Thursday 9 October 2014

Words, words, words

I often start the day - after the usual chores  - by reading an overnight email from my Canadian Correspondent,  the bracing equivalent of a tot of Armagnac with my coffee. The other day he told me he'd been reading Auden in quantity. He wrote:

Such variety!  Limericks, mock-heroics, toasts, apothegms, mottoes, Shakespearean reconstructions, psycho-analyses, lyrics, ballads, and double acrostics.  Clever guy, too!

“Startling the awkward footsteps of my apprehension
The flushed assault of your recognition is
The donnée of this doubtful hour.”

The dapatical, the olamic, and those potamic meadows are Auden's fingerprints.  And they show the man of  letters is the man of the past.  Nothing wrong with that for you and me.  To the contrary, indeed.  But for the young today.......

We seldom hear the phrase 'man of letters' these days, and I read recently that the last man to earn a living s such, at least in Britain, was probably Ian Hamilton, poet, critic, journalist and editor of The New Review. The term is surely now obsolete, at least for contemporary writers, sexist as it no doubt appears. One never hears (say) Margaret Attwood described as a 'woman of letters', and quite right too.

We seldom, come to that, hear the words 'depatical', 'olamic' and 'potamic'. I had to look the first two up. They mean, respectively 'sumptuous in cheer' and 'pertaining to or enduring throughout an eon or eons; lasting or continuing for ages'. The third I happened already to know - 'pertaining to rivers'. Auden would have known and used all three at the drop of a hat, of course. He never made any distinction between passive and active lexicons - the words he knew on sight and the words he employed in speech and writing. This puts some readers off, especially when his later poems regularly deploy such terms as 'pelagic' (qv). My Canadian friend is perhaps the only person on the planet who can use depatical, olamic and potamic without falling over. I need a dictionary, and am not afraid to use one. Younger folk would simply roll their eyes. "You aving a laugh?" But a day in which no new word occurs is a day closer to the grave with nothing added to life's sum. There now. 

At least I recognised the Auden quote - it's from 'At the Grave of Henry James' and this prompts me to offer all my readers the abandoned early draft of that stanza, which goes as follows:

Startling the awkward footsteps of my apprehension
The flushed assault of your recognition is
The donnée of this doubtful hour.
O stern proconsul of intractable provinces,
O poet of the difficult, dear addicted artists,
Assent to my soil and flower.

Auden (as neatly observed by the late Rachel Wetzsteon) dropped the last three lines which, "what with the French phrase, double apostrophe and alliterative overload out-Jamesed even James."

Extract © The Estate of W. H. Auden

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