Friday, July 8, 2011

Wardrop, snowdrop, raindrop

John Holbo's post about Walter Ong made me think of "Lycidas":
But O the heavy change, now thou art gon,
Now thou art gon, and never must return!
Thee Shepherd, thee the Woods, and desert Caves,
With wilde Thyme and the gadding Vine o'regrown, [ 40 ]
And all their echoes mourn.
The Willows, and the Hazle Copses green,
Shall now no more be seen,
Fanning their joyous Leaves to thy soft layes.
As killing as the Canker to the Rose, [ 45 ]
Or Taint-worm to the weanling Herds that graze,
Or Frost to Flowers, that their gay wardrop wear,
When first the White thorn blows;
Such, Lycidas, thy loss to Shepherds ear. 
I find these lines, and others in the poem, thoroughly magical, and the conventional explanation has to do with sound, but I have never heard the lines read aloud in a way that brings out their beauty. (I don't know if "Lycidas" has been set to music with any success, not too well-informed re lieder...) Perhaps this is just because we have lost the habit of reading out loud; one allows oneself much more of a lilt in the privacy of one's head; nevertheless, it is curious that Milton and Tennyson, the greatest pure musicians in English verse, were both unusually bookish. Verbal beauty is always influenced by meaning, one might even say that verbal beauty is always the iridescence of an impression that is perceived as hybrid. So when Ong says:
A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless’, will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word and be quite unable ever to think of the word ‘nevertheless’ for, let us say, 60 seconds without adverting to any lettering but only to the sound.

This seems like a profoundly irrelevant thought experiment; it is difficult to think of the word "Nevertheless" -- or "What are Years" -- without plunging into one's hoard of associations and coming up with the Marianne Moore poem for instance -- and if one achieved the difficult meditative feat of imagining the word in isolation for a minute this feat would be so far from one's normal mental processes as to divulge no useful information.

But in the end I am less interested in what Ong has to say than in the word "wardrop," a variant spelling of "wardrobe" that was probably substituted for the 1638 edition's "wardrobe" to shorten the last syllable, to drag in (not too fancifully) in an association with "snowdrop," and (a little more fancifully) to prompt the metanalysis of the word as "war-drop" rather than "ward-robe." It is such a dramatic improvement of the line, and given the screwiness of spelling at the time I wonder if Milton first came upon the possibility of "wardrop" after he'd written the poem...

And I'm free-associating at this point, but "war-drop" made me think of other "-drops" in the arsenal of implausible weaponry, e.g., Ted Hughes's "Snowdrop":
Now is the globe shrunk tight
Round the mouse’s dulled wintering heart.
Weasel and crow, as if moulded in brass,
Move through an outer darkness
Not in their right minds,
With the other deaths. She, too, pursues her ends,
Brutal as the stars of this month,
Her pale head heavy as metal.
(one of those poems there isn't a whole lot to say about) and of Hardy's raindrop in "During Wind and Rain" -- one of the few Hardy poems I like, perhaps because it has none of his vile compound verbs; you should follow the link and read the rest of it; the last line, though memorable, is in my view an overdone special effect, but the stanza form is very effective, and I think the first stanza might be my very favorite thing in Hardy:
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face...
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs...
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.


Calista said...

I've now stared at 'wardrop' until it dissolved, but did run into an instance in Donne's satire II first: "But (Oh) we allow / Good workes as good, but out of fashion now, / Like old rich wardrops."

Also, free-associating from your mention of Tennyson: this intersection of bookishness and (garish) music, in Locksley Hall (which was new to me),

"Is it well to wish thee happy?--having known me--to decline / On a range of lower feelings and a narrower heart than mine!"

(Have you heard of any more Shakespeare being ruined this way?)

Zed said...

Ha! I confess I had to enlist Google to find the _Hamlet_ reference (on the assumption that "decline upon" was the only plausibly Shakespearean thing here). Inexcusable really.

And here, a few lines earlier, is T. ruining Wordsworth equally effectively:

"O my cousin, shallow-hearted! O my Amy, mine no more!
O the dreary, dreary moorland! O the barren, barren shore!"

One of the later Victorian critics, either Arnold or Swinburne, distinguished between (was it?) simpleness and simplicity, anyway T. was said to have had the affectedly childish version and W. the real version. Of course it is not fair to judge Tennyson by such of his horrors as have become canonical.

Thanks for the Donne wardrop. For some reason "old rich wardrops" brings up an irresistibly strong image of motor oil.