words belong to each other

Words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.

…The moment we single out and emphasize the suggestions as we have done here they become unreal; and we, too, become unreal — specialists, word mongers, phrase finders, not readers. In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river.

…Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations — naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today — that they are so stored with meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous marriages. …A word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. It is not a word indeed until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great writer knows that the word “incarnadine” belongs to “multitudinous seas.”

…Think what it would mean if you could teach, if you could learn, the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper would tell the truth, would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing upon the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still — do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticized, untaught? Is our Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan? Where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look again at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; poems more lovely than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady’s reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.

Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling are all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live — the mind — all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think and to feel before they use them, but to think and to feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English — hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.

…And it is because of this complexity that they survive. Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing to-day is that we refuse words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die. Finally, and most emphatically, words, like ourselves, in order to live at their ease, need privacy. Undoubtedly they like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them; but they also like us to pause; to become unconscious. Our unconsciousness is their privacy; our darkness is their light. …That pause was made, that veil of darkness was dropped, to tempt words to come together in one of those swift marriages which are perfect images and create everlasting beauty. But no — nothing of that sort is going to happen to-night. The little wretches are out of temper; disobliging; disobedient; dumb. What is it that they are muttering? “Time’s up! Silence!”

On April 29, 1937, as part of their Words Fail Me series, BBC broadcast a segment that survives as the only recorded voice of Virginia Woolf. This lecture was eventually edited and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942, a year after Woolf’s death, with the title “Craftsmanship.”

words so terrible you heard them with your whole body

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Jesus admits that this woman has bested him

This woman, however, just will not give up: “Then she came and prostrated before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’” (Matthew 15:25). The scene is becoming embarrassing. Can things get worse? Yes, they can—and do: “But he answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the puppies.’” Oh, my! Is Jesus calling this Gentile a dog? No wonder the gospel of Luke does not relate this story! Then, all of a sudden, the story changes, and it is the woman who changes it. Like Jesus’ mother at Cana, she gets pushy with the Savior: “Yes, Lord,” she responds, “yet even the puppies eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” In the end, of course, “her daughter was healed from that very hour” (Matthew 15:28), but the reader may be left with the feeling that the whole transaction was excessively painful and that Jesus, at least for a while, was acting terribly out of character. What should be said about this? Not for a moment do I believe Jesus was insulting this woman. Once again, I take his silence and then his reference to puppies as a rhetorical pretense, very much like his request that the Samaritan woman should summon her husband.

…A friend of mine once compared this lady’s faith to that of Abraham, as he “haggled a price” with God over the fate of Sodom. That is to say, rhetorical considerations provide the key to the conversation between Jesus and this Gentile woman. Perhaps this point is more clearly expressed in Mark’s version of the story, where she is known as “a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth” (Mark 7:26). In Mark’s account, the woman is praised not for her faith but for her “word”—her manner of expression: dia touton ton logon. Jesus admits that this woman has bested him in the conversation! He tells her, in effect, “Ma’am, you certainly have a way with words.” Jesus recognizes the good logic and superior style in which the woman humbly asserts, “Even the puppies under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” The lady is not only persistent; she is also eloquent. And Jesus is . . . well, impressed!

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

a first city that remains implicit

From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino:

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”

“…Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

the world of words had a glamour and wonder

In reading The Classical Trivium by Marshal McLuhan, I’ve appreciate much about it, including his idea that the patterns of grammar are grounded in the patterns of the physical creation and that both the worlds of language and creation provide rich and myriad symbols pointing to “the creative Trinity” (36). See this passage for example (which McLuhan cites from Colson’s Quintilian in a footnote on page 27)

The analogist argues from the unchanging order which prevails in the heavenly bodies, in the tides, in the continuity of species … language is conceived as a world in itself, much as we conceive of the visible world … he [the analogist] is as confident … as the scientific man today … as impatient of the suggestion of disorder … the world of words had a glamour and wonder for them which it cannot have for us.

Or this wonderful passage from Augustine’s De magistro (cited glowingly by McLuhan on pages 34-35):

The natural arts are concerned with the orderly repetitive changes of nature. These are veiled or vestigial signs. The task of the liberal arts is to translate them into simple signs and formulae of such signs, namely into steady and luminous symbols of thought … By means of the liberal arts, things manipulated by the exterior man are formulated by the interior man, with the help of analytic reflection ordered to truth as regulated by the formal modes of language and mathematics.

promises to keep

Two masterpieces, with Auden echoing Frost:

Their Lonely Betters
W.H. Auden (1950)

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
Robert Frost (1922)

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I ran into the last line of this Auden poem on the dedication page to Educating for Life (collected essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff), and it immediately brought to mind Frost’s classic (which the Auden poem recalls in several ways).