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Title: Taboo - A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with - Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir
Author: Cabell, James Branch, 1879-1958
Language: English
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              _A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius
                   Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes,
                       and a Preliminary Memoir_


                          James Branch Cabell

       *       *       *       *       *

             _At melius fuerat non scribere, namque tacere
              Tutum semper erit._

       *       *       *       *       *

                               NEW YORK

                      ROBERT M. McBRIDE & COMPANY


             _This edition is limited to nine hundred and
              twenty numbered copies, of which one hundred
              copies have been signed by the author._

                         _Copy Number  __893__

                          Copyright, 1921, by

                          JAMES BRANCH CABELL

       *       *       *       *       *

              Revised and reprinted, by permission of the
              Editors, from THE LITERARY REVIEW





  _How Horvendile Met Fate and Custom_
  _How the Garbage-Man Came with Forks_
  _How Thereupon Ensued a Legal Debate_
  _How There Was Babbling in Philistia_
  _How It Appeared to the Man in the Street_



       *       *       *       *       *


_Laudataque virtus crescit_

       *       *       *       *       *

    "Buttons, a farthing a pair!
    Come, who could buy them of me?
    They're round and sound and pretty,
    And fit for girls of the city."


(_Agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice_)

For no short while my indebtedness to you has been such as to require
some sort of public acknowledgment, which may now, I think, be
tendered most appropriately by inscribing upon the dedication page of
this small volume the name to which you are daily adding in

It is a tribute, however trivial, which serves at least to express my
appreciation of your zeal in re-establishing what seemed to the less
optimistic a lost cause. I may to-day confess without much
embarrassment that after fifteen years of foiled endeavors my
(various) publishers and I had virtually decided that the printing of
my books was not likely ever to come under the head of a business
venture, but was more properly describable as a rather costly form of
dissipation. People here and there would praise, but until you,
unsolicited, had volunteered to make me known to the general public,
nobody seemed appreciably moved to purchase.

One by one my books had "fallen dead" with disheartening monotony:
then--through what motive it would savor of ingratitude to
inquire,--you came to remedy all this in the manner of a philanthropic
sorcerer, brandishing everywhither your vivifying wand, and the dead
lived again. At once, they tell me, the patrons of bookstores began to
ask, not only in whispers for the _Jurgen_ which you had everywhere so
glowingly advertised, but with frank curiosity for "some of the
fellow's other books."

Whereon we of course began to "reprint," with, I rejoice to say,
results which have been very generally acceptable. Barring a few
complaints as to the exiguousness of my writing's salacity,--a
salacity which even I confess you amiably exaggerated in attributing
to my literary manner all qualities which the average reader most
desires in novelists,--there has proved to be in point of fact, as my
publishers and I had dubiously believed for years, a gratifying number
of persons, living dispersedly about America, prepared to like my
books when these books were brought to their attention. The difficulty
had been that we did not know how to reach these widely scattered,
congenial readers. But you--like Sir James Barrie's hero--"found a

I cannot say, in candor, that your method of exegetical criticism has
always and in every respect appealed to me. Its applicability, for one
thing, seems so universal that it might, for aught I know, be
employed to interpret the dicta of Ackermann and Macrobius, or even
the canons of Doctors Matthews and Sherman herein cited, and thus open
dire vistas wherein critic would prey on critic, and the most
respectable would be locked in fratricidal strife. Moreover, I have
applied your method to many of the Mother Goose rhymes with rather
curious results.... But happily, I have here to confess to you, not
any disputable literary standards I may harbor, but only my unarguable

In brief, your aid obtained for me overnight the hearing I had vainly
sought for a long while; and of such thaumaturgy my appreciation will
never be, I trust, inadequate. I therefore grasp at the first chance
to express this appreciation in--as I have said,--a form which seems
not quite inept.

_Dumbarton Grange_
_December, 1920._

Of _The Mulberry Grove_ the following editions have been collated:

(1) The _editio princeps_ of Mansard 1475. An excellent edition,
having, says Garnier, "nearly all the authority of an MS." This
edition served as the basis of all subsequent editions up to that of
Tribebos, 1553, which then took the lead up to the time of Bülg, who
judiciously reverted to that of Mansard.

