Tuesday, July 11, 2017

`A Great Many Ignorances'

Noyade: a word without meaning at first sight, at least for this reader. C.H. Sisson uses it in “The Noyade,” a poem of twenty-nine four-line stanzas in Anchises: Poems (Carcanet, 1976):

Neutralisation -- of treaties, so `only provisional'
 -- Unlike the fate of those who suffered in noyades,
Which is pushing a boatload of unpopular people
To the middle of a river, after making suitable plug-holes.”

From the context I guessed the rough meaning -- “an execution carried out by drowning” (OED) – but it seemed unlikely that such a word would be necessary, that history would compel the usage. I was naïve. Any horror is possible where humans are concerned. If an evil can be perpetrated, it probably has, and English abhors a vacuum. We borrowed the word from the French and their abattoir of a revolution: noyades de Nantes. Their Yezhov was Jean-Baptiste Carrier, a man ahead of his time, who supervised the drowning of thousands, including children, priests and nuns (“unpopular people”), and was himself guillotined in 1794. I was thinking small when I remembered a less ambitious killer, Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in the bathtub.

The word makes its first appearance in English in a dictionary published in 1801, Lexicographia-neologica Gallica, edited by William Dupré. In his subtitle, Dupré explains that he is collecting words “added to the language by the revolution and the republic.” The OED reports the word used figuratively in the “Vespers” section of W.H. Auden’s “Horae Canonicae” and in Richard Wilbur’s “After the Last Bulletins.”

Thanks to noyade, I learned that Sisson is cited eleven times in the OED. Unlike, say, Geoffrey Hill, he is not a poet with a particularly exotic vocabulary. Only two of his OED citations are for words new to me. From On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography (1989), the OED plucks rooty, identified as a bit of British military slang meaning “bread”: “Sling over the rooti [sic], chum.” The other is morosity. Sisson uses it in his novel Christopher Homm (1965): “Even to Dad Christopher’s courtship was of some use, as an exercise for morosity.”  The dictionary defines it as “the state or quality of being morose; morose character or disposition.” At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is a marvelous usage by Sisson of a familiar word. In the entry for April, “the cruellest month,” the OED quotes a poem from Antidotes (1991), "A Dialogue with Maurice Scève": “Free was I in the April of my years, / Without a care.” Finally, the dictionary shares with us Sisson’s use of another common and always useful word, pretension, found in an editorial he wrote for PN Review in 1980:

“One of the fatuities of the twentieth century is the pretension sometimes advanced -- even sometimes by people calling themselves educationists -- that the study of literature should concentrate on the present and that the past should be treated as diverting attention from what people ought now to be caring about. It is worth reflecting that the present, in the proper sense of the term, has no literature, so that what is really being contended is that only the recent past should count. This is so silly that the idea could not have attained the diffusion it has if it did not serve various political purposes and flatter a great many ignorances [a word I have never seen used in the plural].”

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