English

I have often marveled at the incredible variability of the English language. Languages like French, Spanish, Italian, are all fluid Latinate (duh 🙂 ) and melodious. However, on the other side of the Danube the unconquered (by Romans) German language is rough and tough and percussive. English has always amazed me with its vast range of musically expressive textures. The same language can be hard, it can be musical, it can be sing-song. English is like a fist fight, like a swallow’s flight, like a ship sailing, and like a lovers song. In the hands of a poet, it can be anything. A great poet makes the words tell the same tale both with meaning and with their music. Witness, John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The very sound of the words beat on the ears. (You really should read them aloud, even if just to yourself.) English itself batters you. And yet, the same language can sound soft and sibilant:

(Courtesy of my rival on the Sonnet Duel)
Spendthrift:
The spring has been a brief one, and a hot-
A spendthrift thief of subtle season’s change.
Flowers not yet meant to bloom are caught
Within the raging torrent- and the range
Of Summer’s rate proceeds immoderate
Without the ordered, dignified procession
Of seemly grace. Thus in my mind’s estate
Such prodigality of contemplation
Is displayed, that all my thoughts have bloomed,
And prematurely blows the seeded breeze.
And I am left to mow the leaves and sneeze
And burn my compost thought ‘til all’s consumed.
But hope in this; though now the seeds are Sorrow
Still yet they sow another Spring tomorrow.

Lastly, if you listen to the music in this part of The Ballad of the White Horse (yes, this is another disguised post about this poem 🙂 ) as if you do not know what the words mean, you can hear the Alfred’s courage, sometimes soft and sometimes bold, the variation of percussion and strings (Or the variation of pizzicato, tenuto, and even martele.)

And slowly his hands and thoughtfully
Fell from the lifted lyre,
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees
Till Alfred caught it to his knees
And smote it as in ire.

He heaved the head of the harp on high
And swept the framework barred,
And his stroke had all the rattle and spark
Of horses flying hard.

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord;

“He brake Him and betrayed Him,
And fast and far he fell,
Till you and I may stretch our necks
And burn our beards in hell.

“But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

“What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero’s throne
And asks if he is dead?

“Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

“I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord’s broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

“That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.

“That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

“That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

“Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

“Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

“Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

“Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

“Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

“Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

“For our God hath blessed creation,
Calling it good. I know
What spirit with whom you blindly band
Hath blessed destruction with his hand;
Yet by God’s death the stars shall stand
And the small apples grow.”

Now all of these reflections on my mother-tongue (I don’t see why only foreigners get to use that expression about the language they are raised with. Besides, I know about 20 Greek words 🙂 ) were triggered by a wonderful article about how we owe the richness of the English language to a little thing that happened in A.D. 1066… ok, maybe not so little, but the Norman invasion, and subsequent subjugation of the Saxon kings and nobles left us a strange hybrid language. (Many other things too, of course.)

The English language is unusual in that we have different names for farm animals in the field or byre, and the flesh of these animals when they appear on the table. In Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a Saxon peasant explains that the oxen, calves, swine and sheep are good Saxons tended by Saxons when alive, but turn into Norman-French when they are ready to be eaten as beef (or beeves), veal, pork and mutton.

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

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