AUDEN AND THE OED.

In this thread, D-AW linked to his Chains of OED Evidence, about “different kinds of chains of quotation created by the OED, in which the OED is itself already implicated”; that post, in turn, links to Charlotte Brewer’s Examining the OED essay on Auden’s relationship with the OED and its editor R. W. Burchfield, which is full of interesting stuff like this:

On another occasion, Burchfield was sitting working quietly in his room at Christ Church when the door burst open and in rushed an excited Auden, waving a sheet of paper in his hand freshly torn out of his typewriter, to insist Burchfield should put back into the OED an obscure word in a poem he had just that minute written. In telling this tale – to an audience of historical linguists at a conference in Oxford in 1988 – Burchfield gave it as his opinion that ‘Auden was not a scholar and often didn’t know what words meant’.

Before you get all huffy about a mere lexicographer saying a great poet “didn’t know what words meant,” take a look at the evidence; Auden seems to have scoured the OED for words he could insert into his poems, sometimes without checking the senses carefully enough (“But lenient in the etymological sense Auden seems to intend here, ‘soft’, is not a possible meaning according to OED”). Of course, like any user of the language, he was free to use words however he wanted and hope that his usage would catch on, but he seems to have thought he was continuing an age-old tradition rather than innovating.

Comments

  1. I’m not sure it matters that the etymological sense of lenient ‘is not a possible meaning according to the OED.’ Finding new, if not unique, ways to use words is part of the job of a poet, isn’t it? Similarly, I don’t think he hopes his usage will catch on. All I think he hopes is that his usage will contribute to the poem. It does, doesn’t it?
    Anway, it’s likely Auden knew what lenient meant, knew its history and chose to write a line that might seem a trifle odd to someone without that knowledge.

  2. jamessal says:

    The way it’s told, I couldn’t help conjuring Auden bursting into Burchfield’s staid room high on Benzedrine.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    This Charlotte Brewer is no relation to me but I find it amusing that I do have a relative named Charlotte who (as a fairly young girl) was brought along by a parent to a scholarly conference at which this Charlotte was speaking, although strictly speaking my Charlotte may have been brought along to the university where the conference was taking place but then left with a sitter during the actual panels etc.

  4. Finding new, if not unique, ways to use words is part of the job of a poet, isn’t it?
    Well, sure, but they have to be comprehensible to the reader, or how is the poem supposed to work?
    Similarly, I don’t think he hopes his usage will catch on. All I think he hopes is that his usage will contribute to the poem. It does, doesn’t it?
    I don’t know. Does it? It seems a dubious procedure to me to use a word in a way that makes sense only to those who a) know Latin, and b) are willing to ignore the previous use of the word in English. If it works for you, great; myself, I think “six lenient semble sieges” is just an awful line regardless of the issue of the meaning of “lenient.”

  5. Bill Walderman says:

    “It seems a dubious procedure to me to use a word in a way that makes sense only to those who a) know Latin, and b) are willing to ignore the previous use of the word in English.”
    Sounds like Milton.

  6. I think “six lenient semble sieges” is just an awful line regardless of the issue of the meaning of “lenient.”
    Me too. (And so is “the baltering torrent | Shrunk to a soodling thread”, which is the line that got this started here). Bad enough to be seeking out the most obscure and obsolete usages in the dictionary (like some collector’s item) but to be assiduously putting them in! To me it smacks less of anything implicating either audience or tradition than some private neurotic fixation, cloaked as a trifling amusement or game. WHA’s remark that ‘One of my great ambitions is to get into the OED, as the first person to have used in print a new word’ is harmless enough, until it starts coming true with some regularity.

  7. Yes, exactly. (I also have a grudge against Auden for his habit of withdrawing poems, or chunks thereof, from publication because he came to disagree with what they “said,” which shows both lack of understanding of what poetry is for and lack of respect for his readers, but that’s a separate issue.)

