Caput Mortuum.

Reading Ford Madox Ford’s memoir Memories and Impressions (highly recommended by my wife, who’s become a Ford devotee), I ran across an expression that baffled me. In his encomium to Holman Hunt Ford says:

But I think I never did advance — it was never my intention to advance — any suggestion that the true inwardness of Pre-Raphaelism, the exact rendering hair for hair of the model; the passionate hunger and thirst for even accidental truth, the real caput mortuum of Pre-Raphaelism was ever expressed by any one else than by the meticulously earnest painter and great man, whose death was telegraphed from the dim recesses of London into the chess-board pattern of sunlit Pre-Raphaelite Hessian harvest lands.

My exiguous Latinity told me that caput mortuum meant ‘dead head,’ but what on earth could that signify in this context? I turned to my trusty Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases in Current English and found:

caput mortuum [Lat. ‘dead head’] the residue left after prolonged distillation; worthless residue; red oxide of lead used as a pigment. 17c.

The first definition was clearly the applicable one, and I approve of Alan Bliss (the compiler of the dictionary) having arranged the senses in that order, with what is presumably the historically prior one last because it is the least likely to be encountered. Has anyone else run into this now obscure term?

Comments

  1. I think I was vaguely familiar with the term, as a pigment color, although not its history as an alchemical term of art. Google indicates that the overwhelming majority of references of it are indeed to the color. However, there are a few others.

    I had an inkling that I might have seen it used more figuratively in something by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Google did not turn up what I was looking for, but I did find this from The Contemporary Review, volume 34, which seemed like hat material:

    Questions of technical quality in translation are apt to prove a little tedious even to the most interested students, while to the general reader they are all but intolerable. The Laureate very well knew what he was about when he invited “indolent reviewers” (i.e., worn out pauvres diables writing under gas at two A.M. amid clatter of reporters, proof-boys, &c., &c.), to criticize his hendecasyllabics. It is not otherwise with questions of translation from German into English, though the chief difficulty in what may be called “imitation” of the original lies in the simple fact that the German language abounds in possibilities of double-ending which lie within the poetic vocabulary, while the English does not. The most interesting question for the general English reader who wishes to “arrive at” Heine or Goethe, without learning German, is hardly the technical one; but it is more so with Heine than with Goethe, because in the work of the author of Reisebilder and the Buch der Lieder the use of “double-ending” metres is so vitally connected with that nameless, indescribable element of mockery or diablerie—call it what you will—which counts for so much in his writing. Of course it is not always present; but it is intensely characteristic, and to reproduce it with neither excess nor deficiency is a most arduous and delicate task, and, as every translator feels, a thankless one, because the result looks so much like a caput mortuum. This, however, is trite and of course we cannot discuss Heine or his translators here, except in the most discursive way

  2. I think I just saw it used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge somewhere recently (I mean, I read it recently, he wrote it … less recently). It might have been this:

    https://books.google.co.th/books?id=ycRcNJCYKhQC&pg=PA134&lpg=PA134&dq=coleridge+caput+mortuum&source=bl&ots=h6KzPvep8D&sig=2HTYI8-BKjNQgZUI39duea_L47g&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=coleridge%20caput%20mortuum&f=false

  3. Rodger C says:

    AG, I’m getting a few yellow streaks on a blank page.

  4. This, however, is trite and of course we cannot discuss Heine or his translators here, except in the most discursive way

    I confess I don’t know what “discursive” means here.

    AG, I’m getting a few yellow streaks on a blank page.

    Me too.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    discursive

    I guess that in the context it means “general, abstract”, without giving examples, etc.

  6. Caput mortuum is still used as a color name in some lines of paint and pastels. The Stabilo ‘caput mortuum red’ pastel pencil is a nice alternative to the Conté sanguine chalks, which can be a bit gritty these days.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    yellow streaks

    They tell you where the words are that they don’t want you to see. Infuriating!

  8. Caput mortuum is still used as a color name in some lines of paint and pastels.

    I’ll be damned. I guess I should have checked, but it’s so much more fun to learn stuff from commenters!

  9. As for AG’s Coleridge quote, this link works for me; the relevant bit is “perception has been banished, and with it the imago Dei, leaving ‘the caput mortuum of human nature evaporated.'”

  10. I thought I’d come across this quite recently, though out of context I couldn’t have said what it meant, and found this from William Morris, originally in an address to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1889:

    ‘Such an ordinary thing as a wall, ashlar or rubble, cannot at the present day be built in the same way as a medieval wall was. Any architect who has tried it who may be present will tell you that what I say is correct. I say the unconscious habit of working the stone in a certain way cannot be supplied artificially, and in such habits lies the very life of the buildings; it was the language in which the story was told when stories were told in buildings. If you have destroyed the language, can you restore the style of the story? You can have but a diagram of it, a caput mortuum. The language gone, the literature is also departed. In short, the art of that time was the outcome of the life of that time.’
    https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1889/spab16.htm

    Here and elsewhere Morris uses the phrase to mean ‘dross’ where Ford (in much the same milieu) is more equivocal?

    I realise the phrase also figures in that passage by Sir John Denham that’s always being quoted in translation textbooks:
    ‘I conceive it is a vulgar error in translating poets, to affect being fidus interpres… [for] poetry is of so subtile a spirit, that in the pouring out of one language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum, there being certain graces and happinesses peculiar to every language, which give life and energy to the words… therefore if Virgil must needs speak English, it were fit he should speak not only as a man of this nation, but as [a] man of this age.’

    I didn’t know about the pigment. Apparently Mediaeval and Renaissance painters ‘used it to paint the robes and clothing of eminent monastic religious figures and of patrons & donors (ie the people actually paying for the painting)’.
    A 1972 painting by Max Bill, Verdichtung zu caput mortuum, suggests alchemy as well as rusty violet.
    https://www.march.es/arte/palma/exposiciones/catalogominimal/english/Obra17.asp
    https://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/caput-mortuum-violet/

  11. The alchemical symbol for caput mortuum is in the Unicode standard, 🝎.

  12. Isn’t a caput mortuum someone who’s a fan of the Grati Mortui?

  13. Michael: Thanks, those are great quotes!

  14. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences

    § 44 famously criticizing Kant:

    The Thing-in-itself (and under ‘thing’ is embraced even Mind and God) expresses the object when we leave out of sight all that consciousness makes of it, all its emotional aspects, and all specific thoughts of it. It is easy to see what is left utter abstraction, total emptiness, only described still as an ‘other-world’ the negative of every image, feeling, and definite thought. Nor does it require much penetration to see that this caput mortuum is still only a product of thought, such as accrues when thought is carried on to abstraction unalloyed: that it is the work of the empty ‘Ego’, which makes an object out of this empty self-identity of its own. The negative characteristic which this abstract identity receives as an object is also enumerated among the categories of Kant, and is no less familiar than the empty identity aforesaid. Hence one can only read with surprise the perpetual remark that we do not know the Thing-in-itself. On the contrary there is nothing we can know so easily.

    Later and more obscurely to me, § 112 on the Doctrine of Essence:

    The Absolute is the Essence. This is the same definition as the previous one that the Absolute is Being, in so far as Being likewise is simple self-relation. But it is at the same time higher, because Essence is Being that has gone into itself: that is to say, the simple self-relation (in Being) is expressly put as negation of the negative is immanent self-mediation. Unfortunately, when the Absolute is defined to be Essence, the negativity which this implies is often taken only to mean the withdrawal of all determinate predicates. This negative action of withdrawal or abstraction thus falls outside of the Essence – which is thus left as a mere result apart from its premises – the caput mortuum of abstraction. But as this negativity, instead of being external to Being, is its own dialectic, the truth of the latter, viz., Essence, will be Being as retired within itself – immanent Being.

    A little more accessible, in the author’s notes to this paragraph:

    If God be the abstract supersensible Being, outside whom therefore lies all difference and all specific character, he is only a bare name, a mere caput mortuum of abstracting understanding.

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I put a comment about Harry Potter, and then realized it was in the wrong place, so I deleted it. In the process I seemed to have deleted all the Harry Potter comments, of which there were about 15. That was not, of course, my intention, and I’m surprised that it was even possible. I hope the missing ones can be restored.

  16. January First-of-May says:

    I’m surprised too – would have said it was a cache thing, but I can’t see that many HP comments either.

  17. Hegel […]

    Thank god I wasn’t a philosophy major!

    I have no idea what’s going on with the HP comments; I see no sign of them. Were they in this thread? Why would there be 15 Harry Potter comments here?

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I have no idea what’s going on with the HP comments; I see no sign of them. Were they in this thread? Why would there be 15 Harry Potter comments here?

    Because I’m getting senile. I think I only imagined they were here.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    TR wins this thread.

  20. Hegel […]

    Thank god I wasn’t a philosophy major!

    Hegel is caput mortuum of philosophy. Not the worst thing either. There followed a large number of undead. Latinists among us may suggest a suitable term.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    As I may have mentioned before, Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes is one of the key books that led me to decide to major in linguistics (by, in its case, convincing me *not* to major in philosophy).

