Thursday 26 May 2011

Fits and Starts and Leaps and Bounds

An American* chap called Barack Obama gave a speech yesterday in which he lyrically waxed upon the origins of things like liberty and the rule of law, but not upon the origins of phrases. It was his analysis of developing economies that caught my ear:

And that is why countries like China, India and Brazil are growing so rapidly -- because in fits and starts, they are moving towards the market-based principles that the United States and the United Kingdom have always embraced.


Countries like China, India, and Brazil are growing by leaps and bounds.

Fits and starts and leaps and bounds! What strenuous movements!

Fits and starts goes back to a sermon of 1620 by a chap called Robert Sanderson who compares Christian virtue to actually having a fit thusly:

A man of a cold complexion hath as much heat in a sharp fit of an ague, as he that is of a hot constitution, and in health, and more too; his blood is more inflamed, and he burneth more. But whether do you think is the more kindly heat, that which cometh from the violence of a fever, or that which ariseth from the condition of a man's temper? . . . Then for constancy and lasting,—if the heat come by fits, and starts, and paroxysms, leaping eftsoons and suddenly out of one extreme into another, so as the party one while gloweth as hot as fire, another while is chill and cold as ice, and keepeth not at any certain stay, that is an ill sign too, and it is to be feared there is an ague either bred, or in breeding...

Personally, I do everything by fits and starts, except for having a fit, which I do constantly. I live in a semi-permanent fit of poetic inspiration, which is no good, because as Nicolas Boileau pointed out in his L'Art Poetique:

A Poem, where we all Perfections find,
Is not the work of a fantastick [crazy] Mind:
There must be Care, and Time, and Skill and Pains;
Nor the first heat of unexperienced Brains.
Yet sometimes artless Poets, when the rage
Of a warm Fancy does their Minds engage,
Puff'd with the vain Pride, presume they understand,
And boldly take the Trumpet in their hand;
Their fustian Muse each Accident confounds;
Nor can she fly, but rise by leaps and bounds,
'Till their small stock of Learning quickly spent,
Their poem dies for want of Nourishment.

Well, obviously that's not what Boileau wrote. He was French, poor chap. But luckily for him John Dryden and Sir William Soames produced that translation in 1694. Which one of them actually wrote the words leaps and bounds is unknown, but I like to think it was Soames as I can't find anything else about him.

Nicolas Boileau's Art of Poetry, even in the Dryden and Soames translation, isn't a classic. Sensible: yes. Famous: no. Voltaire liked it and so did Dr Johnson. But in Dr Johnson's opinion it was nothing as compared to Pope's translation of the Iliad which was (apparently): "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal".

That's absolute hogwash. Chapman's Homer is much better, but we'll let that pass. I've written about Iliad translations before and the only reason I mentioned Pope's was that he uses the phrase leaps and bounds twice: first in the introduction where he says of those who would translate Homer:

Methinks I see these different followers of Homer, some sweating and straining after him by violent leaps and bounds (the certain signs of false mettle), others slowly and servilely creeping in his train, while the poet himself is all the time proceeding with an unaffected and equal majesty before them.

And then in Book 21 when a river is trying to drown Achilles (and no: that shouldn't be passive):

High o'er the surging tide, by leaps and bounds,
He wades, and mounts; the parted wave resounds.
Not a whole river stops the hero's course,
While Pallas fills him with immortal force.

It is Pope's poem that, I suspect, made the phrase famous and slyly inserted into the language. As this blog proved a year ago, Pope is the most quoted English poet by quite some way, even if he is scandalously underread in these seedy times.

So Obama's speech about the basis of democracy is itself based upon John Dryden, Alexander Pope and God.
*Although I have compelling evidence he was actually born in Tring.

1 comment:

  1. Hear, hear, for the unjustly neglected Chapman and his Homer & his "time's golden thigh which upholds the flowery earth."