  8. Hat: “It seems a dubious procedure”. Indeed, and there (reading Chinese for Latin) you have my objection to Pound in a nutshell. And yet ….
    D-AW: Auden’s friend Tolkien would probably have defended him. He said that it was much better to learn a new word like plenilune ‘time of the full moon’ in the living context of a poem or story (it appears in his poems “Errantry” and Bilbo’s poem in Rivendell, though these are historically two recensions of the same poem) rather than “dead and desiccated” in a dictionary — and yet Tolkien surely got it out of a dictionary in the first place, for which I for one thank him. The same is even more true of dwimmerlaik, which surely owes whatever currency it has today solely to him; the OED’s last use, in the form demerlayk, is from the 15th century, and isolated at that.
    Hat again: I don’t see what’s wrong with it. There is surely nothing wrong with making a second version or edition of something (see above), and withdrawal is just the most drastic kind of second edition. A collection of poetic works is itself a work, and has principles of selection which may and do include leaving poems out because the poet doesn’t think they are good enough any more.

  9. > Well, sure, but they have to be comprehensible to the reader, or how is the poem supposed to work?
    > Bad enough to be seeking out the most obscure and obsolete usages in the dictionary (like some collector’s item) but to be assiduously putting them in!
    In the gap between the first objection and the second one may find, I think, much of the 20th century’s best poetry. Of course your words won’t be comprehensible to the reader, not all of them, not in your sense and shading—the poem is almost necessarily an act of desperately trying to communicate something that will certainly not be communicated, and the poem works, primarily, by misprision. All of this stuff, about the intentional fallacy and the impossibility of communication, is such cliched 20th century orthodoxy that I feel boring just committing it to paper. But it’s true.
    On the other hand—it’s the “desperately” that is so necessary in this occasion to make good poetry. It’s the fact that the word at hand—historically obscure, allusory, deeply personal, symbolic in the poet’s personal psychology—presents itself as so immovably and obviously necessary to the poet that they employ it despite the fact that it will never cross the chasm of individual reference, not because of it. Someone like Montale or Quasimodo, when he makes use of an image that’s not plain to the reader—there might be no reader alive but the poet for whom the image is plain—nevertheless the sense of deep meaningfulness makes its way across the gap unmolested. Though you might not understand what it means, or even what it means to the poet, you understand perfectly that it means to the poet, and it’s the distinct sensation of just-so-ness and necessity that renders the work vital.

  10. “On the other hand—it’s the “desperately” that is so necessary in this occasion to make good poetry. It’s the fact that the word at hand—historically obscure, allusory, deeply personal, symbolic in the poet’s personal psychology—presents itself as so immovably and obviously necessary to the poet that they employ it despite the fact that it will never cross the chasm of individual reference, not because of it.”
    “Necessary to make good poetry”? What do you want to bet that none of that describes even one of eiher Li Bo’s or Du Fu’s poems?
    There is something vulgar in striving for novelty and something pathetic in going even further and contriving it. Real talent lies in revealing the beauty and power in completely banal and mundane and even ugly things.

  11. Auden’s procedure reminds me of the complaint of Lewis in The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success. Lewis accused the overzealous reformers of reviving any bit of old Turkish they found in word references without any knowledge of its correct meaning or usage, all justified by an ideology of nativism and the expulsion of foreign elements. Auden’s differs only by being inspired by ‘poeticism’. The forced use of old words without consideration for their actual meaning and usage seem to be much the same.

  12. Real talent lies in revealing the beauty and power in completely banal and mundane and even ugly things.
    Sounds awfully modern.

  13. “Real talent lies in concealing the completely banal, mundane and ugly things on which beauty and power are based”. Is that not true as well ? And just as modern ?
    “Real X” really (!) means “X as I see it, the only really (!) valid way to see it”. Real in this sense has nothing to do with reality, about which there is no real disagreement (as I have been told).

  14. Sir JCass says:

    There is surely nothing wrong with making a second version or edition of something (see above), and withdrawal is just the most drastic kind of second edition.
    Auden’s later revisions are almost invariably worse than the originals. Suppressing one of his best poems, “September 1, 1939″, was just ridiculous. OK, so the ageing Auden no longer felt the same way about the subject as his younger self, but so what? Most writers probably find themselves in the same situation. He should have left it or – if he felt that strongly – he should have written a companion piece (“September 1, 1939 Revisited”) and printed it alongside it.

