Daniel Dockery

animî nostrî dêbent interdum âlûcinâri

Home of published musician, recording artist, mathematician, programmer, translator, artist, classicist, and general polymath.

Ex Bibliotheca

February 21st, 2012

On Tumblr, earlier, I saw this:

Here is a site that offers digital renderings of some of the books in the unimaginably vast universe of information (and un-formation) described in Jorge Luis Borges’ story the Library of Babel

Explore, but remember that the possibility of discovering your Vindication within the Universal Library “can be computed as zero.”

An interesting idea, but given Borges’ kabbalistic leanings, his remark that there is no form of capital lettering, no digits, and his insistence on the twenty-two letters and their fixed, symmetrical forms, it is most likely that he meant for the Library’s volumes to be expressed in the block Hebrew script, which he has admired in other places, though any language might be encyphered in that alphabet in the Library’s vast holdings, such as his “Samoyed-Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabic inflections” (“un dialecto samoyedo-lituano del guaraní, con inflexiones de árabe clásico“) mentioned in the story.

Other possibilities do present themselves, however, for clues suggest the language of the southern hemisphere of Tlön. How so? In “The Library of Babel,” Borges gives us explicit “titles” for three volumes: “trueno peinado,” “el calambre de yeso,” and “axaxaxas mlö“. The first could be the “Combed Thunder,” the second “The Plaster Cramp,” but what of the third? If one were to read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” from the same 1944 collection (Ficciones [Spanish, English]) in which “The Library of Babel” appeared, one would encounter a passage reading, “Surgió la luna sobre el río se dice hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,” “‘The moon rose over the river’ would be said hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö.” In the additional text, he indicates all words are verbs in that language, and that “axaxaxas” would mean something resembling “flowing like a river,” while “mlö” would be “shining (or perhaps rising) like the moon”. Translate it however we will, there remains the point that at least one book in the Library is titled by one of the Tlönistas. Or by coincidence would appear to be.

This provides much of a proposed alphabet: in addition to the three titles, Borges also wrote that the combination of letters “dhcmrlchtdj” would appear in the Library and that there is one volume that consists of endlessly repeated “mcv”s. Taken together, sorted alphabetically with duplicate letters removed, this leaves us with 20 or perhaps 21 letters: a, b, c, d, e, h, i, j, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v, x, y—and, as he does distinguish it, possibly ö. The alphabet in use on the above linked site adds f, g and q but omits the u needed for “trueno” and doesn’t distinguish the ö from o. If we accept that the line from the story of Tlön is of the same language or alphabet, as at least the title seems to be, then we also see evidence of the f and g in use. If we adapt those, but hesitantly combine the o and ö, we will have another set of twenty-two letters.

It likely doesn’t matter:

Un número n de lenguajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubicuo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje? (Borges, “La biblioteca de Babel”)

An n number of possible languages use the same vocabulary: in some, the symbol “library” admits the correct definition: “an enduring, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries,” but “library” is “bread” or “pyramid” or anything else [in others], and the seven words that define it have other meanings. You who are reading me, are you certain you understand my language?

Many years ago (2003) my fascination with the idea of this library, from Kurd Laßwitz’s much earlier story (“Die Universalbibliothek,” 1904) on through Borges’ (whose 1941 variant of the tale I prefer by far) and similar themes (e.g., Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God,” 1954), etc., had me working out the elaborate mathematics of the whole and being in awe at the staggering numbers. For instance, given that Borges explicitly defined the volumes of the library as containing 410 pages, each page containing 40 rows of text with 80 characters per line (including punctuation and spaces), defined there to be exactly 25 possible characters, and said that the library contained exhaustively everything it is possible to express with them and that no two books were identical, we can calculate that the library must have exactly 25^(80*40*410), or 25 to the 1,312,000th power volumes. To put that in perspective, that is 1.956 x 10^1834097 books, a number 1,834,098 digits long. If you were to write out five digits a second, it would take you more than four days of non-stop writing just to transcribe the whole number.

