Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The strange literary history of a part of Akdamus in English literature

In the August 1746 edition of the London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer (pg. 421) we find the following poem called The Precaution, which written by Christopher Smart, a popular 18th century English songwriter. This is from a series of songs he wrote, attributing authorship to Chaucer:

As you can see, the four lines beginning with "Could we with ink . . ." seem to be taken from the famous medieval Shavuos piyut אקדמות מילין. In the original Aramaic those four lines read

גְוִיל אִלּוּ רְקִיעֵי, קְנֵי כָּל חוּרְשָׁתָא:
דְיוֹ אִלּוּ יַמֵּי, וְכָל מֵי כְּנִישׁוּתָא:
דַיְירֵי אַרְעָא סַפְרֵי, וְרַשְׁמֵי רַשְׁוָתָא:
הֲדַר מָרֵי שְׁמַיָא, וְשַׁלִיט בְּיַבֶּשְׁתָּא
which means (Artscroll translation):

Even if the heavens were parchment, and the forests quills,
If all the oceans were ink, as well as every gathered water,
If the earth's inhabitants were scribes and recorders of initials--
The glory of the Master of heaven and the Ruler of earth.

This is unexpected.

The lines appear in several other 18th century collections, only no longer attributed to Chaucer. An example from 1783, in a song collection called The Humming Bird, collecting 1400 English, Scotch and Irish songs. Here is is part of the section "Songs for Gentleman" (as opposed to Songs for the Ladies)

What is even more interesting is what happens to these lines in later literature.

In an 1804 book called the Columbian Miscellany:

The Columbian Miscellany was mostly taken from things which appeared in the Philadelphian Magazine in 1788 and 1789. As you can see, the lines are no longer secular, and are said to "have been written by a person reputed to be an ideot."

A version printed in 1796 in Francis Grose's The Olio, yet obviously predating 1779:

And this is the form it remains.

Two from 1839:


Finally, an odd attribution to the "George Brothers," from 1834:

In addition, these verses are frequently given in discussions about the poetic form known as hyperbole.

What gives? Could they have been penned by Christopher Smart, and expanded by "an idiot" in prison? Was Smart himself the idiot? (According to the bio on Wikipedia he was locked away in a mental asylum. However, he was not living any longer in 1779.)

In the mid-19th century there was a fascinating periodical called Notes & Queries (which still exists). The object of the magazine was for readers to pose questions on nearly any topic under the sun, and learned readers would reply with whatever answers they could supply. (A free N & Q archive from 1849 to 1869 can be found here.)

In the August 6, 1853 issue someone signing himself Naphtali asked if "any of [the] numerous and able correspondents" could "inform [him] who is the bona fide author of [these lines."

The next issue, August 20, 1853, included a response from Britain's Christian authority on thing's Jewish, the apostate Rev. Moses Margoliouth. He writes that the "bona fide author" is "Rabbi Mayir ben Isaac. The . . . eight lines are almost a literal translation of four Chaldee ones, which form part of a beautiful ode on the attributes of God, not unmixed with a condsiderable proportion of the fabulous, which is sung in every synagogue during the service of the first day of the feast of Pentecost."

He then posed a query of his own, asking if anyone knew who was responsible for the English translation, which was "often quoted by itinerant advocates of charity societies as having been found inscribed, according to some, on the walls of a lunatic asylum, according to others, on the walls of a prison, as occasion requires."

Another writer responded that there is a Chaucer ballad usually titled "A Warning to Men to Beware of Deceitful Women," which contains, in part:

In addition, the writer notes, a 1759 Encyclopedia had the following to say about רבי יוחנן בן זכאי:

Several other suggestions and references are given, including one who believes that the lines were given impromptu, at a party, by Isaac Watts. Uh, thanks.

Subsequent issues give further suggestions, all off the mark. But the October 29, 1853 issuesintroduces a new and interesting piece of information. J. W. Thomas does not challenge the assertion that Rabbi Mayir ben Isaac penned the lines, having no idea when he lived (11th century) he suggests that the author of the Koran is indebted to Rabbi Mayir ben Isaac, for the 18th Sura ("The Cave") contains the following line (random English translation I found online):
109 Say, "If the ocean were ink for the words of my Lord, the ocean would run out, before the words of my Lord run out, even if we double the ink supply."
Thomas then asks, when did the rabbi live in relation to the Koran?

The next issue contained a note that the final verse of the Gospel of John seems to be similar, and several things in the New Testament influenced the Koran. The verse reads
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.
Another suggestion occurs in a later issue, giving a slightly different form of the verses. The writer says that the person who showed him that variant version believed it to be an English rendering of a "sublime passage of the great St. Augustin," and although the writer is inclined to thnk it sounds Augustinian, he was unable to locate it in any of Augustine's writings.

Finally, one more writer (June 16, 1855) gives a verse from about the year 1200 (quoted by Berington in his Literary History of the Middle Ages):

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