Reasonable Words: ‘Lick it into Shape’

Rambling around in Natalie Haynes’ The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, a great browse, came across this in a chapter on the eternal debate between city and country life. As things will, the story meanders on to thoughts on writing and the surprising origins of the phrase “lick something into shape.”

From Chapter 6, “There’s No Place Like Rome”

“But the Roman countryside had a greater cheerleader than Horace or Cicero. It had Virgil, the man who would spend the last ten years of his life carving out The Aeneid, leaving it unfinished at his death (and had his wishes been followed, it would have been destroyed then.) But before he embarked on his epic, he wrote The Georgics, a poem about farming and Italy.

“The poem is divided into four books, on field crops, trees, animals and bees. Although ostensibly a didactic poem, this is no farmer’s manual. Virgil writes extensively on vines, in the second book, but he has less interest in olives, for example, which he mentions only briefly. Poetry is more important to him than accuracy. He certainly took care writing it, according to Suetonius, who claimed that every day Virgil would dictate a large number of verses, which he had thought of that morning: ‘Then he spent the whole day reducing them to a tiny number, wryly saying that he wrote his poem like a she-bear, finally licking it into shape,’ If you’ve ever wondered where the phrase ‘lick into shape’ comes from, wonder no more. The Romans believed that a newborn bear wasn’t yet bear-shaped, but a furry blob which needed some work. The mother bear licked her cub, not to clean it, but to turn it from protean bear-matter into the shape of a small bear. This may seem like a foolish thesis, but the Romans had the good sense not to get too near a mother bear with a new cub. And the phase has stayed with us to this day.”

Do my blog posts go from “protean blog-matter into the shape of actual writing.” Might I get a “aliquando” from Virgil? (Latin for sometimes.)

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