Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, most literary criticism owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poems, we will be lead astray, rather like a detective who is led astray by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, he despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review). The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as he always is:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” sound in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but- didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says, “In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forth another day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day spring forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
Time and Faith in T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”
(The Second of Four Quartets)
We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic . . . amend the dilemma. ~ I. A. Richards
In a film my graduate class viewed on T. S. Eliot, one of the people interviewed stated that Eliot converted to Christianity merely because he came to believe that a Western man can only partake of Western tradition—he cannot truly appreciate or understand Eastern philosophy and religion, as he is culturally an integral part of the West. I find this statement to be an intolerable condescension—a prejudicial way of denying the validity of Eliot’s religious experiences without denying his artistic greatness. For it is only just to attribute to Eliot the Anglican the same characteristics one attributes to Eliot the searching agnostic: the qualities of honesty, desire for truth, deep thought, and consummate intellect.
It is universally recognized that Eliot’s poetry draws upon the history and traditions of both East and West, but with his post-Wasteland (post-conversion) poetry a question has arisen as to what extent his works contain not just reference to the Eastern tradition (that is a given), but also—to what extent they incorporate the essence of Eastern philosophy, as opposed to that of Christianity. In other words, how Christian, in the orthodox sense, is Eliot’s later poetry? An investigation of the concept of time in “East Coker” in light of Eliot’s post-conversion worldview, as compared to the Eastern (Hindu) understanding, sheds light upon the meaning of the Four Quartets and specifically here, in “East Coker.”
Four Quartets contains evidence that Eliot’s conversion was a deeply thought out shift in philosophy which affected the entire framework upon which he viewed his personal existence in space and time, and that of modern society. To discover any less would be to reveal a disappointingly shallow thinker who had lost his moorings in a sea of confusing and contradictory panaceas, grasping at Christianity in the desperate hope of finding some answer—any answer—to the modern dilemma. If Eliot truly converted to Christianity but did not infuse his work with his beliefs, then he was, in the final analysis, a hypocritical and duplicitous poet.
Eastern and Western concepts of time are fundamentally different. The Eastern concept of time is circular—symbolized by the wheel or mandala—and the Western concept is linear. Since Four Quartets describes various cycles and since Eliot often utilizes Eastern cultural references, critics have made the connection with the circular mandala. However, I propose that the cycles seen in the “Quartets” represent a more linear, Western concept of time than is generally appreciated. In the Four Quartets, Eliot presents cycles repeating along a linear course, which in three dimensional space could be thought of as a focusing spiral, a concept analogous to the traditional, Western literary device of the seasons repeating their cycles in the context of advancing time: not the same as, but reminiscent of, Yeats’ widening gyre.
What is the fundamental philosophical difference between the mandala and the seasonal cycles? The Eastern wheel returns repeatedly upon itself, while the progressing element of the seasonal cycles allows for variance and newness to occur. Thus, the more linear concept of seasonal cycles reflects Eliot’s Christian theology (Eden > sin -> fall -> birth -> death -> resurrection -> salvation ->conclusion), while the mandala, revolving upon itself, yields the solipsistic experience of continuous reincarnation.
