Tuesday, November 01, 2011

`The Portentous Manner in Which He Said It'

From Anthony Hecht’s The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden (Harvard University Press, 1993) I’ve learned that Auden coined a word useful enough to be enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary: soodling. From sound alone, without a context, what do you think it means? First I thought of noodling, as in a musician idly playing, working out a part or simply killing time. The same goes for doodling, another idle pastime. Because of its faintly comic sound, I guessed it might refer to that fine American folk art, goofing off.

In fact, the OED defines “soodling” as an “adj. poet. Rare” meaning “flows or moves slowly.” Auden uses it in the poem “Under Sirius” in Nones (1952): “…the baltering torrent / Shrunk to a soodling thread.” The dictionary says the word is “Of obscure origin,” but goes on to cite two uses from 1821, both by John Clare in his poem “The Village Minstrel”: “To go so soodling up and down the street” and “While I as unconcern'd went soodling on.” Hecht apparently is incorrect when he describes Auden, a lifelong reader of the OED, as “inventing” the word.

The OED also gives soodly, “adj. dial. leisurely, slow,” and cites the same poem by Clare: “The horse-boy, with a soodly gait, / Slow climbs the stile.” Soodling is a word we would expect Clare to use. When not in the insane asylum he was an inveterate soodler, a wanderer in nature, at once drifting and attentive to plants and animals. He writes in a letter: “…I find more pleasure in wandering the fields than in musing among my silent neighbors who are insensible to every thing but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.”

Clare is cited 765 times in the OED; Auden, 749 times. Among the latter is Auden’s use of “baltering” in the line from “Under Sirius” quoted above. The first sense of “to balter” is defined as an intransitive verb meaning “To tumble about, to dance clumsily.” In his biography of the poet, when describing Auden’s undergraduate days at Christ Church, Humphrey Carpenter reports:

“In his conversation as in his poetry, he used a vocabulary drawn from scientific, psychological and philosophical terminology, and from his discoveries among the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words like 'glabrous', 'sordes', 'callipygous', 'peptonised' (which all appeared in his poetry during this period) delighted him but disconcerted his listeners. ‘I did not understand much of what Wystan said,’ recorded one undergraduate contemporary, who nevertheless `felt it was important because of the portentous manner in which he said it.’”

Even if he didn’t coin the word we can surely describe Auden as a devoted soodler in the OED.

1 comment:

Eric Thomson said...

Isn’t Hecht talking nonce sense rather than nonsense about Auden’s Nones sense of ‘soodling’? The 'flows' of the OED2 definition, ‘that flows or moves slowly’ derives from Auden’s usage alone. OED1 ‘soodle’ had never before been applied to water. It’s questionable, though, whether that metaphorical extension of ‘soodle’ merits a separate entry, but the editor, Robert Burchfield, was partial to Auden and didn’t seem to be conscious of the irony of incorporating his numerous dictionary dredgings into the second edition.
Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1904) records ‘soodle’ in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Warickshire, Bedfordshire, and Huntingtonshire as well as county Clare, Northamptonshire: ‘To go unwillingly; to linger, dawdle, saunter’. He also records the adjective ‘soodling’: ‘(a) of a shy, hesitating manner; (b) muddling; half-drunk’, so somewhere close to vagulous. ‘Shrunk to a soodling thread’, reinforced by ‘Sossing through seamless waters’ later in the same poem, reminds me of ‘purl’, n.1 (‘thread or cord made of twisted loops, esp. of gold or silver wire, used for bordering and embroidering’) and n.2 (‘a small stream or rill flowing with a swirling motion; a runnel, a rivulet’). Under purl v.2 the OED has a citation from C. Lennox’s 'Ladies Museum' (1760-1): ‘The streams, that ceas'd to purl, now creep along Unheard’, which is close enough in meaning to ‘Shrunk to a soodling thread’ to make me wonder if Auden had been perusing vol. VIII (Poy-Ry) before soodling on to vol. X (Sole-Sz). In this later volume he’ll also have come across ‘soss’. His own ‘sossing’ is cited by the ever obliging Burchfield in OED2:
1951    W. H. Auden Nones (1952) 39  ‘ The three wise Maries come, Sossing through seamless waters’.
Immediately above is an entry from a Yorkshire dialect glossary:
1876    C. C. Robinson Gloss. Words Dial. Mid-Yorks. 131/2   'Soss, to‥tread heavily—implying a forceful yielding to pressure, as when‥the feet plash through it [sc. mud]’.
Auden occasionally shows signs of having trodden heavily through the OED, so perhaps he's as much of a sosser as a soodler; a sossler too, and often sosselled in his later years.