Jack Tigani: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Geese and the Cranes

Elizabeth Jane Weston (1582-1612) was one of the most accomplished Latin poets of the early modern period. Among her published works is a collection of Aesopic fables rendered into Latin elegiac couplets. Jack Tigani (Dickinson ’22) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Geese and the Cranes,” comparing it to Greek and Medieval Latin versions of the same fable.

Anseres et Grues (The Geese and the Cranes)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6b.

Quae poterant volucres arcem servare Quirini,

et magna iunctae vi Palamedis aves.

Iugiter in prato fusae pascuntur eodem,

securo et peragrant laeta vireta pede.

Forte canis Meleagros venaticus apros

comminus insequitur per iuga, perque nemus.

Plumigerosque greges subiti invasere timores,

devia dum replent vocibus arva canes.

Strymoniae unde grues leviter motantibus alis

eripiunt subitis se, fugiuntque minis.

At (dolor!) anseribus multo conamine nixis

pinguia non licuit membra levare solo.

Corporis obstabat dum debile pondus obesi

aeriumque alis impediebat iter.

Faucibus apta canum rapidis hi praeda, repente

robore devicti procubuere suo.

English translation

The birds which were able to save the Capitolium,

And the birds joined with the great force of Palamedes

were grazing continually, spread out in the same meadow,

and were wandering around without worry in happy green places.

By chance, a hunting dog was pursuing the wild boars of Meleager at close hand

Through ridges and through the woods.

Sudden fear seized the feathered flocks,

While the dogs filled up the remote fields with their voices.

The cranes of Strymon saved themselves and fled from there.

They escaped from the threat by lightly moving their wings.

But (pain!) although the geese struggled with much effort,

It was impossible for them to lift their fat limbs from the ground,

While the debilitating weight of their obese bodies was opposing their wings

And hindering their airborne path.

These geese were suitable prey for the seizing jaws of the dogs,

They fell down, suddenly overcome by their own power.

Vocabulary and Notes

1 Quirini: of Romulus (after his deification), populus Quirini, i.e. the Romans, urbs Quirini, i.e. Rome, arx Quirini, i.e. the Capitolium. The first line is a reference to an episode in the early history of the Roman Republic in which the Gauls were about to attack the city of Rome, but a flock of birds that the Romans referred to as Juno’s Sacred Geese clucked very loudly in the middle of the night and because of the noise the Romans immediately became aware of the imminent attack. As such, the whole first line about Juno’s sacred geese alludes to an imminent attack later in the poem. Weston obtained this reference from Martial. He writes about Juno’s sacred geese in his Epigrams,

Haec servavit avis Tarpei templa Tonantis.

miraris? nondum fecerat illa deus.

This bird saved the Tarpeian temple of the Thunderer. Do you

wonder? Not yet had a god built it. (Martial, Epigrams 13.74)

[Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.]

2 Palamedes, is m.: son of Nauplius, king of Euboea, who lost his life before Troy, through the artifices of Odysseus. He is said to have invented some Greek letters by observing the flight of cranes. Again, Weston clearly read Martial as this reference about the birds of Palamedes comes from his Epigrams,

Turbabis versus nec littera tota volabit,

unam perdideris si Palamedis avem.

You will confuse the lines and the writing will not fly complete, if

you lose one of Palamedes’ birds. (Martial, Epigrams 13.75)

3 iugiter: continually, perpetually

3 pratum, prati n.: meadow

3 pasco, -ere, pavi, pastus: to feed, graze

4 peragro, peragrare: to wander through

4 virectum, virecti: a green place, greensward (viretum is an alternate form of the word)

5 Meleagreus, a, um, adj.: of/belonging to Meleager; Meleager was the son of the Calydonian king Oeneus and Althaea. He was one of the combatants at the famous Calydonian boar-hunt.

5 aper, apri n.: wild boar

5 venaticus, a, um: belonging to hunting, hunting-

6 comminus: close at hand. Usually this word means “in close contest”, but “close at hand” is a more suitable translation here because comminus is describing the dog’s steadfast pursuit of the boar, not a formal contest.

