Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stone Motto Revisited ... Revised

Tief ist der Brunnen der Vergangenheit. Sollte man ihn nicht unergründlich nennen?
Deep is the well of the past. Shouldn’t we call it bottomless?
        [Thomas Mann, opening line of Joseph and His Brothers]
Thanks to Brigitte’s slow-working but extraordinary memory, I humbly return to two earlier postings here and here. Both dealt with a stone inscription somewhere in Georgetown, in Washington, DC. These posts were made on February 11 and 12. Three months later, on May 7, as I sat down to each my lunch, Brigitte settled across from me at our sunroom table and, her elbow on the table, her chin resting on her hand, she looked at me and said: “That stone motto, you know, the Maker of the Wheel?” I nodded. She went on. “Well, I woke up this morning, and I suddenly had it. The place where we saw it? The name of that place? It was there as I woke up. It was—Dumbarton Oaks!”

This stunned me. I simply knew that she was right—but still had no idea what that place was, beyond knowing it to be a library, a foundation. We had a brief talk about the mysteries of memory—how this name could possibly resurface and how my own could immediately assent, recognizing it but still failing to fetch much else. After that—this is the Age of the Web—I went to discover the details.

The upshot of this is that Brandon Watson of Siris fame—who responded to my February plea regarding the origin of that saying—turns out to have been dead on. And my insistence on the phrasing, assertively repeated in my comment on his, turned out to be dead wrong. Alas. Now it is time to set things right.

My remembered version was:
Oh Ye Maker of the Wheel
That Geareth the Heavens
And tourneth the Starres
In a Ravishing Sway.
The chief difference, here, of course, is my remembering gearing of the heavens and Brandon suggesting that the wheel was bearing, not gearing. Brandon was sure that the actual text came from Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, specifically:
Oh thou maker of the whele that bereth the sterres,
which that art fastned to thi perdurable chayre,
turnest the hevene with a ravyssyng sweighe
and constreinest the sterres to suffren thi law.
Obviously I had to agree. Having become doubtful therefore, I now went looking for Dumbarton Oaks on the web and found it here; next I applied by e-mail to Christine Blazina, that institution’s Docent Coordinator. I sent her my version and asked for the actual wording. Graciously, and rapidly, she responded as follows:
The inscription: “O thou maker of the whele that Bereth the sterres and tornest the hevene with a ravisshing sweigh” is from Chaucer’s Translation of Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a fascinating historical figure, philosopher, and statesman. This inscription is in the center of our Star Garden, a small garden lined with Azaleas and adjacent to the rear of the house, west of the Green Garden and Orangery. The lead saying is found surrounding the paved circle with the figures of Aries, Capricorn, Pegasus and Phoenix in it. It is a beautiful and peaceful space.
Well, well, well. Humbled. Okay, that “gearing” was obviously my own invention, transformation, updating of that ancient vision—you might say my own poetic license—either in originally copying the text or later, the slip having been lost, remembering what I had copied.

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy has had a remarkable life, when you think about it. It was one of the most printed and translated secular works of antiquity in medieval times. In the second post referenced above, I showed Walter John Sedgefield’s 1900 translation of Boethius’ line as:
THOU Creator of heaven and earth, that rulest on the eternal throne, Thou that makest the heavens to turn in swift course, and the stars to obey Thee, and the sun with his shining beams to quench the darkness of black night…
In 1902 W.V. Cooper rendered it thus:
Founder of the star-studded universe, resting on Thine eternal throne whence Thou turnest the swiftly rolling sky, and bindest the stars to keep Thy law.
The Dumbarton Oaks people used a shortened version of Chaucer’s, omitting the phrase “which that art y-fastned to thy perdurable chayer.” By industrializing the phrase, substituting gearing for bearing, I thus join a long line of modifiers and translators of ancient texts. Which suggests the foolhardiness of literalism in the use of humanity’s written deposit. The amazing thing here, I would submit, is really the reach of memory, which Brigitte demonstrated on that night of May 6 and 7, recalling Dumbarton Oaks and thus correcting an impression made a ways down in that deep well of the past.

The picture, incidentally, shows the stone structure that bears this inscription around the inner or the outer circle. I cannot make out where, but I might get a better image from Dumbarton Oaks before long. If I do, I’ll revisit this subject yet again.


  1. There's also a possibility that the B really did look like a G, either due to the font or to the wear of time or both; at least, I know things like that have happened to me in reading monumental inscriptions.

    But even if not, the chain is interesting, and, if I may say so, heartening. It's Boethius's Latin turned into Chaucer's Middle English turned into the architect's shortened inscription turned into Darnay's modernization finally compared again with the originals and further conclusions drawn: this is nothing other than the metabolism of tradition, how it keeps healthy and alive. Without even realizing it, you were contributing in a small way to the life of the Boethian tradition. And the thought of the Last of the Romans is certainly worth keeping alive in Western Civilization!

  2. Thanks, Brandon, for contributing to this conversation once again. Just as your comment arrived, so did my photographs--and, again, they do confirm your take on things. That B in the inscription does strongly suggest a G. Yes, tradition! And Amen to your last sentence!

  3. Oh, those pesky old, ornate fonts! :)
    A fun follow-up on the original post!