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“ Next an uncertain and ambiguous train,
Now forward march, then counter-march again ;
Thus onward Amphisbæna springs to meet
SIR, -Having already troubled you with dissertations on Anagrams and Chronograms, I come now to those “ difficiles nugæ,” which range under the the generic name of Amphibology,—and the subject, as it is curious, will, I trust, plead my excuse for indulging rather largely in quotation.
Of simple equivocation, or merely the doubtful signification of one word, I do not so much intend to treat, as of that artificial construction, by which the sense of a sentence or more, is thrown into ambiguity, and made to admit of a double interpretation. That the ancients excelled in this art, we cannot doubt, when we recollect that there were numerous schools instituted among them, where this was the chief, and almost the only, science studied.
I allude to the temples at Delphi, &c. For an idea of the proficiency to which they attained, it is only necessary to read a few of their infallible oracular responses,-infallible they were necessarily, for, being ever constructed in ambidexter form, they were ready to coincide with any event that might happen. Thus, as an instance, the dreadful prediction pronounced to Æneas by Celæno. · She informs him, that he and his companions should never possess a city in Italy, until they had been compelled, by hunger, to eat up their own tables !!
“ Non antè datam cingetis manibus urbem, Quam vos dira fames, nostræque injuria cædis,
Ambesas subigat malis absumere mensas.” Had they been devoured by the Cyclops, lost in the storm, or had they perished in any other way, the oracle had been pronounced divine and true; but, as it was also possible for them, as the event proved, to arrive safe in Italy, and build there a city ;-observe what an excellent coup de réserve in this case was prepared by the oracle, to justify its response, -" to keep it to the ear, but break it to the sense. It was very natural, on a long perilous voyage, that some of the sailors should, in a fit of hunger, attack “orbem fatalis crusti, patulis nec parcere quadris,”—eat up the biscuits which they used as trenchers for their meat, and these, by a very allowable poetic license, were easily termed tables.
“ Heus! etiam mensas consumimus, inquit Julus ;"–
and thus the gods always come off victoriously.
Of more artful construction was the answer given by the Pythia to Phyrrhus, when he consulted her respecting his future success in war ; she replied, “ Aio te, Eacide, Romanos vincere posse,”—“I say that you, Phyrrhus, shall the Romans conquer,”—thus leaving the pronoun so happily dubious, that it might serve either as agent or object :-also the oracle to Croesus—
Χρόισος Αλυν διαβας, μεγαλην αρχην διαλυσει. “Crosus having crossed the Halys, shall destroy a great empire.”
But, exclusively of the oracles, where, indeed, it was a “sine quâ non,” the ancients frequently indulged in Amphibology in their compositions ; the following is an example from Terence :-“Ego me amare hanc fateor,”—where the sense may either be, "I confess that I love her,”—or, “I confess that she loves." A precisely similar one frequently occurs in Persian, from the similarity of the inflection in the two nouns :
اي خواجه ضیا شود زروي تو ظلم با طلعت تو سور نماید ما تم
is either,—“ your countenance converts darkness into light; at your presence, mourning is turned into joy;"—or,“ light is turned into darkness by your countenance; at your presence, joy becomes sorrow.” The confusion in the vowel-point, also, often gives rise to ambiguities like these ; thus
از کردگار تا سرت باشد همیشه تا جدار
روز و شب خواهم
may mean either,—" day and night I am incessantly imploring God, that your head may ever be crowned,”—or, “I am praying that your head may be upon the wall—that you may be beheaded.”
Indeed, the orientals, in all matters of this kind, ever keep pace with us—“ haud inequali passu.' And the following anecdote from their records, is not inferior to anything of the kind that can elsewhere be shewn.
“Akul being displeased with his brother, the celebrated Ali, went over to Moaweyeh, who, as a proof of the sincerity of his intentions, desired him to curse Ali. As he would admit of no refusal, Akul thus addressed the congregation Opeople! you know that Ali, the son of Aboo-taleb, is my brother ; now Moaweyeh has ordered me to curse him, therefore, may the curse of God be
him!' So that the curse would apply either to Ali or Moaweyeh.”
That England herself has not remained quite free from this kind of evasion, the well-known sentence, “Noli regem occidere timere bonum est" testifies : -this was the order sent by an Archbishop to the barons, who were then in arms against their sovereign, and who had applied to him for advice respecting their conduct to his majesty. It served as a salvo to his conscience, and, at the same time, left the barons at liberty to do what they pleased; for they might read it (according to Fuller's very happy translation) either as,—“ to kill the king
upon him !