Dryden’s Nouny Nouns.

As I mentioned here, I’m reading Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, and I’m struck by a particular stylistic device that can best be demonstrated with a list of occurrences in the first three books:

Book 1: frothy furrows, airy throne, airy kingdoms, briny streams, finny coursers, briny waters, mossy seats, airy brow, beamy stags, tusky boar, milky dams, massy plate, plumy pride

Book 2: weedy lake, briny sweat, bushy brake, plumy crest, airy coursers, thorny brake, forky tongue, snaky buckler, leafy honors, briny floods, leafy greens

Book 3: foamy billows (2x), craggy cliff, shady shelter, ridgy waves, pitchy cloud, massy rocks, misty clouds (2x), woolly care, fenny lake, palmy land

Mind you, I’m ignoring very common adjectives like bloody, shady, dusty, etc., and citing only the ones that particularly stood out as marked collocations. I suppose a couple, like “briny waters” and “craggy cliff,” wouldn’t stand out in other surroundings, but in this company they’re clearly part of a trend. I haven’t read enough seventeenth-century poetry to be sure that it’s a peculiarity of Dryden rather than of the period, but I suspect it is. At any rate, by the time I got to “beamy stags” I was downright chuckling, doubtless not the reaction he was going for.

While I’m at it, I have a bone to pick with Dryden:

We leave the Delian ports, and put to sea;
By Naxos, fam’d for vintage, make our way;
Then green Donysa pass; and sail in sight
Of Paros’ isle, with marble quarries white.

What is this “Donysa”? He’s referring to Donousa (Greek Δονούσα), which Virgil quite properly calls Donusa (“bacchatamque jugis Naxum viridemque Donusam”); if it had been Greek Δονυσα, Virgil would have had Donysa. But it’s not, and he didn’t. Dryden needed a copyeditor.


  1. Sir JCass says

    I haven’t read enough seventeenth-century poetry to be sure that it’s a peculiarity of Dryden

    It’s a peculiarity that goes back to the Elizabethan period at least. Maybe popular because a phrase such as “the foamy billows” gives you two iambic feet. I think Pope or Dr Johnson commented on some of the more extreme examples somewhere but I’m afraid I don’t have the time to investigate at the moment.


    I doubt the blame lies with Dryden. It’s more likely to be in whichever edition of the Latin he was working from. According to my Oxford Classical Text edition of Virgil, “Donysa” is a variant for “Donusa” in some manuscripts of the Aeneid.

  2. Sir JCass says

    One example: “steepy mountain” occurs in Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”.

  3. Oskar Sigvardsson says

    It’s especially amusing that you think Dryden needed a copyeditor given that he was the originator of the silly proscription against ending sentences in a preposition.

  4. I doubt the blame lies with Dryden. It’s more likely to be in whichever edition of the Latin he was working from. According to my Oxford Classical Text edition of Virgil, “Donysa” is a variant for “Donusa” in some manuscripts of the Aeneid.

    Ah, that makes sense. Sorry, John!

  5. Walter Harte, a younger contemporary of Pope’s, pointed out that Dryden and Pope were moderate in their use of these forms we associate with the Augustan poets, compared to some others (now more forgotten than Harte). Much of why we note them in Dryden and Pope (at least his Homer) is just that’s who we still read.

    Those adjectives are without question metrically convenient. Some have failed to stand the test of time, like lawny, spiry, stenchy: perfect for parodies of the style. But others that took off then are now ordinary words outside poetry, foamy, gloomy, noisy.

  6. AJP Crown says

    I was at school with a Foamy Billows.

  7. steepy mountain

    I was about to say that this doesn’t count because steep is not a noun, but the OED disagrees: it means ‘slope, declivity’ and shows up right through 1899, though this fascicle was not published until 1916.

  8. Trond Engen says

    ON staup “cliff, precipice”.

    (This word is a strange collection of senses. Also: “hole in a road”, “bowl, beaker” and “lump of cast metal”.)

  9. The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
    No more shall grief of mine the season wrong.

  10. The Anglo-Irish poet William Allingham sang:

    Up the airy mountain,
    Down the rushy glen,
    We daren’t go a-hunting
    For fear of little men.

    In the rest of the poem we see rocky shore, crispy pancakes, starry nights, craggy hill-side.

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    Note that for at least a few of the combinations given above we have alternative phrasings that sound perfectly cromulent to the modern ear. Forked tongue rather than forky tongue, for example. Put an accent over the e in forked to distinguish it from “fork’d” and you can even get the iambic scansion you might want.

