05 October 2009

'That Which is Higher than the Sky'—De Consolatione III.viii


One of my favourite books is Boethius’s masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy—the main edition with which I am familiar being the revised edition of Victor Watts’s Penguin Classics translation (London: Penguin, 1999). C.S. Lewis has written of it, in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), p. 75:

Boethius (480-524) is, after Plotinus, the greatest author of the seminal period [Late Antiquity], and his De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred [the Great], Chaucer, Elizabeth I, and others. Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.

Written in the form of a Menippean satire, De Consolatione features alternating sections of prose and poetry, the latter constituting some beautiful pieces in their own right. Here is Watts’s rendition of the poem at the end of Book III, Chapter 8 (p. 62):

Alas, what wretched ignorance leads
Mankind from the path astray!
Who looks on spreading boughs for gold,
On vines for jewels gay?
What man sets nets on mountain-tops
For feasts of rich sea-food?
What huntsman has the wild goat
Upon the sea pursued?
The very ocean’s depths men know
Beneath the waves on high;
They know which strand is rich with pearls,
Which shores with purple dye;
They know the bays for tender fish,
For shellfish where to try.
But in their blindness they do not know
Where lies the good they seak:
That which is higher than the sky
On earth below they seek.
What can I wish you foolish men?
Wealth and fame pursue,
And when great toil wins false reward,
Then may you see the true!

2 comments:

Esteban Vázquez said...

The Consolation will always have a special place in my heart, as I studied it under the great Manfred Kerkhoff. It so happened that during that semester, one of his former students (now a professor at one of UPR's regional campuses) published a marvellous bilingual Latin-Spanish edition of the Consolation, and he asked Kerkhoff to make the official presentation of the book. That was a truly unforgettable lecture.

aaronandbrighid said...

Very nice! I only wish I could have studied more of the great books under the guidance of great scholars, rather than on my own, in a belated attempt to make up the deficiencies in my education. I'm really more of an autodidact than many people realise!