Back To Life! A Personal Grief Guidebook

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The poet in this phrase has gone beyond the normal range of choice represented in fig. [a], and has established, for the occasion, the paradigm represented by fig. [b]. The word grief, being placed in a position normally reserved for nouns of time-measurement, has to be construed as if it ivere a noun of time-measurement.

I have here taken a case favourable to the all-or-nothing view of linguistic rules. The rule Dylan Thomas ignores, in its most general form, may be expressed as follows:' Only phrases based on nouns of time-measurement may enter into the construction---ago\ and it seems quite a straightforward matter to determine when this rule has been observed, since the nouns of time measurement minute, day, etc., constitute quite a small, listable group. Yet even in this case, we have to consider the ques tion 'How deviant?' rather than simply 'Deviant or normal?'. Take for example the following phrases:

1. many moons ago 5. three overcoats ago

2. ten games ago 6. two wives ago

3. several performances ago 7. a grief ago

4. a few cigarettes ago 8. a humanity ago

These violations of the rule just stated are listed in order of (in my judgment) diminishing acceptability. At the 'most normal' end, expressions like 'many moons ago' have become so entrenched in the poetic idiom of the language that one needs a separate dictionary entry for moon to cater for it: 'the length of time between one new moon and the next' (i.e. ' lunar month'). The next two examples,' ten games ago' and' several performances ago', are perfectly plausible in appropriate situations - say at a tennis match and at an operatic production. 'A few cigarettes ago', 'three overcoats ago', and' two wives ago' are slightly more bizarre, but it is not in the least inconceivable that someone should want to measure his existence in terms of the life of a cigarette, of an overcoat, or of a marriage. Only example (8) is so weird as to make it almost possible to say ' this phrase could not occur'. The more acceptable of these expressions can be paralleled by other quasi-acceptable time phrases such as ' since the bomb', ' before electricity', and 'after Freud'.

A more obvious illustration of degrees of abnormality is provided by metaphor. The newly minted poetic metaphor violates the usage recorded in the dictionary by creating an unorthodox (figurative) sense of a word or expression. But there is a world of difference between this and a 'dead' metaphor which has lost most of its analogical force, has passed into general currency, and has ended up being included in the dictionary as a recognized use; for instance,' the eye (of a needle)' 'killing time', 'he swallowed his pride'. And of course, there are all degrees of moribundity between these two extremes. The opening line of Gray's Elegy illustrates some of the intermediate stages:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

There are at least three metaphors here, although people will differ in attributing to them any degree of'live' figurative power. First, curfew is not used in its primary historical sense of'bell announcing the time for extinction of fires (according to medieval regulation)', but for a bell which resembles that bell in being rung at evening time. Actually, this second sense is given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a recognized meaning of curfew

('ringing of bell at fixed evening hour, still surviving in some towns'), although I was unaware of this until recently, and had assumed that the metaphor was original. Secondly, 'parting day' is mildly figurative to the extent that we feel parting to apply primarily to the departure of a person or physical object, and only secondarily, by metaphorical extension, to time. Thirdly, the expressions 'the curfew' and 'parting day' are separated by ' tolls the knell of', which is metaphorical with respect to both of them. The curfew, being itself a bell-ringing event, cannot literally toll a bell. So we must take ' tolls the knell' in the more abstract sense of' announces the extinction of', which entails a figurative comparison between proclaiming the end of the day, and announcing a person's funeral rites. None of these metaphors approaches anywhere near the daring of (for example) Shakespeare's put a tongue

In every wound of Caesar, that should move

The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

[Julius Caesar, IILii]

Indeed, one may read Gray's line almost without noticing anything metaphorical about it at all. Yet none of the metaphors it contains are quite 'spent'.

A different kind of gradable unorthodoxy arises in syntax, and may be exemplified from the very last line of Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutsch-land:

Our hearts' charity's hearth's fire, our thoughts' chivalry's throng's Lord.

The most striking linguistic feature of this line is the number of times the genitive construction is repeated: three successive genitives occur in each parallel half-line. The genitive construction in English is one of those which can be indefinitely repeated, each genitive being dependent on its successor; so that to trace an extremely distant family connection, I might embark upon a reiterative structure such as 'my uncle's brother's niece's grandfather's stepson's wife's ...'. This could theoretically go on ad infinitum, but in practice one very rarely has cause (or, in the interests of comprehension, dares) to make up a sequence of more than two genitives. Thus each of Hopkins's twin structures might be placed at position 3 on a scale of oddity as follows:

Another, non-literary example of this kind of deviation is the last verse of the nursery rigmarole This is the House that Jack Built. In this case, the recursive structure is less baffling to the intellect, because it is composed not of genitives, but of relative clauses, which follow rather than precede the noun they modify. We would scarcely say that any rule of the language has been broken in such cases - rather, a theoretical possibility within the rules of the language has been realized to an extent which is in practice extremely unusual.

We are now able to see the difficulty of determining the exact limits to what is permitted to happen within the English language, and to realize that my earlier distinction between creativity within the language and outside the language (and hence the distinction between 'prosaic' and 'poetic' styles of writing) was something of an idealization. It is more realistic to think of degrees of linguistic audacity ranging between the extreme creative exuberance of a Dylan Thomas or a James Joyce, and the sober restraint of a Dryden or a Pope. Perhaps these two tendencies can be associated with the elusive concepts of'Classicism' and 'Romanticism'. Ezra Pound suggests that classical writers, in one sense, are those that look 'for the least possible variant that would turn the most worn-out and commonest phrases of journalism into something distinguished'.11 In that case, it is no coincidence that Gray, the representative of eighteenth-century classicism, should prove a ready source of examples of the milder, semi-assimilated type of metaphor.

Examples for discussion

1. Consider in what respects the following passages of twentieth-century poetry can be interpreted as personal testimonies of the poet's struggle to 'escape from banality'. (They are discussed in R. Quirk, The Use of English, 262-3.)

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years -Twenty years largely wasted, the years of 1'entre deux guerres-Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the tiling one no longer has to say, or the way in which. One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on. the inarticulate With shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, Undisciplined squads of emotion.

And from the first declension of the flesh

I learnt man's tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts

Into the stony idiom of the brain

To shade and knit anew the patch of words

Left by the dead who, in their moonless acre,

Need no word's warmth.

[Dylan Thomas, From Love's First Fever to her Plague]

2. Pick out commonplace, idiomatic phrases of spoken English in Philip Larkin's Toads, quoted in Examples for Discussion on page 21. In the light of the discussion in §2.3, consider why the poem is not vulnerable to the charge of banality, although it contains many of diese' prefabricated chunks' of language.

3. Draw diagrams similar to diat of fig. [b] in §2.4 ('a grief ago') for the italicized phrases in die following passages by Dylan Thomas:

[a] A dog barks in his sleep, farmyards away.

[!)] All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars... [Fern Hill]

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