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    Separately, looking at the full original quote I was struck by the phrase “sunlit Pre-Raphaelite Hessian harvest lands,” and got a bit confused on account of I didn’t understand the implied association between the Pre-Raphaelites and landscapes in Hesse. In case anyone else was also confused, it turns out that “hessian” is a BrEng synonym for “burlap,” which I had not previously known, and possibly also for crops from which burlap can be made. I can’t imagine much jute was grown in pre-Raphaelite rural England, so maybe hemp, although I still don’t see why a field growing a burlap-ingredient crop would be more mystical and pre-Raphaelite than a field growing grain or vegetables or what have you.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Hemp is a very tall plant with finely cut leaves, much taller than the cereal plants wheat or rye, so a hemp field as observed in pre-Raphaelite rural England, looking like a miniature pine forest (or so) did not look at all the same as any of the cereal fields commonly grown and therefore familiar to the people of today.

  24. True but irrelevant — as it happens, he was traveling through Hesse(n) when he saw the news of Hunt’s death. This is how rumors get started!

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for the correction!

    Perhaps the fields in Hesse, ready for the harvest, had something in their appearance that reminded the author of pre-Raphaelite paintings.

  26. Yes indeed. Here’s the passage that launches him on his reminiscence of Hunt; it’s quite nice, so I’ll quote extensively:

    So it was with the last death of all which I read of — only a few days ago while I was travelling in a distant country.

    It had been a long and tiresome journey in a train as slow as the caravan of a Bedouin. We had jolted on and on over plain after plain. And then, with a tired and stertorous grunt, in a sudden and how much needed shaft of sunshine, the train came to a standstill, wearily, and as if it would never pluck up spirits again to drag along its tail of dusty carriages. The station was bright pink, the window frames were bright emerald green; the porters wore bright blue uniforms; and one of them a bright scarlet cap. In the background — but no, under the shafts of sparkling light there was no background; it all jumped forward as if it were a flat, bright pattern covering a high wall — there was a landscape in checkers of little plots of ground. The squares of bare earth were of brighter pink than anything you will see in Devonshire; where the newly cut fodder had stood the green was a pale bright emerald. The patches of tobacco were of a green more vivid; the maize more vivid still. The very cocks of hay, dotted about like ant-heaps, were purple. The draught oxen, bright yellow, stood before the long carts, painted bright blue, and panted in the unaccustomed heat. Peasant women in short green petticoats with blue velvet bodices and neckerchiefs of bright green, of sky-blue, of lemon-yellow, bore upon their heads purple baskets, or beneath coifs of sparkling white linen raked the purple hay on the green fields, or lifted up into the blue wagons bundles of fodder with forks that had bright red shafts. And all this color, in the dazzling, violent light, was hung beneath an absurd blue sky. It was the color of the blue houses one sees in the suburbs of Paris, and contained, blotted all over it, absurd pink and woolly German clouds.

    I closed my eyes. It was not that it was really painful, it was not that it was really disagreeable. All this richness, all this prosperity, seemed so stable and so long-established that in our transient world it suggested a lasting peace. But, coming out of our grays and half-tints of London, where nothing vivid ever occurs to disturb the eye, it was too overwhelming. It was — and the words came onto my lips at the very moment — too brave, too Pre-Raphaelite! It was just as if Nature had set herself to do the thing well, and had done the thing so well that the eye couldn’t possibly stand it, Pre-Raphaelite! That was what it all was.

    Desiring to rest my eyes, I turned them upon one of those newspapers that are so difficult to read, and there was conveyed to my mind the message:

    “Es wird uns telegraphiert aus London dass der Mahler Holman Hunt, der Vater des englischen Pre-raphaelismus, im 83ten Jahre seines Lebens gestorben ist.”

    (“It is telegraphed to us out of London that the painter, Holman Hunt, the father of English Pre-Raphaelism, to-day, in the eighty-third year of his life, is dead.”)

    I do not know whether there was something telepathic about Nature that she gave this brave Pre-Raphaelite show in Hessen-Nassau to frame for me an announcement that called up images so distant and so dim […]

    This was written in 1910; sad to think that that “lasting peace” lasted only another four years.

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    Boy, that’s a bad translation of the German. Maybe done for comic effect, but I could have done a funnier one.

  28. Well, in that context I doubt he wanted side-splitting humor; I’d guess he was going for the mildest of “here’s how we English construe sentences in the awful German language” irony.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    Separately I suppose a field of hemp-as-burlap-raw-ingredient might plausibly have had mystical/visionary implications for anyone of more recent generations familiar with alternative uses for hemp sub. nom. cannabis. (One theory being that “hemp” is from proto-Gmc *hanapiz which is cognate to κάνναβις.)