It is with these differences in mind that we turn to the Four Quartets and the nature of Eliot’s view of time, as reflected, specifically, in “East Coker.” East Coker is the town to which Eliot’s family moved when they came to England from America, and it was in that same Somerset district that their ancestors had also lived. In Section I of the poem, the narrator associates himself with the past through family ancestry and through all of the generations in time (Weitz 60). The section begins “In my beginning is my end, “ and goes on to list all of the things that are either “removed” or “restored”: houses, open fields, factories, a bypass, fires, ashes, bones, leaves . . . and subsequent to the list, an Ecclesiastical placing of these events in time. Each creation or destruction is placed within its own framework:
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto. (I: 9-13)
By using the structure of Ecclesiastes’ “a time . . . ” to open the poem, Eliot conjures up the consciousness of the Western, Judaeo-Christian concept of time; it is ordered; it is both developmental and progressive in nature. The timber goes to the fire; the fire to the ashes, the ashes to earth; the earth is flesh, fur, feces. The ecological “chain” must move in orderly progression concluding at its starting point, the earth itself. Its cycle is a natural, empirical one, not a philosophical one. “In my beginning is my end” is signified not only through the narrator’s return to his ancestral home, but by the earth’s continual metamorphosis as it cycles, making “all things new.” In the end of Section I, the ancestors’ lives are also described in terms of Ecclesiastes, thus associating the narrator’s present visit with their past—they stand together as one experience:
. . . [K]eeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living season
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of a man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling,
Eating and drinking, Dung and death. (I: 40-47)
In the second stanza we see the thesis: “In my beginning is my end” gather into itself the future. If time makes all things temporary, changing and metamorphosing them, the future is part of that; the future is actually integral to the present and the past:
In a warm haze the sultry heat
Is absorbed not refracted, by grey stone. (I: 20-21)
Just as the light is absorbed, not refracted, so the experiences of the past and present are melded into the events of the future. All earthly experiences will disappear, but as Eliot makes clear in “Burnt Norton,” the foundational poem of the set, there is found in the midst of it a “still point of the turning world.” This still, permanent point, the Word of God, the Logos made flesh in Christ (V in “Burnt Norton”) is the eternal, unchanging locus about which all other events, past, present and future, revolve, and in which they are actually contained: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Section I Ends:
. . . Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at seas the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here.
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning. (I: 48-51)
The dawn is “point”ing towards another day—time progresses—but it also points towards the narrator’s place “here . . . there or elsewhere. In my beginning.” As the new day dawns it brings a new time, but not a new identity. His beginning is also his end; he finds his being stable as he looks at himself in changing space and time, because is grounded by “the darkness of God”—that is, the overpowering, inexorable permanence of God (see II: 12-13).
The first strophe of Section II of “East Coker” is a contemplation of the seasons’ relationship to time:
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And the creatures of the summer heat,
And the snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow? (I: 1-7)
While one critic sees this section as the seasons “cancel[ling] one another out rather than adding to a pattern” (Headings 127), I see the section as describing the tension between the seasons as a framework upon which time eventually concludes in “that destructive fire”—most likely the end of time as described in the book of Revelation and other places in the New Testament.
November is in tension with spring–summer creatures with snowdrops–roses with snow—all pull against each other and press time along to its final conclusion of “destructive fire,” even as earlier, the dawn has pointed towards it. The essence of the world in time as it is now will eventually disappear. In Yeatsian terms, “The center cannot hold”; “The houses are all gone under the sea. / The dancers are all gone under the hill (II: 49-50). In other words, nothing which is only “in time” will stand, because time deceives—it causes us to think we have a larger , more encompassing knowledge than we do: “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies / For the pattern is new in every moment” (II: 34-35). Section II concludes with the only path for approaching God and thus, permanence and significance, ‘The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless” (II: 47-48).
Through humility one can attain eternal existence, because only through humility can the window be gained which will lead to knowledge of the Logos. But such self-abnegation is the hard road; one must, as Section III reveals, travel through the dark. The dark (the suffering God brings as the way to humility) will strip the soul of its pride and bring it to a place of recognizing the vanity of trying to discover any purpose outside of the context of the Logos. This process of developing humility occurs with an unfolding of time which reveals to the narrator the true insignificance of his own identity and existence in the universe and throughout time, as he looks back on all of time and imagines also the future.
