Thursday, August 6, 2009

The thread of learning

The thread of learning is thin and spindly and yet so strong. It shows itself in the oddest ways in the remotest places.

From Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Dana's ship, the Pilgrim, has been trading goods for hides on the California coast (which at this time in 1835 is still Mexican so that they are foreigners on a foreign shore). He and a couple of companions have been left ashore for a month or so to prepare hides while the ship and crew trade up the coast. Upon the Pilgrim's return, Dana discovers that there is a new (and better) captain aboard.

This is definitely good news. The captain soon comes ashore, compliments Dana on the work done and, knowing Dana to be an educated man and no mere common sailor, comments "Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi" part of a line from Virgil, "Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena." In English, "Tityrus, reclining beneath the cover of a spreading beech tree, you practice a woodland melody on the slender pipe."

I love this mind's-eye picture of my, in 2009, reading of two Bostonians in the 1830s, strangers to one another, meeting on a distant and scarcely populated foreign shore, quoting a nearly 2,000 year old poem, from Virgil's Eclogue to one another with the confidence that the allusion and compliment will be comprehended. That would seem to be so incomprehensibly improbable, but there you are: the strand of learning stretches far and wide.

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