November 21, 2006

Excelsior!

In English: Higher!

This is a one-word saying that serves as the motto of the state of New York (you can read more about state mottoes in Latin at the Bestiaria Latina blog). The motto is featured prominently in the New York state flag and the New York state seal.

It was the phrase "Excelsior" on the New York state seal which inspired a poem entitled "Excelsior!" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It is a romantic, mystical poem about a young man climbing the Alps, bearing a banner "with the strange device, Excelsior!" He sees the happy houses of the village, but he continues climbing. An old man warns him of the dangers, but he keeps climbing. A beautiful maiden begs him to stay with her, but he keeps climbing. A peasant tells him to watch out for avalanches, and he keeps climbing, ever higher. Then the next day he was found in the snow, grasping the banner in his frozen hand:

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell, like a falling star,
Excelsior!

"Excelsior" is also the title of a poem by Walt Whitman in his book Leaves of Grass. It is a a very Walt-Whitmanesque poem, as you can see from this excerpt:

Who has gone farthest? For lo! have not I gone farther?
And who has been just? For I would be the most just person of the earth;
And who most cautious? For I would be more cautious;
And who has been happiest? O I think it is I! I think no one was ever happier than I;
And who has lavish’d all? For I lavish constantly the best I have;
And who has been firmest? For I would be firmer;
And who proudest? For I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive—for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city;
And who has been bold and true? For I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe; [...]

Yet my reason for choosing Excelsior as today's saying is not because of Longfellow or Whitman, but because of the absolutely delightful film The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. I watched this film for the first time this week, and found it to be absolutely enchanting. For those of you who have not seen the film, it is about a village in Wales which faces an unexpected crisis: their "mountain" is in danger of being classified as a hill, unless they can make it a little bit higher. Excelsior! It's a wonderful movie, and at the very end there is a ghostly voice that says "Higher!" which immediately made me think of the Latin saying Excelsior.

So, in honor of both New York and Wales, here is today's proverb read out loud:

607. Excelsior.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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