Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Fortis est ut mors dilectio, dura sicut inferus aemulatio

In English: Strong as death is love, hard as hell is envy. (Song of Solomon 8:6)

I thought this would be a great verse for further exploring the topic of parallelism which I had discussed in the previous post here. Parallelism is a style that enhances what you call the "poeticity" of a statement, and you can see some fine poetic qualities in this Latin translation of a verse from the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, Canticum Canticorum in Latin.

The verse consists of two statements which begin with the predicate first: fortis est, "is strong" and simply dura, "hard," with the verb "to be" omitted, as you would expect in a parallel construction, dura (est). The fact that these words - fortis, dura - are already very close in meaning suggests from the start that the two parallel statements are going to express similar sentiments.

The predicate itself then expands with a poetic comparison: fortis ut mors, "strong as death," and dura sicut inferus, "hard as hell." Just as fortis and dura are closely related qualities, the concepts of death and hell, mors and inferus, are closely related.

In Latin, inferus is literally the lower place, the under world (compare the related English word "inferior"). It is from this Latin word for hell, inferus, that we get the English adjective "infernal." In later Latin you will actually find the word infernus used to refer to hell, and it is from this later Latin form we get the word "inferno," as in Dante's famous poem of that name. In some versions of the Latin Vulgate, you will actually find the later form infernus used in this verse, rather than the more classical form, inferus.

The vocabulary of the underworld and the afterlife is a fascinating topic in its own right. In the Greek version of this verse, the word used here is ᾅδης, which gives rise to the word "Hades" in English. The Hebrew word is Sh(e)ol; see this wikipedia article for more about the Jewish concept of the underworld afterlife. The King James translation is very disappointing here and says simply "grave," which does not begin to have the rich suggestions of the Latin Inferno, Greek Hades and Hebrew Sheol.

Another very elegant touch in the Latin verse is how the particle used to mark the comparison also varies slightly in the two statements, ut in the first statement, and the synonymous sicut in the second statement. For a truly poetic parallelism, there needs to be not just mechanical repetition of the parallel features, but also some quality of variation in the midst of the parallelism, which is just what you see here with ut and sicut.

Now, finally, the subjects of the statements, the answer to these two little poetic riddles! What is it that is "as strong as death," fortis ut mors? The answer is dilectio, "love, delight, pleasure." What is it that is "hard as hell," dura sicut inferus? The answer is aemulatio, "envy, having a rival." As with all poetic statements, there is a wealth of meaning packed into these two simple statements. Even after you have understood the meaning of the individual words and the grammatical constructions, there is still so much to think about here.

So, as you ponder the meaning of love and envy, of death and hell, here is the verse read out loud:

172. Fortis est ut mors dilectio, dura sicut inferus aemulatio.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Vulgate Verses: 4000 Sayings from the Bible for Teachers and Students of Latin.

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