On Thin Ice

Last night I could be found sitting in front of a computer screen reading some essays by Robert Louis Stevenson before turning in. I was struck by a metaphor in an essay, a rumination on mortality, called Aes Triplex; the title refers to a passage from one of Horace’s Odes. An explanation from a writer named J. Nathan Matias:

Aes Triplex means Triple Bronze, from a line in Horace’s Odes that reads ‘Oak and triple bronze encompassed the breast of him who first entrusted his frail craft to the wild sea.’

The Stevenson quote:

And what would it be to grow old?
For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the
ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we
see our contemporaries going through.

Such a vivid metaphor! This morning I’ve been plagued by the idea that a variation of this trope occurs in the works of another writer — perhaps Thoreau? Sir Thomas Browne? Google was unable to help me.

R.L. Stevenson had such a natural command of prose style. He spins out elegant verbal images like an orb-weaver spider constructing its symmetrical trap in the morning sun.




Filed under Books

17 responses to “On Thin Ice

  1. bev

    Although the context differs, this line by R.W. Emerson is saying somewhat the same.

    In skating over thin ice our safety is in our speed.

    As we get on in years, the whole game changes. We are no longer protected by our strength, swiftness, health, appearance, and a number of other youthful attributes. Being out on thin ice becomes perilous and yet we have no choice but to venture onwards.

  2. That might have been the quote I was trying to think of. Thanks, Bev!

  3. Joan

    Many quotes on aging. These two resonated:

    Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms. Mark Twain
    – Letter to Joe Goodman, April 1891

    True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
    Kurt Vonnegut

  4. Joan

    It’s interesting that this ice metaphor for aging has become more of one for taking big risks..perhaps unwisely. As in “Be careful! You’re skating on thin ice, there, my friend..”.

  5. Really two metaphors; breaking through thin ice as death, and less direly as just failure.

    The Twain and Vonnegut quotes are new to me. Thanks, Joan!

  6. On the topic of death ‘n dying . . . Didn’t Stevenson also write “Pulvus et Umbra” . . . dust and a shadow? We read it at Field in the 9th grade at Eugene Field, I think. Joan, any recollection? We used the same books I think.

  7. Joan

    Evidently we didn’t use the same books, Darrell. They could have gotten a newer curriculum or it could have been a personal favorite of your teacher. I remember only a couple of poems from 7th grade history…not English and they were not that good. Now I need to look it up.

  8. Joan

    Well, I skimmed it, Darrell. It is the last essay in a book format, which for some reason has the ‘and’s highlighted in yellow. I can only think it’s to keep people from copying and printing it. ‘Twas distracting, to say the least.

    Of course it’s not, as I thought, a poem and there is no way that this painful essay on man would have been given to a 9th grader in our school. Half the kids would not have had the vocabulary to process it let alone the tenacity to get through it. You may have read it in college. It is SO chuck full of quoteables that I am amazed that someone has not made a short book of those from just this essay. Highly depressing. Enlightening. Grimly and sadly hopeful. It’s an amazing piece of work. When I am more awake, I will no doubt try to find a more legible copy and cut and paste. Orrr not. Depends how depressed I want to get. (grin)

    I will say this. I can’t see this making it through the Texas school board.

  9. Pulvis, et cetera . . . .
    Joan, I want to say it is derived from a Roman poet; I want to say it refers to “our Father Aeneas., etc” . . . will check . . . . . . . . . . Okay, Horace’s Odes; try this : http://www.logicmuseum.com/latin/horace_ode_4_7.htm
    I think I’ll stick to my thoughts on the 9th grade . . . I really want to recall Miss Shirley Gibson at Eugene Field explaining it all to us: “pulvis as in pulverize” . . and I recognized “umbra” fron term used in eclipses (recall I was in a terminal science binge in those days).
    AND don’t sell Jr/Sr High School kids short . . . young people are very aware of mortality; they just don’t want anyone to know. . . or know that they know.

    “Depression”?? . . . I heard once that the Athenians felt that it had to be taken head-on, so they went to tragedy plays as a form of catharsis . . . and the word “drama” itself derives from a word root that translates roughly into “that which MUST be done”, or so I’ve heard. I tried it once . . . and it worked.

    “Texas school board”?? Or the book board? I support the effort; a stand for sanity has to be taken somewhere to rein in the madness and the lies that parade themselves as truth. Otherwise, the Greeks have the words for it yet again: “Those whom the Gods destroy they first make mad.”

  10. Joan

    We were not talking about the same thing. I read an essay by Stevenson entitled “Pulvus et Umbra” . . . dust and a shadow. It concerned man’s place in the world and was most likely not very flattering to people in Stevenson’s time period who considered man the pinnacle of God’s creation. . It was very depressing and would not have been something assigned a 9th grade class in any school. The quotes from Horace you just now linked, uses the Latin for dust and shadow in the 4th stanza and since most scholars were classically trained I’m assuming Stevenson liked it and used it for his essay title. Certainly apt.

