Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Quid est Liber?

This is the first of a series of pieces about the book in poetry to be released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

Quid est Liber?

Liber est lumen cordis;
Speculum corporis;
Uictiorum confussio;
Corona prudentium;
Diadema sapientium;
Honorificentia doctorum;
Uas plenum sapientia;
Socius itineris;
Domesticus fidelis;
Hortus plenus fructibus;
Archana reuelans;
Obscura clarificans;
Rogatus respondet,
Iussusque festinat,
Uocatur properat
Et faciliter obediens.

This delightful 12th century poem about what is a book started circulating online a few years ago. It comes from the Codex Miscellaneus, Ms. 381 in Toledo’s Biblioteca Pública del Estado, copied out again in the 18th century by Francisco Santiago Colmenas. Several, yes several, Spanish translations can be found on Hispanic and Latin American blogspots. Here is a good version by Ana Mosqueda:

¿Que es el libro?
Un libro es la luz del corazón,
espejo del cuerpo,
confusión de vicios,
corona de prudentes,
diadema de sabios,
honor de ilustrados,
vaso lleno de sabiduría,
compañero de viaje,
fiel amigo de la casa,
huerto lleno de frutos,
revelador del arcano,
clarificador de lo oscuro.
Si se le pregunta, responde,
y si se le ordena,se apresura.
Si es llamado, acude rápidamente
y obedece con docilidad.

It was in 2007 on Atlantis, the list of the American Theological Library Association, that I first saw this poem and an English version by a librarian working in San Diego, Mariel Deluca Voth:

What is a book?

The book is light to the heart
Mirror to the body
Vice confuser
Crown to the prudent
Diadem to the wise
Honor to doctors
Glass full of wisdom
Partner in travels
Faithful servant
Garden full of fruit
Revealer of secrets
Dissipater of shadows
Answers when asked
Moves swiftly when sent
Responds quickly when called
And readily obeys.
The end

One commentator on Atlantis asked if the poem could not also include e-books, especially in light of the line Uas plenum sapientium and the opening line Liber est lumen cordis. Glassy words and light cords? Maybe, but the poem uses analogies from a world in which reading is dependent on sunlight and candlelight. We can even see the medieval reader sitting there with their wax taper and text when we read Liber est lumen cordis, but also Obscura clarificans. The candle and the book together drive away shadows as well as the obscurity in the reader’s mind. Likewise the mirror at this time is becoming a useful device in everyday life and so also in literary usage. Speculum corporis might remind us of anatomy atlases, which are a modern literature unimaginable in the 12th century, but the line I think is talking about the growing awareness at this time amongst the educated of the book as capable of describing and reflecting and expressing the whole person. Speculum itself is an emerging genre at this time in medieval writing, i.e. the production of manuals of all known knowledge. The growth in book-making for all sorts of subjects was showing people that a library could explain every known thing about themselves, direct from the shelves. This included the ethical reality of human existence, hence the next line Uictiorum confussio. The next six lines then show in miniature the feudal worldview out of which this poem emerges. That a book can be Corona prudentium and Diadema sapientium is praise indeed in a world where monarchs rule and hand out the hats. It is logical that the learned will benefit from books, Honorificentia doctorum, though the poet is wise enough to know that learning does not start or end in books, which is a meaning hidden I think in the next line, Uas plenum sapientia. This particular line indicates too the Christian context of the poem, with its eucharistic implications, wisdom being available to all through the taking of the bread and wine. The miniature social picture is rounded off with the book being Socius itineris, true not just for journeys generally to this day, a Penguin for the trip, but also true for pilgrimage, that religious practice where reflection on life journey is made by taking a literal journey to a destination of deepest meaning. Then the poem anthropomorphizes the book as, last but not least, Domesticus fidelis, expressive of an attitude we daily have toward most things printed, whether on page, on wall, online. Domesticus fidelis reminds me too of the books at home that we probably use more than any others, and ultimately treasure for those reasons: cookbooks, user’s manuals, garden guides. Speaking of which, the book is also Hortus plenus fructibus. The original punctuation encloses this garden in by itself, suggesting to the modern ear that language in books is self-sufficient and replenishing with each new visit. This is an attractive thought in today’s world, where the book is so often regarded in many quarters as simply another commodity. Notice that the next line in the original Latin is also a single statement: Archana reuelans. The word arcana is nowadays immediately associated with the tarot, but at this time means any kind of secret or mysterious thing. The sensation of seeing a new book that we really want to read is generally associated with the excitement of finding out some new secret. This line taps into that desire, the hope of fulfilling our initial expectations. A really good book does more than that, books that not even a critic can spoil with easy summary. But as if to qualify concerns that books might be arcane, the poet rightly asserts that the book is equally Obscura clarificans. We are back in the reading room at night with the lighted candle and the words. The concluding lines then seem to describe the behaviour of the book as Domesticus fidelis. Though one could insert here the warning Cave canem. What kind of book is it that does all of these things? One would like to think that the book could Rogatus respondet, but life can prove more complicated than that and no monograph tells you all the facts. The same goes for the rest: Iussusque festinat, Uocatur properat Et faciliter obediens. If only. Librarians in particular are liable to give a rueful chuckle at the claim that an overdue item will instantly Uocatur properat. It is curious that the poet moves from sturdy similes throughout to an extended poetic metaphor at the conclusion. The poet makes claims for the book here that are idealizations rather than precise analogies, implying at least to me that the poet is indulging in wishful thinking. That said, we need to remember it is wishful thinking that has produced such facts as sets of encyclopedias and the e-book. The poem then says Explicit, rather as a child writes The End after saying everything they need to say in their school composition. The Latin holds meanings that we have lost in our use of The End. Explicit literally means unfolded, that is the poem has now revealed what a book is, it has provided a complete set of dictionary definitions for us to use. The poem has been utterly explicit about the book, or however we understand this word Liber. One of the beauties of the poem itself, nevertheless, is how the explicitness of each line contains implicit meanings that go way beyond the literal or descriptive.

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