“Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

As Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious was the ninth century’s Julian Lennon. He may have done interesting work, but who remembers? Historians do, of course, but the emperor who supposedly never cracked a smile doesn’t rule the layman’s imagination the way his father always has.

Even so, the reign of Louis was a great one for poetry. Walafrid Strabo—the abbot, scholar, and gardener who often pops up on this blog—wrote a short poem that strikes me as appropriate for the end of a week that began with Election Day hubbub:


DE OSSE DAMMULAE,

PER QUOD ARBUSCULA CREVIT AD
IMPERATOREM HLUDOWICUM

Arboris et altrix quondam vagina medullae,
Tibia germen habet—nempe bonum omen erit.
Quod cortex humore caret, quod durior ipso est
Robore miramur: talis in osse vigor.
Nil, Caesar, tibi, magne, vacat: venabere dammas,
Ossibus ex quarum silva orietur, ave.

Latin poets, whether ancient or medieval, used long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables, so their work is tricky to translate into English—but I like to acknowledge the nature of the original by rendering it into some sort of recognizable form. Walahfrid was a Germanic kid from Alemannia who jokingly called himself a “barbarian,” so let’s assume that Anglo-Saxon metrical, alliterative half-lines, like the verses of Beowulf but with more liberal use of anacrusis, resemble something the poet himself might have heard:
 

ON THE BONES OF A LITTLE DEER,
THROUGH WHICH GREW A SMALL TREE
FOR THE EMPEROR LOUIS

Now a marrow-sheath nurses a tree:
From shin-bone to sapling—surely well omened.
That its bark is dry and bound tougher
Than hard wood, we marvel: such might in the bone.
Great emperor, nothing is ever beyond you:
You merely have to go hunting for deer
And from their relics, forests grow. Hail!

Does my translation capture the sense of the original? One major scholar of Carolingian poetry isn’t even certain what Walafrid’s tone was:

Does the black humour of the hyperbole applied to this faintly ludicrous subject reflect back on Walahfrid himself, in an elegant mockery of the excesses of his own panegyrical style? Or does genuine virtuosity combine here with ambiguous flattery in a measure intended to create a residual doubt as to the sincerity of the compliment? Walahfrid, deliberately, never reveals whether the humour of his epigram is merely self-reflexive or really risqué. Irony, in the hands of an imperial panegyrist, is a two-edged weapon.

Charlemagne’s poets praised him to a ludicrous extent, and I’ve often wondered how seriously he and his heirs took the verses that served as politically useful flattery. It’s all too likely that they loved what they heard.

The subjects of Frankish kings weren’t free to write what they felt, but by studying them, we can ensure the promise of the liber in the liberal arts they bequeathed us. Behold the benefits of the thousand-year perspective: being unsurprised when leaders, by nature, believe their own hype, and being less inclined, sometimes, to fall for it yourself.

3 thoughts on ““Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

  1. So glad you showed up at mine, I’d been thinking about your blog and what a treasure house it is, but seemed to have lost track of it. But now you’re on my sidebar feed so it won’t happen again. Hail!

    Just a quick nit I’m going to pick: as I understand it, the ‘liber’ in liberal arts comes from ‘libris’ not ‘liber’, the reading of ‘liberal arts’ as having to do with intellectual freedom is a bit of false etymology?

    Looking at Helen Waddell on Walafrid Strabo, lovely description of De Cultura Hortum, and the sorry tale of his poor friend Gottschalk…

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  2. This is another really dazzling translation…alliteration *and* near-perfect preservation of the original sense! It’s so hard to capture the compression and vigor of Latin in English, but I think you’ve done it, especially in the first four lines.

    Lucy, I hadn’t heard the idea that “artes liberales” comes from the word for “book,” but as a Latinist from way back, I don’t think it can be right. “Liberalis” always means “characterizing a free person (as opposed to a slave or serf).” However much they look alike in writing, the “liber” that means “book” is pronounced differently from the “liber-” in “liberalis.”

    Originally, the idea was that the liberal arts were studies suited to those who had the freedom and leisure to pursue them. The Stoic philosopher Seneca began to play with the meaning when he argued that the artes liberales actually *made* people spiritually free — a claim made by humanities professors ever since, though the results sometimes fall short of the promise.

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  3. Lucy, thanks for stopping by! For a nice chapter-length bio of Walafrid Strabo, check out Eleanor Shipley Duckett’s Carolingian Portraits. As for his gardening book, let’s just say that I may have much more to say about it on this blog in the months ahead…

    Alpheus, I appreciate your kind words! I did have to fudge the rules of Old English scansion in the final line, but in general, I’m finding the form nearly ideal for translations from Latin. It’s clear to a listener that there is a form, but the meter also varies by line and by foot, mimicking what happens in the Latin. Other stuff gets lost in translation, but it’s a profitable trade-off.

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