This leads to the specifics of what it means to allow humility to have its way. At the end point are the qualities associated with the Logos itself, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” In Section IV the Logos is symbolized in the person of a wounded surgeon, and the Church as a dying nurse (Headings 128)”:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
beneath the bleeding hands we eel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. (IV: 1-5)
Here the solution to impermanence is found: the deceived and the transitory state of mankind can be cured with healing through the Christ surgeon, by the Church, as is symbolized by Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death on that day (Headings 128). His sacrifice transcended time and covered the condition of mankind of all time—past, present and future—thus drawing together all of time and all people into one unit and given them a transcendent permanence and meaning. Thus the section concludes:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (IV: 21-25)
Section V is contemplative; the poem draws a distinctive conclusion, an end point viewed through age, as the narrator looks back over twenty years. He sees failure and hopelessness in frail human attempts at greatness along the way. But these years of living reveal the need for a “further union, a deeper communion” (35-36). His final conclusion can be termed as a kind of Christian existentialism: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business” (18); our human responsibility is to follow the way of humility and let God and the unfolding of time and eternity determine the rest. In the final analysis then, there is only this—a clinging to the unchanging Word: “The here and now cease to matter” (30) because eternity is seen as having the only lasting and overriding value. However, specific individual experiences in time lead toward that eternity; the distinctly temporal journey propels one forward into the ultimate reality of “union and communion” with God. The poem closes by turning its opening phrase, “In my end is my beginning,” because the narrator has realized that eternally speaking, he is no more (or less) now than he was at birth; he is only of significance in terms of the Word as both the Alpha and the Omega.
By using the theme of time and then proceeding to compress, expand and unify it throughout the work, Eliot has give us a poem of lasting value and spiritual significance; when placed with the other poems in the Four Quartets it presents a kind of brief “poetic epic,” revealing an inner journey of a soul’s awakening to and discovery of eternal and transcendent values.
Cindy C. Lange, MA
Painting of The Wasteland via http://www.school-portal.co.uk
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Part I:
Furrows of Fabric in Jungian Cloth
This article will be presented in two parts: the first is an interpretation of Gaiman’s book; the second will be my commentary on the book in terms of the sacramental Christian worldview.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman investigates the ways in which we interpret and assimilate events and memories, and how our ability to incorporate our past affects and determines our present understanding of our selves and the world around us. Gaiman re appropriates disparate myths and symbols in a complex manner; the unifying theme is Jungian psychology, brought to life through traditional symbols the author has synthesized. Reading Ocean is a bit like watching Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, wherein the character and audience experience the events of his life in reverse, and each slide back into the past presents a different aspect of key events of the protagonist’s life, because we can only cope with the harsh realities of life when they are put into context with the present. In Ocean, though, we are left not solely with the conclusion to a specific story, but rather, the working out of a theory as to how our minds and memories adapt as we grow up and learn about evil in the world and the failings of those we love. It is a book about how we help ourselves understand the vagaries of existence.
The plot revolves around an unnamed artist’s return to his family home in the British countryside which jettisons us into a flashback; our artist is a bookish boy, aged 7, in the 1960s, alienated in his life with his parents and sister, none of whom are sympathetic to his sensitive, artistic nature. Not exactly original—but Gaiman uses the boy’s sense of disjointedness, of not belonging, to introduce the broader theme of the individual’s psychological journey into self integration. Carl Jung posits that the self can only become whole by assimilating past experiences with personal values and desires. In Ocean, the artist must recall his past in order to incorporate his understanding of painful memories into who he is now. (Though the boy is only 7 years old, that number is probably symbolic; his internal conflicts are those of an adolescent who is trying to “complete” himself and come to an adult understanding of the world.) The book investigates the traumatic events which led to the boy’s entrance into adulthood, and therefore, full personhood, but ultimately, we learn that he has returned many times to the ocean; i.e., we all must go back to revisit our memories periodically if we are to continue the process of understanding who we are, and in order that we may make sense of our personal “worlds” within the context of our larger reality.
Ocean is a full blown myth which explores our subconscious and conscious motivations and memories; Gaiman questions the validity of our recollections while at the same time affirming the importance of them as the fabric by which we know ourselves. However–and this is the crucial conflict in the book–we cannot directly access our painful experiences–the “raw” data–without experiencing a disintegration of the self; we can only accept and integrate major changes in our lives through symbols and archetypes, which facilitate the integration of these occurrences and memories into the “self.”
Jung’s anima or animus is the vehicle through which experiences are sorted, interpreted, and assimilated into the self, and in Ocean, the Hempstock family, and particularly Lettie, play that role. The name Hempstock points the reader clearly in the direction of alternative understandings of reality, since the women, like a drug, help him access hidden recesses of the mind. If the boy allows them to, the Hempstock anima will lead him into fully integrating all of his experiences, both negative and positive. Lettie, her mother and grandmother are guides to the personal unconscious. As the young boy’s personal anima, Lettie is his Beatrice, his psychological guide.
