Friday, April 27, 2012

`Once We Knew the Cost of Dyeing'

“The art of dyeing, I am bound to say, is a difficult one, needing for its practice a good craftsman, with plenty of experience.”

A poem built around a pun risks losing readers with minimal tolerance for wordplay. Mere cleverness falls flat, like a modest joke too earnestly told. The passage above comes from a lecture delivered in 1889 by William Morris, a proto-Marxist not renowned for a vibrant sense of humor. Read the passage and, if you’re feeling ambitious, the entire lecture, but substitute “dying” for “dyeing,” as in “A word or two (entirely unscientific) about the processes of this old-fashioned or artistic dy[e]ing,” and Morris becomes unexpectedly palatable. In “On Dyeing” (Raising Sparks, 1999) the English poet Michael Symmons Roberts claims the dyeing/dying pun as his own, and with a poker face:

“Once we knew it took a boatful
of crushed shellfish – murex and purpura
to turn one sleeve imperial purple.
It took millions of beetles to dye cochineal,
pulverized madder roots for scarlet,
indigo that went blue when it met the air.
Without mordants to fix them,
all these colours fell to pastel, then to cream.
A dress could drain of lilac in an evening.
No beauty lasted without ox-blood, oil,
Oak-galls, urine, alum, salt, shit.
Once we knew the cost of dyeing.”

I like the capsule history of natural dyes and applied organic chemistry, a reminder of how enterprising humans can be in the pursuit of beauty. It all leads to that final pun, following closely on “shit.” Roberts doesn’t allude to Donne and his conceit of “little deaths,” as in the sexual act, but his mini-encyclopedia of dyeing techniques, down to the importance of mordants in the process, reminds me of that line in Elegy II, “The Anagram”:  

“Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies.”

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