castle gate is, "Sic Itur ad Astra": "This Way to the Stars."

This element in a city is not a mere local oddity, or even a mere local charm. This abrupt sublimity, this sharp and decisive dignity, is in some sense the essential element of a city which is a city at all. The true nature of civic beauty is extraordinarily little understood in our own time.
[GKC "The Way to the Stars" in Lunacy and Letters]


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