Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Latin Without Latin: In Spe Et Labore

This is my fourteenth "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 Latin saying: In Spe Et Labore Transigo Vitam. This saying happens to be the traditional motto of the Mack family. Let's look at the motto first, and then the poem.

In. This Latin word means just what you would expect: in. It can also mean into. This preposition can take either the ablative case (in), or it can take the accusative case (into). We'll have to wait and see which we are dealing with here.

Spe. This is from the Latin word spes, meaning hope (you can see the spe- root in the English words prosper and desperation). The form is ablative, so we have a prepositional phrase: in spe, in hope.

Et. This is the Latin word that means and (you can see it in the phrase et cetera, which means and others; it is usually abbreviated etc.).

Labóre. This is from the Latin word labor which means just what you would expect: labor, hard work, effort. It is again in the ablative case, so now we have: in spe et labore, in hope and work.

Tránsigo. This is from the Latin verb transigere, to carry through, complete, perform (from the participle form, transactum, we get the English word transaction). The prefix trans- is what gives the verb the sense of carrying through, of action over time. The form transigo is first person singular: I carry through, I conduct. The first-person form is very common in mottoes, of course! Now we just need a noun to be the object of the verb.

Vitam. This is from the Latin word vita, meaning life (compare the English words vital and vitamin). The form is accusative, so it is the object of the verb we were looking for: I conduct my life, tránsigo vitam.

So, that gives us the title of the poem: In Spe Et Labóre Tránsigo Vitam, In Hope and Work, I Carry Out My Life.

Now let's see about the poem:

Spes me alit atque labor, míseram sic tránsigo vitam;
Non nisi in aetérna est pace beáta quies.

Spes. This is the word hope again, this time in the nominative case, so it will be the subject of the verb.

me. This is from the Latin word ego, meaning I. It is in the accusative case. So now we have the object of the verb, me, and the subject, spes. We just need a verb.

alit. This is from the Latin verb alere, to nourish, to foster (compare the English word alimony). So now we have a complete statement, spes me alit, hope nourishes me.

atque. This Latin word means and, together with, and also. So we are going to get some additional idea to add on to our main statement.

labor. Here was have the word meaning labor, work - and it is in the nominative case, so it expands on the subject of the verb: spes me alit, hope nourishes me, atque labor, and work nourishes me also.

That gives us the first half of the first line, echoing the theme of spes et labor, hope and work, in the title. Now let's see what the second half adds:

míseram. This is from the Latin adjective miser, meaning miserable, wretched, unhappy. It is in the accusative case, so it is modifying the object of the verb. To find out more - the verb and its object - we need to read on.

sic. This is the Latin word that means thus, so, in this way. (You can sometimes see this Latin word used in a citation to indicate that the exact form of a word is being copied.)

tránsigo. This is the verb we saw in the title: I carry through, I conduct.

vitam. This is the same object of the verb we had in the title, a feminine accusative noun that is modified by míseram with that noun phrase wrapped around the verb phrase: míseram sic tránsigo vitam; thus I conduct my miserable life

So, the first line basically restates the title, with a bit of amplification: Spes me alit atque labor, Hope nourishes me, as does work; míseram sic tránsigo vitam; in this way I conduct my miserable life. Now let's see what the second line adds:

Non. This Latin word means not (as in so many English words also: non-profit, non-smoker, etc.).

nisi. This Latin words means unless, if not, except. These two different negative words, non and nisi, are going to result in a positive affirmation, but we will have to wait and see how it all sorts out.

in. This is the Latin word in again. So, as before, we are looking for a noun phrase in either the ablative or the accusative case.

aetérna. This is from the Latin word aeternus, meaning eternal. The form could be feminine singular ablative or neuter plural accusative, so we will need to keep reading to figure out which one.

est. The verb est is from the verb esse, to be; it is in the third-person singular form: is. So now we have our verb, but we don't have a subject for it yet.

pace. This is from the Latin word pax, meaning peace. It is a feminine noun in the ablative case, so now we have our prepositional phrase: in aeterna pace, in eternal peace.

beáta quies. This is from the Latin word beatus, meaning blessed, happy (compare the English word beatific), and the noun quies, meaning quiet, rest, tranquility. The noun phrase is in the nominative case, giving us the subject of the verb: there is blessed rest, est beáta quies, in aetérna pace, in eternal peace.

So, let's add our two negative words into the mix: non est beáta quies, there is no blessed rest, nisi in aetérna pace, except in eternal peace. As often, Latin has presented the statement with a very elegant word order, starting off with a paradoxical double negative, Non nisi, and next comes the prepositional phrase wrapped around the verb, in aetérna est pace, and the subject of the verb at the end, beáta quies.

Now let's put it all together, with the first line about this life, and the second line about the next life:

Spes me alit atque labor, míseram sic tránsigo vitam;
Non nisi in aetérna est pace beáta quies.

In the emblem illustration (below), you can see the goddess Spes, Hope, personified, and she holds in her hands the signs of hope by land and by sea. The farmer, in hope, works the land, so Hope has a farmer's shovel in one hand. At sea, the anchor is the sailor's hope, so in her other hand Hope holds an anchor. In the background, you can see scenes of the farmer working the land and a ship at sea, with the emblem's motto wrapped around the image.

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:

Our Dayes, untill our Life hath end
In Labours, and in Hopes, wee spend.

For more of Rollenhagen's poems in Latin, you can visit the Rollenhagen stream in my Latin distichs blog. 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 about some fish whose hopes lead to their doom: Ultro Se Voluere Capi.


  1. I really enjoy these essays, thanks!

  2. Thank you! They are so much fun for me to write: I admire the distich form more and more as I work on these essays. Such a great Latin tradition!

  3. These pictures you have in all the posts are really very nice. Do you capture them in a digicam and upload it?

    Also, the concept of emblem is nice. Where were they exactly used in the medievel ages. I am asking this because, there seems to be not a few but a huge number of them.

  4. Jaume, you are welcome!
    Anand, the emblematic tradition was HUGELY popular in the Renaissance; it is something very much linked to the printed book trade and the new opportunities it gave both to artists and writers. The Rollenhagen books I found at the Herzog August Bibliothek, and the Camerarius books I found at the Munich Digital Library. There is a BEAUTIFUL website of Alciato's emblems - Alciato was the more popular of all the emblem books - here: Alciato at Glasgow. :-)

  5. Thanks for the link. The collection is huge.
    By looking at all this and generally the knowledge accumulation in the classical languages of the world, I always feel that we need to have unity to have a synergy in learning. All traditions have accomplished wonderful things. That is why I am trying to learn western language(latin) and philosophy in my spare time while having a background in one of the eastern traditions.

  6. Agreed, Anand! And classical languages means so much more than just Greek and Latin... and Latin itself means so much more than just ancient Rome. I wish you all the best in your studies and I am really glad if this blog can be useful to you. :-)


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