(Relatively) jobless as I am, I've decided to audit a Latin class at UVM. One week in, and there is no doubt that learning Latin is hard work. But it also feels like entering a Fairy Kingdom; the first verb we learn and conjugate is Laudare- To Praise! Lately, I’ve been snooping around 18th century whaling books for good Anglo-Saxon, consonant driven words for my poems. The other day, I read Remarkable Observations: The Whaling Journal of Peleg Folger 1751-1754, edited by Thomas and Nathaniel Philbrick, 2006. Hacklets, sprunyarn, tow iron. Scum, wist, and parbuckle.
Peleg (pronounced Pill-ick) was a teenager aboard various whaling ships out of the great whaling isle of Nantucket during the mid 18th century. What’s funny about reading his journal is that he starts every lengthy entry with “Nothing remarkable today...” and then he manages to philosophize about whales, life, and death, and “drinking flip” for a few, remarkable pages.
I came to love Peleg. His endearing piety (Peleg was a Quaker) in light of his massacring trade is the fulcrum of his entries, like a thoe-pin, (the strong, straight pin) that allows his oars to pivot along the waters of his writing. Peleg quotes contemporary poets, mostly English Quaker writers, practices his signature (there are pages and pages of his loopy scrawl in the original journal), and wrote his own verse:
Thou didst, O Lord, create the mighty whale That wondrous monster of a mighty length Vast is his head and body, vast his tail, Beyond the conception his unmeasured strength.
But, everlasting God, thou dost ordain That we, poor feeble mortals should engage (Ourselves, our wives and children maintain,) This dreadful monster with a martial rage.
Peleg also spends much of the journal writing in Latin, or translating English into Latin. Sprinkled throughout his remarkable observations are Latin phrases: Benedic Dominum, o anima mea, et omnia quae Sunt inter me. Benedicite Nomen ejus Sanctum. (Praise the Lord, o my soul, and all who are with me. Bless His holy name.). And nearly every passage ends with “Hujus dici operis peroratio, per P.F.”, (this concludes the day’s work.) “Laus Deo,” Praise God.
It is as if Peleg translates or writes in Latin as a sort of self-soothing ritual. It’s a way for him to begin and close the day. It’s a language that connects him to the shores of his home and community thousand of leagues away. Only just beginning to know, study and appreciate Latin, and certainly not in the 18th century religious way, I understand it’s magnetism as ritual. Latin is about structure and placement of words. It is a language of spirit, and culture, and democracy (okay, and of crucifixion...).
And the great dialectical pairing of seafaring words next to Latin expression is wonderful. Peleg writes, “to the Westward we found fine Black and White Sand and Whore Eggs (sea urchins). We hope to be at our Bar before Sunset. Deo Volente atque adjuvant.” In our Latin class, we conjugate Laudare, to praise, and a guy beside me asks if I can reach over and plug in his computer to the outlet on the wall.