Alephs, Acrostics, and April

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March 31, 2023 by libroshombre

            My handwriting’s always been bad, but these days it’s bordering on awful.  Perhaps I’m channeling my inner Phoenician for now my printed “A” could pass for a Canaanite “aleph” in the ancient Mediterranean world.  This musing began by reading “Untangling the Alphabet,” a Smithsonian article by Chris Klimek, that described the 2016 discovery of an old ivory comb in the ancient Canaanite city of Lachish.  The Hebrew University archeologists originally thought it was merely a small bone, but microscopic scrutiny of it revealed writing: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” which is “the oldest known complete sentence written in Canaanite.”  And it even revealed fossilized lice.

            “Aleph” is the first letter in the ancient Semitic alphabet that became the proto-Canaanite alphabet.  This their neighbors, the Phoenicians, took to the Greeks, who relayed it to the Etruscans, and then the Romans.  “We trace the origins of the alphabet from ancient Egypt to today,” according to the British Library’s online article, “The Evolution of the Alphabet.”  “The first archaeological evidence dates from around 1850 BC in the period we know of as the 12th Dynasty (2000–1775 BC).  In the Wadi el Hol (‘Terrible valley’) – a shortcut through the desert between Abydos and Thebes – graffiti can be seen on a cliff face that was written by non-native Egyptian speakers, who took elements of Egyptian writing and adapted them to sounds in their own language.  For example, they take an existing hieroglyph, a wavy line that stood for n, (the initial character in ‘nt’ and ‘nwy’ meaning ‘water’) and used it instead to stand for the initial sound of their own word for water, ‘mayim’; it would become our letter ‘M’.”  

            The term “alphabet” comes from “aleph,” the first letter in those ancient alphabets, which was the word for “ox” to those itinerant Semitic workers in Egypt, and it looked like an upside-down A, which closely resembles a horned creature.  The new alphabet was adopted in Egypt and the Sinai into Aramaic and Hebrew; to the north it became Syriac and Mongolian; in the south it became Arabic; and in the west by the Greeks and Carthaginians.  “The Greeks added signs for vowels when they adapted the Phoenician symbols” and took their alphabet over to Italy around 800 BC where the Etruscans used it to develop their alphabet. “The Romans then produced the current roman alphabet we use today, being influenced by both the Greek and Etruscan alphabets together. Greek was also adapted in the early Middle Ages to give us Cyrillic.”  These alphabets weren’t used to organize things, but written down in “abecedariums,” which were ordered lists of the letters of alphabets that students copied to practice writing.

            April is National Poetry Month (as well as containing National Library Week) and these alphabetical considerations reminded me of acrostics, anagrams, and two Elizabethan poets named John Davies.  Merriam-Websters defines “acrostic” as “a composition usually in verse in which sets of letters (such as the initial or final letters of the lines) taken in order form a word or phrase or a regular sequence of letters of the alphabet.”  Lewis Carroll’s “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky,” for example, was written for his little Wonderland friend and begins, “A boat beneath a sunny sky,/ Lingering onward dreamily/ In an evening of July/ Children three that nestle near,/ Eager eye and willing ear.”  Sir John Davies, a particular favorite of Elizabeth I, began his 1599 “Hymn VII: To the Rose,” with “Eye of the Garden, Queen of flowres,/ Love’s cup wherein he nectar powres,/ Ingendered first of nectar;/ Sweet nurse-child of the Spring’s young howres,/ And Beautie’s faire character” and went on to spell “Elizabeth Regina”

            Sir John was a college man who studied the law but was disbarred after striding into a barrister’s dining hall with two armed bully-boys and breaking a cudgel over the head of Richard Martin, “a noted wit,” who’d poked fun at him.  Davies later publicly apologized to Martin and was restored to the bar, but while away he wrote some serious poetry dedicated to the Queen, including “Hymn VII,” and she appointed him to several profitable royal positions.  Davies was also liked by King James I who knighted him and gave him other well-paid governmental positions.  All was not well at home though, for unbeknownst to him, he’d married a prophetess, Eleanor Touchet, the daughter of the first Earl of Castlehaven, and “one of the most prolific women writing in early seventeenth-century England, author of almost seventy pamphlets and prophecies, and one of the first women in England to see her works through to print,” according to her Wikipedia article. 

            Webster’s says an anagram is “a word or phrase made by transposing the letters of another word or phrase”; the word “secure,” for example, is an anagram of “rescue.”  Eleanor specialized in “anagrammatic prophesies,” but “her prophetic writings were a source of conflict in the marriage and Davies burned a set of the prophecies that Eleanor had been writing.  Davies was exasperated by his wife’s excesses and once addressed her, ‘I pray you weep not while I am alive, and I will give you leave to laugh when I am dead’. She is said to have accurately foretold the date of his death and wore mourning clothes for the three years leading up to the predicted time: as the date approached – three days before – she ‘gave him pass to take his long sleep’ … in 1633, Eleanor was brought before the high commission in England on charges relating to her religious anagram practices. During a fruitless examination of her under oath, one of the commissioners devised an anagram of his own: ‘Dame Eleanor Davys – never so mad a ladye’. She was sent to prison, and afterwards remarried, but was deserted by her new husband and buried next to Davies on her death in 1652.”

            Sir John’s not to be confused with the poet John Davies of Hereford, who was born in 1565, four years before Sir John.  John of Hereford (the name he adopted to distinguish himself from the many other John Davies’ around) was a writing master and “known as the best penman of his day,” according to  He was no a college man, but that didn’t stop him from “writing copiously on theological and philosophical themes,” but it did show in his verse.  Nonetheless, this Davies was pals with most of the literary stars of the day, some of whom he complimented in his book of epigrams, “Scourge of Folly,” but most he satirized.  He lauded Shakespeare in no uncertain terms: “To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare./ Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,/ Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,/ Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;/ And, beene a King among the meaner sort.”

            Nevertheless, based upon some similarities in writing styles Brian Vickers claimed in 2007 that Davies of Hereford actually wrote “A Lover’s Complaint,” a famous narrative poem that’s widely attributed to Shakespeare and was published with his Sonnets.  However, Shakespeare specialist MacDonald Jackson noted that “Had Vickers keyed in ‘spongy’, ‘outwardly’, and ‘physic’ … he would have found that in the whole of LION (the Literature Online Database), covering more than six centuries of English poetry, drama, and prose, four separate works contain all three words: ‘Troilus and Cressida’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Cymbeline’, and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’.”        On April 23 we celebrate Shakespeare’s natal day.  His handwriting was in a style known as “secretary hand” that predominated before the rise of Italic script that emerged in the Renaissance and is still used in cursive today.  The Bard certainly possessed his share of foibles, and, identifying with some of them, I appreciate what his compatriot Ben Jonson wrote about his friend Shakespeare, “I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.”

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