Tuesday, July 24, 2018

'Yielding to Pressure, Pliant, Supple'

From the fifth section of Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966):

“Conger skimped at the ebb, lobster,
neither will I take, nor troll
roe of its like for salmon.
Let bass sleep, gentles
brisk, skim-grey,
group a nosegay
jostling on cast flesh,
frisk and compose decay
to side shot with flame,
unresting bluebottle wing.”

As usual, Bunting weaves a dense sonic pattern. He is ever a voluptuary of sound, sometimes to the detriment of sense. It helps to read his words aloud and “taste” them – that is, become aware of what tongue, teeth and palate are doing as words move about your mouth. That’s when music becomes apparent. The word that stumped me this time is gentles. “Gentle” is an adjective. How can “gentles” (plural?) be “brisk”? Is “brisk” here a verb? The editor of The Poems of Basil Bunting (Faber and Faber, 2016), Don Share, clears things up with a note, referring readers to one of the OED definitions of “gentle”: “A maggot, the larva of the flesh-fly or bluebottle, employed as bait by anglers.” Thus, in the subsequent line, “unresting bluebottle wing.”

“Gentle” turns out to be a historical core sample, embodying changes in meaning across time and recalling Emerson’s definition of language as “fossil poetry.” It entered the language as an adjective from the Old French in the thirteenth century, and meant “well-born, belonging to a family of position.” Later it evolved into “noble, excellent,” and by the nineteenth century, “enchanted or haunted by fairies.” The dictionary gives twenty-seven nuances of meaning. The maggot sense developed during Shakespeare’s time. The earliest citation, dated 1578, is from an herbal written by Rembert Dodoens: “a white worme lyke a gentill.” Sixteen years later, Hugh Plat writes in The Jewell House of Art and Nature: “White and glib worms, which the anglers call Gentils.” “Glib” meant “smooth and slippery in surface or consistency; moving easily; offering no resistance to motion,” which suggests how “gentle” turned into “maggot.” Another meaning of “gentle” from Shakespeare’s time, now obsolete, is “soft, tender; yielding to pressure, pliant, supple.” If you’ve ever seen maggots wriggling in your garbage can, you understand the appropriateness of “gentle.”

I encountered maggots on two of the beats I worked as a newspaper reporter. First, as a police reporter: dead bodies attract flies. As a medical writer I wrote about maggot debridement therapy -- the use of living, disinfected fly larvae in ulcers and other wounds. The gentles gently consume necrotic tissue.

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