July 01, 2008

Est avis in dextra melior quam quattuor extra

In English: A bird in the right hand is better than four outside.

This latest "animal proverb" in Latin is most familiar in the English form, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," where the stylistic charm of the saying is based on the assonance of "bird...bush." The Latin has a wonderful stylistic charm of its own, of course, because it rhymes: Est avis in dextra melior quam quattuor extra.

Rhyme is one of the distinctive features of medieval Latin proverbs and poetry which I find enormously charming. The classical Romans, for whatever reasons, tended to avoid rhyme, rather than to cultivate it. So, when you find a rhyming proverb, the odds are that it will be a medieval Latin saying, rather than a classical one.

Here's another rhyming Latin variation on the same idea: Capta avis est pluris quam mille in gramine ruris, "A caught bird is better than a thousand in the grass of the field."

In the medieval tradition of legends of Reynard the Fox (sometimes called the "beast epic" tradition), you can find this version: Una avis in laqueo plus valet octo vagis, "One bird in the snare is worth more than eight at large."

As you can see, the number really doesn't matter - one bird compared to two, or four or eight - or, in this variation, compared to ten: Melior est avis in manu vel nido, quam decem in aere, "Better is a bird in the hand or its nest, than ten in the air."

It's also possible to base the comparison on size rather than number, as in this variant: plus valet in manibus passer, quam sub dubio grus, "a sparrow in the hands is worth more than a dubious crane."

This simple idea can be expanded into a full-blow elegiac couplet, as here in this couplet about the crane and the sparrow: Grus quae pennarum celeri secat aera motu, / Passere Iam capto dicitur esse minor, "A crane which cuts the sky with the swift motion of its feathers can be said to be less than a sparrow which is already captured."

I also found this couplet about counting the number of birds in hand and at large: Plus certa comprensa manu valet una volucris / Innumeris, alte quas levis aura vehit, "One bird is worth more, caught with a sure hand, than countless birds which the light air carries aloft."

So, hoping that you have got your birds firmly in hand today, certa manu, here the rhyming version of the proverb read out loud:

754. Est avis in dextra melior quam quattuor extra.

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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EMcDonald said...

I came on this Proverb in Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift."

Laura Gibbs said...

Excellent! Even if the classicists are not interested in the medieval Latin proverb tradition, some of those sayings took on a life of their own! And thanks to the power of GoogleBooks preview, I was able to find it quickly here! Thanks for the tip!!!

R. Aurelia Valeria said...

How about:
"A single bird in a strong hand/ Is better than four aloft over the land."
It rhymes!
R. Aurelia Valeria (my Latin pseudonym)