One of the most enchanting things about the library is, of course, that in its seemingly endless volumes you may find everything that it is possible to write down—including your own life story (your “vindication”), perhaps spanning multiple volumes in elaborate detail, as well as countless millions of erroneous copies whether differing by a single letter or missing entire events or with events that end otherwise than reality’s version, the answer to every mystery or riddle that it’s possible to answer, truly everything. The damning part is that these volumes can be scattered anywhere throughout the universal library and your chance of finding the one you seek is only 1 in 25^1312000, which is so incredibly small it is for all practical senses zero. Should you by luck find one good volume of a multivolume set, you have again those vast odds against your ever finding the next.

Yet perhaps the most damning, or tantalizing, aspect of it all is that you could calculate any or all of these volumes and discern the universal order of the whole by a task no more arduous than counting by ones.

In Tlön, etc., Borges mentioned in passing various numerical bases, touching on the base 12 system (duodecimal) of one of the Tlönistas and the base 60 system (sexagesimal) of ancient Sumeria and Babylon (and in its way even today in our system of minutes and seconds). This is the essential clue. While base 10 (decimal) seems to have conquered all others today, other bases have been in use elsewhere: the now infamous Mayan calendar system, for instance, uses base 20; and in computing, we sometimes use base 16 (hexadecimal), base 8 (octal) or at the lowest possible level base 2 (binary). We can conceive of the Library as being expressed in base 25 (quinquevigesimal) notation, but instead of mixed case, such as with base 16 (where the “digits” are 0 through 9, then A through F, such that the decimal number 190 is expressed as BE in hexadecimal), we can define our 25 digits to be the twenty-five symbols set out by Borges, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet, the comma, the period and the space. Each volume in the library then is merely a number, and the order of their seemingly entropic arrangement is numerical. Which is also suggested in the story when he writes how some have asserted that while the books are written in the “natural symbols” of written language, any appearance of meaning is coincidental, a side effect of using those symbols. To demonstrate, we can see the same thing in hexadecimal, such as above when I pointed out that the number 190 is “BE” which could be interpreted as an English verb; or the number 57,005 is DEAD in hexadecimal, again a “word” in appearance though a number in intent, like the dreadful notion of DECAF, which represents the number 912,559. Treating the volumes as natural numbers also explains the Library’s first axiom, that it exists “ab æterno,” just as the numbers.

An example, to demonstrate. If we take the numerical order of the characters to be that in which Borges gave them in his text—to wit, “the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet”—and set them, in the natural arrangement, as being equal to our base 10 values of 0 through 24, then our first book, corresponding to 0 would be an entirely blank volume. The second, corresponding to 1, would be entirely blank but for a single final period. The next would be the same, but with a comma. Then an “a”, a “b” and so on for the first twenty-five books, one for each symbol. The twenty-sixth would be blank but for the last two symbols which would be a period followed by another space. The sequence would continue, almost forever. In the 9,752nd volume we’d find it blank but for the last letters “mm.”; the next would be “mm,”; the next, “mma” then “mmb” and so on again. At the end of the 19,370,996,558th volume, we would find “abula‘fia”, the name of the 13th century kabbalist renowned for his combinatorial ability. The numbers have grown enormous by the time we even get beyond single sentences. And it continues, letter combining with letter, line with line, page with page, growing and growing, as the early kabbalist text, the Sefer Yetzirah, has it (IV:16, dealing with permutations):

מכאן ואילך צא וחשוב מה שאין הפה יכול לדבר ואין האוזן יכולה לשמוע׃

“From here on go out and calculate that which the mouth cannot speak and the ear cannot hear.”

