Tuesday, September 10, 2019

'A More Than Minor Beauty'

An amusingly baffling passage in the final two lines from this stanza in “Letter to Lord Byron” (Letters from Iceland, 1937):

“I dread this like the dentist, rather more so:
    To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
    All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
    For one small Goya or a Daumier.
I’ll never grant a more than minor beauty
To pudge or pilewort, petty-chap or pooty.”

I get Auden’s point. Not everything is beautiful. The twentieth century may be remembered as the era when beauty was defiled and defined downward. If anything can be beautiful, nothing is beautiful. But what about that alliterative parade of p’s?    

Pudge has several meanings but the OED attaches Auden’s usage to this definition: “a puddle, pool, or ditch,” not the ugliest of things, really, but they may have associations with the trenches of the Great War, concluded less than twenty years earlier. The Dictionary identifies the word as “English regional (midlands). Now rare.” We know Auden mined the OED for rare words.

Pilewort offers a clue to its meaning: “The lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, formerly regarded as a remedy for haemorrhoids (now chiefly historical).” Piles is an old-fashioned but still current synonym for hemorrhoids, and a wort is any plant used for food or medicine.

Petty-chap is spelled pettichaps in the OED, and is another regional English word, referring to two species of warblers. Judging from a photo, the little bird is quite lovely.

Pooty sounds like infantile bathroom talk. Auden’s usage is cited in the OED after two citations from John Clare. The word is identified as “English regional (Northamptonshire)” and means “the banded or grove snail, Cepaea nemoralis; (also pooty shell) the shell of this.” Snail shells are beautiful in both form and color, as Clare seemed to understand. The Dictionary quotes a letter written by him: “I have been seriously and busily employed this last 3 weeks hunting Pooty shells.”

Sorry to quibble, but Auden’s four objects of “minor beauty” are all, in fact, modestly beautiful. None is ugly or repellent. Such judgments are arguable, of course, but Auden had to consider the music of his line and even managed to rhyme beauty and pooty.

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