Sunday, April 8, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

This is my third "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. This essay is about one of the Latin emblems of Gabriel Rollenhagen (1583-1619). You can read more about Rollenghagen and his influential work in this blog post.

As often with emblems, the title of the emblem is a well-known Latin saying: Sic Transit Glória Mundi. You can read an article about this saying, in fact, at Wikipedia. Here's how the Latin works:

Sic. You may know this Latin word already, as it is sometimes used in English copy editing. It means so, thus, in this way, likewise.

Transit. This is from the compound verb trans-ire, cross over, pass by, pass away. (Easy to recognize because we use transit as an English word, just like the word exit.) The form is third-person singular: it passes. Now we need a subject!

Glória. This is an easy word to recognize: glory. It is in the nominative case, give us the subject for our verb, transit. But what kind of glory exactly? Read on to find out.

Mundi. This is the genitive form of the Latin word mundus, the world (compare the English word mundane). The genitive form is often equivalent to the English preposition of: so we have gloria mundi, the glory of the world.

This gives us the title: Sic Transit Glória Mundi, Thus Passes Away the Glory of the World.

Now we can turn to the actual Latin poem:

Cérnite, mortáles: sic transit glória mundi;
Noster honor cinis, et púlveris umbra sumus.

Cérnite. This is from the Latin verb cernere, to see, to discern. The is a command in the second-person plural: Cérnite! See! (speaking to a plural group of people - y'all, as some people might say in English).

mortáles. You can guess what this means: mortals. So, we know who the command is addressed to: Cérnite, mortáles, See, you mortals!

sic transit glória mundi. The same statement as the title supplies the second half of the first line - so we're done with the line!

Cérnite, mortáles: sic transit glória mundi, See, you mortals: thus passes away the glory of the world.

Now for the second line:

Noster honor. The Latin word noster means our (compare the Latin word nos, which means we, and you might think about the English word paternoster, which means Our Father). The Latin word honor is not hard to figure out: you can translate that as English honor. In addition to meaning honor or esteem, the Latin word honor can also refer to public office. The phrase is in the nominative case, so we know it is the subject of our new sentence.

cinis. This Latin word means ash (compare the English word incinerate). It is also in the nominative case, which means we are dealing with a Latin sentence in which the verb has been omitted. Such an omission is very common in Latin, even though it might sound a bit like Tarzan-speech in English: Noster honor cinis, Our honor (is) ash.

et. This is a Latin word you will meet many times; it means: and. It links the two halves of this line of the poem. The first part was a complete statement, and now we will see what the next statement will be.

púlveris. This is from the Latin word pulvis, meaning dust (compare the English word pulverize). It is in the genitive case (like mundi that we saw earlier) - of the dust. We need to keep reading to figure out how this word will fit into the sentence.

umbra. This Latin word means shade or shadow (compare English umbrella). So now we have something to combine with púlveris to make a phrase: púlveris umbra, the shadow of dust. So, this sentence is about something even less substantial than dust itself: the shadow of dust, dust's shadow.

sumus. Here is our verb! This is from the Latin verb esse, to be. It is a first-person plural form: sumus, we are. So: púlveris umbra sumus, we are dust's shadow.

This, then, is Rollenhagen's contribution to the tradition idea of Sic Transit Gloria Mundi - he tells us just what becomes of the gloria mundi; our honor is but ash, and we ourselves are only dust's shadow. Compare: ashes to ashes, dust to dust - or, we might say: ashes to ashes, dust to dust's shadow.

Here then is the whole poem:

Cérnite, mortáles: sic transit glória mundi;
Noster honor cinis, et púlveris umbra sumus.

There is a famous edition of Rollenhagen's emblems in English by the 17th-century English poet, George Wither. Here is how he renders this distich in English:

Even as the Smoke doth passe away
So, shall all Worldly-pompe decay.

In the emblem's image, you can see the symbols of both secular and religious power - crowns, scepters, swords, and more - all being burnt to ashes. For more of Rollenhagen's poems in Latin, you can visit the Rollenhagen stream in my Latin distichs blog, and here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next essay is now available: Multorum Disce Exemplo!

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