Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Dog Days


The Dog Days start today. Well, it depends who you ask, really. But if you ask the Book of Common Prayer the Dog Days start today, and that's good enough for me.

Dog Days have nothing directly to do with dogs: they are named after the Dog Star, also called Sirius, which is the brightest star in all the heavens (excluding the sun). Back in Roman times the Dog Star rose with the sun during late summer and it was believed that it was this conjunction of the two brightest stars in the sky that caused the heat of July and August.

If you want to know what the next couple of months will be like, you need only consult Hesiod's Works and Days:

In the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring which pours down unfouled, thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.

Which is, verbatim, what I'm going to say the next time I see a waiter.

That Sirus heats the earth is not true scientifically, but it is true poetically; and poetry is Much More Important than truth. If you don't believe that principle, try using the two methods to get laid.

Shakespeare mentions the Dog Days in Henry VIII. He describes a red-nosed fellow by saying:

There is a fellow somewhat near the door, he should be a brazier by his face, for, o' my conscience, twenty of the dog-days now reign in's nose;

Milton appears to mention the heat of Sirius in Lycidas:

Ye valley low where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks

Pope complains that "The Dog Star rages". But my favourite reference to the Dog Days is, for some reason, Fons Bandusiae by Horace. It's only a passing reference and it's in Latin but it translates very roughly as:

Sabine spring, as clear as glass,
Where the floating flowers pass,
Take tomorrow’s sacrifice
In your water cold as ice:

(For it grew its horns in vain,
For it will not breathe again)
Let the kid-goat’s hopeless blood
Mingle with your perfect flood.

No: the Dog Days’ horrid heat
Cannot touch you. Oxen’s feet
Stray from ploughshare to your pool,
Wander, rest there, and are cool.

Fame is yours, for I shall write –
And eternity recite
In perpetual murmuring tones –
Of the oak upon your stones.

However, as I said, the Dog Days have nothing to do with dogs and nothing whatsoever to do with Hamlet's comment that:

Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.

5 comments:

  1. The Antipodean, who is *freezing* and will therefore ignore all this frivolity about summer and talk about minor details, went on and6 July 2010 at 10:33

    Can you try that on a French waiter, please? I'd like to know the results.

    Pope obviously suffered from telemarketers:
    "Then from the Mint walks forth the Man of Ryme
    Happy! to catch me just at Dinner-time."

    And proof readers:
    "Pains, reading, study, are their just pretence
    And all they want is spirit, taste, and sense. Commas and points they set exactly right,
    And 'twere a sin to rob them of their mite."

    Ouch.

    Mrs M, have you read Dogsbody? I haven't read it for ages: wondering if it is as good as I recall.

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  2. Mrs M, who has been left in London and holding the fort6 July 2010 at 10:52

    I haven't, I am ashamed to admit. There seem to be tremendous gaps in my DWJ reading - I just read whatever was in my local library, and when I had finished, read them again. Mostly the Chrestomanci books, and Fire & Hemlock (which I recently discovered again in a secondhand bookshop, almost unread). I hope they are all as good as we remember.

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  3. Whose is that lovely Horace translation? Is that a Dogberry original? Wonderful version.

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  4. An acephalous-iambic-tetrametric thing; but mine own.

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  5. Have any of you guys tried out The Dog Star Rages at www.thedogstarrages.com ... now there's modern satire Alexander would have been proud of

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