Friday, December 18, 2015

`Lumens Are Not Luminaries'

Latin illuminates English with a bright cluster of light words. Both lumen and lux are “light” in Latin and “a unit of luminous flux” in English (OED).  To “illuminate” is “to light up,” from illūmināre, “to throw light on, light up, brighten, set in a clear light, make illustrious; in medieval Latin to baptize.” Light is a ready-made reservoir of metaphors, scientific and spiritual. “Illuminate” dates from the sixteenth century, when it meant both “to shed spiritual light upon” and “to enlighten intellectually.” Geoffrey Hill writes in section XV of The Triumph of Love (1998):

“Britannia’s own narrow
miracle of survival
was gifted to us by cryptanalysts
unpredictable Polish
virtuosi, it is now revealed,
grudgingly. One might have guessed.
Why, then, did Poland require
the last sacrifice of her cavalry
while she possessed such
instruments of cryptic-helio-
tropic strength, like the sunflower
that is both flamen
and lumen of her noble fields?
Flamen I draw darkly out of flame.
Lumen is a measure of light.
Lumens are not luminaries. A great
Polish luminary of our time is the obscure
Aleksander Wat.”

Hill is playing  his customary etymological games. To the Romans, a “flamen” was a priest devoted to a specific deity, and later it was adopted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. A flamen flames and Blake’s sunflower illuminates with lumens. In My Century, Wat illuminates a dark age with luminous words. Presumably, Hill puns on “Wat[t].” Anthony Hecht in “Illumination” (The Darkness and the Light, 2001) engages us in a more sober-minded game:

“Ground lapis for the sky, and scrolls of gold,
Before which shepherds kneel, gazing aloft
At visiting angels clothed in egg-yolk gowns
Celestial tinctures smuggled from the East,
From sunlit Eden, the palmed and plotted banks
Of sun-tanned Aden. Brought home in fragile grails,
Planted in England, rising at Eastertide,
Their petals cup stamens of topaz dust,
The powdery stuff of cooks and cosmeticians.
But to the camels-hair tip of the finest brush
Of Brother Anselm, it is the light of dawn,
Gilding the hems, the sleeves, the fluted pleats
Of the antiphonal archangelic choirs
Singing their melismatic pax in terram.
The child lies cribbed below, in bestial dark,
Pale as the tiny tips of crocuses
That will find their way to the light through drifts of snow.”

Hecht uses “illumination” in this sense, from the OED: “to decorate (an initial letter, word, or text, in a manuscript) with gold, silver, and brilliant colours, or with elaborate tracery and miniature designs, executed in colours.” Thus, the illuminated manuscript. Once we had illumine, enlumine and allumine to illuminate the same art, but words flare and fade. One needs light in order to read, and reading sheds light.

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