Thursday, March 1, 2007

Sources Considered

Terry Teachout mused the other day that his contribution to humanity’s happiness is that he provides reliable sources for his almanac posts, and I quite agree. I paticularly enjoy the randomness of his snips from great literature of all kinds.

His further comment that “Cyberspace is cluttered with millions of pithy quotations, most of which are unsourced and thus unreliable” met up with something that’s been rambling around in my head.

Phrases go into daily language from literature—unsourced—as part of a language’s life. Some writers capture ideas or whimsy with such perfectly matched words that they belong to the ages and turn up in casual speech, as well as in movies, plays, headlines, novel titles, and the like.

A recent example is the surprise that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is directly from Alexander Pope’s Eloise to Abelard, and I remember being particularly surprised in college to learn that “salad days” was uttered by Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, “My salad days, When I was green in judgment.” Of course you can play the “This Is from Shakespeare” game for hours on end.

Then there are phrases that go into the language misshapen. The most famous is “money is the root of all evil,” which St. Paul wrote as “the love of money. . . (radix malorum est cupiditas.) That’s quite a difference, but usage trumps pedantic insistence. Centuries of the vox populi decided that what they needed was a warning against money, not greed, and so be it.

There’s another misshapen phrase bouncing around out there:

Ignorance is bliss.

What Thomas Gray wrote in "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" is

WHERE ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise

That’s a very different idea, and he made this pronouncement about a very specific situation.

In the life of the poem, the speaker is watching a rugby game on the playing field of Eton. As he watches the boys, he thinks about his own childhood there.

Ah, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
Ah, fields belov'd in vain!
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain!

After many stanzas then detailing intimate knowledge of the pain of life and the “slow-consuming age” that the adult knows, his attention is again focused on the boys:

Alas! regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:

Why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?

Gray then very deliberately decides that there is no point to infringe upon the carefree innocence of youth with knowledge:

Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

Centuries have divorced the one phrase from the other, because as a declaration, “ignorance is bliss” is just so damn useful.

But for the record, Mr. Pope argued against just this sort of blithe trifling with the facts:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring

Okay, so what was that Pierian thing again?


blue girl said...

Great post, M.A.

Now you're going to have me thinking about other lines like that.

Tim Footman said...

Can I be really pedantic here? Rugby football didn't really develop as a separate code of football until the 1820s, at Rugby School (hence the name). Gray, as I recall, died about 50 years before this.

What they play at Eton is usually called The Game, and has characteristics of both soccer and rugby.

Mr Steed would know the difference, although he wouldn't risk crumpling his carnation by joining in.

M.A.Peel said...

Blue Girl--let me know when you think of other mis-shaped lines lurking in our languge.

Tim--The Game. Yes, I see. I do love you pedantics.