Unfortunately, even with the fastest computing systems in operation today, our sun would burn out before we could generate a fraction of the library, which is moot anyway since with even the best possible compression available today, the library would require more storage space than currently exists or will exist for likely ages to come, if ever. The most recent figures I’ve seen suggest that as of 2011, the global data storage demands for all digital media of any kind covers “only” about 940 exabytes (for those of you playing along at home, that’s roughly 985,661,440 terabytes), with that number essentially doubling every two years—and with it generally pushing the limits of the amount of storage capacity we actually have available globally. Another way to look at data amounts, if every one of the 6,995,685,817 people of the current estimated world population had a full terabyte of data, the total would be roughly 6.5 zettabytes, a vast number far, far beyond current global capacity (there are 1024 exabytes in a zettabyte). At the expected rate of growth, it should take us almost six years to reach that capacity. Yet a complete digital copy of the Library of Babel, at ideal, maximum compression, would require something to the effect of 4.24562416107 x 10^1,834,075 yottabytes—where a single yottabyte is 1024 zettabytes or 1,125,899,906,842,624 gigabytes! At that projected growth rate, it should take a measly 12 million years for us to reach that capacity.

For a countering thought, Seth Lloyd, in an article (“Computational Capacity of the Universe”) in the science journal Physical Review Letters, in 2002, asserted that the total information capacity of the observable universe is only 10^92: the capacity necessary for the complete Library is over 10^1,834,099. Borges equated the Library with the Universe, yet it seems the Library is greater in scope. By far.

So it seems very possible that while the mind can conceive of the Library, can understand it, can know how to create it, its actual creation is beyond the scope not just of human ability but also beyond the scope of universal capacity, beyond the time scale of our solar system. We have to be satisfied with only knowing that these things “exist” in some abstract sense, our vindication, the answer to every pressing problem, to every question that’s ever passed our mind or anyone’s, every great novel (and every awful one!), even this post I’m writing now, exist, waiting for someone to discover them, yet outside the possibility of truly being able to search or find them in any clear or orderly fashion.

Perhaps we should, after the fashion of the site at the beginning, pick up our own “forbidden dice cup”…

“A blasphemous sect suggested that” [rather than searching for meaningful volumes] “all men should juggle letters and symbols until they constructed, by an improbable gift of chance, these canonical books.” […] “The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I have seen old men who, for long periods of time, would hide in the latrines with some metal discs in a forbidden dice cup and feebly mimic the divine disorder.”

Pablo Neruda

June 23rd, 2011

Sonnet LXV, from “Afternoon” in Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets (Cien Sonetos de Amor):

Matilde, dónde estás? Noté, hacia abajo,
entre corbata y corazón, arriba,
cierta melancolía intercostal:
era que tú de pronto eras ausente.

Me hizo falta la luz de tu energía
y miré devorando la esperanza,
miré el vacío que es sin ti una casa,
no quedan sino trágicas ventanas.

De puro taciturno el techo escucha
caer antiguas lluvias deshojadas,
plumas, lo que la noche aprisionó:

y asi te espero como casa sola
y volverás a verme y habitarme.
De otro modo me duelen las ventanas.


Matilde, where are you? I noticed,
down along my tie and over my heart,
a certain melancholy between the ribs:
it was that you were so suddenly gone.

I needed the light of your energy
and I looked hopelessly around,
looked at the emptiness of a home without you,
nothing left but tragic windows.

From the sheer silence the roof listens
to the fall of ancient, hopeless rain,
feathers, whatever the night’s imprisoned:

and thus I wait for you like a lonesome house,
and you will return to see and inhabit me.
Otherwise, my windows ache.

J.L. Borges’ “A quien está leyéndome”

June 14th, 2011

The poem:

Eres invulnerable. ¿No te han dado
los númenes que rigen tu destino
certidumbre de polvo? ¿No es acaso
tu irreversible tiempo el de aquel rio
en cuyo espejo Heráclito vio el símbolo
de su fugacidad? Te espera el mármol
que no leerás. En él ya están escritos
la fecha, la ciudad y el epitafio.
Sueños del tiempo son también los otros,
no firme bronce ni acendrado oro;
el universo es, como tú, Proteo.
Sombra, irás a la sombra que te aguarda
fatal en el confin de tu jornada;
piensa que de algún modo ya estás muerto.

