Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Cellar door'--and more.

I just came across an article in the New York Times which examines one of the weirder memes in English letters: the alleged beauty of the word "cellar door." Most of my readers probably read this somewhere in Tolkien's lectures, if they know about it all. But Tolkien wasn't the first to say it. In fact, as I have learned to my astonishment, "cellar door" has been a hardy little meme for a good hundred years now. Part of the meme seems to demand that you not tell your readers where you came up with the claim, or else offer a suspiciously vague story of some unnamed Spanish guy or famous professor who first noticed the word's beauty.

I feel bound to mention that Michael Gilleland of "Laudator Temporis Acti" wrote a post about "cellar door" last year, in which he cites many of the sources used in the NYT article--and a couple of others, among them the original Tolkien quote. Turning to Wikipedia, you will find it cited in Tolkien and Mencken, as in the other articles; but you will also find an anecdote from the historian Jacques Barzun which is so elaborate that might be for real:
I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard.

At first I thought that the opening gambit, "I discovered it many years ago from one of my Japanese friends," was a damning indicator that Barzun was remembering something that had never really happened, prompted by coming across the meme in print. But when he gives his friend's name and adds the detail about "salad or," he makes me wonder if there isn't really something special about "cellar door." I actually do find it pleasing, although not more pleasing than a hundred other unlikely-but-lovely words like "railway" or "whitewash"--and it's a kind of touchstone for me when I think about euphony in general. I'm very much on the side of those who say that sounds affect us as sounds, even before meaning. The "meaning" of a sound like "sss" or "mmm" or "ahhh" is very broad, very general; but it is there.

Not everyone believes this, though; not by any means! If you read to the end of the "Laudator" post, you will find this little thought experiment of Max Beerbohm's:
What you take to be beauty or ugliness of sound is indeed nothing but beauty or ugliness of meaning. You are pleased by the sound of such words as gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house. They seem to be fraught with a subtle onomatopoeia, severally suggesting by their sounds the grace or sanctity or solid comfort of the things which they connote. You murmur them luxuriously, dreamily. Prepare for a slight shock. Scrofula, investments, cancer, vermin, warehouse. Horrible words, are they not? But say gondola—scrofula, vestments—investments, and so on; and then lay your hand on your heart, and declare that the words in the first list are in mere sound nicer than the words in the second. Of course they are not. If gondola were a disease, and if a scrofula were a beautiful boat peculiar to a beautiful city, the effect of each word would be exactly the reverse of what it is. This rule may be applied to all the other words in the two lists. And these lists might, of course, be extended to infinity. The appropriately beautiful or ugly sound of any word is an illusion wrought on us by what the word connotes. Beauty sounds as ugly as ugliness sounds beautiful. Neither of them has by itself any quality in sound.
Where to begin? First of all, what a charming serial synecdoche for a certain very High Church, very English vision of happiness: "gondola, vestments, chancel, ermine, manor-house." This is not a list of beautiful words, this is a list of "words that make me think of Brideshead Revisited." But let's look at the words a little closer. What I am going to say about them is certainly not scientific; in fact, I am just going to go by my own tastes, which are of course subjective. Still: "gondola" is more amusing than beautiful, or maybe I should say amusing and beautiful. If I were going to use it in a poem, it would probably be in a tragicomic poem about how frazzled and overrun Venice is. In fact, I did once, in a bit of teenage doggerel (which I won't share). The word "gondola" has a kind of slack-jawed, blissed-out langour. It is hard to imagine a boat called a "gondola" moving very fast, for instance. "Scrofula" is a very different word. That initial "scr-" is seldom an indicator of anything sweet or lovely; and that "fu" sound connotes disgust in many languages. The feminine-sounding ending only makes the word more grotesque. As for "chancel," it is pleasing to the ear - but so is "cancer," if you can forget what it means. Maybe I'm simply hearing a rhyme with "dancer"? That's another aspect of euphony: the sound has a vague connotation by itself, but when you hear it in a word, it carries a little bur or tatter of every other word you've heard with that same sound in it. "Ermine" sounds ugly to me; it's a nubby, nebbishy little word, rather like "vermin." "Warehouse" sounds more beautiful to me than "manor-house" - not because I'm a redblooded 'Merican who has no use for aristos, but simply because the word is stronger and lovelier. It must be the Anglo-Saxon strength of the spondee, combined with the airiness of 'w' and the antiphonal contrast between the vowels 'a' and 'ou.'

