Category Archives: Poetry

The Asıl of the Iliad

Etymologically speaking, the asıl of a thing is its root. The Arabic root of the Turkish word means bitki kökü, “vegetable root,” according to Sevan Nişanyan’s Turkish etymological dictionary.

In the Iliad, why is Achilles so affronted by Agamemnon as to refuse to help the Greeks, even as their attack on Troy is becoming a defensive war, at the wall that they have erected about their own ships? If the answer is to be found through study, then Book IX of the Iliad is what to study.

Continue reading

Automatia

One day during the Trojan War, Apollo and Athena decide to give the combatants a break. The general conflict is to be replaced with a one-on-one. The Olympians induce Helenus to tell his brother Hector to take on whichever of the Greeks is up for it.

Only Menelaus will accept the challenge at first. His brother Agamemnon makes him withdraw. When none of the other Greeks comes forward, Nestor chides them. After a story of his former prowess, he utters the words that Chapman renders as two couplets:

O that my youth were now as fresh, and all my powers as sound;
Soone should bold Hector be impugn’d: yet you that most are crownd
With fortitude, of all our hoast; euen you, me thinkes are slow,
Not free, and set on fire with lust, t’encounter such a foe.

Continue reading

Poetry and Mathematics

This reviews some reading and thinking of recent weeks, pertaining more or less to the title subjects, of which it may be worth noting that

  • poetry is from ποιέω “make”;

  • mathematics is from μανθάνω “learn.”

Continue reading

Donne’s Undertaking

I was recently called on to recommend a poem. I chose “The Undertaking” of John Donne. I want to say here why.

  • The poem (quoted below) has a sound that impressed me when first I read it, more than thirty years ago.

  • The poem alludes to ideals:

    • of recognizing what is good for its own sake;

    • of climbing a rung or two on Diotima’s ladder or stairway of love, recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium (211c):

      And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά), is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps (οἳ ἐπαναβαθμοί) only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms (τὰ καλὰ σώματα), and from fair forms to fair practices (τὰ καλὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα), and from fair practices to fair notions (τὰ καλὰ μαθήματα), until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (ὃ ἔστι καλόν).

  • The sound of Donne’s poem may seduce one into thinking the ideals worthy.

Analytic Geometry and Donne's complete poetry

Two books that were my mother’s

Continue reading

Mood

Executive summary. The English grammatical moods—indicative, imperative, subjunctive—were not understood till the nineteenth century, according to an 1882 doctoral dissertation, On the Use of the Subjunctive Mood in Anglo-Saxon. Considering illustrative passages that happen to be from Plato, Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, and especially John Donne; looking ultimately at John McWhorter’s 2015 essay, “English is not normal”; I review the subjunctive mood, grammar in general, and my own lack of understanding till I was in college.

Copyright page and table of contents, side by side, of Concise Oxford Dictionary Continue reading

On the Odyssey, Book II

Having been put to bed by Eurycleia at the end of Book I of the Odyssey, Telemachus gets up in the morning and has the people summoned to council, at the beginning of Book II.

Three books with beads

There is no mention of a breakfast. Perhaps none is eaten. On the other hand, Telemachus probably relieves his bladder at least, and there is no mention of that either.

Telemachus straps on a ξίφος, but arrives at the assembly with a χάλκεον ἔγχος in hand. Wilson calls it a sword in either case; for Fitzgerald and Lattimore, the first weapon is a sword, but the second a spear and a bronze spear, respectively. Cunliffe’s lexicon supports the men; however, for Liddell and Scott, an ἔγχος can also be a sword, at least in Sophocles. For Beekes, ξίφος is Pre-Greek, and ἔγχος may be so. Continue reading

On the Odyssey, Book I

  • In reading his rendition of the Iliad, having enjoyed hearing Chapman speak out loud and bold;

  • having enjoyed writing here about each book, particularly the last ten books in ten days on an Aegean beach in September of this year (2019);

  • having taken the name of this blog from the first line of the Odyssey;

  • having obtained, from Homer Books here in Istanbul, Emily Wilson’s recent translation (New York: Norton, 2018);

  • Book on table, Wilson's Odyssey Continue reading

Anthropology of Mathematics

This essay was long when originally published; now, on November 30, 2019, I have made it longer, in an attempt to clarify some points.

The essay begins with two brief quotations, from Collingwood and Pirsig respectively, about what it takes to know people.

  • The Pirsig quote is from Lila, which is somewhat interesting as a novel, but naive about metaphysics; it might have benefited from an understanding of Collingwood’s Essay on Metaphysics.