(2) Bülg, in 4 vols. Strasburg. 1786-89. And in 2 vols. Strasburg.
1786. Both editions containing the Dirghic text with a Latin version,
and the scholia and indices.

(3) Musgrave, concerning whose edition Garnier is of opinion that,
though it appeared later, yet it had been made use of by Bülg. 2 vols.
Oxon. 1800. Reprinted, 3 vols. Oxon. 1809-10.

(4) Vanderhoffen, with scholia, notes, and indices. 7 vols. London.
1807-25. His notes reprinted separately. Leipsic. 1824.


_Saevius Nicanor Marci libertus negabit_

    "She went to the tailor's
    To buy him a coat;
    When she came back
    He was riding the goat."

Sævius Nicanor, one of the earliest of the Grammarians, says
Suetonius, first acquired fame and reputation by his teaching; and,
besides, made commentaries, the greater part of which, however, were
said to have been borrowed. He also wrote a satire, in which he
informs us that he was a free man, and had a double cognomen.

It is reported that in consequence of some aspersion attached to the
character of his writing, he retired into Sardinia, and, says
Oriphyles, devoted the remainder of his days to the composition of
sardonic[1] literature.

[Footnote 1: Ackermann reads "Sardinian." It is not certain whether
the adjective employed is [Greek: sardanios] or [Greek: sardanikos]. I
suspect that Oriphyles here makes an intentional play upon the words.]

He is quoted by Macrobius, whereas divers references to Nicanor in _La
Haulte Histoire de Jurgen_ would seem to show that this writer was
viewed with considerable esteem in mediæval times. Latterly his work
has been virtually unknown.

Robert Burton, for the rest, cites Sævius Nicanor in the 1620 edition
of _The Anatomy of Melancholy_ (this passage was subsequently
remodeled) in terms which have the unintended merit of conveying a
very fair notion of the old Grammarian's literary ethics:--

"As a good housewife out of divers fleeces weaves one piece of cloth
(saith Sævius Nicanor), I have laboriously collected this Cento out of
divers Writers, and that _sine injuria_, I have wronged no authors,
but given every man his own; which Sosimenes so much commends in
Nicanor, he stole not whole verses, pages, tracts, as some do
nowadays, concealing their Authors' names, but still said this was
Cleophantus', that Philistion's, that Mnesides', so said Julius
Bassus, so Timaristus, thus far Ophelion: I cite and quote mine own
Authors (which howsoever some illiterate scribblers account
pedantical, as a cloak of ignorance and opposite to their affected
fine style, I must and will use) _sumpsi, non surripui_, and what
Varro _de re rustica_ speaks of bees, _minime malificæ quod nullius
opus vellicantes faciunt deterius_, I can say of myself no less
heartily than Sosimenes his laud of Nicanor."


_Nec caput habentia, nec caudam_

    "I had a little husband, no bigger than my thumb,
    I put him in my pint-pot, and there I bid him drum."

Pre-eminently the most engaging feature of a topic which pure chance
and impure idiocy have of late conspired to pull about in the public
prints,--I mean the question of "indecency" in writing,--is the patent
ease with which this topic may be disposed of. Since time's beginning,
every age has had its literary taboos, selecting certain things--more
or less arbitrarily, but usually some natural function--as the things
which must not be written about. To violate any such taboo so long as
it stays prevalent is to be "indecent": and that seems absolutely all
there is to say concerning this topic, apart from furnishing some
impressive historical illustration....

The most striking instance which my far from exhaustive researches
afford, sprang from the fact, perhaps not very generally known, that
the natural function of eating, which nowadays may be discussed
intrepidly anywhere, was once regarded by the Philistines, of at all
events the Shephelah and the deme of Novogath, as being
unmentionable. This ancient tenet of theirs, indeed, is with such
clearness emphasized in a luckily preserved fragment from the Dirghic,
or pre-Ciceronian Latin, of Sævius Nicanor that the readiest way to
illustrate the chameleon-like traits of literary indecency appears to
be to record, as hereinafter is recorded, what of this legend

Bülg and Vanderhoffen, be it said here, are agreed that it is to this
legend Milton has referred in his _Areopagitica_, in a passage
sufficiently quaint-seeming to us (for whom a more advanced
civilization has secured the right of free speech) to warrant an
abridged citation:--

"What advantage is it to be a man, over it is to be a boy at school,
if serious and elaborate writings, as if they were no more than the
theme of a grammar lad under his pedagogue, must not be uttered
without the cursory eyes of a temporizing and extemporizing licenser?
whenas all the writer teaches, all he delivers, is but under the
tuition, under the correction of his patriarchal licenser, to blot or
alter what precisely accords not with the hide-bound humor which he
calls his judgment? What is it but a servitude like that imposed by
the Philistines?"


