Sunday, September 27, 2020

'Not in the Least Illicit or Untoward'

 Years ago I knew a woman who wore on a delicate chain around her neck a small metallic sphere pocked with minute holes. My fingers were too big and clumsy, but she could unscrew the two hemispheres and fill the ball with whatever scent she fancied. It was an almost daily ritual, like a man shaving. I remember lavender, a fragrance I’m partial to and that reliably evokes memories. Almost half a century later I have learned that the round object is called a pomander, as is the fragrant substance placed inside of it. I owe the discovery to George Herbert (1593-1633) and his poem “The Odour”:

 “Then should the Pomander, which was before

                    A speaking sweet, mend by reflection,

                                               And tell me more:

                    For pardon of my Imperfection

Would warm and work it sweeter then before.”


French in origin, the word has a lovely etymology rooted in pomme d'ambre. The OED defines it as “a container for a pomander . . . usually a hollow ball of gold, silver, ivory, etc., often in the shape of an apple or orange. . . . a small perforated (usually ceramic or metal) container filled with pot-pourri or some other aromatic substance and hung in a wardrobe, placed on a dressing table, etc.” Figuratively, and beautifully, it might also refer to “a book containing a collection of prayers, secrets, poems, etc.”


Odor or odour to us signifies a repellent scent, a stink. This wasn’t always the case. The OED pithily explains the shift in meaning since Herbert’s time: “a sweet or pleasing scent; (now, frequently) an unpleasant smell.” The poet cites St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Chap. 2 (King James Bible, 1611):

“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ.”


In Herbert’s day,  savour was olfactory: “a quality or characteristic likened to a smell or aroma, esp. in extended metaphors.” Now it is almost exclusively related to the sense of taste. In Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (University of Chicago Press, 2014), John Drury explains Herbert’s use of odour:

“So there was plenty of canonical precedent and the flagrant sensual pleasure of the poem is not in the least illicit or untoward. Its combination with religious propriety is very much Herbert – and a legacy to his admirer, the poet Richard Crashaw.”

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