Sunday, July 22, 2012

Stumbling Over that E

Brigitte shared an article the other day indicating that failing gait in the aging is now thought by some to be an early omen of the approach of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re both stumblers. But I also stumble over letters. A very common case is the E in Vergil; there it was again on Laudator this morning (link), immediately followed by Virgil because Borges, quoted in that post, used Virgil in the title of one of his books. So which is it? I prefer Virgil myself. It has to do with the balanced look of that name, not with historical truth. The poet was called Vergilius in his own time. The rather lame-sounding explanation I find on the Internet (but no deep search here) is that Vergilius was so abstemious sexually (or perhaps only compared to his contemporaries) that an “I” got borrowed from virgin.

No deep search, as I say. But I do have an authority on my shelves here. Robert Graves knows his Latin and the ancient times better than I would have—even if I’d lived in Augustus’ own time. So I trust his usage. To be sure, Graves was no fan of the chaste Vergilius. In his monumental The White Goddess, there is a single reference to the poet in the index. Here is what Graves has to say. The context is Latin poets.

His contemporary, Virgil, is to be read for qualities that are not poetic in the sense that they invoke the presence of the Muse. The musical and rhetorical skill, the fine-sounding periphrases, and the rolling periods, are admired by classicists, but the Aeneid is designed to dazzle and overpower, and true poets do not find it consistent with their integrity to follow Virgil’s example. They honour Catullus more, because he never seems to be calling upon them, as posterity, to applaud a demonstration of immortal genius; rather, he appeals to them as a contemporary: ‘Is this not so?’

Now, mind you, Graves could not have consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer in his time. What Google shows is that Virgil was vastly more used in Graves’ times than in mine—but is still by far the more popular usage. In my 1956 Encyclopedia Britannica, the only E found in the name is in a parenthetical Vergilius; my 1989 World Book Encyclopedia echoes the rising usage of Vergil by hooking that name to Virgil in an “or Vergil” annotation to the title. Neither encyclopedia explains the differences in spelling. My own guess is that if Vergilius had celebrated the White Goddess in his poetry—rather than worshipped the collective power of Rome—Graves would have stoutly used Vergil. He knew what he admired; and I’m certain that he knew how Vergilius was spelled.

No comments:

Post a Comment