  • A recent article by Ray Monk in Prospect seems to justify my interest in Collingwood; eventually I have a look at the article.

Ideas that come up along the way include the following.

  1. For C. S. Lewis, the reality of moral truth shows there is something beyond the scope of natural science.

  2. I say the same for mathematical truth.

  3. Truths we learn as children are open to question. In their educational childhoods, mathematicians have often learned wrongly the techniques of induction and recursion.

  4. The philosophical thesis of physicalism is of doubtful value.

  5. Mathematicians and philosophers who ape them (as in a particular definition of physicalism) use “iff” needlessly.

  6. A pair of mathematicians who use “iff” needlessly seem also to misunderstand induction and recursion.

  7. Their work is nonetheless admirable, like the famous expression of universal equality by the slave-driving Thomas Jefferson.

  8. Mathematical truth is discovered and confirmed by thought.

  9. Truth is a product of every kind of science; it is not an object of natural science.

  10. The distinction between thinking and feeling is a theme of Collingwood.

  11. In particular, thought is self-critical: it judges whether itself is going well.

  12. Students of mathematics must learn their right to judge what is correct, along with their responsibility to reach agreement with others about what is correct. I say this.

  13. Students of English must learn not only to judge their own work, but even that they can judge it. Pirsig says this.

  14. For Monk, Collingwood’s demise has meant Ryle’s rise: unfortunately so since, for one thing, Ryle has no interest in the past.

  15. In a metaphor developed by Matthew Arnold, Collingwood and Pirsig are two of my touchstones.

  16. Thoreau is another. He affects indifference to the past, but his real views are more subtle.

  17. According to Monk, Collingwood could have been a professional violinist; Ryle had “no ear for tunes.”

  18. For Collingwood, Victoria’s memorial to Albert was hideous; for Pirsig, Victorian America was the same.

  19. Again according to Monk, some persons might mistake Collingwood for Wittgenstein.

  20. My method of gathering together ideas, as outlined above, resembles Pirsig’s method, described in Lila, of collecting ideas on index cards.

  21. Our problems are not vague, but precise.


When Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, which opinion polls had said he would lose, I wrote a post here called “How To Learn about People.” I thought for example that just calling people up and asking whom they would vote for was not a great way to learn about them, even if all you wanted to know was whom they would vote for. Why should people tell you the truth?

Saturn eclipse mosaic from Cassini

With other questions about people, even just understanding what it means to be the truth is a challenge. If you wanted to understand people whose occupation (like mine) was mathematics, you would need to learn what it meant to prove a theorem, that is, prove it true. Mere observation would not be enough; and on this point I cite two authors whom I often take up in this blog.

  • In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Religion and Philosophy (1916, page 42), quoted in An Autobiography (1940, page 93) as well as in the earlier post here, “The mind, regarded in this external way, really ceases to be a mind at all.”

  • In the words of English teacher and anthropologist Verne Dusenberry, quoted by Robert Pirsig in Lila (1991, page 35), “The trouble with the objective approach is that you don’t learn much that way.”

Continue reading

On Translation

Achilles is found singing to a lyre, in a passage of Book IX of the Iliad. Homer sets the scene in five dactylic hexameters; George Chapman translates them into four couplets of fourteeners.

I wrote a post about each book of the Iliad, in Chapman’s version of 1611. As I said at the end, I look forward to reading Emily Wilson’s version. Meanwhile, here I examine the vignette of the lyre in several existing English translations, as well as in the original.

Three books mentioned in the text Continue reading

On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXIV

One man kills another, legally, according to the laws of war, such as they are. The two sides fight over the body, which might be ransomed, if taken by the killer’s side; however, the body is not so taken. The friend of the slain man kills the killer and takes his body to mutilate, though this be sacrilege.

The father of the newly slain man crosses enemy lines to ransom his son’s body. He puts his lips to the hand of the killer, who agrees to give up the body, even coming to admire the father, who in turn admires him.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-69), Lucretia, 1664, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Such are the emotions of the Iliad. Homer depicts them as terrifically as Rembrandt does those of a woman, Lucretia, about to kill herself in shame for having been raped. One might consider these works as “emotion porn,” where the second element of this phrase denotes

written or visual material that emphasizes the sensuous or sensational aspects of a non-sexual subject, appealing to its audience in a manner likened to the titillating effect of pornography

—in the words of the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, as quoted by Arnold Zwicky in a blog article, “X porn.” Continue reading