Thursday, February 07, 2013

`But What Is a Fade?'

Fadeless sounds like a Madison Avenue word sired in a conference room, one fated to fade after a second look. Charles Lamb thought so. In a letter to his friend Bernard Barton, a poet aspirant, written on this date, Feb. 7, in 1826, he says: 

“One word I must object to in your little book, and it recurs more than once—FADELESS is no genuine compound; loveless is, because love is a noun as well as verb, but what is a fade?” 

Lamb may have plucked the apparent non-word from the ninth stanza of Barton’s “To Mrs. Hemans,” dedicated to Felicia Hemans, another of the era’s minor poets: 

“Autumn no wan, or russet stain
Upon its fadeless glory flings,
And Winter o'er it sweeps in vain,
With tempest on his wings.” 

Barton also deployed it in his precursor to Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” “The Cypress Tree”: “Oaks have leaves of glossy green, / Bright the holly’s fadeless sheen.” But Lamb, for once, was mistaken, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the adjective as “exempt from fading or decay: unfading.” The first citation dates from 1652, followed by another from 1722, then one from a letter by Coleridge, Lamb’s childhood friend: “May your fame fadeless live!” The OED informs us Lew Wallace used the adverbial form, “fadelessly,” in Ben-Hur (1880): “Judah gave each...a last if to possess himself of the scene fadelessly.” 

In short, fadeless smacks of the commercial and falsely poetic.  It’s a registered trademark for a brand of “ultra fade-resistant bulletin board paper,” and it shows up in “Lincoln,” a poem by Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1849-1917): “In lines of fadeless light that softly blend, / Emancipator, hero, martyr, friend!” It’s a perfect trochee. It sounds grand and means nothing. It suits our fadeless age.

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