Thursday, September 25, 2008


Gossamer is a word lovely in its music and etymology. Dating from the early 14th century, it’s a melding of the Middle English gos (goose) and somer (summer). The Swedes have sommertrad – summer thread. As a noun, gossamer refers to shimmering strands of spider silk or, as Webster’s Third ploddingly puts it: “a fine filmy substance consisting of fragments or strands of cobweb often seen floating in air in calm clear weather or caught on grass or bushes.”

Our forebears in English fashioned folk poetry by fancying a resemblance between spider silk and goose down. Geese are migrating as orb weavers spin their webs to cash in on the late-summer insect glut. Etymologists speculate that gossamer may have once referred to the warm spell after the first frost we call Indian summer. The Germans call it mädchensommer – girl’s summer. After a century or so, the noun morphed into “anything light or flimsy.” The word shows up twice in Shakespeare, both times in reference to spider silk. In King Lear (Act IV, Scene 6), Edgar says:

“Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou'dst shiver'd like an egg; but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed'st not; speak'st; art sound.”

In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence (Act II, Scene 6) says of Juliet:

“Here comes the lady: O, so light a foot
Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint:
A lover may bestride the gossamer
That idles in the wanton summer air,
And yet not fall; so light is vanity.”

The adjective, meaning “infinitely or exquisitely light, delicate, or tenuous,” appeared early in the 19th century. My reflex is to use gossamer as an adjective, which is how it came to mind on Wednesday. For the last week or so, a spider has been building a new web each morning between the shed behind our house and a pine. It’s about six feet off the ground – face-level for me – and, counting the anchoring strands on the tree and shed, it measures almost 10 feet across. Another daily web has appeared at the front of the house, outside my 5-year-old’s bedroom window, between the house and a rhododendron. In the morning when the sun breaks over the wall of conifers, the gossamer glistens conspicuously and turns invisible when the clouds move in. Both webs are studded with anonymous creatures wrapped in silk. On the day the second web opened for business, I had been reading Thoreau’s accounts of autumn in his journal. This dates from Nov. 13, 1858:

“It is wonderful what gradation and harmony there is in nature. The light reflected from bare twigs at this season, that is, since they began to be bare, in the latter part of October, is not unlike that from gossamer, and like that which will erelong be reflected from the ice that will incrust them. So the bleached herbage of the fields is like frost, and frost like snow, and one prepares for the other.”

1 comment:

JNNG said...

Don't forget the dreamy/dreaming Gossamer Beynon from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood : )