Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Clive James, “Gianfranco Contini”:

There is an untranslatable Italian word for the mental bank account you acquire by memorizing poetry: it is a gazofilacio. Contini believed that an accumulation of such treasure would eventually prove its worth even if it had to begin with sweated labour. He confessed that not all of the teachers who had made him memorize a regular ration of Tasso’s epic poetry had been inspired. Some of them had held him to the allotted task because they lacked imagination, not because they possessed it. But in the long run he was grateful. Most readers of this book will spot the sensitive point about modern pedagogy. Readers my age were made to memorize and recite: their yawns of boredom were discounted. Younger readers have been spared such indignities. Who was lucky? Isn’t a form of teaching that avoids all prescription really a form of therapy? In a course called Classical Studies taught by teachers who possess scarcely a word of Latin or Greek, suffering is avoided, but isn’t it true that nothing is gained except the absence of suffering? In his best novel, White Noise, Don DeLillo made a running joke out of a professor of German history who could not read German. But the time has already arrived when such a joke does not register as funny. What have we gained, except a classroom in which no one need feel excluded?

Clive James is always lively reading, but the burden of this (even though I agree that memorizing poetry is a Good Thing) is sheer curmudgeonry. However, it is worth sharing for the word gazofilacio, which (astonishingly) he does not delve into beyond calling it (sigh) “untranslatable.” Wiktionary provides the essential details: it means ‘the treasury in the temple of Jerusalem’ and is from Late Latin gazophylacium, from Ancient Greek γαζοφυλάκιον, derived from γάζα ‘treasury, treasure’ + φυλάκιον, a later diminutive from classical φύλαξ ‘guard.’ And γάζα is from Old Median *ganǰam ‘treasure.’ Isn’t that more interesting than kvetching about kids these days?

Oh, and a visit to the OED shows that the word gazophylacium “The box in which offerings to the Temple were received; a strong-box or treasure-chest,” though long obsolete, does exist in English and was used from 1377 (Haued nouȝt..the pore widwe [more] for a peire of mytes Than alle tho that offreden in-to gazafilacium, W. Langland, Piers Plowman B. xiii. 197) to 1697 (Blood who made that bold Attempt on the Royal Gazophylacium in the Tower, J. Evelyn, Numismata viii. 266).


  1. For a few days last year the Classics / ancient Mediterranean studies Twitterverse (is there still such a thing?) was up in arms for a few days about a job interview in which a candidate for a Biblical Hebrew teaching position had been asked to translate a few sentences of Biblical Hebrew. The consensus was that this was an outrage. So it seems James is right about the joke no longer being funny. Count me as a fellow curmudgeon, I guess.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Maybe the candidate in question spilled the beans about Biblical Hebrew in fact being as untranslatable as “gazofilacio,” with purported translators back to at least Jerome just having bluffed their way out of admitting it?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Nah. It’s only the poetic bits that are incomprehensible.

  4. The consensus was that this was an outrage.

    Wow. Before I got accepted into the IE program — as a grad student, mind you, not a teacher — I had to translate, at sight, passages from books in French, German, and Russian that Warren Cowgill pulled down from his shelves. OK, I join the curmudgeon crew.

  5. Is this so new? Didn’t Nabokov complain that there were Slavic departments at some American universities where none of the professors knew any Russian?

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    It would have been funnier if Cowgill had pulled down passages in much more obscure IE tongues (Albanian, Breton, Ossetian …) to test your bluffing skills …

    Re “classics / ancient Mediterranean” whatnot, I think American universities vary quite a lot in where a Biblical Hebrew scholar will be stuck in terms of the bureacratic organization chart if there isn’t a department at that particular university that folks like that control – occasionally in with the Greek-and-Latin people, but there are lots of other options. The department in which my firstborn majored was called “Classical and Mediterranean Studies” at her university, and the faculty included among others one guy, shared with the Divinity School, whose scholarship was all about Syriac texts. However she (my daughter) did not venture beyond Latin and Greek to the more arcane pleasures of Syriac.

  7. Yes, as suspected gazofilacio turns out to be related to genizah (“(Jewish law) A depository where sacred Hebrew books or other sacred items that by Jewish law cannot be disposed of are kept before they can be properly buried in a cemetery”):

    From Hebrew גְּנִיזָה (g’nizá, “archiving, preservation, storage; hiding; genizah”) (plural גְּנִיזוֹת (g’nizót)), from Old Persian *ganzam, from Old Median *ganǰam (“depository; treasure”).