_Fit ex his consuetudo, inde natura_

    "I love little pussy,
     Her fur is so warm."

I--How Horvendile Met Fate and Custom

Now, at about the time that the Tyrant Pedagogos fell into disfavor
with his people, avers old Nicanor (as the curious may verify by
comparing Lib. X, Chap. 28 of his _Mulberry Grove_), passed through
Philistia a clerk whom some called Horvendile, travelling by
compulsion from he did not know where toward a goal which he could not
divine. So this Horvendile said, "I will make a book of this
journeying, for it seems to me a rather queer journeying."

They answered him: "Very well, but if you have had dinner or supper by
the way, do you make no mention of it in your book. For it is a law
among us, for the protection of our youth, that eating[2] must never
be spoken of in any of our writing."

[Footnote 2: Such at least is the generally received rendering.
Ackermann, following Bülg's probably spurious text, disputes that this
is the exact meaning of the noun.]

Horvendile considered this a curious enactment, but it seemed only one
among the innumerable mad customs of Philistia. So he shrugged, and he
made the book of his journeying, and of the things which he had seen
and heard and loved and hated and had put by in the course of his
passage among ageless and unfathomed mysteries.

And in the book there was nowhere any word of eating.

2--How the Garbage Man Came with Forks

Now to the book which Horvendile had made comes presently a
garbage-man, newly returned from foreign travel for his health's sake,
whose name was John. And this scavenger cried, "Oh, horrible! for here
is very shameless mention of a sword and a spear and a staff."

"That now is true enough," says Horvendile, "but wherein lies the

"Why, one has but to write 'a fork' here, in the place of each of
these offensive weapons, and the reference to eating is plain."

"That also is true, but it would be your writing and not my writing
which would refer to eating."

John said, "Abandoned one, it is the law of Philistia and the holy
doctrine of St. Anthony Koprologos that if anybody chooses to
understand any written word anywhere as meaning 'to eat,' the word
henceforward has that meaning."

"Then you of Philistia have very foolish laws."

To which John the Scavenger sagely replied: "Ah, but if laws exist
they ought to fairly and impartially and without favoritism be
enforced until amended or repealed. Much of the unsettled condition
prevailing in the country at the present time can be traced directly
to a lack of law enforcement in many directions during past years."

"Now I misdoubt if I understand you, Messire John, for your
infinitives are split beyond comprehension. And when you talk about
the non-enforcement of anything in many directions, even though these
directions were during past years, I find it so confusing that the one
thing of which I can be quite certain is that it was never you whom
the law selected to pass upon and to amend all books."

This Horvendile says foolishly, not knowing it is an axiom among the
Philistines that literary expression is best controlled by somebody
with no misleading tenderness toward it; and that it is this custom,
as they proudly aver, which makes the literature of Philistia what it

But John the Garbage-man said nothing at all, the while that he
changed nouns to "fork" and "dish," and carefully annotated each verb
in the book as meaning "to eat." Thereafter he carried off the book
along with his garbage, and with--which was the bewildering part of
it--self-evident and glowing self-esteem. And all that watched him
spoke the Dirghic word of derision, which is "Tee-Hee."

3--How Thereupon Ensued a Legal Debate

Now Horvendile in his bewilderment consulted with a man of law. And
the lawman answered a little peevishly, by reason of the fact that age
had impaired his digestive organs, and he said, "But of course you are
a lewd fellow if you have been suspected of writing about eating."

"Sir," replies Horvendile, "I would have you consider that if your
parents and your grandparents had not eaten, your race would have
perished, and you would never have been born. I would have you
consider that if you and your wife had not eaten, again your race
would have perished, and neither of you would ever have lived to have
the children for whose protection, as men tell me, you of Philistia
avoid all mention of eating."