  15. In the gap between the first objection and the second one may find, I think, much of the 20th century’s best poetry.
    Yes, and much else.
    There is something vulgar in striving for novelty and something pathetic in going even further and contriving it.
    Aye – yet not all obscure vocabulary results from such impulses, or in such travesty. Two examples to stand against the Auden, possibly:
    A.
    In the middle, not only in the middle of the way
    But all the way, in a dark wood, in a bramble,
    On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold.
    -TSE, East Coker
    B.
    Or as some tell Munchausen syndrome hauling
    Self from grimpen by your own tight-stitched hairpiece.
    -G. Hill, Odi Barbare

  16. > “Necessary to make good poetry”? What do you want to bet that none of that describes even one of eiher Li Bo’s or Du Fu’s poems?
    I’ll note that you removed my “in this occasion”. That is, you took a statement about poetry that flirts with obscurity and symbolism (or even – obscurantism and symbolitry!) and applied it to all poetry everywhere.
    In any case, speaking as a die-hard admirer of Hughes, Thomas, Heaney and all the other plainspoken grizzled earth-movers, there’s something drearily masculine and blindered about this insistence that literary style and invention has no place in the world of poetry, of all places.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    A non-Auden example of revisionist second-thoughts by a leading 20th-century poet:
    Version 1.0 (as published 1914 or thereabouts in the debut issue of a very prestigious and avant-garde literary magazine):
    Come, let us on with the new deal
    Let us be done with Jews and jobbery,
    Let us spit upon those who fawn on the Jews for their money,
    Let us out to the pastures.
    Revised version (date of origin not immediately known to me, but consistently anthologized and with earlier version suppressed to extent poet and his representatives could manage):
    Come, let us on with the new deal,
    Let us be done with pandars and jobbery,
    Let us spit upon those who pat the big-bellies for profit,
    Let us go out in the air a bit.
    But maybe “pandars” was just the sort of odd found-in-the-dictionary word Auden would have liked?

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    OK, one credible-sounding source says revised version was 1926, which is I suppose all things considered earlier than one might have supposed for the poet to have found the original unacceptably embarrassing to reprint without emendation.

  19. But isn’t the fact that we’re having this conversation mean that the system works? In both the Auden and the Pound cases, we’re questioning the editorial choice, which means their intent—if their intent was to blot out their original work—was unsuccessful. We have both texts and we have an understanding of their relationship. If Pound or Auden’s intention was to whitewash their personal history, Soviet-style, they failed. And any such attempt is going to be harder and harder to fulfill as time goes on, and documentation becomes harder to erase. But if the poets were simply trying to present an updated account of their conscience, one can hardly blame them. Auden was persnickety and clearly could never keep from editing even after the ink was dry, but none of his writing is lost to history—at least not on his account. He’s simply left us a profusion of alternate versions to sift through and amendations to ignore (unless we’re his biographers). So be it; I’d hate to ask any writer to make things to easy for his critics.

  20. “too easy”, of course.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m frankly not sure whether hat’s beef with Auden’s tendency to revision is that he thinks the fiddling typically does not improve the poem, or something deeper than that. Copyright law can give whitewashers a lot of leverage (and copyrights now last quite a lot longer than they once did), subject only to the ways in which the internet makes certain sorts of infringement hard to stamp out altogether, and of course fair-use if you just want to point out how one particularly striking line was emended.
    I am mildly irked that the Rolling Stones recently released a lot of unreleased leftovers from decades ago (when their leftovers were better than anything new they could do now), but with some of them modified to varying not-very-well-described extents. So this may be mostly a 1972 or whatever recording but with some unspecified 2009 or whatever overdubs. Probably the internet being what it is, the raw ’72 version has been bootlegged and is (subject to staying a step ahead of the lawyers) Out There somewhere, but still.

