Thursday, April 17, 2014

`Such a Valetudinarian Attitude Toward Life'

A useful word without a precise synonym that I learned long ago and have never used in print or conversation: velleity. From the Latin velle, to will or wish, but more anemic; call it will-less will, faux-will, the flaccid opposite of decisiveness. In literature the cognates are Oblomov, the “poor, sensitive gentlemen” of Henry James and Italo Svevo, and Beckett at the end of Waiting for Godot:  

“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.” 

Velleity is a self-conceived, delusive trick of the mind – wishing something were so but doing nothing to realize it. We all do it, and some make a career of it. Here’s what brought the word to mind: 

“He writes of failure, or insufficiency rather, or rather of velleities and second thoughts, of dubious buses not too bitterly missed, of doubts about doubts, and there is a gentleness, even a dry sweetness, to his tone of voice.” 

The author is the late poet and critic D.J. Enright in “Down Cemetery Road,” a review of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings collected in Conspirators and Poets (Chatto & Windus, 1966). The Larkin volume was published in February 1964 and contains some of his best and best-known poems – “Dockery and Son,” “Days,” “Mr Bleaney,” “MCMXIV,” “An Arundel Tomb” and the title poem. Enright understands Larkin’s “homespun melancholy,” makes no excuses for it and knows it’s more than that, more than a bad attitude or chemical imbalance. “Dockery and Son” (“Why did he think adding meant increase?”) looks back at “I Remember, I Remember” (The Less Deceived, 1954) and forward to “This Be the Verse” (High Windows, 1974). Of all this wry grimness, Enright rightly concludes that “perhaps it is not ridiculously out of order to feel a degree of impatience at the sight of so marvellous a skill in conveying the feel of living joined with such a valetudinarian attitude toward life.”


The Sanity Inspector said...

You can see the career of this word in chart form here, and click on the dates at the bottom for book excerpts containing it.

Guy Walker said...

Have to say that 'valetudinarian' is also a wonderful word and accurately describes Larkin. Seamus Heaney rightly scolds his failure to affirm life, which Heaney sees as a poet's duty. Enright seems to concur with his 'degree of impatience' at the way in which Larkin uses his undoubted gift.