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Syntax aside, “today” is not in the original, and “is dead” should be “has died”.

  31. Bathrobe says:

    I never heard of ‘burlap’ until much later in life. ‘Hessian’ was the only word I knew, always pronounced ‘heshen’. I was quite surprised to learn later that it was spelt ‘hessian’.

  32. “Pre-Raphaelite” must have been a very emotionally powerful term for Ford Madox Ford, given his family background.

  33. Bathrobe says:

    it all jumped forward as if it were a flat, bright pattern covering a high wall — there was a landscape in checkers of little plots of ground

    Sounds like the trend in mobile icons after Apple abandoned skeuomorphism.

  34. I don’t recall having ever seen or heard the term before Hat’s post, but by one of those eerie coincidences I encountered it again a few hours later, listening to an audiobook version of Ford’s The Soul of London: “They are the dust filtered down from all the succeeding dominant types, they are the caput mortuum precisely because they are hopelessly old-fashioned”.

  35. Fans of Gratus Mortuus, rather. The name is from a folktale motif.

  36. But surely we’re told that the grati mortui are those that draw the barge of Ra through the underworld during the night?

  37. “Pre-Raphaelite” must have been a very emotionally powerful term for Ford Madox Ford, given his family background.

    Yes, much of the book is about that background, and he has moving things to say about Ford Madox Brown (his grandfather). He also seems to have known everybody who was anybody in the late Victorian era.

    But surely we’re told that the grati mortui are those that draw the barge of Ra through the underworld during the night?

    I hear the barge of Ra is motorized these days.

  38. The descriptions of Ra’s solar barque as it moves through the underworld were the most evocative part of Fred Saberhagen’s novel Pyramids.

  39. Fred Saberhagen! Boy, there’s a name I haven’t thought of in a long time.

  40. Y, are you saying that “the Grateful Dead” is intended as singular? I don’t think that’s a normally available reading of the+adjective in English (with a few specific exceptions like the deceased, the accused).

  41. Yes, see Wikipedia article.

    To my (non-native) eye, a singular reading of The Grateful Dead is more grammatical (though archaic-appearing) than one of The Dead. Certainly Joyce’s story of that name refers to the plural.

  42. The term “grateful dead” was chosen because it was a name for a (singular) helpful ghost. The band probably benefitted from people thinking that it was actually meant as some kind of ironic commentary on Vietnam though (in which case it would presumably be construed as plural).

  43. The term “grateful dead” was chosen because it was a name for a (singular) helpful ghost.

    The Wikipedia article agrees with you, beginning “Grateful dead (or grateful ghost),” but I find that a completely impossible reading, and I can’t help but wonder who originated the phrase, and was that person a native speaker of English. In my sense of the language, “the dead” can only be plural, as TR says.

  44. who originated the phrase

    Must have been Sergio Leone.

  45. I can’t link anymore, but a translation of Pushkin’s The Drowned Man, in Cosmopolitan, vol. 4, 1888, has “Grave and cross still unprovided / Swims the wandering dead once more.”

  46. Antony, on Julius:

    I will not do them wrong. I rather choose
    To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
    Than I will wrong such honourable men.

  47. The OED gives sense 1a (thus historically the oldest) of the noun dead (which is defined in group B of the entry dead, adj., n., and adv.) thus: “One who is dead, a dead person. Formerly with a, and with possessive dead’s (dedes, dedis).” Oddly, there are no quotations; however, it is not marked obsolete, and the last two forms suggest Middle English.

  48. The quotations at the OED for sg. and pl. are together, following the plural sense definition. That’s where I got the Shakespeare example.

  49. Interesting. It may not be marked obsolete, but it surely is, unless my sprachgefühl badly misleads me.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    It never occurred to me that the Grateful Dead was not meant as a plural.

  51. J.W. Brewer says:

    Singular usage from the notes of a facing-page translation group of Gaelic folk tales, published 1890 in a series called “Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition,” and edited by the Rev. D. MacInnes: “if a human being, he is the soul of a dead man to whom the hero has rendered some signal service, generally that of burial, denied to the dead man by hard-hearted creditors— this story-formula being known as the Grateful Dead.” That Jerry Garcia et al. were clearly plural so dominates my sense of the NP that I don’t trust any intuition of my own that a singular version should have sounded weird to an L1 Anglophone of 1890.

