Saturday, April 11, 2009

`Completely Accurate Description'

“I do not understand the nature of the satisfaction a completely accurate description or imitation of anything at all can give, but apparently in order to produce it the description or imitation must be brief, or compact, and have at least the effect of being spontaneous.”

This is Elizabeth Bishop, one of the masters of the sort of verbal description she describes. The occasion is “As We Like It: Miss Moore and the Delight of Imitation” (1948), in which she celebrates one of the seldom-noted joys of reading. Bishop writes of her beloved mentor, Marianne Moore, and cites examples from Shakespeare and Hopkins (“Star-eyed strawberry breasted / Throstle…”).

Someone ought to edit an anthology of such passages devoted to the observable world. Bishop is right to add “at least the effect of being spontaneous.” If such a description appears labored or mannered or just goes on too long, it feels self-conscious and even self-congratulatory, and one’s attention shifts from the description and its aptness to the writer of purple prose. Flowery words can’t render flowers; disciplined eyes and ears can. Thoreau did it 10,000 times in prose and almost never in poetry. This is from his journal entry for Sept. 11, 1851 (precisely 150 years before “our” 9/11):

“The grape vines over running & bending down the maples form little arching bowers over the meadow 5 or 6 feet in diameter like parasols or the ladies of the harem.”

And this is John Ruskin at his most painterly, in Fors Clavigera (Letter XXVI):

“The gable end of a barn was mantled with ivy, centuries old, and sparrows made their home in its leafage; an ancient wall, old as the Norman tower at the other end of the town, was rich in gilly-flowers; a wooden shed, with red tiles, was covered by a thriving `tea tree,’ so we called it, which in summer was all blossom, pendant mauve-colored blossoms.”

To cite another Victorian, here is Darwin in The Voyage of the Beagle, describing a toad he observed in Bahia Blanca:

“If we imagine, first, that it had been steeped in the blackest ink, and then, when dry, allowed to crawl over a board, freshly painted with the brightest vermilion, so as to colour the soles of its feet and parts of its stomach, a good idea of its appearance will be gained.”

This is from Briggflatts, Basil Bunting’s poem dense with such passages:

“Rime is crisp on the bent,
ruts stone-hard, frost spangles fleece.”

And this from Geoffrey Hill’s “In Ipsley Church Lane 2” (from Without Title):

“Sage-green through olive to oxidized copper,
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossom comes off in handfuls – the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.”

And, of course, Bishop herself, chosen almost at random from a 1957 story, “The Baptism”:

“The water was muddy, very high, with spots of yellow foam. The sky was solid grey cloud, finely folded, over and over. Flora saw the icy roots of a tree reaching into the river, and the snow-banks yellow like the foam.”


jeff mauvais said...

The naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, author and illustrator of numerous field guides, was a master of descriptive prose. The format of the Peterson Guides -- hundreds of species descriptions, abundant watercolor illustrations, pocket size -- imposed constraints, demanding concision, accuracy, and specificity in his writing. When describing something he couldn't paint -- movement, sounds, behavior -- Peterson sometimes approached the literary. This is his description of the bobolink's music: "Song, in hovering flight and quivering descent, ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low, reedy notes and rollicking upward."

Nige said...

The word 'mauve', when Ruskin used it in the 1870s, would have had the ring of newness as well as rightness; the colour was only named in 1856. How did we get by so long without it?