Tussim

I’m going to inflict on you another bit of Latin.

Continuam tussim patior tanguam tisicus sim.
Sentio per pulsum quod non a morte procul sum.

It’s one of the most neatly crafted pieces of language I know, and this cough I’ve got and hope to get rid of tomorrow – a residue of whatever the bug was that I caught on the cruise ship – gives me a last chance to indulge in explaining it.

The verse is one of those quoted in Helen Waddell’s marvelous book The Wandering Scholars, which is about the Goliard counterculture of the Middle Ages – bibulous clerks and amorous students who wandered between monasteries and the courts of princes, “sleeping in strange beds,” sponging off patrons, and composing poems and songs, often satirical or bawdy, mostly in Latin but mixed with the new languages, Provencal and French and Italian and German and English. Many of their compositions were preserved in a manuscript called the Carmina Burana, discovered two centuries ago in a German monastery. Some of the vagabond poets have names, but one of them is known only as the Archpoet. He was young, poor, and sick:

“I suffer ceaseless cough as if consumptive,
feel through my pulse from death I am not distant.”

To help you feel the hexameter rhythm, here it is with the first syllable of each “foot” capitalized:

CONtinuAM tusSIM patiOR tanQUAM tisiCUS sim.
SENtio PER pulSUM quod NON a MORte proCUL sum.

By luck, the subjunctive of sum, “I am,” happens to be sim, while tussis, “cough,” happens to be one of the -is nouns whose accusative is not -em as usual but -im. Look how the syllables us sim fall, the first time, in one word (tussim) but are broken between two “feet” of the line (am-tus sim-pa-ti), but, next time, fall in one foot (cus-sim) but two words (tisicus sim); and then exactly the same happens with the syllables ul sum (first in one word, pulsum, but across two feet, per-pul sum-quod, then in one foot, cul-sum, but across two words. procul sum). It’s like a sort of linguistic parallelogram, or a box made of sliding parts.

Also attributed to the Archpoet is the electrifying love-poem “Dum Dianae vitrea” – the summit, Waddell says, of secular medieval Latin poetry as the “Dies Irae” is of sacred. I perhaps ought to translate it sometime; “Diana” is the Moon rising.

 

6 thoughts on “Tussim”

  1. Love your ramblings… Is that how Robbitussin cough syrup got it’s name? and I thought Dies Irae, had something to do with an angry God. (Irate Deity). I like much better the idea of a moon rising . Caught the moon rising this morning. waning crescent… aaaaahhh………….

    1. Robitussin: yes, and probably other commercial names for cough products. Dies Irae, “Day of Anger”, beginning of a fearsome medieval hymn about the Day of Judgment.

  2. Don’t know as I quite share your fascination with the poetics of Latin–which can seem more like reading a medical treatise. But the translation is interesting… Would like to see that love poem, however.

    1. When I was first learning Latin I could hardly imagine people speaking in words like “sum” and “factum” – it seemed like speaking in equations. Later I’ve collected a huge number of examples of how neat Latin is.

      1. Guy, have you ever heard of a Latin teacher using your “Stripe Latin” game as an instructional aid? I took four years of Latin in High School but it honestly did not make much of an impression on me. Listening to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (the Herbert Kegel version with the Staatskapelle Dresden) made a tremendous impression on me, however. Beautiful!

        1. No, I haven’t yet head of a teacher trying to use “Stripe Latin”. It would be only a start. I’m afraid the truth is I had more fun with the idea than people have in using it.

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