Wednesday, August 01, 2012

`Wortcunning I Know'

This is a gloss on Louise Bogan’s gloss on an entry she finds in Blackwell’s catalog (“under Bibliography, Paleography & Typography”) regarding a book published in 1864:

Cocayne (T.O.), Editor. Leechdoms,Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England; Being a Collection of Documents for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest. Limited to 500 copies, 3 vols. Buckram, board £ 16/10/”

Bogan’s gloss is a poem written in 1961, “Leechdoms” (A Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan, 2005):

“Wortcunning I know;
Starcraft I can find;
But a vision of leechdoms
Has taken hold of my mind.

“Where are they found?
Are they forbidden?
Deep in the ground
In a kitchen-midden

“With danegelt abandoned?
Crossed by Pict swords?
Mixed up with runes?
Leaking out of word-hoards?

“By the salt Saxon sea,
In the blue Druid glade
We shall find leechdoms.
(Don’t be afraid . . .)”

The unlikely words grab Bogan’s attention. I, too, know “wortcunning.” Its only citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is the title of the volumes assembled by the Rev. Thomas Oswald Cocayne (1807-1873). The definition is “n. (pseudo-arch.) the knowledge of herbs and plants.” The word lives on in such plant names as St. John’s wort and bladderwort. In my private lexicon, “wort” becomes the German Wort, “word,” so wortcunning in my idiolect means word-savvy, the quality of being deft with words, having ready access to “word-hoards.” “Starcraft?” That’s simple: astrology. Tennyson writes in “The Lover’s Tale”:

“How like each other was the birth of each!
On the same morning, almost the same hour,
Under the selfsame aspect of the stars,
(Oh falsehood of all starcraft) we were born!”

In “leechdom,” Bogan hears the “-dom” (“abstract suffix of state”), as in kingdom, a kingdom of leeches (the U.S. Congress?). The OED defines it as “a medicine, remedy,” which explains why the poet urges “Don’t be afraid . . .” Here is one of Cocayne’s translations of a leechdom for pulmonary troubles:

“For lung disease, take white horehound and hyssop and rue and comfrey and daisy and figwort and celery and groundsel, and of each of these plants 20 pennyweights, and take a pint of old ale, and seethe the plants until the pint of ale is half boiled away, and drink it cold each day at breakfast, and at evening warm a little; it is a healing remedy.”

Bogan suffered all her life from depression, and the personal coda to “Leechdoms” is not happy. In 1968 she published The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923-1968. Before publication, she and a friend and editor, Ruth Limmer, evaluated a lifetime of poems for possible inclusion in the volume. According to Elizabeth Frank in her life of the poet, “…Miss Limmer had urged an unpublished poem, `Leechdoms,’ on her, but Louise had said she was `still not sure of it’ and kept it out. And then she and Miss Limmer agreed that it would not have another opportunity to appear in a book; it might be published in a magazine, perhaps, but not in a book. `This was not a mournful conversation, but almost businesslike, factual,’ Ruth Limmer remembers.”

Bogan could no longer write poetry and never found a leechdom for her torment. She died on Feb. 4, 1970, and “Leechdoms” remained unpublished until 2005.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

That's a great anecdote! The book that inspired it is online, too.