Finally, it has often been noted that the word "beauty" is rather ugly. I've always wished it sounded nicer, and I feel the same way about the Latin "pulchritudo." Beautiful, pulchra. Meh. But Greek "kalos" or "kala" hits the mark for me. This touches on the tragic aspect of euphony: that some lovely things have ugly-sounding names, and that no word can contain the full reality of what it denotes. The word "girl" for instance--it doesn't sound as sweet as "lass" or as cute as "chica." And so it is vulnerable to defacement: how easy it is to say grrl. (Google it and see what you get!) Fortunately, the more delicate kinds of euphony and cacophony aren't a hindrance to our daily speech. "What a cute little girl!" "You girls are awesome!" Who is distracted by the euphony of these phrases? They mean what they mean. In poetry, though, the question of euphony is always open. "Girl" is such a basic, necessary noun that its euphony isn't always an issue; but an adjective like "sweet" needs looking after. It's not that it's played-out and Victorian; it just needs to modify the right words. The sound of it is surprisingly high and sharp; it's a thin, piercing, flute-like word. When you use it, you need to surround it with sounds that bring out the poignant sharpness, not the sugar-water thinness. How different it is from the Latin "dulcis" or its Spanish and Italian descendants. The "dolce" kind of sweet is a custardy, burnt-sugar sweetness. (Initial 'd's always taste sweet, really - the dental 'd' has some of the strength and cleanness of 't', but being voiceless it is sort of muted and velvetined - like a berry dipped in chocolate. Darn! This is making me hungry again! And now it's Lent...)

Chesterton was the one who named and confirmed my feelings about 'sweet' and 'dulce': please do read this marvelous passage from "The Thing: Why I am a Catholic." He's talking about the misunderstandings that can arise when Latin is translated gracelessly into English: "I will venture to take one example, about which I feel very strongly. Will somebody with better authority than I have announce in a voice of thunder, through a trumpet or with a salute of big guns, the vital and very much needed truth that "dulcis" is not the Latin for "sweet"?" He goes on to say about "sweet" much what I just did: "It is at once too strong and too weak a word." Finally, he applies this observation to the saccharine overuse of the word "sweet" in Catholic devotional books, which he blames on bad translations of French and Italian prayers. I got a good laugh from his witty parting remark: "I believe that this incongruous and inaccurate repetition of the word "sweet" has kept more Englishmen out of the Catholic Church than all the poison of the Borgias[.]"

So "cellar door" can sound strangely attractive, and "sweet" can sound irritating. How odd. Does anyone reading this have a "cellar door" (or a "sweet") of their own?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Seven Chimes of Poetry

I'm not sure who will benefit from this post, but I amused myself greatly by writing it. It's just a neat little way I found of organizing various "chimes" for when I'm writing.

Every reader knows that there are different ways in which two words can sound alike: rhyme, alliteration, assonance and so on. But not everyone is in the habit of thinking of all these sounds as siblings. In fact, they can all be linked together in a very simple way. Perhaps it is an oversimplification, but for the purposes of English poetry I assume that the average English word is composed of a consonant, then a vowel, then a consonant. (ex. - sun, moon, shout, with, bring, flight) This simplified scheme can be expanded to account for longer words, but it is easiest to think in terms of one syllable beginning and ending with consonants. (Obviously, this system is far less useful for Latin and Spanish!) Then all you have to do is go through all the possible combinations of consonant-vowel-consonant. And here they are!

Alliteration. You know the drill - "field and fountain, moor and mountain." Alliteration is very common in Anglo Saxon poetry, and in English poetry in general. What isn't always emphasized is that alliteration is really a likeness between consonants. When two vowels sound alike, you have assonance. Even if they are both initial vowels. (ex: "angels' age" - Herbert) As many have pointed out, Pope's line "And apt alliteration's artful aid" misses both alliteration and assonance.

Assonance. This is where you get two words with the same vowel sounds. Assonance is even more powerful, to my ear, than alliteration; vowels are the body of speech, as singers know. Some kinds of Spanish poetry use assonance the way we use end rhyme in English. The Song of Roland uses it - check out Dorothy Sayers' translation to get an idea of the effect. And if you listen to any kind of popular music or rap or spoken word poetry, you will notice (maybe to your irritation) that assonance, rather than perfect rhyme, joins one verse to the next. (I'm not really bothered by it myself. Blame my Lorca addiction.)

Skothending. I would have had to call it "final alliteration" if I hadn't come across this fantastic Norse word in some of Hopkins' lecture notes. Skothending apparently means "glancing blow," and that is the effect it gives: a very subtle one. One poem which uses it to great effect is Horace's "Carpe diem" ode. In it, Horace keeps ending words with 's' right where there is a metrical pause: "Tu ne quaesieris - scire nefas; "numeros. ut melius"; "sapias, vina liques". Somehow this enhances the haunting, waltz-like feeling of the meter. A subtle effect, and not very well-known.

Rhyme. For perfect rhyme you need the final stressed syllables to match up in both vowels and consonants. Final assonance can also count as rhyme. Slant rhymes would take a whole other post! A lot of prosody writers put three of my categories under the heading of "slant rhyme," but I think it's more useful to distinguish things like pararhyme and save the term "slant rhyme" for really distant cousins like "tree" and "fray," while allowing that someone who mixes up assonance and pararhyme and such in his line endings is, well, slant-rhyming. Seamus Heaney is a modern master of both kinds of slant-rhyme, the more and the less blurry.

Front-Rhyme. Instead of keeping the end of the word and changing the consonant at the beginning, you keep all of the word from the beginning and change the final consonant. This gives power to "The Wreck of the Deutschland" - "giver of breath and bread" - and to "Altarwise by Owl-Light" ("shape without shade...").

