Lexi Chroscinski: Elizabeth Jane Weston, The Captured Lark

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. Lexi Chroscinski (Dickinson ’23) edits, translates, and discusses one of them here, “The Captured Lark,” comparing it to Greek version of the same fable.

Cassita Sola (The Captured Lark)

From Elizabeth Jane Weston, Parthenica (Prague: Paulus Sessius, ca. 1606) vol. 2, fol. B6a.

Aucupis insidiis haerens Cassita dolosis,

miratur, quaenam sit sibi causa necis.

Hei mihi, flens clamat, quae tanti causa doloris?

Hei mihi, quam me sors exitialis habet?

Num quia per vetitas furtim irrepsisse fenestras,

aut soleo alterius me satiare bonis?

Hoc praeter nihil est, si haec quidquam culpa meretur:

Dignave quis Cereris granula morte putat.

 

A lark, clinging in the crafty traps of the fowler,

Wondered what might be the cause of death for her.

“Alas for me,” weeping, she cries out,

“What [is] the cause of this great pain?

Alas for me, how destructive fate holds me!

Is it because I am accustomed to have crept secretly through forbidden windows,

or [because I am accustomed] to satisfy myself with the goods of others?

There is nothing except this, unless this fault deserves anything,

or someone supposes that the small grains of food are worthy of death.”

 Vocabulary & Notes

1 auceps cupis 3m. bird-catcher, fowler

insidiae arum 1f. pl. artifice, crafty device, plot, snare

haereo 2 haesi haesum hang, stick, catch, cling

Cassita ae 1f. crested lark, tufted lark

dolosus a um crafty, cunning, deceitful

2 quaenam: ‘nam’ is intensive

sit: subjunctive with indirect question

nex necis 3f. death

3 hei alas! woe!

clamo 1 to call, cry out, shout

4 exitialis e destructive, fatal, deadly

5 num: introduces direct question

furtim by stealth, secretly, privily

irrepo 3 irrepsi irreptum to creep in, into, upon, or to a place

fenestra ae 1f. a window

6 satio 1 to fill, satisfy, satiate

7 hoc praeter: note the unusual inversion between these two words. Most of the time it is written as praeter hoc, “except this,” “besides this,” etc.

8 dignabilis e worthy

granulum i 2n. a small grain (Late Latin)

Ceres eris 3f. food, bread, fruit, corn, grain; the figurative use of this word stems from Ceres, mother of Proserpina, who is also the goddess of agriculture, specifically of wheat cultivation and fruit growth

Discussion

The first two lines narrate and provide the context before the lark’s dialogue, stating that the bird has been captured by a fowler, and now she is wondering what of her actions have caused her this death. Weston’s word choice is vital to understanding our lark’s situation, and one very important word here is miratur. Because the bird is wondering what warrants her death, it shows immediately that she hasn’t considered her actions, up to this point, worthy of death. Thus, she questions what on earth she could have possibly done to deserve this, the tone of which is conveyed with flens, clamat, and tanti in line 3. At this point, we, the reader, begin to understand what the cause may be. The lark suggests that it could be because she broke into someone’s house (per vetitas furtim irrepsisse fenestras), or that she fills her own needs by taking the goods of someone else (soleo alterius me satiare bonis)? There are a few other keywords that provide a sense of the moral this fable is implying. The two verbs soleo and satiare give the reader insight into the lark’s character and her actions. She is accustomed to sneaking into people’s houses and stealing food, and she is satisfying herself with the goods of other people. Since it is a pattern for the lark to do this, and because satio can also mean to satiate or gorge, implying a sense of greed, it is possible that the reader is not supposed to feel sympathy for the lark. The lark is also completely clueless, as stated before, and as shown again with the verbs meretur and putat. She doesn’t consider her actions deserving of death, and is incredibly upset at her situation, as is underscored by the repeated phrase, Hei mihi. This theme of cluelessness is also highlighted by the word sors. While it can mean “fate,” it can also mean “luck,” suggesting that the lark thinks everything that is happening to her is a result of bad luck when the reader knows that this was to be her fate based upon her pattern of thievery (soleo). The other verb, putat (“suppose”) demonstrates the lark’s misguided judgment, as she doesn’t understand how anyone could be upset with her actions. This is a very interesting word choice as puto takes on a more ironic meaning of “suppose,” instead of a verb of intellectual thinking, such as “cogito” or “credo,” suggesting that the lark’s conclusion is unjustified. So, perhaps, at this point, we may agree that stealing is wrong and the lark deserves her fate; however, the last line could change our stance. The lark proposes a question: does stealing a small grain of bread truly warrant death (dignave quis Cereris granula morte putat)? While some may decide that the lark does deserve to die for her actions, I would argue that some would be sympathetic to her plea, and I believe that is one way to interpret this fable. Even though the lark stole something of seemingly small significance, and perhaps had good reason to do so, she stole, nonetheless.

A similar moral can be taken from the Greek version collected in Carl Halm’s Fabulae Aesopicae Collectae as fable 209 (p. 104), titled Κορυδαλλός:

Κορυδαλλὸς, εἰς πάγην ἁλοὺς, θρηνῶν ἔλεγεν, “Οἴμοι τῷ ταλαιπώρῳ καὶ δυστήνῳ πτηνῷ· οὐ χρυσὸν ἐνοσφισάμην τινὸς, οὐκ ἄργυρον, οὐκ ἄλλο τι τῶν τιμίων·κόκκος δὲ σίτου μικρὸς τὸν θάνατόν μοι προὐξένησεν.”

Ὁ μῦθος πρὸς τοὺς διὰ κέρδος εὐτελὲς μέγαν ὑφισταμένους κίνδυνον.

