De Principiis Cogitandi. Liber Primus. Ad Favonium.
De Principiis Cogitandi.
Liber Primus. Ad Favonium.
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Title/Paratext] "[Prose translation by J. R. [...]" H.W. Starr/J.R. Hendrickson, 1966.
"[Prose translation by J. R. Hendrickson:]
On the Elements of Thought, Book I.
From what source the Mind begins to have knowledge; from what beginnings Memory arises and begins to arrange events in order and to weave its slender chain; from what centre Reason extends its slow-maturing empire in the uncultivated breast; and how, in sick men at first, there come to birth Anger, Grief and Pain, Fears and baseless Anxieties: of these questions I begin to sing. And thou, O glory, O second sun of the English race, scorn not the singer. If thou first showest the way, no matter where, I will attempt to mark the faint traces and to follow, though with timorous tread. Better still, lead me thyself (for unto thee are all things possible) to the holy threshold (if I approach with due reverence and a pure heart) and throw wide the mighty doors of secret Nature. O Father, reveal the hidden causes of things and their awful source, for unto thee, great Priest of Truth, the hearts of men are open, and the secret places of the lofty Mind.
Do you also, Favonius, lend attentive ears and favourable (since it is for you that the work advances) and do not scorn the simple song, nor the singer: these first-beginnings, although small, will give rise to no slight activities. Whenever anything joyful and lovable is conceived, it owes its origin to these first-beginnings; nor does it soar into the light of day unless they work together in harmony and favour the result. From this source [arise] the varied arts of life and milder practice, and the sweet bond of friendship; divine Wisdom lights her rosy torch from this source and with serene countenance enlarges the minds of men, shows the way to new joys, and scatters into flight monstrous cares and unsubstantial terrors: and thus, in truth, Virtue, fairest of all things, waxes strong. She, moreover, who constantly (wondrous deed) fosters you night and day with her inspiration, trains the obedient tongue to numbers and charms idle hours, the golden Muse, proudly affirms that she has no other origin.
In the beginning, when Nature, the law-giver of creation, established the great covenant and bade lofty souls grow in sluggish bodies, she did not wish the ethereal part to grow torpid through long inaction in a dark prison; neither did she permit it to exercise its special vigour unchecked, lest it spurn the linked joints of the united mass, forgetful of weight and conscious of celestial fire. For this reason she caused fibres of nerves to vibrate in numberless ducts from all parts; then, distributing them throughout the body, she wove branches everywhere, a sensitive network, and filled the ducts with their own peculiar fluid (it is uncertain whether it should be called lymph or air; at any rate, it is very rarefied); some very slight force drives it along and circulates it; after it has been instilled, it flows through tiny canals.
When this fluid is stirred by external impulses, being easily moved and a faithful messenger of the movement imparted to it by the impulses, it flows back from the point of the impact to the upper regions of the man, to the citadel of the skull. For there the mind, the rational element of the soul, has placed its throne and dedicated its temples; around the mind the sensations, ethereal images of things, come together and are swept along in a dense crowd. Then, lo! a full representation of boundless nature is revealed and the comings and goings of the varied universe are unfolded.
And just as rivers flow down from distant mountains—the Thames studded with sails, the Indus full of yellow sand, and the Euphrates and the Tagus, and the Ganges with its fruitful stream: each one rolling its own waters—and burst with resounding flood into the sea; and welcoming Ocean receives them in its great basin and recognizes as its own the gifts of its children coming in a long line and keeps its blue face calm and laughs in scattered ripples: not otherwise do sensations vie with each other in their haste to pour themselves into the fresh mind, and they crowd around the entrances in a fivefold procession.
The sense of touch plays the leading role; it goes first, widening the dark path for the lesser crowd, and restrains its headlong rush. This sense is not subject to the same restrictions that its brothers are: since it is the first-born, it asserts a wider sway, and has its dwelling deep in the marrow of the bones and throughout the viscera, and is widely diffused and has its being in the warp and woof of the skin. Indeed, even the child that has not yet struggled forth from its mother's womb dissolves the many layers of covering and bursts the chains; although it is as yet wrapped in soft slumber and bathed in warm fluid, nevertheless a very slight breeze has already been stimulating the sense of touch and opening the way for the breath of life. This activity is intensified the moment the child has exchanged the soothing warmth to which it has grown accustomed for the chill of the outer air, which assails its untried limbs with savage fury. Then a more excruciating sense of touch begins to function, and Pain, the constant companion of human life, takes possession. Striking home inexorably, Pain seizes the infant, despite his vain attempts to delay and the many wails of complaint from his quivering lips, and folds him in an iron embrace.
Then for the first time the shining vision of light is made manifest (so true is it that Nature balances the alternations of good and of evil, and with a just hand makes amends for the damage that she has caused); then, as I say, for the first time the new eyes drink in the light of the sun that up to now has been unknown.
With what song, Goddess, shall I speak of you, most pleasing child of heaven, and of your origin; of how you pass in divine progress over meadows bejewelled with light dew and fill the purple lap of spring with flower-scented breath; of how you paint the green landscape and the shady hills and the realms of deepest blue? The grace and charm of Venus attend you, and a chorus of a thousand colours and shapes of loveliness, and comely motions. But black Night hides her hated head in Stygian shadows: so too the face of horrible Fear and raging hordes of sleep-destroying Cares and carking Anguish. How different when an unclouded sky smiles with abundant shafts of radiance! Then the hearts of mortals blossom with joy.
And yet you do not reveal yourself in full splendour to the mind in the weakness of infancy (perhaps because so great a flood of daylight might dazzle eyes still too tender and confuse them before they have grown accustomed to use) for the reason that you have no confidence that infant souls can take in and perceive such a varied host of visions revealed by miraculous light: nevertheless the shining novelty strikes the eyes of infants with some sort of charm and draws them along so that they follow; for have we not seen their gaze turn instantly to any place where the golden shafts of Phoebus shine through a broad window or the golden glow of lamps shines forth, and remain fixed, drinking in with insatiable appetite the beams that they have spied and taking delight in gazing?
In truth, another power, firmly bound up with Judgement, one that is deeper and greater, seems to have been added to this sense. As soon as age, in the course of the circling years, shall have increased Judgement, this power, nourishing itself on all things with uninterrupted gaze, will perceive how great the force of place is, what strength order confers, and what the reward of combination, as the eyes conspire with each other to illuminate things with things and shine with united effort.
And no less a power, planted in the two ears, grows and increases; keeping constant vigil, it not only stands like a sentinel in the curved hollows on either side (where Voice, borne on a chariot of air, makes the doors tremble at its knock), but also runs far back: in truth, this faculty gives to eloquence the sounds and speed of the thunderbolt and to speech the power to calm the hearts of men or to arouse them; it has found out how to accommodate words to rhythms and to bind them together in a verse; it has revealed what the waters of Libethra learn, whenever Calliope, or the Father of Music himself, chants a clear-voiced song or breathes sweet airs into the vocal reed and patterns the sounds with his fingers.
The sense of taste has its seat in the midst of the jaws, the moist expanses of the tongue, whereby the delightful riot of savours finds its way in, the gifts of Autumn and the pleasure that Bacchus affords.
Meanwhile the sense of smell has its seat in the noses of men; it has learned how to seize upon light airs, such as Panchaia breathes forth in early spring, or the fragrances that the dewy kisses of Flora impart when, at the hour of twilight, she shyly responds to the prayers of Zephyr and sighs with gentle love.
This number of gates the gracious mother has placed around the lofty citadel of the head, and she has hidden avenues of sense throughout our bodies; but not these only, for a lively faculty works within, by means of which the mind examines itself, and having made the examination instantly perceives its own powers and movements. What it wishes, what it can do, what it should seize hold of and what it should fly from—all these it surveys one by one, rejoicing in its power of command. And neither bodies obedient to swift actions nor the notions of the mind escape unnoticed.
One might, perhaps, liken it to one of the Hamadryads in the old story, who was wandering through strange mountain valleys and pathless tracts (and the unbroken silence and the cool darkness of the shade persuaded her to lie down on the green bank of a spring). While she was lying prone and hanging over the bank looking into the liquid mirror, she was amazed to see a nymph coming to meet her suddenly as she leaned toward the water: presently, playfully advancing and retreating, she realized that the nymph had the same limbs as herself, and the same features, that they advanced from and went back into the forest at the same instant. She recognized herself in the waters.
In the same way, the mind, by an internal sense, arouses images of its own actions and consciously observes its own features. But no uniform pattern has been established, nor does a single law always govern all images. There are some that know two entrances: some confine themselves to particular entrances; others, without fixed laws, rush in helter-skelter, wherever a door opens up, and draw near the soul.
Take for example the man whose unhappy eyes cruel nature has extinguished in the cradle and sunk in everlasting darkness; for him the light of day gleams unknown and on him the spring-time splendour of colours is lavished in vain, and the grace of living beauty. But the power is granted to him to distinguish with a sure sense of touch the shape of a body, and motions, and space, and the intervals between places: for, you see, these sensations have a two-fold pathway, a double entrance door, and when they have been locked out by the eyes, they hasten to burst in through the fingers. And yet the power of admitting beams of pleasing light has been granted to the eyes alone.
Moreover, from every direction, wherever the field of conception stretches, a sportive band, companions of pleasure mingled with their friends, is borne along, and so also shapes of pain terrifying to behold, and they crowd around every entrance. And by entrances no less varied that power breaks in by means of which we know that we do and suffer and that things around us exist, each with its own characteristic form, and proceed in order and glide along through time in an uninterrupted stream.
Come now! I shall explain by what means and by what art matter endowed with sensation is able to aim at and penetrate into the inner recesses of the mind (lend favouring ears to my words). In the first place, consider how many bodies of every sort are diffused through space. You will not find one that can be grasped by the mind, let alone be apprehended and accurately reported by the senses, that lacks definite mass and is without any firm solidity, whose parts are devoid of mobility or texture and that some outline of form does not define. In all its frame the universe testifies to the binding together of these bodies, and, as first-beginnings, they clamour on the outermost threshold of things (if any final limit can be assigned to things). The sense of touch proves that these things exist (who would dare to say that the sense of touch lies?), and the bright orb of the eye does not disprove that they exist.
Hence a very thick crowd of powers arises: for if you believe what strikes the sense of sight or struggles to be felt, the sensations that enter through the nose or what the hollow ear takes in, what the tongue tastes—if you believe all this, you must believe that light particles, the seeds of things, are responsible for weight, texture, motion, mass, and shape. Now, therefore, they feed the eyes and with the aid of light you see all things gleaming brightly and the world splashed with colours, while they draw some fires from the sun and twist others from above aside and teach the flames to turn themselves back. Again, tiny bodies seethe and boil among themselves with vibrating pulsation, with the result that the vibration throughout the vast expanse of ether—waves of air flowing freely in all directions—is able to slip through the vibrating doors of the eager sense of hearing and begets sound. Meanwhile, in close array, vibrating bodies, with no intermediary, directly invade the delicate fibres of the nerves and, unassisted, set up a motion that produces sensation throughout the vitals."
- The Complete Poems of Thomas Gray: English, Latin and Greek. Edited by Herbert W. Starr and J. R. Hendrickson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.
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