Sunday, July 13, 2014

`A Too-Muchness'

Like almost anyone who talks too much, Samuel Taylor Coleridge has a good chance of occasionally saying something interesting, insightful, amusing or even profound. On June 2, 1834, in a bloviation on the badness of Schiller’s blank verse (“He moves in it as a fly in a glue bottle”), Coleridge says, as recorded in Specimens of the Table Talk (1835): “There is a nimiety—a too-muchness—in all Germans.” Yes, the sentiment is funny and true, and no one feels compelled to apologize for perpetuating stereotypes about the Krauts, but what interests me is “nimiety,” an unfamiliar word. Dr. Johnson gives this: “The state of being too much.” And the OED, this: “Excess, redundancy, superfluity.” All recognizably part of the German national character. From the Latin nimietas, “excess.”

In some, a surfeit of speech signals insecurity, saying too much out of the fear that one has little or nothing to say; in others, with self-intoxication, loving the sound of one’s voice excessively and uncritically. In On Eloquence (2008), Denis Donoghue remembered Coleridge's use of “nimiety,” trimmed of its Teutonic context:
“Normally, we recognize an eloquent event as a flare of expression, an excess or superabundance of its qualities. But there are several kinds of eloquence. Some are thrilling in their audacity—they are prophetic, magical, sublime, we futilely say: if we tire of them or are not in the mood to appreciate their excesses, we say that they are pretentious, as Coleridge spoke of `a nimiety, [a] too-muchness.’”

We prefer not a gush of phrases, a self-indulgent nimiety of expression, but eloquent taciturnity. Even Coleridge understood this, sometimes. Consider the sentence that follows the one quoted above: “It is the national fault.”


George said...

Coleridge is amusing on the Germans, as for example on Klopstock:

'Lastly, if you ask me whether I have read THE MESSIAH, and what I think of it? I answer--as yet the first four books only: and as to my opinion--(the reasons of which hereafter)--you may guess it from what I could not help muttering to myself when the good paster this mroning told me, that Klopstock was the German Milton--"a very German Milton indeed!!!"

George said...

I neglected to say that this is from Biographia Literaria, the end of Chapter XXII.