Tuesday, August 30, 2011

`A Cloud of Cumbrous Gnats Do Him Molest'

The exquisitely finicky Oxford English Dictionary qualifies “wailful” as “chiefly poetic,” a judgment confirmed by my spell-check software, and goes on to offer four gradations of meaning, all implicit in the first:

“Of cries, complaints, speeches: Having the character of a wail, expressive of grievous pain or sorrow. Of sounds: Resembling a wail, plaintive.”

The earliest citation dates from twenty years before Shakespeare’s birth; the latest, 1906. Here is the sub-definition which includes two citations from Keats: “Of animals or inanimate things: Producing plaintive sounds.” In Monday’s post I quoted the lines from “Endymion” quoted by the OED:

“… so that a whispering blade
Of grass, a wailful gnat, a bee bustling
Down in the blue-bells, or a wren light rustling
Among sere leaves and twigs, might all be heard.”

My object was “sere,” but as I transcribed the lines, “wailful” briefly impressed me as a word one might punningly use to describe Moby-Dick, though Keats reverts to the opposite end of the animal scale and modifies the diminutive gnat. In her comment on the post, Laura Demanski, with a better memory than mine, cites Keats’ later convergence of “wailful” and “gnats” in the third stanza of “To Autumn”:

“Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn.”

Laura knows her Keats, as she proved almost three years ago. So did Bertram L. Woodruff in the April 1953 issue of Modern Language Notes. In a brief article, “Keats’s Wailful Choir of Small Gnats,” he notes that Keats, in his copy of Spenser’s Fairie Queen, underlined the stanza which includes these lines:

“A Cloud of cumbrous Gnats do him molest,
All striving to infix their feeble Stings,
That from their noyance he no where can rest,
He brushes oft, and oft doth mar their Mumurings.”

Keats’ gnats don’t sting but “Murmurings” is closer than wailings to the sound a cloud of gnats might make. Woodruff suggests Shakespeare’s “Bare ruin’d choirs” (Sonnet 73) as a possible precedent for the other half of “wailful choir,” though even he doesn’t sound convinced. More compellingly, he mentions a book published in 1815 and 1817, An Introduction to Entomology, by William Kirby and William Spence. Of gnats, the authors say they “form themselves into choirs, that alternately rise and fall with rapid evolutions.” Keats says they are “borne aloft / Or sinking.” The insects perform “choral dances,” the naturalists add.

Woodruff offers no evidence that Keats knew of Kirby and Spence’s volume, nor does he cite the “wailful gnat” passage from “Endymion.” Most of his article is speculative but interesting. He notes that Wordsworth in The Excursion was “personally attuned to hear the joy of life in the buzzing of the summer flies,” while Keats was “disposed to hear in the whirring of the May flies not the sound of animal joy but the wail for approaching death.” Of course, Keats wrote his ode on Sept. 19, 1819, and was dead seventeen months later. Wordsworth, twenty-five years Keats’ senior, outlived him by twenty-nine years. As Emily Dickinson put it:

“Others—extinguish easier—
A Gnat’s minutest Fan
Sufficient to obliterate
A Tract of Citizen—”

1 comment:

Laura Demanski said...

Thanks for this follow-up, Patrick. Woodruff's observations are fascinating.