The translation, “To whomever is reading me”:

You’re invulnerable. Haven’t they given you—
the powers that govern your destiny—
the certainty of dust? Isn’t your own time
as irreversible as that river in which
Heraclitus saw in his reflection the symbol
of impermanence? A marble stone awaits you
that you will not read. On it’s already written
the date, the city and the epitaph.
Others are also only dreams of time,
not enduring bronze or unblemished gold;
the universe is, like you, Proteus.
A shadow, you’ll go to the shadow waiting
at the fatal end of your journey;
know that in some way you’re already dead.

Twenty-five years ago today (Jun 14), Borges passed away.

Borges’ “La cifra”

April 8th, 2011

La amistad silenciosa de la luna
(cito mal a Virgilio) te acompaña
desde aquella perdida hoy en el tiempo
noche o atardecer en que tus vagos
ojos la descifraron para siempre
en un jardín o un patio que son polvo.
¿Para siempre? Yo sé que alguien, un día,
podrá decirte verdaderamenta:
“No volverás a ver la clara luna,
Has agotado ya la inalterable
suma de veces que te da el destino.
Inútil abrir todas las ventanas
del mundo. Es tarde. No darás con ella.”
Vivimos descubriendo y olvidando
esa dulce costumbre de la noche.
Hay que mirarla bien. Puede ser última.

Jorge Luis Borges, “La cifra”


The silent friendship of the moon
(I miquote Virgil) has accompanied you
since that night or evening,
now lost in time, when your restless
eyes uncovered her forever
in a garden or a patio that now is dust.
Forever? I know that someone, one day,
will be able to tell you this truth:
“You’ll never (again) see the clear moon.
You’ve already exhausted the unalterable
amount of time granted you by destiny.
It’s useless to open every window
of the world. It’s late. You won’t find her.”
We live discovering and forgetting
that sweet habit of the night.
Look at her well. It may be the last time.

A Poem by Borges

March 21st, 2011

On 2 October 1980, Borges published a small poem in two parts, front and back, which ran:


Dormías. Te despierto.
La gran mañana depara la ilusión de un principio.
Te habías olvidado de Virgilio. Ahí están los hexámetros.
Te traigo muchas cosas.
Las cuatro raíces del griego: la tierra, el agua, el fuego, el aire.
Un solo nombre de mujer.
La amistad de la luna.
Los claros colores del atlas.
El olvido, que purifica.
La memoria que elige y que redescubre.
El hábito que nos ayuda a sentir que somos inmortales.
La esfera y las agujas que parcelan el inasible tiempo.
La fragancia del sándalo.
Las dudas que llamamos, no sin alguna vanidad, metafísica.
La curva del bastón que tu mano espera.
El sabor de las uvas y de la miel.


Recordar a quien duerme
es un acto común y cotidiano
que podría hacernos temblar.
Recordar a quien duerme
es imponer a otro la interminable
prisión del universo
de su tiempo sin ocaso ni aurora.
Es revelarle que es alguien o algo
que está sujeto a un nombre que lo publica
y a un cúmulo de ayeres.
Es inquietar su eternidad.
Es cargarlo de siglos y de esterllas.
Es restituir al tiempo otro Lázaro
cargado de memoria.
Es infamar el agua del Leteo.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Poema”

I would render it,


You were asleep. I wake you.
The vast morning brings the illusion of a beginning.
You had forgotten Virgil. Here are the hexameters.
(With that) I bring you many things—
the four Greek elements: earth, water, fire, air;
a single name of a woman;
the friendship of the moon;
the bright colors of the atlas;
forgetting, which purifies;
memory, which chooses and rediscovers;
the habits which help us feel we are immortal;
the sphere and the hands that measure elusive time;
the fragrance of sandalwood;
the doubts that we call, not without some vanity, metaphysics;
the curve of the walking stick the hand waits for;
the taste of grapes and of honey.


To wake someone from sleep
is a common day-to-day act
that can set us trembling.
To wake someone from sleep
is to impose on someone the interminable
prison of the universe
of his time, with neither sunset nor dawn.
It is to show him he is someone or something
subject to a name that lays claim to him
and to an accumulation of yesterdays.
It is to trouble his eternity.
It is to load him down with centuries and stars.
It is to restore to time another Lazarus,
burdened with memory.
It is to desecrate the waters of Lethe.