6 insequor, insequi, insecutus: to pursue, press upon

7 plumiger, plumigera, plumigerum: feathered, feather-bearing

7 grex, gregis m.: flock, herd

7 invado, invadere, invasi, invasum  to seize, rush upon (+ acc.)

invasere = syncopated perfect, verbs in the 3rd person, plural, perfect, active, indicative are sometimes shortened in prose for purposes of meter.

8 devius, devia, devium: unfrequented, out-of-the way, remote

8 repleo, replēre, replevi, repletum: to fill up, make full

9 Strymonius, Strymonia, Strymonium: of / belonging to Strymon. The river Strymon, in Macedonia, on the borders of Thrace, now Struma or Kara-su (LS Strymon, onis/onos I).

9 grus, gruis f.: crane

9 moto, motare: to keep moving, move about; motantibus is a present active participle

9 ala, alae f.: wing

10 minae, minarum f. pl.: threats

11 anser, anseris m.: goose

11 conamen, conaminis n.: effort, struggle

11 nitor, niti, nixus sum: to make one’s way with an effort, to press forward

12 pinguis, pingue: fat, plump. Pinguia has quite a pejorative connotation, not only because it translates as “plump” or “fat,” but because of the effects their heavy weight has on the situation at hand. The geese are desperately trying to fly away from the present dangers, but they are not light like the cranes.

12 levo, levare: to lift up, raise

12 solum, soli: the ground, floor

13 obsto, obstare, obstiti: to hinder, oppose

13 debilis, debile: weak, debilitated

13 obesus, obesa, obesum: fat, stout, plump

14 impedio, impedire, impedivi or impedii, impeditum: to hinder, hamper

15 fauces, faucium f.: jaws

15 rapidus, rapida, rapidum: tearing away, seizing (adj. of rapio)

15 repente: suddenly, unexpectedly

16 robur, roboris n.: strength, firmness, power. This word refers to things made out of oak or hard wood. Its meaning is “power” or “firmness” because the wood of a tree is hard and firm, and a tree is not easily knocked over using brute force.

16 devinco, devici, devictum: to conquer completely, subdue

16 procumbo, procubui, procubitum: to fall forward, sink down; procubuere = syncopated perfect. Procumbo is a forceful verb as it sometimes used to describe a legion that has been completely destroyed. Procumbo refers back to robur because both words imply force and firmness, and as it takes a great deal of power to make a tree fall, a tree “falls forward” with great force when it finally collapses.

Similar Aesopic Fables

The Aesopic version of this fable is number 421 in the collection of Greek Aesopic material edited by Karl Halm (Halm 1854: p. 204):

Χῆνες καὶ Γέρανοι (The Geese and the Cranes)

Χῆνες καὶ γέρανοι ἐπὶ ταὐτοῦ λειμῶνος ἐνέμοντο. Τῶν δὲ θηρευτῶν ἐπιφανέντων, οἱ μὲν γέρανοι, κοῦφοι ὄντες ταχέως ἀπέπτησαν, οἱ δὲ χῆνες, διὰ τὸ βάρος τῶν σωμάτων μείναντες, συνελήφθησαν.

Ὁ μῦθος δηλοῖ, ὅτι καὶ ἐν ἁλώσει πόλεως οἱ μὲν ἀκτήμονες εὐχερῶς φεύγουσιν, οἱ δὲ πλούσιοι δουλεύουσιν ἁλισκόμενοι.

The Geese and the cranes were grazing on the same meadow. But when the hunters showed up, the cranes, being light, quickly took off, but the geese were captured because of the weight of their bodies.

The fable makes clear that in the capture of a city, the poor escape easily, whereas the rich, having been caught, serve as slaves.

The closest Medieval Latin version is number 536 in the collection of Laura Gibbs (Gibbs 2010: p. 171).

Olores et Anseres (The Swans and the Geese)

Olores et anseres, amici inter se facti, exierant quondam in campos. Quibus coniunctim pascentibus, superveniunt venatores. Olores, corporis celeritate et volatu, tuto evadunt periculum. Anseres autem, natura tardiores, deserti ab amicis, in venatorum incidunt manus.

Haec fabula arguit eos qui amicos suos non adiuvant totis viribus, sed produnt in periculis.

