Saturday, June 02, 2012

`Requirements of a Powerful or Subtle Style'

Readers and critics commonly complain of Geoffrey Hill’s fondness for using rare and obsolete words in his poems, words that send patient readers to the dictionary and impatient readers to Mary Oliver, but one man’s obsolete word is another’s linguistic treasure. From Hill I learned limbeck, epanalepsis and atrorubent, among many others. They mean, respectively, “to subject to the process of distillation or extraction of essence,” “a figure by which the same word or clause is repeated after intervening matter” and dark red. I’ve never had cause to use them, in print or speech, and my spell-check software recognizes none of these rare words, but I’m pleased to know them, happy that minute holes in my universe have been plugged. 

I first thought of Hill, and then of Sir Thomas Browne and Alexander Theroux, when reading a previously unpublished prose fragment by C.P. Cavafy, “A Note on Obsolete Words,” in Selected Prose Works (University of Michigan Press, 2010). The editor, Peter Jeffreys, says Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote the note in English, probably in 1902. Cavafy was fluent in the language. His father held dual Greek and English citizenship, and his family lived in London and Liverpool for five years, starting when the poet was nine. Here is the fragment: 

“It is one of the talents of great stylists to make obsolete words cease from appearing obsolete through the way in which they introduce them in their writing. Obsolete words which under the pens of others would seem stilted or out of place, occur most naturally under theirs. This is owing to the tact & judgment of the writers who know when--& when only—the disused term can be introduced, when it is artistically agreeable or linguistically necessary; & of course then the obsolete word becomes obsolete only in name. It is recalled into existence by the natural requirements of a powerful or subtle style. It is not a corpse disinterred (as with less skillful writers) but a beautiful body awaked from a long & refreshing sleep.” 

When old words are pulled from the grave and waved about like trophies, the effect is pretentious, a sort of ill-mannered showing off. Hill is not immune to this sort of behavior, as in parts of last year’s Clavics. But old, discarded words are serviceable when their meaning is precise and musically appropriate in context. Then the effect is one of richly textured sound and sense. For some readers, such words trail clouds of etymological joy. Here’s how Hill used “atrorubent” in “Offertorium: December 2002” (Without Title, 2007): 

“For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.”

“Dark red” wouldn’t do.

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