  22. Sir JCass says:

    their intent—if their intent was to blot out their original work—was unsuccessful.
    Well, Auden’s intent has been partially successful. If you look for “September 1, 1939″ in his Collected Poems, it’s not there, nor are the original (superior) versions of the other poems he revised. You have to buy the Selected Poems to get hold of (some of) them. Of course, in a few decades his copyright will expire, so what he intended will no longer count for much. In the mean time, it’s not too convenient for his readers.
    But if the poets were simply trying to present an updated account of their conscience, one can hardly blame them.
    There’s historical precedent for this. Torquato Tasso was so paranoid that his epic Gerusalemme liberata didn’t fit with Counter-Reformation Catholic orthodoxy that he revised the whole thing as Gerusalemme conquistata. The latter is generally considered a disaster in aesthetic terms.
    Also, if we’re going to go with authors’ expressed wishes about their work, we should consign the Aeneid and much of Kafka to the flames.

  23. But that’s exactly my point. It’s not a matter of inflicting the author’s expressed wishes on the poetic commons, so to speak—altering the communal record to fit their preferences. It’s a matter of indulging their preferences with respect to their presented historical legacy, and no further. If Kafka’s executors would like to publish a Complete Kafka consisting of a mere 35 pages, then let them; it can not unring the bell of Amerika. The author does not own his works after his death.
    (The Kafka/Auden comparison isn’t perfect, of course; Brod had to defy Kafka’s will after his death and Auden merely couldn’t leave well enough alone. But the principle is the same: An author might exert their will as far as they’re able; but once something is entered into the public record it’s quite difficult for someone so piddly as a writer to wipe it out. You need states and inquisitions for that sort of thing.)

  24. jamessal says:

    I also liked the lines removed from In Memory of W.B. Yeats and always felt that his reason for removing them — that they felt too self-congratulatory — seemed like so much preening.

  25. There is surely nothing wrong with making a second version or edition of something (see above), and withdrawal is just the most drastic kind of second edition.
    That’s like saying “There is surely nothing wrong with giving someone a haircut, and beheading is just the most drastic kind of haircut.” I agree with both Sir JCass and jamessal about what Auden inflicted upon some of his best poems.

  26. the author has a right to do whatever to his text, what s/he cares about who will read it and how

  27. jamessal says:

    I just hope that if Keats had woken up in a sweat one night, having recognizing that the lines

    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

    were, well, WRONG, his publisher would nonetheless have had the fortitude to say, “Then write another poem, because in my next printing, this one is going in as is, wrong or not.”

  28. J.W. Brewer says:

    Emended Keats (after consulting w/ publisher): “that is almost all ye need to know, and if ye want to know the rest ye can advance-order my next book on Amazon.”

  29. jamessal says:

    Who says art and commerce can’t be comfy roomies?

  30. John Emerson says:

    It was like Auden was trying to insert a “Hi, Mom!” into the OED.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    “the baltering torrent | Shrunk to a soodling thread”

    Or perhaps to a Noodly Appendage?

  32. I wish my Dolphins’ offense was as woey as theirs. I’ll take Brady, Vareen,Riddley, Gronk, Hernandez, Lloyd, and Ammendola on my team any day.

  33. Dmitriy,
    I don’t think think there ever was a 25 kopeck Russian coin. A 25 ruble note yes, called ‘chetvertnaya’ (feminine for ‘assignatsiya’ – paper bank note) or, later, ‘chetvertak’ (quarter, masculine). Common silver coins were 10, 15, 20, 50 kopeck and 1 ruble coins. In 1920s 50 k coins were made of silver. In the later Soviet period, after the 1961 ‘Khruschev’s’ ‘decimalization’ (a zero dropped off) 50 kopeck and 1 ruble coins became less common and were mostly minted as ‘jubilee’ coins marking important events or anniversaries. The metro fare was 50 kopeck in ‘old money’ but became 5 kopecks after the reform. Some coins were more sought after for practical reasons. For example, pyatak (5 k) because it was used on buses and the metro and dvushka (2 k) for street telephones.
    This changed towards the 90-s as inflation set in, with coins becoming useless and 1920s informal terms returning, such as Katya (Kate) for 1 thousand, and limon for 1 million.

  34. Sure there was, in tsarist times; for example here or here.

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