Bill Long 4/11/05
To the Memory of Judge Michael H. Schoenfeld
The Thundering Sea; The Roaring Mind
[*Reader Gene McDermott sent me the following on 12/14/05, "William Manchester quotes Rupert Brooke 'Will Hero’s Tower crumble under 15-inch guns? Will the sea be polyphloisbic and wine dark and unvintageable?'” in his Churchill biography, The Last Lion on page 518.]
I was going to write an essay on this word today, and I still am going to do so, but I never imagined writing it in honor of a man whom I never met. But here is how it happened.
I am preparing to do some writing on Homer, one of the world's greatest poets. Early in Book I of the Iliad, he writes of the visit to the Achaeans of Chryses, priest of Apollo, who comes to Agamemnon to purchase the release of his daughter, Chryseis, who is Agamemnon's prize of war. Chryses approached Agamemnon with the sceptre of Apollo wreathed in a suppliant's wreath and bearing a "great ransom." However, Agamemnon dishonored Chryseis and did not receive the ransom. He said,
"Old man, let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wealth shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch."
The words are more insulting that the somewhat pleasant translation suggests. He is rubbing the priest's face, so to speak, in the fact that his precious daughter is in bed with this uncouth foreigner on a regular basis.
All Chryses can do is to retreat in the face of this bluster and the power of the Achaeans. Before he utters the curse on them, however, the curse that moves the action along in Book I, the following description appears:
"The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne."
The Greek word for "sounding" is, when transliterated, polyphloisboian. Other, more literal, translations of the word are "loud-roaring" or "heavy-thundering."
Coming into English
So, the word came into English as polyphloisbic or polyphloisboian. It has rarely been used; the OED only has one attestation of the former and about three of the latter. None of the four is more recent than 90 years ago. OW Holmes Sr, in the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, wrote: "Two men are walking by the polyphloesboean ocean." The OED, however, seems to take it as a humorous "echoic" word, rather than as a word suggesting meditation or the deeply ruminative activity. But if you look at the word in its Homeric context (Il.1.33), its power comes not simply from its literal signification--that the sea is pounding as Chryses walks along it-- but from the emotional nature of it--Chryses' heart must have been bursting from the insult just delivered by Agamemnon. The ever-roaring sea was a physical illustration, almost a sacrament, of the thundering reality within. Thus, even though some people (very rarely) might use it in English to caricature the noisy style of an opponent, I think it ought to have a double meaning--the external sounding, to be sure, but, even more, the interior thundering of the mind oppressed.
Moving to Today
So, before writing on this point, I decided to do a "Yahoo Search" and then a "Google Search" to see if anyone has used the word in material on the internet. Only one appearance came up. Surprisingly, it appeared in an opinion written by Judge Michael H. Schoenfeld, an administrative law judge for the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. In the case, entitled Secretary of Labor v. Nutone, Judge Schoenfeld "opined that the crane's alarm might not be heard in the polyphloisboian conditions within the warehouse." For me the details of the case were unimportant; what was significant was that someone had used the term.
When I read that Judge Schoenfeld had used the term, my heart skipped. Immediately I thought that he must have been a man educated in the 1950s and 1960s, before the "educational revolution" of the 1970s wiped out almost all classical learning from the minds of students--except occasional Greek myths and watered-down translations of some classical texts. It seems that he must have known Greek, perhaps studied it in college, perhaps been enamored of Homer's vocabulary, as I am, or perhaps had heard the lectures of a classical scholar who himself was caught up with Homer's language. Thus, like Judge Bruce Selya of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, whose use of classical terminology has arrested my attention, Judge Schoenfeld not only knew this most obscure, but powerful and colorful word but used it well and clearly and exactly in its Homeric sense.
One More Word
So, I decided to look up Judge Schoenfeld, and maybe to get in touch with him about how his use of the word polyphloisboian had helped make my day. The following came up as the lead entry when I did an internet search for him.
"Michael H. Schoenfeld, an Administrative Law Judge of the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (Review Commission), died after a tragic accident on October 11, 2004, agency Chairman W. Scott Railton and Chief Administrative Law Judge Irving Sommer regretfully announced on October 12, 2004."
I never knew Judge Schoenfeld, but immediately I began to cry. I felt that there was probably such a rich story behind his life, with skill as a judge, with careful work, with a beloved wife left behind, with friends who probably had a very difficult time getting over his passing, with colleagues who appreciated him. From the few words of his biography given in the announcement of his passing, I saw that he was indeed brought up in the 1950s and 1960s, and he probably imbibed the "government actually can do some good-philosophy" which so sorely needs to be reiterated and embraced today.
I saw that Judge Schoenfeld was a 1966 graduate of the University of Vermont in Burlington. Just last month my son, William, received his acceptance to the U of Vermont. He will visit it next week to see if the "fit" is right for him. I now kind of hope that my son goes there to study, because I will ask him to learn what he can about Michael Schoenfeld when he is there.
All because of one use of one word--polyphloisboian. Homer would have been very proud.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long