A Lark, having been caught in a trap, said, wailing, “Oh! What a sad and unfortunate bird I am! I did not steal anyone’s gold or silver, or any other thing of value, but a small cup of grain has brought death upon me.

The story is directed at those who run large risks for small gains.

Similar to Weston, the Greek version gives the account of the lark, who argues that she didn’t steal anything of value, such as gold or silver, from anyone, but a small grain of bread is going to be the cause of her death. While the Greek version is nearly identical to that of Weston’s, the former explicitly states the moral. Here, there is a different moral suggested. This one would have us understand that sometimes the reward is not worth the risk. All the lark wanted was to steal a little grain, but her punishment was death, so one might argue that the lark shouldn’t have even bothered stealing the grain since it wasn’t worth risking her life. One important comparison between Halm’s version and Weston’s is the words “ταλαιπώρῳ” and “δυστήνῳ” with “exitalis sors.” Both these phrases highlight the lark’s predicament, making for an accurate comparative fable, aside from the near-identical plot. With Halm’s fable almost paralleled to Weston’s, it seems that this is the moral Weston is emphasizing, and this is further evidenced by looking at her life.

When Weston’s stepfather, Edward Kelley, died, he left her and her family completely destitute. In turn, Weston became reliant on her circle of friends and benefactors – relationships most likely forged by her stepfather – and because of her status, she learned not to take for granted those who were supporting her in life, unlike the lark, who became greedy. In the book Elizabeth Jane Weston: Collected Writings, the editors state, “There is a certain irony in the fact that Weston, young, foreign, helpless, and destitute, as she likes to describe herself, can nevertheless call upon a circle of such rich and powerful men.” (Cheney et al. 2000: xx). I’d suggest that this is not ironic, but rather a result of respect for the patron-client relationship. With this, one can see that Elizabeth has learned the value of taking only what is needed from those who are willing to give it, which is a value the lark did not learn. While this interpretation of “Cassita Sola” seems to line up well with Weston’s life, there is another strong possible interpretation that also ties into Weston’s life. The lark’s actions, although habitual, were seemingly harmless. All she stole were small grains to feed herself, and her punishment is death. I’d argue that most would think that the punishment does not fit the crime in this scenario, and I’d further contend that neither did Weston. The most evident case for this interpretation would be in Book II in her poem modeled after Ovid’s Tristia: “She [Weston] identifies with Ovid in his exile but is able to inject a further personal note into the poem by alluding specifically to her loss of father and family in England, the theft of her goods, her innocence and unjust punishment, and her inability to move Rudolf’s heart” (Cheney et al. 2000: xxii). This passage can be applied directly to “Cassita Sola” – the lark was seemingly innocent, she is being put to death for stealing a grain of wheat, which most would view as an unjust punishment, and as far as we can tell, the lark was unable to move the fowler’s heart enough to release her. Cheney and Hosington also demonstrate Weston’s anger “at the ‘excessive savagery’ of death” and how that played a huge role “in her perception of her young life as one of unhappiness, and it contributes to her sense of injustice” (xxii). Given Weston’s strong sense of injustice in this fable, one can see how this “Cassita Sola” demonstrates this, as it pertains to Weston’s life as well.

Samuel Croxall, an Anglican who published an edition of Aesop’s Fables, interpreted “The Fowler and the Lark” similarly (Fables of Aesop, and Others: With Instructive Applications [14th edition, London, 1789], #97, p. 166v). He argues that justice is unfair in the world – a poor man might go to jail and die for stealing some food to feed his family, but some of the major CEOs who swindled millions of people out of money in 2008 are still up in the corporate world, making even more money. In Croxall’s world, the little guy gets a harsh punishment for a small crime, but the big guy who affects more than just those around him gets off scot-free.

This lesson is seen and experienced throughout our lives as well. In the 2012 film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables, the audience sees a man named Jean Valjean finally released from prison after nineteen years. To someone who has never seen the film before, one might be asking themselves, “Nineteen years seems like a long time to be in prison. He must have committed a bad crime.” Yet, the story we are told is that he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Here, Jean Valjean had an arguably very just reason for stealing, but even so, he was in prison because he stole, similar to the lark’s stealing of a small grain of wheat. Another example would be if a woman were to break into a rich person’s house and steal one diamond necklace out of hundreds. This same woman is working three jobs and has a family that needs to be fed and cared for – this necklace is the solution to their problems. She was arrested and now sits in jail. Are we not sympathetic to her plea? Unfortunately, Weston gives us no background as to where this lark is or whose grain she is stealing from. For all one knows, the fowler could live in a mansion, and might not have even noticed the lark steal the grain had she not been caught. If this were the case, that the fowler had so much, we might even be more sympathetic to the lark’s situation, but even then, it still does not change the fact that the lark stole. This is the ethical dilemma about which Weston could be writing. This is not to say that the interpretation offered by the Greek version is incorrect or doesn’t apply to Weston’s fable, but rather this is another way to interpret “Cassita Sola.” We are not supposed to steal, but there are certainly multiple scenarios where we would argue that it is justified, or if not justified, we may side in favor of the offender. Sure, the examples given are either fictional or inventive, but that does not mean they did not and/or do not happen. Did Jean Valjean truly deserve to spend nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread? Did that woman deserve to go to jail for trying to care for her family? Did the lark truly deserve to die for stealing one grain of wheat? While we may not be able to have a uniform answer, we can certainly turn to Elizabeth Jane Weston’s life to determine her answer, and in turn, perhaps find answers to our own ethical dilemmas that we face.

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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