Tuesday, November 07, 2017

`To Enrich the English Language'

“Wordsworth and Shelley have not contributed much to our modern vocabulary, but Keats, who in his love of unusual words showed often more enthusiasm than taste, was nevertheless a genuine word-maker.”

Like his poetic hero Shakespeare, and like Wallace Stevens after him, Keats was a voluptuary of words. He lolled in language luxuriantly, like a puppy. His letters and poems are peppered with archaisms, borrowings and coinages, sounds that pleased his ears. Adolescents seduced by verse recited Keats aloud to themselves as recently as the nineteen-sixties. Keats’ lapses into laughably bad taste are mercifully rare, despite the sniping of Logan Pearsall Smith in The English Language (1912).   

“It is true that many of the old words he revived, few or none have become popular, and some of his own inventions, like aurorean and beamily, are not happy creations.”

I’m happy with both. The OED defines aurorean as “belonging to dawn, or resembling it in brilliant hue,” and Keats coined it in “Ode to Psyche”: “At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love.” Beamily, defined by the Dictionary as “in a beamy or beaming manner, radiantly,” shows up memorably in “Sonnet to Byron”: “. . . thou thy griefs dost dress / With a bright halo, shining beamily.” Neither word passes muster with my spell-check software.

“But the poet who could find such expressions as winter’s `pale misfeature,’ `globed peonies,’ and linen `smooth and lavendered,’ must plainly have had a genius for word-creation, and would have done much, had he lived, to enrich the English language.”

“And Keats, like Milton and Shakespeare [and Hopkins and Joyce], possessed that rare gift of the great poet, the power of creating those beautiful compound epithets which are miniature poems in themselves, deep-damasked, for instance, and dew-dabbled, and the nightingale’s full-throated ease.”

The sources are “The Eve of St.  Agnes,” “Endymion” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” respectively. Here’s a rare word not mentioned by Smith but used ingeniously by Keats in a letter to the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon on Oct. 3, 1819: “I have not seen the portentous Book which was skummer’d at you just as I left town.” The OED tells us skummer’d is a variant spelling of the verb scumber meaning “of a dog or fox: To evacuate the fæces. Also jocularly of a person.” Keats, whose usage is cited by the Dictionary, deploys it as an intransitive verb defined as “to void (ordure); fig. to produce (something foul).”

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