¡No volverán!

February 3rd, 2011

Volverán las oscuras golondrinas
en tu balcón sus nidos a colgar,
y otra vez con el ala a sus cristales
jugando llamarán.

Pero aquellas que el vuelo refrenaban
tu hermosura y mi dicha a contemplar,
aquellas que aprendieron nuestros nombres…
¡esas… no volverán!

Volverán las tupidas madreselvas
de tu jardín las tapias a escalar,
y otra vez a la tarde aún más hermosas
sus flores se abrirán.

Pero aquellas, cuajadas de rocío
cuyas gotas mirábamos temblar
y caer como lágrimas del día…
¡esas… no volverán!

Volverán del amor en tus oídos
las palabras ardientes a sonar;
tu corazón de su profundo sueño
tal vez despertará.

Pero mudo y absorto y de rodillas
como se adora a Dios ante su altar,
como yo te he querido…; desengáñate,
¡así… no te querrán!

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870), Rimas, 38 (pub. LIII)

Running across Bécquer again today, I tried my hand at this.

The dark swallows will return
to hang their nests upon your balcony,
and with wings at your windows
they’ll playfully tap.

But those that restrained their flight
to consider your beauty and my happiness,
those who learned our names—
those… will not return.

Back will come the dense honeysuckle
to climb your garden walls,
and in the evening, lovelier still,
their blossoms will open again.

But those sparkling with dew,
whose drops we watched tremble
and fall like the day’s tears—
those… will not return.

The ardent words of love will return
to be heard in your ears;
perhaps your heart will wake
from its deep slumber.

But speechless, enchanted and on their knees
as if worshipping God before his altar,
the way I have loved you…; don’t kid yourself,
they won’t love you like that.


December 24th, 2010

nec tamen, ut lauder, uigilo curamque futuri
nominis, utilius quod latuisset, ago.
detineo studiis animum falloque dolores,
experior curis et dare uerba meis.
quid potius facam desertis solus in urbe,
quamue malis aliam quærere coner opem?

Ovid, Tristia, V. vii. 39–40.

It’s not for praise I stay awake and toil for the future of a name best forgotten. I busy my mind with studies, sidetracking sorrows, trying to give voice to my concerns. What else can I do alone in this forsaken town, what other help to this should I seek?

I wish I had some such study tonight to drive myself to like distraction, that I would not now be sitting here brooding as I am, under full sway of this sad, sorrowful season’s selection of spectres. This flu business hardly helps.

Last night, I lost myself in music, or my fumbling attempts thereat. As they did not turn out well—they seldom do—I do not wish to pursue the same fruitless path tonight. The goal, as with Ovid, is to forget my frustrations, not encourage them. Yet running through my options now, I’m coming to a dreary conclusion: everything I know how to do is an equal frustration.

Writing, art, music, any of it, all of it—equally flawed, equally disappointing. I’m tired of this; I need a new outlet.

Fazer uma obra e reconhecê-la má depois de feita é uma das tragédias da alma. Sobretudo é grande quando se reconhece que essa obra é a melhor que se podia fazer. Mas ao ir escrever uma obra, saber de antemão que ela tem de ser imperfeita e falhada; ao está-la escrevendo estar vendo que ela é imperfeita e falhada—isto é o máximo da tortura e da humilhação do espírito. Não se os versos que escrevo sinto que me não satisfazem, mas sei que os versos que estou para escrever me não satisfarão, também.

Por que escrevo então? […] Tenho de escrever como cumprindo um castigo. E o maior castigo é o de saber que o que escrevo resulta inteiramente fútil, falhado e incerto.

Pessoa, Livro do desassossego, 231

To write something and recognize afterward that it’s bad is one of the tragedies of the soul. It’s especially terrible when we recognize that the work is the best we could do. But when we write something knowing beforehand that it has to be imperfect and flawed, seeing as we write it that it’s imperfect and flawed—that is the spirit’s maximum torture and humiliation. Not only do I feel that the verses I write do not satisfy me, I know that neither will the verses I’m about to write.

So why do I write? I must write—it’s like carrying out a punishment. And the greatest punishment is knowing that what I write will be entirely futile, flawed and uncertain.

As it’s said that “the truth is established” by “two witnesses”, these two botcheries of last night’s effort will be mine.

[This piece is not currently available online.]

The basic study of the intended melody, meant to be a throw-away piece, though it’s perhaps the better of the two in the end.

Black Keys

A more elaborate work on the same melodic material, passing through a number of modulations into other tonal areas than the basic F# minor of the original, though beginning and ending with it.

Further work and revision has—perhaps, or hopefully—improved this latter work, so I have removed the earlier recording; the new incarnation has been premiered on the Facebook “fan” page, under the title “A Waltz in Winter“.

He cometido el peor de los pecados
que un hombre puede cometer. No he sido
feliz. […] Mi mente
se aplicó a las simétricas porfías
del arte, que entreteje naderías.
No me abandona. Siempre está a mi lado
la sombra de haber sido un desdichado.

Borges, “El remordimiento”

I have committed the worst sin a man can commit: I have not been happy. I gave my mind to the symmetric stubbornness of art and all its webs of pettiness. It never leaves me. It is always at my side, the shadow of having been a brooding man.


July 28th, 2010

Borges, “El laberinto” y “El suicida”

Zeus no podría desatar las redes
de piedra que me cercan. He olvidado
los hombres que antes fui; […]
Sé que en la sombra hay Otro, cuya suerte
es fatigar las largas soledades
que tejen y destejen este Hades
y ansiar mi sangre y devorar mi muerte.
Nos buscamos los dos. Ojalá fuera
éste el último día de la espera.

No quedará en la noche una estrella.
No quedará la noche.
Moriré y conmigo la suma
Del intolerable universo.
Borraré las pirámides, las medallas,
Los continentes y las caras.
Borraré la acumulación del pasado.
Haré polvo la historia, polvo el polvo.
Estoy mirando el último poniente.
Oigo el último pájaro.
Lego la nada a nadie.

[This piece is not currently available online.]

A fragment, inspired by the preceding Borges and named “Nada a Nadie” for the last line, which I once meant to complete. I no longer have such expectations and present here only the surviving trifle, so truly lego la “Nada a Nadie”.

Insatiate Orque

April 13th, 2010

Notes on the origin and etymology of the orc in English, inspired by seeing someone slightly more than my own age recently remarking on their belief that the word was invented by Tolkien, and that it had become a “word” courtesy of Peter Jackson’s film-adaptation of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, further asserting that before the movies, no one “their age” would have understood the word!

Poor Blake! Forgotten so soon?

In thunders ends the voice. Then Albions Angel wrathful burnt
beside the Stone of Night; and like the Eternal Lions howl
in famine & war, reply’d. Art thou not Orc, who serpent-form’d
stands at the gate of Enitharmon to devour her children;
Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities;
Lover of wild rebellion and transgresser of Gods Law;
Why dost thou come to Angels eyes in this terrific form?

Blake, America: A Prophecy, 1793

His Orc, a major character in his literary mythology, derives from both the attested English meanings of orc as a noun:

orc, n. 1

Originally: any of various ferocious sea creatures. In later use: a large cetacean, esp. the killer whale, Orcinus orca. Cf. ORCA, n. Now rare.

    1590. J. Stewart, Poems II.40, “Strong ourks and phoks and monsters euerie day | From seis he send.”

    1631. P. Fletcher, Sicelides III, “That Orke mouth of thine did crumme thy porridge with my grandsires braines.”

    1794. W. Jones, Hindu Wife 42, “Some slowly through green waves advancing. E’en orcs and river-dragons felt Their iron bosoms melt.”

orc, n. 2

A devouring monster; an ogre; spec. a member of an imaginary race of subhuman creatures, small and human-like in form but having ogreish features and warlike, malevolent characters.