The swans and the geese, having become friends to each other [inter se: between them (literally), here: to each other], once went forth into the fields. The hunters come up to the ones who feed together. The swans safely evade the danger with the speed of their bodies and with their flight. But the geese, slower by nature, forsaken by their friends, fall into the hands of the hunters.

This tale censures those who do not help their own friends with all their strength, but those who give them over to dangers.

Discussion

Weston’s poem Anseres et grues is full of references to classical poets and famous tales of Greek and Roman mythology. The poem has a clear message regarding the disadvantages of wealth during times of crisis. Weston articulates this message by telling a story about geese and cranes who eat together in a field. The geese are heavy, and they cannot escape when hunting dogs come rushing onto the premises, but the cranes escape because they are lighter. The message is that wealthy individuals are not fit to survive a crisis such as the sack of a city because they have too many possessions weighing them down, but the poor are able to escape much more easily because they do not have an excess of possessions hindering their escape.

The idea about wealth being a hindrance in times of crisis is clearly displayed in line twelve of the poem. Weston uses the word pinguia to describe the limbs of the geese. Pinguia means “plump” or “fat.” The geese are unable to escape like the cranes because they are too heavy to fly. The hunting dogs are about to hurt the birds, but Weston specifies that the cranes lightly move their wings and they escape easily because they are not weighed down by their own weight.

The last line describes the geese being destroyed by the hunting dogs, “Robore devicti procubuere suo.” The word choices are interesting in this line. Robur means “power” or “firmness,” and it originally referred to anything made out of oak or hard wood. In my opinion, this alludes to a tree. This makes sense because, as a tree is not easily knocked down, its own firmness and power works against itself when it finally falls over. The verb procumbo means “to fall forward” or “sink down.” It was sometimes used to describe a legion that had been completely destroyed. As such, Weston’s decision to use this verb emphasizes the self-destructive nature of the power of the rich, or in this case, the geese.

The moral of the Greek version is identical to Weston’s message. The fable makes clear that in the capture of a city, the poor escape easily, whereas the rich, having been caught, serve as slaves.

This summarizes the fate of the geese after the cranes easily escaped. It is also relevant to Weston’s own experience. She was destitute after her stepfather was accused of murdering a member of Emperor Rudolf’s court. (Cheney et al. 2000: 4). She tried to convey this message through her poetry and this was her way of hinting to her rich patrons that wealth is not always a good thing.  Weston chose not to include the message of the Medieval Latin version, Olores et anseres. Olores et anseres is a Latin translation of Syntipas’ sixtieth fable, Κύκνοι καὶ Χῆνες. (Gibbs 2010: 375).The moral in Olores et anseres has to do with friendship and betrayal, directed at “those who do not help their own friends with all their strength, but those who give them over to dangers.”

Weston’s poem Anseres et grues is meant to show that wealth is not useful during times of crisis. She depicts this idea by using foreshadowing, descriptive adjectives, and forceful verbs. Weston incorporates material from Martial’s Epigrams in an effort to foreshadow an imminent attack. The adjective pinguia has a negative connotation which symbolizes the disadvantage of wealth in a situation like the one in the poem. The word robur and the verb procumbo are quite alliterative as they allude to an oak falling down with force. Weston is explaining that this is what happens when the rich are caught in the middle of the sack of a city. Their economic “power” and “firmness” does them no good, in fact, it weighs them down and leads to their destruction just like the geese in the poem.

Bibliography

Cheney, Donald, and Brenda M. Hosington, eds. Elizabeth Jane Weston Collected Writings. University of Toronto, 2000.

Gibbs, Laura, comp. Mille Fabulae et Una: 1001 Aesop’s Fables in Latin. Lulu Publishers, 2010.

Weston, Elizabeth Jane. “Anseres et grues.” In Fabulae Quaedam Aesopicae. Vol. 2 of Parthenica.

Halm, K. (1854). “Χῆνες καὶ Γέρανοι.” In Aisōpeiōn mythōn synagōge =: Fabulae aesopicae collectae., 204. Lipsiae: sumptibus et typis B.G. Teubneri.

Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey., 203. Loeb Classical Library 480. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

This edition was completed as the final project for Latin 234: Ovid, taught by Christopher Francese in Spring 2021. Prof. Francese modernized the Latin orthography.

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