"Yes, for the object of this most righteous law," declares the lawman,
"is to protect those whose character is not so completely formed as to
be proof against the effect of meat market reports and grocery
advertisements and menu folders and other such provocatives to

"--Yet I would have you consider how little is to be gained by
attempting to conceal even from the young the inevitability of this
natural function, so long as dogs eat publicly in the streets, and the
poultry regale themselves just as candidly, and the house-flies also.
Instead, the knowledge that this function is not to be talked about
induces furtive and misleading discussion among these children, and,
though lack of proper instruction in the approved etiquette of eating,
they often commit deplorable errors--"

To which the man of law replied, still with a bewildering effect of
talking very wisely and patiently: "Ah, but it does not matter at all
whether or not the function of eating is practised and is inevitable
to the nature and laws of our being. The law merely considers that any
mention of eating is apt to inflame an improper and lewd appetite,
particularly in the young, who are always ready to eat: and therefore
any such mention is an obscene libel."

4--How There Was Babbling in Philistia

Now Horvendile, yet in bewilderment, lamented, and he fled from the
man of law. Thereafter, in order to learn what manner of writing was
most honored by the Philistines, this Horvendile goes into an academy
where the faded old books of Philistia were stored, along with
yesterday's other leavings.

And as he perturbedly inspected these old books, one of the fifty
mummies which were installed in this Academy of Starch and Fetters,
with a hundred lackeys to attend them, spoke vexedly to Horvendile,
saying, as it was the custom of these mummies to say, before this
could be said to them, "I never heard of you before."

"Ah, sir, it is not that which is troubling me," then answered
Horvendile: "but rather, I am troubled because the book of my
journeying has been suspected of encroachment upon gastronomy. Now I
notice your most sacred volume here begins with a very remarkable myth
about the fruit of a tree in the middle of a garden, and goes on to
speak of the supper which Lot shared with two angels and with his
daughters also, and of the cakes which Tamar served to Amnon, and to
speak over and over again of eating--"

"Of course," replies the mummy, yawning, because he had heard this
silly sort of talking before.

"I notice that your most honored poet, here where the dust is
thickest, from the moment he began by writing about certain painted
berries which mocked the appetite of Dame Venus, and about a repast
from which luxurious Tarquin retired like a full-fed hound or a gorged
hawk, speaks continually of eating. And I notice that everybody, but
particularly the young person, is encouraged to read these books, and
other ancient books which speak very explicitly indeed of eating--"

"Of course," again replies the mummy (who had been for many years an
exponent of dormitive literacy)--"of course, young persons ought to
read them: for all these books are classics, and we who were more
obviously the heirs of the ages, and the inheritors of European
culture, used frequently to discuss these books in Paff's

"Well, but does the indecency of this word 'eating' evaporate out of
it as the years pass, so that the word is hurtful only when very
freshly written!"

The mummy blinked so wisely that you would never have guessed that the
brains and viscera of all these mummies had been removed when the
embalmers, Time and Conformity, were preparing these fifty for the
Academy of Starch and Fetters. "Young man, I doubt if the majority of
us here in the academy are deeply interested in this question of
eating, for reasons unnecessary to specify. But before estimating your
literary pretensions, I must ask if you ever frequented Paff's

Horvendile said, "No."

Now this mummy was an amiable and cultured old relic, unshakably made
sure of his high name for scholarship by the fact that he had written
dozens of books which nobody else had even read. So he said,
friendlily enough: "Then that would seem to settle your pretensions.
To have talked twaddle in Paff's beer-cellar is the one real proof of
literary merit, no matter what sort of twaddle you may have written in
your book, or in many books, as I am here in this academy to attest.
Moreover, I am old enough to remember when cookery-books were sold
openly upon the newsstands, and in consequence I am very grateful to
the garbage-man, who, in common with all other intelligent persons,
has never dreamed of meddling with anything I wrote."

"But, sir," says Horvendile, "do you esteem a scavenger, who does not
pretend to specialize in anything save filth, to be the best possible
judge of books?"