The boy initially meets the Hempstock women because he and his father discover the body of a man they know who has committed suicide in their family car–down the lane. The three women take the boy through the perilous waters of coming adulthood, self-understanding and acceptance of reality. They give him safe harbor–a psychological safe “place” which is apart from his increasingly unpleasant and unacceptable home life. They feed him comfort food, a stark contrast to the “burned toast” of his home, and in their role as anima they bring maternal support, teaching him psychological boundaries, “dressing” him in the clothes of his anima– the feminine (opposite) side of his self which must be unearthed and appropriated in order for him to “find” himself.
Throughout the book, Lettie Hempstock asserts that she will keep the boy safe, and it is only when he lets go of her hand while traveling on her land that his foot is invaded by the “wormhole” that allows Ursula Monkton into his world. A cursory reading might seem to indicate that Ursula is evil personified, but that is not the case: several times, Lettie and her relatives state that Ursula must be “contained,”and “sent home,” not destroyed. She must be “put in her place”–categorized and restrained– but the women will not confirm that she is evil, and even assert that she is just doing what she was created to do. When the boy lets go of Lettie’s hand during their initial confrontation with Ursula, he is allowing his raw memories to invade his consciousness; this is why he asserts over and over that it is “his fault” that Ursula has appeared. His recollections will only be put into context when Old Mrs. Hempstock is able to take a needle, dig deeply into his foot, extract the invader, and close the hole up–after which Ursula will “disappear.” Whatever ways in which he has ignored his anima, the “other side” of his soul, have caused destructive, unprocessed memories to invade and poison him. Only through excising such raw memories can he/we have unity and understanding of “self.”
While Lettie’s farm contains the friendly pond she calls an ocean, and it is a place of solace, the boy’s home down the lane is inhabited by a family that expresses no love, and presents meals of burned toast which his father alone cooks. In his home, water becomes a force of destruction when his father, in a rage, nearly drowns the boy in the bathtub in reaction to his son’s lack of acceptance of Ursula as nanny and apparently, as the father’s lover. This event may or may not have occurred, but the symbolism of it is key: the boy’s emotional break with his father, his realization that his father is fallible, signifies the boy’s entrance into the adult world. He has been “baptized” in the painful waters of recognizing that his parents, who have been his refuge, are imperfect, and will not always be able to guide and protect him. The “fabric” of his childhood has been ripped apart, leaving him afraid and vulnerable, but in accepting the help of the Hempstocks, he will eventually come to terms with reality.
When Lettie first takes the boy for a walk on her farm, they meet the piece of ugly canvas fabric which is Ursula, waiting to be “set free” to enter the boy’s world. Because he lets go of Lettie’s hand, the fabric is able to enter into the sole of his foot. Lettie has used a divining rod, and the two of them have found “something brown and furry, but flat, like a huge rug, flapping and curling at the edges, and, at the front of the rug, a mouth, filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth, facing down” (38). They immediately see a manta wolf, and Lettie says they have “gone too far out”–they are past the bounds where the boy’s psyche can integrate the dangerous events into his memory safely. This is when he lets go of Lettie’s hand, and the fabric of Ursula reveals herself and invades him and his world.
The middle section of the book consists of Ursula’s ripping apart the fabric of his family in a series of gripping and painful events that leave the reader drained as Ursula emotionally abuses the boy and locks him in his room. As he writes after seeing Ursula and his father embracing, “My parents were a unit, inviolate . . . the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields and was coming down the lane with me, then” (80). He escapes down the drainpipe and makes it to the Hempstock farm–to the safe “place” in his mind–and there his anima (the Hempstocks) treats him to a warm bath–a stark contrast to the life-threatening, cold dunking his father has just given him. It is at this time that Old Mrs. Hempstock pulls the wormhole out of him.