    I am not selling Jr. High kids short…but I do know that no Jr. High books would have contained Stevenson’s essay on death and shadow at that grade level. That they are aware of their mortality I’m profoundly aware.

    The Texas board by whatever name it is called decided on what the school books should contain throughout the state. Not the manufacturers of the books. Not the writers of the books. They red-lined things they found offensive and eliminated chunks of history while adding their spin on it. They did the same thing with science. It’s a national disgrace. I’m not about to get into a discussion about this. It makes me too angry and it would do no good at all no matter how many links quotes and facts I put in.

    I’m glad you had a good teacher who brought Latin/Greek? literature into your class. I can remember little about 9th grade except Bessie Brown’s Latin class. I did not like Latin, but she was a terrific teacher. I have found the root words to be invaluable in sorting out names of whatever new diseases the docs think I have, in trying to decipher legalese and it’s great fun trying to sort out a word’s meaning before I look it up. I deeply regret not having time to take either French or Spanish in college . For some insane reason a foreign language was not required for an education degree. I sincerely hope that has changed. It was also not required for a masters in art, but French would certainly have come in handy.

  11. Joan . . .
    I’ll have to modify my comment: I really think Pulvis et Umbra was read in the 7th grade at Field school, not the 9th. My reasoning? We also read another work by Stevenson at the same time (ca Sept-Dec, 1956?): “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door”. Now, a bit later, one of my fav TV series, “The Adventures of Jim Bowie”, had an episode titled “Bayou Tontine” which I soon realized was a knock-off of Sire de Maletroit. I checked and Bowie/Tontine aired in early February, 1957. So, we’d have read the Stevenson piece sometime earlier. So . . 7th graders + Pulvis = . . . . well . . .?

    As for the Texas book board, there is stuff in texts that honestly should be redlined . . . and much wrongfully omitted. I can cite examples, especially in California where I was teaching for a few years. In short and in closing, think of the board as a check ‘n balance on the theatre of the absurd, maybe?
    Latin wasn’t offered at Field, but Miss Marion Fette did do it at HHS. I took the beginning portion but not the advanced.

    Later . . .

  12. Joan

    OK, Darrell. Maybe you were in a class of child geniuses in 7th grade. I find that long long essay by Stephenson even further above the level of a 7th grader. That’s a 12 year old kid! That essay is assigned in college.
    As for the Texas Book Board. I think of the Texas board Itself as the absurd, ignorantly rewriting both history and science to align with their ideas of what and what is not ‘moral’ , . With history, they left out the unpalatable, people like Jefferson and with science they tried to get something like creationism added in.
    The sad thing is that these books are not sold just in Texas. Not enough money in that. They are spreading this half knowledge bilge to other states.
    And I am stopping this conversation because it indeed is making me angry, and I already spent a very bad night.

  13. Joan

    OK..so here I am posting links that you will probably deride after I said I wouldn’t. I was curious about how long this had been going on. Apparently the Dentist who was head of the board was voted out but the beat goes on. This is what they wanted to do to science http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/mar/26/evolution-science-texas-school-board
    This is what they actually did to history.
    I can’t believe this is a year and a half ago and I’m still fuming.
    I wrote a article/poem about it but Larry’s blog was down, so Cuttlefish put it in when hosting Skeptics blog. It has one mis-spelled word. That’s ‘fit’ not ‘fill’ Sadly he does not do free spell checking like Larry. 😦

  14. Sorry I appeared to offer offense on a topic you are sensitive about. None intended.
    I’ll check the links later.

  15. Joan

    Yes, I and many others are ‘sensitive’ about this, as you will note if /when you read the links. But please read them. Darrell, you as an educator, a wise and rational being and a lover of science since early grade school should on this one for once be on my side. All liberals are not trying to bring the country down, pollute textbooks with some hidden ‘agenda’ and somehow undermine the morals of America. If education is to educate, (and I’m sure you had a good one if you were exposed to that essay,) then It won’t be helped by a super religious dentist head of school board tampering with textbooks according to his own personal religious beliefs. I wouldn’t want my dentist determining what my child learns anymore than I’d want a teacher drilling on my teeth.
    Read the links and then if you still think I’m wrong, we can just skip the education topic and go on to the next one….while of course still avoiding ‘global warming’.
    BTW The Greek music and female singer were beautiful. Thank you for that. I’m way behind on my comments.

  16. Joan

    From the Dallas Observer: It would appear that people are fighting back for science. As for history. Not so much.

  17. Joan, the Greek music? Something that echoes the Orthodox Church’s melodic side:

    Across the “wine dark sea” are the Greeks arch-rivals, the Turks . . . but they make music too:

    Chose your vision, your vesion then?

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