"He may be an excellent critic if only he indeed belongs to the
forthputting Philistine stock: that proviso is most important, though,
for, as I recently declared, we have very dangerous standards
domiciled in the midst of us, that are only too quickly raised--"

Says Horvendile, with a shudder: "You speak ambiguously. But still, in
criticizing books--"

"Plainly, young man, you do not appreciate that the essential
qualifications for a critic of Philistine literature are," said this
mummy bewilderingly, "to have set off fireworks in July, to have
played ball in a vacant lot, and to have repeated what Spartacus said
to the gladiators."[3]

[Footnote 3: It is a gratifying tribute to the permanence of æsthetic
canons to record that Dr. Brander Matthews (connected with Columbia
University) has, in an article upon "Alien Views of American
Literature," contributed to the _New York Times_ of 14 November, 1920,
accepted these three qualifications as the essential groundwork for a
literary critic even to-day; although Dr. Matthews is inclined, as a
concession to modernism, to add to the list an ability to recite
Webster's Reply to Hayne. Since Dr. Matthews frankly states that he
has been incited to this recital of a critic's needs by (in his happy
wording) "the alien angle" of "standards domiciled in the midst of
us," it is sincerely to be hoped that his requirements may be met

"No, no, the essential thing is not quite that," observed an attendant
lackey, a really clever writer, who wrote, indeed, far more
intelligently than he thought. He was a professor of patriotism, and
prior to being embalmed in the academy he had charge of the
postgraduate work in atavism and superior sneering. "No, my test is
not quite that, and if you venture to disagree with me about this or
anything else you are a ruthless Hun and an impudent Jew. No, the
garbage-man may very well be an excellent judge: for by my quite
infallible test the one thing requisite for a critic of our great
Philistine literature is an ability to induce within himself such an
internal disturbance as resembles a profound murmur of ancestral

"But, oh, dear me!" says Horvendile, embarrassed by such talk.

"--And to experience a mysterious inflowing," continued the other, "of
national experience--"

"The function is of national experience undoubtedly," said Horvendile,
"but still--"

"--Whenever he meditates," concluded this lackey bewilderingly, "upon
the name of Bradford and six other surnames.[4] At all events, I have
turned wearily from your book, you bolshevistic German Jew--"

[Footnote 4: Sævius Nicanor does not record the wonder-working
surnames employed to produce this ancient, ante-Aristotlean [Greek:
_katharsis_], and they are not certainly known. But, quite unaided, I
believe, by old Nicanor's hint, Dr. Stuart Pratt Sherman (the
accomplished editor of divers contributions to literature, and the
author of several books) has discovered, through a series of
interesting experiments in vivisection, that the one needful endowment
for a critic of American letters is the power to induce within himself
"a profound murmur of ancestral voices, and to experience a mysterious
inflowing of national experience, in meditating on the names of Mark
Twain, Whitman, Thoreau, Lincoln, Emerson, Franklin, and Bradford."
Compare "Is There Anything To Be Said for Literary Tradition," in _The
Bookman_ for October, 1920. Any candid consideration of Dr. Sherman's
phraseology, here as elsewhere, cannot fail to suggest that he has
happily re-discovered the long-lost critical abracadabra of

"But I," says Horvendile feebly, "am not a German Jew."

"Oh, yes, you are, and so is everybody else whose literary likings are
not my likings. I repeat, then, that I have turned wearily from your
book. Whether or not it treats of eating, its implication is clearly
that the Philistia which has developed Bradford and six other
appellations perfectly adapted to produce murmurings and inflowings in
properly constituted persons,--and which Philistia, as I have
elsewhere asserted, is to-day as always a revolting country whenever
it condemns,--has had no civilised cultural atmosphere worth
mentioning. So your book fails to connect itself vitally with our
great tradition as to our literature, and I find nowhere in your book
any ascending sun heralded by the lookouts."

"No more do I," said Horvendile; "but I would have imagined you were
more interested in lunar phenomena, and even so--"

"Moreover," now declared another mummy (this was a Moor, called
P.E.M., or the Peach,[5] who through some oversight had not been
embalmed, but only pickled in vinegar, to the detriment of his
disposition),--"moreover, I am not at all in sympathy with any protest
whatever against the scavenger, for it might be taken as an excuse for
what they are pleased to call art."

