Thursday, May 3, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Ultro Se Voluere Capi

This is my fifteenth "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 fish emblems.

The title comes from a line in Claudian's panegyric in honor of Stilicho (3.342); as often, the title of the emblem is a famous bit of verse or a proverb. Here is the title: Ultro Se Voluére Capi. Let's see what it means:

Ultro. This Latin adverb means beyond, on the other side, farther. (It is related to the Latin word ultra as in the English word ultraviolet.) The adverb ultro actually covers a wide range of meanings; literally, it means something above and beyond, but metaphorically it means something done voluntarily, above and beyond what is required.

Se. This is the Latin reflexive pronoun. The meaning of the pronoun (first-, second- or third-person, singular or plural) depends on the subject of the sentence, so we will need to wait to see just what this particular se might mean.

Voluére. This is from the Latin verb velle, meaning to want or wish (the same root as in the English word voluntary). It is the third-person plural, past tense: voluére, they wanted. So now we also know the meaning of the reflexive pronoun: it refers back to the subject of this verb - them, themselves. Now we just need an infinitive to complete the idea.

Capi. This is from the Latin word capere, meaning to grab, catch (compare the English word capture). It is the passive infinitive that we were looking for: to be caught, to be captured. Now we can put it all together, Ultro, voluntarily, they wanted that they themselves be captured, i.e. they wanted to be captured, Se Voluére Capi.

So, that gives us our title: Ultro Se Voluére Capi, Voluntarily They Wanted to be Caught. Take a look at the visual emblem below to see the poor fish who are being described! Now let's see how the poem amplifies this idea:

Dum cápimus, cápimur; si línquimus, haud capiémur:
Instrúctas vitat, qui sapit, insídias.

Here's the first line:

Dum. This Latin word means while.

cápimus. Here is the verb capere again, this time in the first-person plural present: we grab, we catch. So, since we are talking about fish, you can imagine what they are grabbing: bait on the hook - dum cápimus, while we grab (the bait).

cápimur. Here is the verb capere again, this time in the passive: we are caught. So now we have the first half of the line: while we fish grab the bait, dum cápimus, cápimur, we are captured! Metaphorically, of course, we humans can also be caught as we grasp at the things that tantalize us.

Now let's see what the second half of the first line says:

si. This Latin word means if.

línquimus. This is from the Latin verb linquere, meaning to leave behind, abandon (compare the English word relinquish). The form is first-person plural present: we leave behind, we abandon. So, si línquimus, if we (fish) can leave behind (the bait).

haud. This Latin word means not, absolutely not.

capiémur. Here we have capere again, passive, but this time it is future tense: haud capiémur, we will not be captured. So, if we can only leave the bait behind, si línquimus, haud capiémur, we will not be caught.

That gives us the first line, with its contrasting alternatives - being caught, dum cápimus, cápimur, as opposed to not being caught, si línquimus, haud capiémur. Now let's see what the second line says:

Instrúctas. This is from the Latin verb instrúere, to build, construct, prepare (compare the English word instruction). The word is from the participle, instrúctus, meaning constructed, prepared. The form is accusative, so we need a noun to complete the phrase, along with a verb.

vitat. Here is our verb: vitare, meaning to avoid. It is third-person singular: (he or she) avoids, vitat. We will have to wait to find out who the subject is.

qui sapit. This is a relative clause in Latin, and it gives us the subject of our verb. The little word qui is the relative pronoun, masculine singular: he (who). The verb sapere means to be wise. So, the relative clause qui sapit means (he) who is wise. Combine that with the verb and you get vitat qui sapit, (he) who is wise avoids... what? We are still waiting for our object.

insídias. This is from the Latin noun insidiae, meaning an ambush or snare. The form is accusative, meaning it is the object of the verb - just as we hoped, since it agrees with our earlier participle: instrúctas insídias, prepared ambushes, constructed snares.

So that gives us our second line - it is about the wise man, qui sapit: he avoids the prepared snares, instrúctas vitat insídias. Note how the noun phrase, instrúctas ... insídias, wraps elegantly around the entire line, Instrúctas vitat qui sapit insídias, something that is just not possible in English.

So, now you have the whole poem:

Ultro Se Voluére Capi
Dum cápimus, cápimur; si línquimus, haud capiémur:
Instrúctas vitat, qui sapit, insídias.

The idea, of course, is that what is true of the fish is true of human beings too. If we grab at some tempting piece of bait, we are captured - but if we let it go, we will not be captured. The wise man, like the wise fish, avoids the traps that have been prepared and await us!

You can see the fish in the emblem below. 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 a medieval rhyme: Rusticus Est Vere.

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