    Gazette, some say, is related. But that one’s complicated. La gazza ladra gets involved in the plot.

    Clive James? Wonderful of course. Translated La Commedia during his excessively long last illness (for which dilation he urbanely apologised). We could wish that our own eventual demise be similarly Dantesque. Well, I could anyway.

  8. It would have been funnier if Cowgill had pulled down passages in much more obscure IE tongues (Albanian, Breton, Ossetian …) to test your bluffing skills …
    Reminds me of how the late Professor Neu once noted that I missed to refer in a term paper to a pertinent article in Lithuanian. The paper was on Slavic noun endings, so of course he was right.

  9. Nat Shockley says

    Not surprisingly, it turns out that Clive James is misquoting the Italians. Even in Italian, the main meaning of the word is simply “the treasury in the temple of Jerusalem.” While it is occasionally used in a figurative way, it seems then to refer to a corpus or anthology of literary works – in any form, not just those memorised in someone’s head.

  10. “untranslatable” – I understand this word as “can be explained, but does not have an analogue in the target langauge”.
    Not as “inexplicable”.

    “γάζα” – I’m more familiar with Arabic xazna, xazīna, borrowed into Russian. Wiktionary says
    “From the root خ ز ن (ḵ-z-n), likely from the same Iranian circle like كَنْز (kanz) from Old Median *ganǰam (“treasure, treasury”).”

  11. As for memorising poetry – it is a good thing, it is not difficult, and it is a good idea for language learners. Including beginners.

    But perhaps it would be better to make this idea (“memorising poetry is an easy and useful exercise!”) popular.

  12. The closest I came to the word, long ago, was from cranky yet informative Epiphanius, Panarion 30, heresy of Ebionites:

    “[3.7] They too accept the Gospel according to Matthew. Like the Corinthians and Merinthians, they too use it alone. They call it, “According to the Hebrews,” and it is true to say that only Matthew expounded and preached the Gospel in the Hebrew language and alphabet in the New Testament. [3.8] But some may already have replied that the Gospel of John too, translated from Greek to Hebrew, is in the Jewish treasuries (γαζοφυλακιοις), I mean the treasuries at Tiberias, and is stored there secretly, as certain Jewish converts have described to me in detail. (9) And not only that, but it is said that the book of the Acts of the Apostles, also translated from Greek to Hebrew, is there in the treasuries (γαζοφυλακιοις), so that the Jews who have read it, the ones who told me about it, have been converted to Christ from this. [4.1] One of them was Josephus—not the ancient Josephus, the author and chronicler, but Josephus of Tiberias, during the old age of the Emperor Constantine of blessed memory.” (Panarion, 30.3.7-4.1; Williams, 133-134) [text today borrowed from Timothy N. Mitchell, online]

  13. From Il Dizionario della Lingua Italiana (Tommaseo-Bellini, 1861-1879):

  14. memorising poetry is an easy and useful exercise!

    It isn’t. I remember the one time in school when we had to memorise a poem (one of Schiller’s ballads), and it was horribly difficult for us (we were about 12 years old), and we all hated it. What is more, we hated and despised the poem. To us, memorising it was a totally pointless and sadistic exercise.

  15. @ulr, no contradiction here:)
    The list of things that I like that school tried to force me to do (so as result I just wasn’t doing them) is REALLY long.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    memorising poetry is an easy and useful exercise!

    Depends on the poetry. And this is not necessarily correlated with great literary worth (though it can be, obviously.)

    I read somewhere a critic who opined that the beginning of Tennyson’s Maud was “perversely memorable.” I think this is spot on: you remember it whether you want to or not. (I don’t want to …) Earworm poetry …

    (I suspect that in Tennyson’s case this correlates with Auden’s assessment that T had the finest ear and the dullest mind of any major English poet.)

    Despite the fact that my Middle High German is hardly brilliant, I can reel off reams of Walter von der Vogelweide’s verse which I have never consciously tried to learn. I can’t do this for any other MHG poet. Some poets have got it: others don’t. Some of the ones who don’t are still great poets.

  17. We have previously discussed “The Eagle” by Tennyson as an earworm poem. I didn’t memorize it in school because I wanted to, but because I had to. Others that affected me similarly were “The Tiger” by Blake and “Portrait of a Warrior” by de la Mare.

  18. “Depends on the poetry. ” – yes, but same for reading poetry, listening to it, eating (food) and anything.

    And yes, it does not imply great literary worth. When I said “beginners” I actually was thinking about songs.
    Actually, I totally enjoy wha Persian poems sound like when read aloud by so,me Iranians (or at least a particular freind of mine*), so maybe serious poetry can be suitable for beginners to.

    * in this situation the quality of poetry can matter very little, for I don’t know Persian anyway.
    The Tiger even received a jokular translation in (then fashionable) Russian internet slang. Perhaps inspired by previous Russian translations rather than the original (and by certian popular expressions of the aforementioned slang like аффтар жжот “the author burns it!”), but the poem is memorable anyway.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I think (though I am not sure) that this may also correlate with another feature that some poetry possesses while other poetry (great though it may nevertheless be) does not: the ability to bridge the language gap and be genuinely appreciated by people who may not actually know the language very well.

    Dante is my go-to example of a poet with this quality. (Also a highly memorable poet.) My grasp of Italian is very weak, but I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I find his poetry beautiful in the original.

    I was thinking something similar in a bookshop in France looking at the translations of classic English-language detective novels: much more Dashiell Hammett than Raymond Chandler. It’s not hard to see why: Chandler’s excellence is tightly bound to the language itself. It’s just much less translatable. That is not at all to say that Hammett was not a great English stylist too: but he was a great stylist in a way much less dependent on what you might call the idiosyncrasies of English.

    [In a celebrity detective deathmatch the Continental Op (short, fat, middle-aged and very, very hard) would of course marmalise Philip Marlowe, but then Marlowe gets knocked out on a regular basis anyway. Miss Marple could probably knock Marlowe out. Marlowe’s superpower is snark.]

  20. “the ability to … be genuinely appreciated by ”

    I don’t know about correlation, but there is such feature. In English (and Russian respectivelyt) The Raven in particular.

    Maybe it also has to to with a successful Russian translation: great many poets translated by Marshak appear accessible in the original (even though Marshak translations are frequently recognisable, that is, they sound like Marshak translations).

    Af for the Raven, there are dozens of known (and perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of unknown:)) Russian translation, but not by Marshak and I’m not even sure I read more than a few lines of any of them.

    I just discovered that Militarev (WP: “…a Russian scholar of Semitic, Berber, Canarian, and Afroasiatic”) published three versions (one of them here here, p 123)

  21. As for memorisation, for one thing you need a reason to like it (or why memorise it?).

    And for another thing, even readers who like poetry in a given language frequently have no slightest idea what it sounds like. Which is wrong, and one complication is that much of modern poetry is written and read head-to paper-to head.

  22. David Marjanović says

    That’s common?

  23. I’m afraid so. Understanding poetry on anything other than a prose-chopped-into-lines level requires saying it out loud, so you can feel the stress patterns, assonances, and so on; simply eye-reading it the way you would read a very short story won’t do the trick, and is probably at the root of why so much bad poetry gets accepted these days (*waves cane*).

  24. Couldn’t agree more, Hatman.

    But even with a short story – even with the most prosaic prose, like a grant application or a journal article – I want clients to read aloud before releasing it upon the world. After the inevitable technical tidying I can’t have music on while I edit. That would interfere with the play of language in my head. Not even soft unrhythmic Gregorian chant. It’s all too obvious when writers themselves are not similarly focused.

    I listen to a lot of Audible. It’s amazing how many presenters are deaf to what they’re delivering. Wrong stresses can betray zero understanding of a sentence, in performances otherwise without blemish. But far worse is when that’s going on along with imposition of a fixed contour to every sentence – relieved only by a second fixed contour, equally inept for the content, when the speaker finally becomes aware of the repetition (*adjusts monocle defiantly*).

  25. I am, of course, in fervent agreement with all you say.

  26. even with the most prosaic prose, like a grant application or a journal article – I want clients to read aloud before releasing it upon the world.

    I get the strongest impression Chomsky has never read aloud any of his stuff. Or at least — since some of his papers appeared first as lectures — he’s never listened to himself reading aloud his stuff.

  27. David Marjanović says

    I mean, I don’t read any of my stuff aloud; I know of only one colleague who did, and that’s told as a funny anecdote (…he did seem to pay more attention to whether his arguments sounded good than to whether they made sense). But I imagine some semblance of my voice when I read and when I write…

    …but that can’t be it; David E doesn’t sound like Chomsky, perish the thought.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    David E doesn’t sound like Chomsky

    Indeed not …

    I don’t hear a voice when I read, but the phonology is in there somewhere: I notice homophones, for example, and in doing cryptic crosswords I get misled by “sounds-like” cues which only work for non-rhotics. (In the Good Old Days, UK cryptic crosswords used routinely to include a “some say” or the like for clues that only work for non-rhotics, but this custom seems to have been in abeyance for some time now. I blame fourteen years of Tory misrule, and, of course, violent video games.)

    I certainly notice things like Virgil’s phonological special effects (Lucretius doesn’t do that.)

    And you can hardly appreciate traditional Welsh poetry if you don’t notice the cynghanedd.

    In re appreciation of poetry in languages I don’t know very well: I tend to have a disproportionately good “accent” even in languages I don’t speak well (sometimes leading to my interlocutors overestimating my command of the language.) I know the kind of things to listen for and imitate. I suspect that many other Hatters are the same.

    I should perhaps clarify that I think that the reason Tennyson’s verse is particularly memorable is precisely because he really did have a particularly fine “ear”, as Auden says. I don’t think this is the sole determinant of memorability though: Lucretius doesn’t have this particular quality, for example. but I have his verse very memorable.

  29. Kate Bunting says

    When I was at school some 60 years ago, we were given a choice of several verses of Macaulay’s ‘Horatius’ to learn. I memorised all of the selected verses without particularly trying (and can still recite them).

  30. I can still rattle off “The boy stood on the burning deck/ Whence all but he had fled,” “’Twas the eighteenth of April in seventy-five/ Hardly a man is now alive/ Who remembers that famous day and year,” and various other staples of mid-century primary education. We even read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” though I can’t quote any bits from it.

  31. I remember Tolkien’s Elvish. I don’t know how it happened:) I am generally better with less familiar languages, but after reading LotR I simply remember verses in Elvish recited in the book.

    Apart of that I remember several songs by Fabrizio de André, because I analysed them (that is read with a dictionary trying to figure out the grammatical constructions while listening). Since then I can any moment repeat “la chiamavano bocca di rosa…” and so on.

  32. At Flores in the Azores,
    Sir Richard Grenville lay…

    And that’s all I can remember, but I remember those two lines real good.

  33. Long ago I knew several lines of “A Elbereth Gilthoniel,” but now it’s just the title that sticks.

  34. I’m afraid nobody made me memorise anything in school.
    I remember only one such a situation. A teacher, and a very good one asked us to memorise something about war. My choise was a poem by Гудзенко.

    Years later we met a drunk (extremely drunk) poet in a suburban train. Or rather it were two guys, both sleeping on the floor under benches with bruised faces*, but one of them occasionaly woke up. He mentioned two poems he memorised in school. One of them is that very poem of Gudzenko (memorable because his teacher harshly criticised him for his choise) and the other… the poem of Byron which my friend (travelling with me) memorised in school. For her it is again “the poem she memorised in school”.

    * right before that they were having fun walking streets of a certain small town shouting literally this:
    мы трахнем ваших тёлок
    мы выпьем ваше пиво
    (not sure about the third line, I remember зовите нас фортуна but sounds not quite right)
    и в этом наша сила

    In ENghlish the first two lines mean “we’ll fuck your girls/chicks (lit. heifers), we’ll drink (out) your beer”

  35. I doubt that I am the only one here who can still do arma virumque cano for a dozen lines or more, fifty-odd years on. With a somewhat Americanized version of public school pronunciation: English vowels, /v/ not /w/, but rhotic. And English hexameters, of course.