  52. J.W. Brewer says:

    Following a link from that wiki article, we have a writer in 1907 saying “To Karl Simrock is due the honour of discovering the importance of The Grateful Dead for the student of literature and legend. In his little book, Der gute Gerhard und die dankbaren Todten, he called attention to the theme as a theme, and treated it with a breadth of knowledge and a clearness of insight remarkable in an attempt to unravel for the first time the mixed strands of so wide-spread a tale.” So it’s the Germans fault, or, um, would be except for the fact that “die dankbaren Todten” is plural, innit?

  53. Stevenson, 1887, The Ballad of Ticonderoga:

    Thrice in the time of midnight,
    When the fox barked in the den,
    And the plaids were over the faces
    In all the houses of men,
    Thrice as the living Cameron
    Lay sleepless on his bed,
    Out of the night and the other world
    Came in to him the dead,
    And cried to him for vengeance
    On the man that laid him low;
    And thrice the living Cameron
    Told the dead Cameron, no.

    “Thrice have you seen me, brother,
    But now shall see me no more,
    Till you meet your angry fathers
    Upon the farther shore.
    Thrice have I spoken, and now,
    Before the cock be heard,
    I take my leave for ever
    With the naming of a word.
    It shall sing in your sleeping ears,
    It shall hum in your waking head,
    The name–Ticonderoga,
    And the warning of the dead.”

  54. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Michael. I read the whole poem on Google. I knew the name Ticonderoga as something Amerindian but had no idea it was used in a Scottish legend!

  55. David Marjanović says:

    It never occurred to me that the Grateful Dead was not meant as a plural.

    Me neither.

    “die dankbaren Todten” is plural, innit?

    It is.

  56. Singular usage […]: “if a human being, he is the soul of a dead man to whom the hero has rendered some signal service, generally that of burial, denied to the dead man by hard-hearted creditors— this story-formula being known as the Grateful Dead.”

    That’s not singular usage; we already know the story-formula is known as the Grateful Dead, and the references to singular dead men are “a dead man” and “the dead man.”

  57. Nabokov, Pnin:

    With the help of a janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.

  58. A perfect quote.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    I must have seen TICONDEROGA on yellow pencils!

  60. According to Stevenson’s own footnote (#1),

    … Two clans, the Camerons and the Campbells, lay claim to this bracing story; and they do well: the man who preferred his plighted troth to the commands and menaces of the dead is an ancestor worth disputing. But the Campbells must rest content: they have the broad lands and the broad page of history; this appanage must be denied them; for between the name of Cameron and that of Campbell, the muse will never hesitate.

    Nevertheless, since both are disyllabic and Cameron never occurs in a rhyme position in “Ticonderoga”, Campbell can be substituted for it throughout the poem.

  61. J.W. Brewer says:

    Wikipedia has Campbell as the surname of the underlying historical figure, but whether this is sourced to actual contemporaneous evidence (e.g. the Black Watch’s muster roll as of that point in 1758 and an indication of who on it was killed at the particular battle) or just sourced to a rival version of the legend is unclear to me. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_Campbell_(died_1758)

  62. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW “Cameron” is trisyllabic in my idiolect, which ought not to govern the situation, but I do note that the meter in the RLS poem is loose/variable enough that it’s not clear that “Cameron” has to be disyllabic to fit.

  63. Still, Campbell can never spoil the scansion (the muse aside).

    BTW, there was also a Pole involved in the history of Fort Ticonderoga.

  64. January First-of-May says:

    I also interpreted “Cameron” as trisyllabic, and I also agree that the meter of the poem is loose and/or variable enough that it probably fits either way.

  65. Ford Madox Ford was everywhere.

    There was one summer where I read something like 5 or 6 random Victorian/Edwardian/and beyond literary biographies, ranging from Hardy to Stevenson to Virginia Woolf, and FMF showed up in every single one.

    The oddest, to me, was an elderly FMF popping up in young Robert Lowell’s life. I couldn’t wrap my head around the timeline – I’d mentally imagined those two occupying very different centuries.

  66. That’s hilarious! I think I first encountered him via Pound (whom he aided by rolling on the floor and laughing at his Victorian-era poeticisms).

  67. BTW, there was also a Pole involved in the history of Fort Ticonderoga.

    He is commemorated by a bridge in New York, which was just replaced by a fancy new version. We also have a Pulaski Skyway nearby.

  68. Indeed, the /kaski̩uskoʊ/ Bridge.

  69. January First-of-May says:

    Is it the same guy that the highest point of mainland Australia is named for, or a different one?

  70. The same.

  71. Indeed, the /kaski̩uskoʊ/ Bridge.

    See this long and ancient thread.

  72. This is post #6250.

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