But we soon discover that part of the path Ursula has used has inexplicably gone to his chest–he can feel it there. This never leaves him, even when Ursula is banished, because the blithe innocence of his childhood cannot return. Instead, he must learn as he grows to adjust his view of reality by incorporating aspects of the painful until they no longer dominate him.
The last section of the book is a battle wherein Ursula attempts to stay, and the boy must decide to choose whether or not to live in the protection of the “fairy ring” of self-assimilation. It’s worth a read to find out the conclusion, if you like myths, and Neil Gaiman. Not recommended for children.
(Picture of Ursula: facebook.com/LinkLovesColouring)
Fresh-firecoal: Making Up Words~ Part I
Fresh-firecoal, for any who don’t know, is a word created by the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and found in his poem “Pied Beauty”:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
I love people who invent words–especially Hopkins, whose poetry embodies his dictum that “the poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened.” If Christ is the Word Made Flesh, and we are imago dei, then writing has the possibility of becoming a sacramental act as we wrestle with language. Like Jacob after the angelic visitation, we may walk away with a limp, but we will better know ourselves and God for our struggle. A seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with the flaming coal and his guilt was purged, his speech sanctified; perhaps in appropriating words as best we can, we too will engage the angelic realm and in so doing, touch the heart of God.
As with Adam’s naming of the animals, we have the privilege of inventing, whether it be through writing, or creating art, or building, or a myriad of other activities; the experience of creating the “thing” that the word represents is a sacramental act inasmuch as we “partner” with God in bringing forth a new creation out of the materials we have been given. And when we beget a new “thing” that is carelessly fashioned or negates the reality of the spiritual world, we align with the spiritual powers that have broken this world because we contribute to its fallen state. We have this “treasure in earthen vessels”–embodying the soul-stopping truth that the biblical pronouncement that we are “co-inheritors with God” is literal; it pertains not only to the heavenly realm, but to the world we now inhabit. We aren’t presented with just two choices: align with an arbitrary divine “plan,” OR give in to the dark side; rather, the rich feast of possibility the Creator has spread before us stretches far and wide, reaches into the future, and expands in a fulgent tapestry, weaving our imaginative conceptions and His will together, into eternity. Coleridge caught it when he defined the imagination:
The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify. It is essentially vital . . .
Surely the imago dei lies within the depths of the human ability to create and to label with words that which we have conceived and brought forth.
(Originally published in the May, 2011 Epistula, Veritas Press Publishing Company)
We all know the following Mother Goose rhyme: Jack be nimble / Jack be quick / Jack jump over the moon. Wait! Something’s wrong here. Wasn’t it the cow that jumped over the moon? Indeed, nursery rhymes sound the depths of our childhood experiences, but they serve as far more than fond memories. The nursery rhyme has been a training ground for English speaking children for the past 400 years or perhaps longer. Mother Goose was the first “holistic educator,” because nursery rhymes teach to every aspect of a child’s nature: sensory, physical, cognitive, and moral. We can say with assurance that Mother Goose was far ahead of her time.
The mythical figure of Mother Goose is usually depicted as a crone who presides over the treasury of English nursery rhymes which has evolved over past centuries. The earliest reference to her is in a collection of French stories in 1650, but the name came into its current usage in 1780 after a British publisher adopted it in reference to a “compilation of traditional English nonsense songs and rhymes.”[i] The tradition of Mother Goose was carried across the pond to the American colonies, where she has steadfastly remained the reigning denizen of early childhood literature. There are several reasons for the unwavering popularity of her verse; investigating them gives insight not only into the poems, but into the nature of children, and more specifically, into the ways in which children can and should develop.