Pararhyme. For pararhyme, you keep the hard consonantal shell of the word but change the vowel. Wilfred Owen kind of owns this one: "Courage was mine, and I had mystery; / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery." He commonly used it in place of end rhyme, and it was his signature technique. WH Auden has a nightmarish little poem in which a good 50% of the fear is generated merely by the pararyhmes: "reader/rider," "midden/madden," "fearer/farer," and finally - well, read it yourself! Brrr.

Homophone. "Rein/rain/reign," "rose/rose/rows," etc. It's unseldom that you would see "rows" and "rose" together in a line: usually homophones are more powerful, not as puns, but as echoes within a single word. To make up a lame example, "rain of fire," when spoken, could also be heard as "reign of fire."

* * *

Why is it important to know these things? Because then you can mix them up! Interlacing these categories successfully takes practice, but it's worth it. For a locus classicus of the technique, see these lines from "The Wreck of the Deutschland":
    We lash with the best or worst
  Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
        Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush!—flush the man, the being with it, sour or sweet,
Brim, in a flash, full!

I don't think I've ever seen a more exhilarating chord of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, pararhyme, and beautifully opposed vowels. I've read that phrase, "lush-kept plush-capped," so many times without ever breaking the charm that holds it so elusively together.

More subtle, but no less beautiful, is this line of Dylan Thomas: "And I rose in rainy autumn and walked abroad in a shower of all my days." Assonance is particularly strong here, with all those 'ah' sounds. The play of sharp, sibilant sounds in "rose," "shower," and "days" cuts the richness of the assonance beautifully. Mmmmm. This is making me hungry. Anyone have plans for Mardi Gras?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

All Manner of Loveliness

I wanted to write a real post today, but I had too much to do. So here are some links which should make you happy.

A French religious community for women with Down's Syndrome and the women called to live with them in community. (My thanks to Seraphic for this one.)

Winter vacation pictures from Cachemire et Soie. (I try and practice reading French there, but I haven't made much progress!)

Regina Doman's family lives out a parable.

Cannelle et Vannille. Period. (Just in case you haven't heard of it already.)

This artist from northern Alaska, who makes amazing jewelry inspired by her Eskimo heritage. (Thanks to my dear sister for this link.)

So much beauty, even in winter.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poetic Conspiracies

Has anyone seen this article over at Poetry Foundation? It's about Michael Field, a Victorian poet who was actually two women, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper. I had never heard of "Michael Field" before, and I was quite taken by a few of his poems. This excerpt sums up the main argument of the piece:
Although Bradley and Cooper frequently acknowledged in their personal writings the prejudice against women writers, they viewed the prejudice against collaborative creativity as their larger foe. In a journal entry dated July 21, 1891, Bradley recounts an evening that she and Cooper spent at the London literary salon of American poet and critic Louise Chandler Moulton. By this point, Bradley and Cooper were known by most in their literary coterie to be Michael Field, and after an encounter with the poet/novelist Thomas Hardy and man of letters Theodore Watts-Dunton, Bradley exclaimed with emphasis that “[b]oth these men found it inscrutable, incomprehensible, that two people could write poetry together.”

At first I thought, "It is incomprehensible. Who else does that?" And then I remembered that Keats had written a verse drama (not a very good one, really) using plots and ideas cooked up by his friend Brown, and of course there is the famous collaboration of Eliot and Pound on "The Waste Land," which was going to be called "He Do the Policemen in Different Voices" before Ezra got his hands on it. I also thought of those two Australian poets who created the incompetent Ern Malley to sock it to Modernism. One of the attractive things about poetry is that, unlike film, it can be created by one person on a zero-dollar budget. But there's no law about this. You can collaborate with another writer; and as for the shoe-string budget, you can always run over it by deciding that you need to move to New York or Munich or Constantinople to write your poetry.

And lest I forget, I have collaborated on poems, just for fun. My sister and I once wrote a ballad together, trading off stanzas; and Sheila can testify that she and I wiled away an hour, while we were at Christendom, on a parody of "Jaberwocky" (she came up with all the good bits, though). In fact, I can't be really good friends with someone and not want to write stories, poems, or invented languages with them; and I do think that for some people this impulse can result in really good art. I bet that most of my readers have cherished a project or two of this sort with their dearest friends. As for famous examples of writing as a team, are there any I've missed? I'm sure there are.

I'm rather intrigued now by the ladies behind "Michael." Here is another smidgen of background information:
Though Bradley and Cooper often discussed modernizing their style and worried about becoming too traditional and passé, they never bowed to critics, even when their readership dwindled to an intimate few. In their later years, when they converted to Catholicism, as was the trend among many of their circle, their lyric poetry and plays continued to echo with Shakespearean and mythological themes and never shied away from their virile power and a masculine tone.
Read "Summer Wind" for a taste of their talent. And then read their translation of a lyric by Sappho, a version worthy to be learned by heart:


Yea, gold is son of Zeus: no rust
    Its timeless light can stain;
The worm that brings man's flesh to dust
    Assaults its strength in vain:
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Men say the passions should grow old
      With waning years; my heart
Is incorruptible as gold,
      'Tis my immortal part:
Nor is there any god can lay
On love the finger of decay.