    1656. S. Holland, Don Zara I. i. 6, “Who at one stroke didst pare away three heads from off the shoulders of an Orke, begotten by an Incubus.

    1854. Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, Oct. 380/1, “The elves and the nickers, the orcs and the giants.”

    1865. C. Kingsley, Hereward, I. i. 71, “But beyond, things unspeakable—dragons, giants, orcs, […]”

The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., 2004.

As the citations suggest, Blake was also neither the first nor only to use the word in English. There were two distinct forms of orc in use in early, Anglo-Saxon English; one, from the Latin orca (II A), referring to a large vessel (in OE, this was generally used to refer to religious cups, chalices or other offering vessels), has not persisted into modern English, but the other, deriving from the Latin Orcus, referred more to an evil or underworld spirit, or the underworld itself, and in compound words reflected a meaning closer to what has persisted into the modern language.

Þanon untydras     ealle onwocon,
eotenas ond ylfe     ond orc-neas,
swylce gigantas,     þa wið Gode wunnon

Then all the evil brood were born, ettins and elves and hell-fiends, even the giants, who strove with God

Beowulf, ll. 111–113

The usage evolving in later English however was modified, or reinforced perhaps, by the influence of the word as it had passed through other languages which had derived their own usage via the Latin Orcus, such as the Italian orco, a sort of man-eating giant relating to the similar Spanish ogro (and English kin ogre), etc. The description of the sea-monster orc of cantos CI–CX of Ludovico Ariosto‘s Orlando furioso (1516–1532) combines a mixture of the two meanings, applying the tusks and other monstrous features of the typical humanoid orc to the sea-monster orca, as can be seen in many of the illustrations of the scene of Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, such as those of Doré. The encounter was summarized in 1863,

Rogero, lance in rest, spurred his Hippogriff toward the Orc, and gave him a thrust. The horrible monster was like nothing that nature produces. It was but one mass of tossing and twisting body, with nothing of the animal but head, eyes and mouth, the last furnished with tusks like those of the wild boar. Rogero’s lance had struck him between the eyes, but rock and iron are not more impenetrable than were his scales. The knight, seeing the fruitlessness of the first blow, prepared to give a second. The animal, beholding upon the water the shadow of the great wings of the Hippogriff, abandoned his prey, and turned to seize what seemed nearer. Rogero took the opportunity, and dealt him furious blows on various parts of his body, taking care to keep clear of his murderous teeth; but the scales resisted every attack. The Orc beat the water with his tail till he raised a foam which enveloped Rogero and his steed, so that the knight hardly knew whether he was in the water or the air. He began to fear that the wings of the Hippogriff would be so drenched with water that they would cease to sustain him. At that moment Rogero bethought him of the magic shield which hung at his saddle-bow; but the fear that Angelica would also be blinded by its glare discouraged him from employing it. Then he remembered the ring which Melissa had given him, the power of which he had so lately proved. He hastened to Angelica and placed it on her finger. Then, uncovering the buckler, he turned its bright disk full in the face of the detestable Orc. The effect was instantaneous. The monster, deprived of sense and motion, rolled over on the sea, and lay floating on his back.

Thomas Bulfinch, Legends of Charlemagne, “The Orc”

Only a few years later, Robert Browning’s work, The Ring and the Book was published in 1869,

Methinks I view some ancient bas-relief.
There stands Hesione thrust out by Troy,
her father’s hand has chained her to a crag,
her mother’s from the virgin plucked the vest,
at a safe distance both distressful watch,
while near and nearer comes the snorting orc.
I look that, white and perfect to the end,
she wait till Jove despatch some demigod;
not that,—impatient of celestial club
Alcmena’s son should brandish at the beast,—
she daub, disguise her dainty limbs with pitch,
and so elude the purblind monster!

ibid., ix, Juris Doctor Johannes-Baptista Bottinius—
Fisci et Rev. Cam. Apostol. Advocatus