The first and most important function of the rhymes is that their insistent sing-song rhythms immerse the very young in the cadences of the English language. The rhymes prepare inexperienced ears to recognize not only specific words, but entire phrases, laying down the neural pathways for children to aurally receive, process, and finally, organize the more detailed, chaotic information which will soon bombard them as they grow past toddlerhood and move into the world of cognition and reason. Take the well-known Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush—this ditty repeats the phrase “the mulberry bush” three times within four lines, with each repetition varying the tune and pitch slightly. Why? By retaining the same words while slightly altering the tune and placement on the musical scale, the phrase takes the child incrementally from the “known” to the “unknown”—this is foundational to the way that we learn. As they chant, the children run around an object, developing physical abilities in tandem with tonal memory. The content of this rhyme is irrelevant, but the repetitive nature of the words, with their sing-song lilt, provides children with a now-familiar milieu in which to learn; their auditory world becomes a known haven which yields a sense of security through its limited phraseology and repetition, while acting as a vehicle through which they refine their ability to distinguish differences in sounds.
The rhymes also provide children with information about the world around them. Mother Goose “educates” by creating touchstones for their expanding minds. For instance, many are about foods in the household. “Pat-a-cake” explains the baker’s wares; “Little Jack Horner” glorifies the Christmas plum pudding (and Jack’s thumb!); silly Jack Sprat and his wife exemplify fat and lean; the “little piggies” go to market looking for roast beef, etc. Nursery rhymes also familiarize children with commonplace items in an entertaining manner. A cat plays a fiddle, a cow jumps over the moon, dishes and forks run away together . . . amazingly, this simple technique causes children to begin to make connections between and among objects, developing their analytical processes through the use of the furnishings of their everyday world.
Additionally, nursery rhymes serve to help children learn and appreciate humor, as in Sing a Song of Sixpence, wherein the king is served a blackbird pie in which the still-alive birds pop out of the crust singing. (Blackbirds were eaten as a gourmet item in earlier times.) Or take Peter, Peter, Pumpkin-eater, in which Peter cannot “keep” his wife until he places her in a pumpkin shell (!). Learning humor is a crucial aspect of developing critical thinking, and helps children to learn to differentiate between various aspects of the world around them, as they note the contrast between the joke-rhyme and the real world it supposedly reflects.
Mother Goose rhymes also inculcate morals and rules in children by using a form which they will easily remember, as in this sardonic scolding of a child for his tardiness: A dillar, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar! / What makes you come so soon? / You used to come at ten o’clock / But now you come at noon. Or this one: Seesaw, Margery Daw / Sold her bed / And laid upon straw. And we all know about what happened to Jack and Jill when they ran up the hill, and it wasn’t pretty! While some lessons Mother Goose teaches might seem grim to us (Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire, your children all gone!) they were necessary helps to children of previous generations, who lived in a harsher environment where these admonitions were necessary. However, There’s a Neat Little Clock is charming even to the 21st century mind: There’s a neat little clock- / In the classroom it stands- / And it points to the time / With its two little hands. / And may we, like the clock, / Keep a face clean and bright, / With hands ever ready / To do what is right.
The riddle-rhymes push the envelope further: My favorite is As I Was Going to St. Ives, which is often used in first grade readers because it incorporates logic with arithmetic (or so it would appear):
As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats, Each cat had seven kits: kit, cats, sacks and wives, How many were going to St. Ives?
Do you know the answer? Actually, it is unclear. Perhaps only one person was going to St. Ives, since the speaker states in the beginning that he is going there. Or perhaps everyone is headed that way, including the animals. Then there would be 2,802—talk about a traffic jam! It’s even possible that the last line of the riddle is only asking how many of the party he met were going, and doesn’t mean to include him in the question, in which case it is possible that zero could be the answer. This rhyme is actually a form of a riddle from 1650, BC called The Papyrus Rind[ii]–what better way to introduce children to the vagaries of language than that of a timeless logic problem hidden in a nursery rhyme?
Mother Goose has remained with us these many centuries because she is worthy of the honor; she is a teacher par excellence, an iconic and insightful culture-bearer who inculcates deep lessons into our Western heritage. Let us adopt her and say wholeheartedly: Welcome, Thou Beloved Crone! [i]
http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm. [ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives. Sources: Briggs, Raymond, The Mother Goose Treasury. Coward-McCann, Inc. New York: 1966. http://www.rhymes.org.uk/as_i_was_going_to_st_ives.htm. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_I_was_going_to_St_Ives. Mother Goose Anniversary Edition, The. Scholastic Inc. New York: 1916.