Monday, October 27, 2014

`Hammer Hammer Adamantine Words'

“I always had a passion for that crazy old ruffian,” says Samuel Beckett of the other Samuel, Johnson, in the third volume of his letters. Ruffian implies crudity of manners, bluffness, a provincial lack of polish, perhaps a willingness to resort to muscle – all true in Johnson’s case. In his day, the word referred to someone harsher, less jocular. As a noun, Johnson defines it in his Dictionary as “a brutal, boisterous, mischievous fellow; a cutthroat; a robber; a murderer,” and cites Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II:

“Have you a ruffian that will swear? drink? dance?
 Revel the night? rob? murder?”

Johnson surprises me with entries for ruffian as a verb – “to rage; to raise tumults; to play the ruffian” – and again cites Shakespeare, this time Othello. Montano says:

“A fuller blast ne’er shook our battlements;
 If it hath ruffian’d so upon the sea,
 What ribs of oak, when mountains melt on them,
 Can hold the mortise.”

Also unexpected is Johnson’s entry for ruffian as an adjective: “brutal; savagely boisterous.” This time he cites Pope’s translation of the Odyssey:

“Experienc'd age
 May timely intercept the ruffian rage,
 Convene the tribes.”

The word across centuries has paled from Homeric savagery into something like fond good-old-boyness. From Beckett it’s a compliment. Johnson was among his lifelong enthusiasms. In a later letter, Beckett says of him: “I find it hard to resist anything to do with that old blusterer, especially his last years.”

In a 1959 letter, a tour de force of associative memory, starting with childhood memories of soccer and family strife and moving seamlessly into his current writing project, Beckett says: “Work no good, hammer hammer adamantine words, house inedible, hollow bricks, small old slates from demolished castle, second hand, couvreur [roofer] fell off backward leaning scaffolding and burst, fat old man, instantaneous the things one has seen and not looked away.”

Adamantine is an adjective Johnson defines as possessing “hardness, indissolubility.” A good modern synonym is “unbreakable.” As a citation, Johnson again quote’s Pope’s Odyssey:

“Tho’ adamantine bonds the chief restrain,
 The dire restraint his wisdom will defeat,
 And soon restore him to his regal seat.”

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