  36. I can do the initial chunks of that and both Homers. (But I bow before Boris Johnson.)

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    As I may have mentioned before, my undergraduate assigned task of memorizing the first seven lines of the Iliad in Greek endured as an accomplishment into the infancy of my firstborn, a full fifteen years after I had taken that class. But somewhere between her infancy and her current status as an economically self-supporting adult I lost lines 3 through 6, so now I can do the first two but then need to mumble before regaining my bearings with Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

    The longest Proper Poem written in English that I ever fully memorized may have been one with a mere 16 lines, and those of tetrameter rather than pentameter. Much longer stretches of rock-song lyrics, of course. The longest might have been “Desolation Row,” which is 120 lines (10 verses of 12) the way the line breaks are done on the writer’s official website. That’s modestly more lines than “Street Hassle” in the first unofficial online transcription I looked at, but the form there is more variable and I’m not sure which of the two is longer on a word count or syllable count or stressed-syllable count basis.

  38. An officemate in Tech Square had Highway 61 Revisited on cassette tape, stopping at “get outta here.” I am still caught short hearing the song not do that there.

  39. I can only get four lines into the Aeneid, but of Bryant I can still recite the whole final passage (“So live, that when thy summons comes to join …”), which many years later I learned was added in a later addition to make the ending less gloomy. Also I can do three stanzas of Longfellow starting with “Speak! Speak, thou fearful guest!” (And I just checked, it’s not “fearsome guest.” Take that, peevers.) Plus the last two stanzas. SKOAL! TO THE NORTHLAND, SKOAL!

  40. I doubt that I am the only one here who can still do arma virumque cano for a dozen lines or more

    Apparently, the beginning of the Aeneid book 1 and 2 was very popular among the writers of Pompeian graffitti (and these were not exactly educated people — they always replaced ae with e). It seems that at the time learning the rudiments of reading and writing went hand in hand with memorising those lines.

  41. DE:

    In re appreciation of poetry in languages I don’t know very well: I tend to have a disproportionately good “accent” even in languages I don’t speak well (sometimes leading to my interlocutors overestimating my command of the language.)

    Yes. And yes, other Hatters must be like that too. I’m hopeless at Putonghua, but if I do manage to get a few syllables out they prompt a rapid fusillade of Sinitic incomprehensibilia in return. I’m complimented on my Italian, though again I have to plead “lentamente, per favore” when answered. In Paris I could not understand the métro maze and went a few stations too far before having to change for Versailles. This exhausted my fare, and I was later technically in breach of Parisian ticket-étiquette. I explained to officials that I couldn’t work it out from the signs, but they said my French was too good for that to be true. I had but one recourse: “Mais pour moi il s’agit du parler baudelairien, pas de celui du métro.”

    Verse? I remember verse only through a glass darkly – even texts that I cherish or have painstakingly translated. The only exceptions are bits of Southey’s “The Inchcape Rock” and the like drummed into us at primary school, and chips of French gems at secondary school. I wish there’d been more drumming. Yet (or therefore) I pride myself on having an acute, accurate, and immediate ear for such things. Mmm?

  42. When I was learning Russian and Polish, I often was praised for my good elocution by native speakers. But when I became more fluent, my accent went down the drain and became more German, simply because I spoke faster and less carefully.
    There were some poems I knew by heart because I had to learn them at school (including the beginning of the Hildebrandslied – we had a weird German teacher; I now only remember Ik gihôrta dat seggen, daz sih urhêttun aenon muotîn, Hiltibrant endi Hadubrand, untar heriun twên). Nowadays, the only ones I still can recite in full by heart are Rilke’s “Panther” and Heine’s “Lorelei” (and the latter may be cheating under the rules here, as it has been set to music and become a popular song.)

  43. I already complained at my Tunisian friend’s sister (who I think was still a school girl). She wanted to impress me and my freinds and learned one Russian phrase and inserted it in the middle of her Arabic. But she learned it perfectly. My friend says, she spent “a whole evening with youtube”. (What do you mean “whole evening”?) Arabic ح is not difficult but it took half a year until my ح began to sound like a ح to me (i’m not even speaking of natives) just because my muscles need some time to adjist to the movement.)
    Anyway, the trick worked, that is, we jumped.

  44. David Marjanović says

    I explained to officials that I couldn’t work it out from the signs, but they said my French was too good for that to be true. I had but one recourse: “Mais pour moi il s’agit du parler baudelairien, pas de celui du métro.”

    Trust me, that’s better than the alternative. As soon as the Parisians figure that French isn’t your native language, they speak English to you – English in the French sound system (at least 15 years ago). It’ll take you half a minute to parse it as English, and then you still won’t understand anything.

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