[Footnote 5: Codman annotates this: "Synonyms, since P.E.M. is
obviously _Persicum Esculentum Malum_--that is, the peach; 'which,'
says Macrobius, 'although it rather belongs to the tribe of apples,
Sævius reckons as a species of nut.'"]

All groaned at this abominable word. And then another lackey cried,
"You are a prosperous and affected pseudo-littérateur!" and all the
mummies spoke sepulchrally the word of derision, which is "Tee-Hee":
and many said also, "The scavenger has never meddled with us, and we
never heard of you," and there was much other incoherent foolishness.

But Horvendile had fled, bewildered by the ways of Philistia's adepts
in starch and fetters, and bewildered in particular to note that a
mummy, so generally esteemed a kindly and well-meaning fossil,
appeared quite honestly to believe that all literature came out of
the beer-cellar of Paff, or Pfaff, or had some similarly Teutonic
sponsor; and that handball was the best training for literary
criticism; and that the cookery-books of fifty years ago had something
to do with Horvendile's account of his journeying, from he did not
know where toward a goal which he could not divine, now being in the
garbage pile. It troubled Horvendile because so many persons seemed to
regard the old fellow half seriously.

5--How It Appeared to the Man in the Street

Still, Horvendile was not quite routed by these heaped follies. "For,
after all," says Horvendile, in his own folly, "it is for the normal
human being that books are made, and not for mummies and men of law
and scavengers."

So Horvendile went through a many streets that were thronged with
persons travelling by compulsion from they did not know where toward a
goal which they could not divine, and were not especially bothering
about. And it was evening, and to this side and to that side the men
and women of Philistia were dining. Everywhere maids were passing hot
dishes, and forks were being thrust into these dishes, and each was
eating according to his ability and condition. No matter how
poverty-stricken the household, the housewife was serving her poor
best to the goodman. For with luncheon so long past, all the really
virile men of Philistia were famished, and stood ready to eat the
moment, they had a dish uncovered.

So it befell that Horvendile encountered a representative citizen, who
was coming out of a representative restaurant with a representative

And the sight of this representative citizen was to Horvendile a tonic
joy and a warming of the heart. For this man, and each of the
thousands like him, as Horvendile reflected, had been within this hour
sedately dining with his wife,--neither of them eating with the zest
and vigor of their first youth, perhaps, but sharing amicably the more
moderate refreshment which middle-age requires,--without being at any
particular pains to conceal the fact from anybody. Here was then,
after all, the strong and sure salvation of Philistia, in this quiet,
unassuming common-sense, which dealt with the facts of life as facts,
the while that the foolish laws, and the academical and stercoricolous
nonsense of Philistia, reverberated as remotely and as unheeded as
harmless summer thunder.

"Sir," says elated Horvendile, "I perceive that you two have just been
eating, and that emboldens me to ask you--"

But at this point Horvendile found he had been knocked down, because
the parents of the representative citizen had taught him from his
earliest youth that any mention of eating was highly indecent in the
presence of gentlewomen. And for Horvendile, recumbent upon the
pavement, it was bewildering to note the glow of honest indignation in
the face of the representative citizen, who waited there, in front of
the restaurant he usually patronized....


Here, rather vexatiously, the old manuscript breaks off. But what
survives and has been cited of this fragment amply shows you, I think,
that even in remote Philistia, whenever this question of "indecency"
arose, everybody (including the accused) was apt to act very
foolishly. It has attested too, I hope, the readiness with which you
may read ambiguities into the most respectable of authors; as well as
the readiness with which a fanatical training may lead you to imagine
some underlying impropriety in all writing about any natural function,
even though it be a function so time-hallowed and general as that to
which this curious Dirghic legend refers.


(_French of C.J.P. Garnier_)

    The swine that died in Gadara two thousand years ago
    Went mad in lofty places, with results that all men know--
    Went mad in lofty places through long rooting in the dirt,
    Which (even for swine) begets at last soul-satisfying hurt.

    The swine in lofty places now are matter for no song
    By any prudent singer, but--_how long, O Lord, how long?_







*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Taboo - A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with - Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir" ***

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