From Mercedonius to Keats

I find it beyond fascinating that one thing can so easily lead to another even if those things have precious little in common. I have chosen to share the journey which reminded me of this with you in hopes that you too may find it equally interesting.

This entry (Mercedonius) was listed on the main page of Dictionary.com; from there I followed the highlighted links to the dear Mr. John Keats.

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Meet “Mercedonius,” the annoying month that used to exist (sometimes)

January 26, 2011

There are many reasons to be thankful for the benefits of modern living ― antibiotics, airplanes, velcro . . . Another subtle but essential item is our calendar. It may have some frustrating moments, but consider how months used to work. Take heed of Mercedonius.

In the days of the Roman calendar, an intercalary month was added in leap years and a few other times as well. This month was called Mercedonius, but it was also known as Intercalaris.

 (The insertion of a leap day, week, or month into some years is called “intercalation.” Intercalation is done to align the calendar with the seasons or moon phases.)

The name Mercedonius comes from the Latin word “merces,” which means “wages.” It got its name because workers were paid at the time of year Mercedonius occurred, around the month of Februarius.

The addition of Mercedonius didn’t happen automatically. The decision was made by the high priest of the College of Pontiffs, who was also known as the Pontifex Maximus. The Pontifex Maximus, Latin for “greatest bridge-maker,” was the head honcho of the ancient Roman religion.

(As we end January, learn the name of the unusual Roman god who is the month’s namesake, and the meaning behind his two faces, here.)

The Pontifex Maximus was supposed to base the decision whether to include Mercedonius in any given year so that the calendar would correspond with the seasons. Politics, however, are said to have motivated his decision making. For example, Mercedonius was sometimes inserted to allow a government official to stay in office longer.

You can imagine the confusion that this caused. If you were living outside of Rome, you might have no idea what the current date was.

 In 46 BC, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar and did away with Mercedonius. Can you guess the month that was named in honor of him? Find the answer, here.

Author: Hot Word | Posted in Uncategorized 

From the last entry to:

Which two-headed god is January named after, and what does the month symbolize?

January 2, 2011

January is often considered the month for deep reflection. We look back at the year behind us, bemoaning our regrets and celebrating our successes. And then, we look forward to the future year. We make well-meaning resolutions and hope for the best.

So, in this way, we’re all a little bit like Janus, the Roman god for which January is named. Janus is usually depicted with having two heads. that face in opposite directions. One looks back to the year departed, and one looks forward to the new and uncertain year ahead.

(The poetic term John Keats coined that describes living your life while accepting that it is filled with uncertainty seems appropos to this transitional time. Learn the term and its exact meaning, here.)

The god Saturn bestowed upon Janus this ability to see into the future and past.

His name comes from the Latin word ianua, which means “door.” Janus is the god of doors, gates, doorways, bridges, and passageways, all of which symbolize beginnings and ends.

From the last entry to:

What poetic term describes living your life while accepting that it is filled with uncertainty?

On December 21, 1817, the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brother in which he expressed and named a quality of human existence that is tricky to articulate. Keat’s formulation has been adopted by philosophers, poets, and others ever since.

Roughly, the idea is our ability to simultaneously acknowledge the unpredictable nature of events and conduct ourselves with confidence and happiness. He called this familiar yet complex concept negative capability.

Here’s a passage from Keat’s letter elucidating the theory: “…what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Keats felt that it was great thinkers in particular (like poets, for example) who had the negative capability to see that all life’s big questions can’t be resolved. It should be noted that while other writers continued to explore negative capability, Keats only explicitly mentioned it once — in the aforementioned letter to his brother. This isn’t the only idea Keats casually mentioned that turned out to be hugely influential. You can read more about his life, poetry, and philosophy, here. It was an infamously tragic life. He died at 25, and his significance as a poet of the Romantic movement became clear only after his death.

Keats Works

There are 133 listed poems written between 1814 and 1819? That’s certainly one heck of an accomplishment for a man with a five year career in poetry who never hit his 26th birthday! And so I clicked on the connection of a poem by Keats to/about my second choice of the period’s poets (Lord Byron) and it brought up a dead link…which, in turn, irritated me beyond all reason and so I “googled” the title and clicked the first link listed.

This led me to this (http://englishhistory.net/keats/) website and then to the link for poetry and then letters. “Letters” led me to yet another connection to a poet of the period. It seems that Keats had written (http://englishhistory.net/keats/letters/shelley16August1820.html) to Mr. Shelley and that the two had a rather lovely bond.

There I discovered this:

“I think Shelley’s opinion can best be described in his own words, from a letter he wrote to Marianne Hunt on 29 October 1820 regarding Keats’s latest work, Hyperion:

‘Keats’ new volume has arrived to us, & the fragment called Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age. – His other things are imperfect enough….  Where is Keats now?  I am anxiously expecting him in Italy where I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him.  I consider his a most valuable life, & I am deeply interested in his safety.  I intend to be the physician both of his body & his soul, to keep the one warm & to teach the other Greek & Spanish.  I am aware indeed that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me and this is an additional motive & will be an added pleasure.’”

And then, this:

“Upon learning of Keats’s illness, Shelley graciously asked him to stay with his family in Italy.  The poet politely refused.  Shelley wrote the beautiful elegy Adonais upon Keats’s death.  The next year, Shelley himself drowned; a volume of Keats’s poetry was found in his pocket.”

 So, I ended my evenings journey on line 495 (http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/1879.html) of Adonais, which I never would have read had my “go to” dictionary not chosen to offer me “’Mercedonius’ the annoying month that used to exist (sometimes).”

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