Dies Caniculares

Lines against lines in summer:


Though I in Prochyta with greater ease
Could live, than in a street of palaces.
What scene so desert or so full of fright,
As towering houses, tumbling in the night,
And Rome on fire beheld by its own blazing light?
But worse than all the clattering tiles, and worse
Than thousand padders, is the poet’s curse;
Rogues, that in dog-days cannot rhyme forbear,
But without mercy read, and make you hear.

– Juvenal, from the Third Satire (trans. Dryden)

Yes, these are the dog-days, Fortunatus:
The heather lies limp and dead
On the mountain, the baltering torrent
Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, unshaven its captain,
Vacant the scholar’s brain
Under his great hat,
Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.

-W. H. Auden, from ‘Under Sirius’

Speaking of Auden’s efforts at lexicographical self-preservation, Auden gets two quotes in OED2 for just these lines (just guess which words), and four (!) more later on in the poem: soss, seamless, indulge, and pantocratic. In all, the collection Nones (1952) is quoted sixty-one times in the dictionary. Dryden, by the way, is quoted twice among the scarce evidence for padder in OED2 (it means robber, footman… those footsteps you hear behind you in a dark alley), but not for this instance.

Also, this, for a contemporary take on the same phenomenon making the Facebook rounds. Note her speaking rhythm once she gets going – it works itself into a regular sort of chain cadence that gives the impression it could keep on endlessly. When it does falter (as she misses a beat to try to think up another form of complaint) the effect breaks immediately. Note also how different kinds of manipulated repetition (“I do not do this – this is not what I do”) contribute to and regulate this effect (and how others, like a little stutter her or there, can frustrate it).

Of ‘dog-days’, OED2 notes that ‘The name (Gr. ἡµέραι κυνάδες, Lat. dies caniculares) arose from the pernicious qualities of the season being attributed to the ‘influence’ of the Dog-star; but it has long been popularly associated with the belief that at this season dogs are most apt to run mad.’

To finish the thought I may have started above … Ted Hughes:

Dog Days on the Black Sea

The world hangs like a bead of perspiration
In the writer’s eyebrow.
He slogs on in his space-ditch
Under a straw sombrero of culture.

The earth’s on heat–all day the fever is a glittering
Creep of cars towards the beaches. There the lizards
Sprawl like a massacre, or lurch from towels
To plunge into the surf of prehistory.

Day long and the thunderhead will not grow!
The writer has to lift enough world, by weight,
And before dark, to balance all
Those soft-bellied baskers with the oiled eyes …

While the land weighs towards evening, like a big rose,
And the harvest leans, heavy and still.

And thunder-blue, flickering, the swallow
Toils to bundle the whole burden of summer
Into loops of air,
Under and over, fleeing and fleeing–

Voice struggling away ahead for relief
From the ache of its body–
A boomerang shadow
Across cushioned meadows, and under woods,

Touching the river slow as honey, and up
And turning
Returning, a pendulum of crying shadow–

The writer’s sweat drops. He stares hopelessly.

One Comment

  • D-AW wrote:

    Having made it this far, you may be in need of some comic or not-so-comic relief from Swift, on Strephon’s Chloe:

    You’d swear, that so divine a Creature
    Felt no Necessities of Nature.
    In Summer had she walkt the Town,
    Her Arm-pits would not stain her Gown:
    At Country Dances, not a Nose
    Could in the Dog-Days smell her Toes.
    Her Milk-white Hands, both Palms and Backs,
    Like Iv’ry dry, and soft as Wax.

    [it goes on like this]

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