Patrick O’Brian’s prose is very dense with literary and non-literary quotations and allusions, which can be as confusing as they are edifying. And sometimes they’re slipped in so deftly that they’re impossible to recognize at all. Thankfully, the brilliant Anna Ravano has created this excellent list to guide us in our quest to wring every last ounce of enjoyment out of our beloved series.
Page numbers are those of the HarperCollins edition.
A List of (Nearly) All the Literary and Non-Literary Quotations, Pre-Quotations, Allusions, Echoes, and Borrowings to be Found in Master and Commander
By Anna Ravano
J’ai pris mon bien là où je l’ai trouvé
I’ve taken my riches from anywhere I found them
[I]t was far more than he had ever owned before, at sea, and he surveyed it with glowing complacency, looking with particular delight at the handsomely mounted inward-sloping windows, all as bright as glass could very well be, seven sets of panes in a noble sweep quite furnishing the room.
It was more than he had ever had, and more than he had ever really hoped for so early in his career; so why was there something as yet undefined beneath his exultation, the aliquid amari of his schooldays?
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, IV. 1133-4:
medio de fonte leporum
surgit amari aliquid quod in ipsis floribus angat
“from the heart of this fountain of delights wells up some bitter taste to choke them even amid the flowers” (tr. Cyril Bailey)
O’er the ship the gallant bosun flies
Like a hoarse mastiff through the storm he cries.
Prompt to direct th’unskilful still appears,
The expert he praises, and the timid cheers.
William Falconer, The Shipwreck, II. 254-57
‘Oh, he has faults, sure. I know he is intensely ambitious where his profession is at issue and impatient of any restraint. My concern was to know just what it was that offended you in him. Or is it merely non amo te, Sabidi?’
Martial, Epigrams, I. xxxiii:
Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quam:
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.
“I do not love you, Sabidius, nor can I say why; I can only say this, I do not love you.”
‘I made a circuitous attempt at enlightening him a little, but he looked very knowing and said, “Don’t tell me about rears and vices; I have been in the Navy all my life.”‘
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ch. 6:
‘[W]e know very little of the inferior ranks. Post captains may be very good sorts of men, but they do not belong to us.Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But in general, I can assure that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly my home at my uncles brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.’
‘Pray, will you not recite them to us? I am sure the Doctor would like to hear.’
‘Oh, yes, pray do,’ said Stephen.
The unhappy boy thrust a great lump of mutton into his cheek, turned a nasty yellow and gathered to his heart all the fortitude he could call upon. He said, ‘Yes, sir,’ fixed his eyes upon the stern-window and began,
‘White as the clouds beneath the blaze of noon Oh God don’t let me die
‘White as the clouds beneath the blaze of noon
Her b – ‘ His voice quavered, died, revived as a thin desperate ghost and squeaked out ‘Her bottom’; but could do no more.
‘A damned fine verse,’ cried Jack, after a very slight pause. ‘Edifying too. Dr Maturin, a glass of wine with you?’
William Falconer, The Shipwreck, I. 758-9:
Her bottom through translucent waters shone,
White as the clouds beneath the blaze of noon.
‘Oh were it mine with sacred Maro’s art,
To wake to sympathy the feeling heart,
Then might I, with unrivalled strains, deplore,
Th’impervious horrors of a leeward shore.’
William Falconer, The Shipwreck, III. 650-57:
Oh, were it mine with sacred Maro’s art,
To wake to sympathy the feeling heart;
Like him, the smooth and mournful verse to dress
In all the pomp of exquisite distress;
Then, too severely taught by cruel fate,
To share in all the perils I relate,
Then might I, with unrivall’d strains, deplore
The impervious horrors of a leeward shore.
‘The mainsail, by the squall so lately rent,
In streaming pendants flying, is unbent:
With brails refixed, another soon prepared,
Ascending, spreads along beneath the yard.
To each yardarn the head-rope they extend,
And soon their earings and their robans bend.
That task performed, they first the braces slack,
Then to the chesstree drag th’unwilling tack:
And, while the lee clew-garnet’s lowered away,
Taut aft the sheet they tally and belay.’
William Falconer, The Shipwreck, II. 203-12
‘I am coming to believe that laws are the prime cause of unhappiness. It is not merely a case of born under one law, required another to obey – you know the lines: 1 have no memory for verse. No, sir: it is born under half a dozen, required another fifty to obey. There are parallel sets of laws in different keys that have nothing to do with one another and that are even downright contradictory. [...] Buridan’s ass died of misery between equidistant mangers, drawn first by one then by the other. Then again, with a slight difference, there are these double loyalties another great source of torment.’
Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, Chorus Sacerdotum, from Mustapha (1609):
O wearisome condition of humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity;
Created sick, commanded to be sound.
What meaneth nature by these diverse laws?
Mr Florey paused, gazing at the long straight double-edged catling and waving it solemnly over the joint. ‘If you provide a man with horns, he may gore you,’ he observed with a detached air, covertly watching to see what effect his remark might have.
‘Very true,’ said Stephen, tossing the vulture a piece of gristle. ‘In general fenum habent in cornu.’
Horace, Satires, I. iv. 34:
faenum habet in cornu, longe fuge.
“He has hay on the horn [= he is dangerous], flee from him.”
Breakfast with Dr Ramis was a very different matter – austere, if not penitential: a bowl of milkless cocoa, a piece of bread with a very little oil. ‘A very little oil cannot do us much harm,’ said Dr Ramis, who was a martyr to his liver.
Jane Austen, Emma, ch. 3:
‘Mrs Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else – but you need not be afraid – they are very small, you see – one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Mrs Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart – a very little bit. Ours are all apple tarts. I do not advise the custard. Mrs Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half glass – put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you’.
For the quotations in languages other than English, I have relied considerably on Anthony Gary Brown’s A Guide for the Perplexed. My thanks to all the lissuns, so many of them “that it were insidious to particularize”, who in their posts over the long life of the Gunroom have pointed out several of the quotations listed here. Needless to say, I’ll be grateful for any additions and corrections.
Courtesy of Anna Ravano and The Gunroom.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: