“. . . a journalist must `do his darg,’ and any `darg’ of a literary sort is pleasanter than another to a bookworm.”
I mistook darg for something stronger, a fine new profanity, perhaps. I should have known better with Andrew Lang (1844-1912) as the author. I first read him forty years ago when friends with a young daughter recommended Lang’s best-known works, the Fairy Books. I had recently read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), and despite its Freudian silliness the book renewed my interest in folk and fairy tales. Until now I had read nothing by Lang apart from five or six of his “Coloured” Fairy Books, as they are known. The sentence at the top is from his Letters to Dead Authors, first published in 1893. In his introduction to the second edition (1912) he describes the book as an “ugly duckling” and his favorite among the nearly one-hundred he published. Lang explains that the idea was suggested by an editor and that it “did not exactly smile on him.” Thus, the project began as a “darg,” as defined by the OED: “A day’s work, the task of a day; also, a defined quantity or amount of work, or of the product of work, done in a certain time or at a certain rate of payment; a task.” Not to be confused with Darg, the name of a town in northern Tajikistan.
Lang was a Scot, and the dictionary tells us “darg” is “Sc. and north. dial.” The citations suggest a respectable pedigree – Robert Burns, Walter Scott, De Quincey. Best of all is a line from John Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera: “And goes out himself to his day’s darg.” Ruskin’s hodgepodge of a book is endlessly readable, and always makes me think of its author as the world’s first blogger. In the second volume of his Ruskin biography, Timothy Hilton helps define the book’s weird attractiveness: “Nothing else in our literature so diversely and eloquently displays the continuing life of the mind.”
The line from Fors Clavigera reminded me of Geoffrey Hill’s collection of prose canticles, Mercian Hymns (1971). In poem XXV, Hill writes: “Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer’s darg . . . It is one thing to celebrate the `quick forge,’ another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.”
If I ever tire of “Anecdotal Evidence” as the title of this blog, perhaps I’ll rechristen it “Darg,” which sounds like pirate talk.