Sunday, April 15, 2012

Latin Without Latin: In Mortis Diem

This is my sixth "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. I promised Brennus Legranus (whom some of you might know from the LatinTeach listserve) to include one of the distichs of Sir Thomas More who, among his many achievements, was an accomplished Latin poet. I have some notes about Thomas More at the Disticha Latina blog. The poem is entitled In Mortis Diem Ómnibus Incértum - and here is the poem:

Fleres, si scires unum tua témpora mensem;
Rides, cum non sit fórsitan una dies.

Let's start with the title:

In. This means just what you would expect: in, or into. It is commonly used in titles to mean about, regarding - and with that meaning it takes the accusative case, so we are waiting for an accusative noun in the title.

Mortis. This is from the noun mors, meaning death (compare the English word mortality). The form is genitive singular, meaning of death (compare the Latin phrase rigor mortis). So, as this word is in the genitive case, we are still waiting for our accusative noun to go with the word in.

Diem. This is from the Latin word dies, meaning day - and it is the accusative form we were looking for (compare the Latin phrases per diem, ante meridiem, post meridiem). So now we have a complete phrase: In Mortis Diem, regarding the day of death. But there is more to come in the title of the poem.

Ómnibus. This is from the adjective omnis, meaning all, every (as in many English compounds omnivore, omniscient, etc.). Here the form is plural, meaning all persons, everyone. The case is either dative or ablative; we will have to wait to find out which.

Incértum. This is from the adjective incertus, meaning uncertain, unknown, undetermined. The form agrees with mortis diem, the day of death - which allows us to put the whole phrase together: in mortis diem, ómnibus incértum, regarding the day of day, which is unknown to all.

So, now we have the subject of the poem; it will be about the day of death which is known by no one - In Mortis Diem Ómnibus Incértum. You might note the nice play on words that allows the last word of the title to echo the first word: In Mortis ... Incértum.

Now let's see what the poem itself says about that day of death:

Fleres. This is from the Latin word flere, to weep. It is a form called the imperfect subjunctive which is able to express what is called a "contrary to fact condition" in Latin - you would be weeping (but you are not weeping; that is the contrary-to-factual part of it).

si. This is the Latin word that means if. Fleres si... You would be weeping if...

scires. This is from the Latin verb scire, meaning to know (which gives us the English word science). It is also in the imperfect subjunctive form: Fleres si scires, you would be weeping (but you are not) if you knew (but you do not know)... but if you knew what?

unum. This is from the Latin word unus, meaning one (compare the English words unit, unify, etc.). But one what? The form is masculine or neuter singular, but we do not know yet what it refers to.

tua. This is from the Latin word tuus, meaning your (from the pronoun tu, meaning you). This form is feminine singular or neuter plural - again, we do not know yet what it refers to, but it does not refer to the same thing as unum, which is masculine or neuter singular. So we are waiting on two nouns to resolve this intricate pattern of words.

témpora. This is from the Latin word tempus, meaning time or season (compare the English word temporal, contemporaneous, etc.). It agrees nicely with tua, so now we have a noun phrase: tua témpora, meaning your times, your seasons. We've almost got the whole thing now: Fleres, si scires unum tua témpora... You would weep if you knew your lifetime was one ... what?

mensem. This is from the Latin word mensis, meaning month (compare the English word menstruation). The noun is masculine and in the accusative case, so it goes with unum, giving us the noun phrase: unum mensem, one month. As often in Latin poetry, the one phrase is wrapped around another phrase in a little package: unum tua témpora mensem.

That allows you to put the first line together: Fleres, si scires unum tua témpora mensem - you would weep, fleres, if you knew, si scires, that your time, tua témpora, (was) one month, unum mensem. In other words, you would weep if you knew that you had only a month to live!

But you do NOT know that... you cannot know it! It's a contrary to fact condition because, as the title tells us: mortis dies ómnibus incértus, the day of death is not known to anyone.

Now let's see what the second line brings:

Rides. This is from the Latin verb ridere, meaning to laugh (compare the English word ridiculous). This time the form is not subjunctive; it is a present tense verb in the indicative mood, second-person singular: rides, you are laughing. This is not a contrary-to-fact situation; you really are laughing!

cum. This Latin word means when. It can also express a causal connection, much like the English word since, which can be used both to express time or cause.

non. As you might expect, this Latin words means not (compare the various Latin phrases non sequitur, sine qua non, etc.).

sit. Here is our verb, from Latin esse, to be. This is the present subjunctive form, third-person singular. The Latin present subjunctive can be translated into English in many ways; the general idea is that there may be, there could be. So now we have cum non sit, when there might not be... what? We still need a subject for the verb.

fórsitan. This is not yet our subject; instead it is a Latin adverb that means perhaps, reinforcing the hypothetical quality of the verb sit, it might be or there might be. Rides, cum non sit fórsitan... You laugh, when perhaps there might not be... what?

una dies. Here you have the subject of the verb: una dies, one day.

Now you can put together the entire line: Rides, cum non sit fórsitan una dies - You laugh, when perhaps there might not be even one day left to you.

The power of this epigram results from the combination of the two lines, and the parallels between them: you might be weeping, fleres, but instead you are laughing - rides! You would weep if you knew, si scires, that your remaining lifetime, tua témpora, were but one month, unum mensem. But instead you are laughing, when perhaps there is not even a day left to you, cum non sit fórsitan una dies. You don't know, after all - just as the title warns you: this is a poem about the day of death, which no one can know!

In Mortis Diem Ómnibus Incértum
Fleres, si scires unum tua témpora mensem;
Rides, cum non sit fórsitan una dies.

As an illustration, here is a famous painting of a skull with tulip and hour-glass by Philippe de Champaigne - and as I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. I've added a new essay with a poem by Georg Fabricius: Prudentia. Have you ever thought about the etymology of the word "prudence"...? This little poem will make that etymology impossible to forget.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this beauty. It needed unlocking. Though you might possibly have explained why it's unum mensem (acc) but una die (nom).

    Typos:
    "regarding the day of day, which is unknown to all."
    "So now we have cum non sit, where there might not be... what?" (I think you meant "... WHEN there might not..."

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  2. Ooooh, thanks for the typo - I will fix that. I use blogging as a way to draft materials since I am terrible at proofreading. I need lots and lots of passes, and I still find typos.

    Re: unum mensem, I avoided the whole problem of indirect speech since in English we also "know him to be a good man," etc. using a construction very similar to the Latin. I'm trying to keep the Latin grammar to a minimum since the target audience is people with no Latin at all. Sooner or later I've have an epigram that actually forces me to describe indirect statement with an infinitive, but since the infinitive here was just an "esse" that got omitted, I took the easy way out, ha ha.

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  3. I really appreciate the feedback! This is a totally new and weird experience for me, but I am so happy with how it is going! :-)

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