Monday, May 21, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Phoenix

This is my twentieth "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. This little poem comes from a collection of nature emblems by Joachim Camerarius (1534-1598). Camerarius published four of these books of nature emblems, with one hundred emblems in each book. Each emblem consists of a title (often in the form of a motto or proverb), an image, a two-line poem, and a one-page essay. This particular emblem comes from the book devoted to bird emblems. It is about the phoenix, the legendary "firebird," as you can see in the emblem illustration:


According to an ancient legend known to both the Greeks and the Romans, the phoenix, at the end of its life, would build its own funeral pyre, throw itself into the flames, and be reborn again in the fire. You can read more about the phoenix legend as found in both classical and medieval authors at the Medieval Bestiary website.

Here is the poem that Camerarius pairs with the phoenix emblem:

Vita Mihi Mors Est
Ex se ipsa nascens, ex se reparábilis ales,
quae exóriens móritur, quae móriens óritur.

Let's start with the title which expresses in very simple terms the paradoxical nature of the phoenix's life and death: Vita Mihi Mors Est.

Vita. This is the Latin word for life (compare the English word vital).

Mihi. This is from the Latin word ego, the first-person singular pronoun: I. The form mihi is dative, meaning for me or to me. So, vita mihi, life for me (the phoenix) is… what?

Mors Est. Here was have the Latin word for death, mors (compare the English word mortal), with the third-person singular verb est, is.

So, Vita Mihi Mors Est, for me (says the phoenix), life is death. The poem explores the paradox in greater detail:

Ex se ipsa. The Latin preposition ex means out or from (compare the English word exit). The pronoun se is a reflexive pronoun that refers back to the subject, and the intensifying word ipsa lets us know the gender is feminine and the number is singular: ex se ipsa, from her own self, from her very self.

nascens. This is from the Latin verb nasci, meaning to be born (compare the English words nascent and renaissance). The form is a present active participle, being born, so we have our first complete phrase: the phoenix is ex se ipsa nascens, born from her very own self, giving birth to her own self.

ex se reparábilis ales. This second phrase restates the same idea again: out of herself, ex se, the phoenix is a bird, Latin ales, who is reparábilis, reparable, a bird able to restore herself out of herself, ex se reparábilis ales.

quae. This from is the Latin relative pronoun, qui. The form is feminine nominative singular, linking the first and second lines: the phoenix is a bird who, ales quae… We have to read on to find out more.

exóriens. This is another present active participle, like nascens, and it means something similar - exóriens means rising up or rising out (compare the English word orient, which means the east, the direction of the sunrise). So, the phoenix is a bird who, as she is rising up… does what? We need to keep reading for the verb.

móritur. This is from the Latin verb mori, meaning to die (compare the Latin noun mors which we saw in the title, death). So, the phoenix is a bird who as she rise up into existence, quae exóriens, is already dying, móritur.

quae móriens. Now we get another relative clause, and this time the dying is in the participle: móriens. The phoenix is a bird who, when dying, quae móriens… does what? We need the final word of the poem complete the pair of paradoxes.

óritur. The verb echoes the participle, exóriens, that we saw in the first half of the line; the phoenix rises, óritur, as she dies, móriens. Notice the wonderful rhyme with móritur-óritur in the two halves of this line. Although opposite in meaning, the words are similar in sound, with death an echo of the dawn in Latin, móritur-óritur. So too with the participles, exóriens and móriens, dawning and dying.

That, then, is the paradoxical life and death, vita and mors, of the phoenix. Keeping your eyes and ears open for all the verbal echoes and repetitions, read through it once again - and ponder the phoenix in the image shown above, simultaneously dying and being reborn:

Vita Mihi Mors Est
Ex se ipsa nascens, ex se reparábilis ales,
quae exóriens móritur, quae móriens óritur.

For more of Camerarius's poems in Latin, you can visit the Camerarius 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 poem is also a paradoxical meditation on life and death: Finis ab Origine Pendet.

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