When Joshua Sylvester in 1604 published his translation of one of King James’ favorite poets Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’ La Sepmaine; ou Création du monde of 1581, he described Hunger thus,

Here first comes Dearth, the lively form of death,
still yawning wide with loathsome, sickening breath,
with hollow eyes, with meager cheeks and chin,
with sharp, lean bones piercing her sable skin,
her empty bowels may be plainly spied
clean through the wrinkles of her withered hide.
She hath no belly but the belly’s seat,
her knees and knuckles swelling hugely great,
insatiate Orque that, even at one repast,
almost all creatures in the world would waste;
whose greedy gorge dish after dish doth draw,
seeks meat in meat. For still her monstrous maw
voids in devouring, and sometimes she eats
her own dear babes for lack of other meats.
Nay, more; sometimes, O strangest gluttony,
she eats herself, herself to satisfy,
lessening herself, herself so to enlarge,
and cruel thus she doth our grandsire charge;
and brings besides from Limbo to assist her
Rage, feebleness and thirst, her ruthless sister.

Du Bartas His Devine Weekes and Workes Translated,
II, The Story of Adam, iii, “The Furies”

If the nouns aren’t enough orc for you, it’s also attested as a verb; e.g., “I Orkt you once, and Ile fit you for a Cupid.” And, no, Tolkien had nothing to do with it—it’s from Fletcher’s Sicelides of 1631.

segadora de mi canción de atardecer

October 24th, 2009

In 1924, Neruda published the volume Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty love poems and a song of despair). Among the pieces, number sixteen stood out to me tonight,

En mi cielo a crepúsculo eres como una nube
y tu color y forma son como yo los quiero.
Eres mía, eres mía, mujer de labios dulces
y viven en tu vida mis infinitos sueños.

La lámpara de mi alma te sonrosa los pies,
el agrio vino mío es más dulce en tus labios:
oh segadora de mi canción de atardecer,
cómo te sienten mía mis sueños solitarios!

Eres mía, eres mía, voy gritando en la brisa
de la tarde, y el viento arrastra mi voz viuda.
Cazadora del fondo de mis ojos, tu robo
estanca como el agua tu mirada nocturna.

En la red de mi música estás presa, amor mío,
y mis redes de música son anchas como el cielo.
Mi alma nace a la orilla de tus ojos de luto.
En tus ojos de luto comienza el país del sueño.

I’ve tried my hand at it, with middling results:

You’re like a cloud in my twilight sky
and your color and form are how I love them.
Oh, sweet-lipped woman, you are mine, mine,
and in your life live my endless dreams.

Your feet are rosy before the lamp of my soul,
my sour wine is sweet on your lips:
oh, harvester of my evening song,
how my lonely dreams feel you are mine!

You’re mine, I go shouting in the evening breeze—
mine!—and the wind sweeps my words away.
You hunt through the depths of my eyes, what you find
holds back your nocturnal glance like water.

You are caught in the net of my music, my love,
and my musical nets are as wide as the sky.
My soul is born on the shore of your sad eyes.
In your sorrowful eyes, the land of dreams begins.


As Neruda indicates the poem is a paraphrase of a poem in Rabindranath Tagore‘s 1913 collection The Gardener, I will present that here for contrast:

You are the evening cloud floating in the sky of my dreams.
I paint you and fashion you ever with my love longings.
You are my own, my own, Dweller in my endless dreams!

Your feet are rosy-red with the glow of my heart’s desire, Gleaner of my sunset songs!
Your lips are bitter-sweet with the taste of my wine of pain.
You are my own, my own, Dweller in my lonesome dreams!

With the shadow of my passion have I darkened your eyes, Haunter of the depth of my gaze!
I have caught you and wrapt you, my love, in the net of my music.
You are my own, my own, Dweller in my deathless dreams!

no. 30

That same Muse evoked this small work, and so I cast my net again and hope for a catch like Tagore and Neruda’s.

This track may also be heard at Last.FM.

Daniel Dockery

animî nostrî dêbent interdum âlûcinâri

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