  12. From Language 1660-1784 by A S Collins From ‘The Pelican Guide To English Literature: 4 — from Dryden to Johnson’ (1968)

    What perhaps particularly offends the modern reader is the constant use in Augustan poetry of terms like ‘the feather’d choir’, ‘the wingy swarm’, ‘the finny tribe’, ‘our fleecy wealth’, and ‘the foodful brine’. Yet they had the merit often of being both precise and concise, and they came into existence for that end, carrying normally a fuller meaning than superficial reading detects. Thus ‘feather’d choir’ was not merely an evasion of ‘birds’ but a semi-scientific statement that these particular singers were birds, and ‘fleecy wealth’ conveys at once the physical and economic with verbal thrift. Moreover, this use of language harmonized with the Augustan belief in generalization, which Johnson famously expressed in Rasselas, where it is laid down that ‘the business of the poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species: to remark general properties and large appearances’. It was an attitude to poetry which appealed to and sprang from the eighteenth-century’s love of order and its desire for intellectual clarity, and from this pursuit of the abstract and generalized idea there followed naturally two other characteristics, the constant use of certain ‘poetic’ words and of personification. The stock of poetic words and phrases included gales, which commonly blow, vales often verdant, train perhaps glittering, swain and nymph, lawn, azure main, tender tears, melt (‘pity melts the eyes’), smiling (land), blooming, genial, frantic, solemn hour. The list could be a long one. Many of these words — for example, gale, blow, and swain — were, by virtue of their long vowels, especially useful for rhymes, but on the whole the significance of this choice of certain words in preference to many others available lies in their general nature. Gales are merely the air in movement, vales a broadly conceived aspect of landscape. Formal epithets like smiling or solemn, verdant or azure, with ‘decent’ grace supported the generalization. It was all Propriety, conforming to the now established tradition of the reformed and refined language, which, as Johnson said, had been transformed from brick to marble.

  13. An excellent quote, and rather touching—1968 was at the tail end of the period in which it was possible to write like that. “What perhaps particularly offends the modern reader” sounds almost Augustan itself.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    Re what you could still write in 1968, see this obit of a very much they-don’t-make-’em-like-that anymore Oxford don, with bonus quote about “the blind poet John Heath-Stubbs [NB: not the decedent], who said things such as ‘Dryden was the last poet to attend to the music of the spheres.’”

  15. Another quote, from Diction, Variation, the Formula by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, in A Beowulf Handbook by Robert E. Bjork, John D. Niles:

    When J. R. Clark Hall concluded his entry for hlæst (burden, freight, load) in A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by citing holmes hlæst and glossing finny tribe, he provided at once a rare instance of humor in an otherwise sober lexico-graphic project and a glimpse at a fairly early approach to Old English poetic diction. Finny tribe, of course, had been coined in the eighteenth century within a particular understanding of what might constitute appropriate poetic language: elegant circumlocution made it possible to avoid the hopelessly mundane word fish. Insofar as the language of Old English poetry reserved to itself a set of words that do not appear in prose and delighted as well in using compound nouns and adjectives in periphrasis for more ordinary expressions, the comparison seemed useful to early scholars of the poem. For W. W. Lawrence “Anglo-Saxon verse was, of course, as much confined by ‘measures and rules’ as that of Dryden or Pope” (1928). While both intrigued and repelled by what he saw as similarities to the elegant artifice of eighteenth-century poetic diction, Henry Cecil Wyld (1925) still found much in Old English poetic diction that appeared “genuine.”

  16. @Bathrobe: I had a really hard time getting past, “… the business of the poet is to examine, not the individual, but the species: to remark general properties and large appearances….” The use of “species” and “general” in synonymous senses (rather than opposition) made this very hard for me to parse.

  17. Species here should perhaps have been genus.

    Now, Muse, let’s sing of rats.

  18. AJP Crown says
  19. @John Cowan: The funny thing is that, “… not the individual, but the species…” would work fine on its own, meaning exactly what the author intended. It’s only the presence of genus word that makes it awkward.

  20. Sir JCass says

    Following on from Bathrobe’s points, Geoffrey Tillotson has a fascinating discussion of this subject in his Augustan Poetic Diction. It’s too long to quote at length but it’s available on Google Books. Tillotson says that the practice of inventing “-y” adjectives goes back at least to Spenser:

    Chaucer’s verse has what Matthew Arnold phrased as a “divine liquidity of diction, and a divine fluidity of movement”, and that mainly because in his day most of our nouns and adjectives terminated in a syllabic -e. When this -e became obsolete poets seem to have sought an occasional compensation by adding an unstressed vowel […]. The adjective in -y served to lighten the run of such lines as were deemed to require it.

    Tillotson describes how Dryden and the Augustans took words directly from Virgil, e.g. “liquid”, “gelid”, “conscious”, or used English words in their Latin sense, e.g. “purple” as in Pope’s “the purple year”, where it means “the brightest, most vivid colouring in general, not of that peculiar tint so called” (Warburton’s note in his edition of Pope). Dryden’s “fleecy care” “springs readily from the juxtaposition ‘superat pars altera curae, Lanigeros agitare greges'” (from the Georgics Book III).

    I particularly liked this insight from Tillotson:

    By virtue of the words and phrases borrowed or adapted from Virgil, the nature-poems of the eighteenth century have a quality which is usually denied them, the quality of ‘atmosphere’. The diction is coloured with Virgilian connotation. Critics have been ready to dismiss the words merely as derived from Latin, as if their previous life lay only in the multi-columned pages of the dictionary. But it is only because those words leapt to the eye whenever the poet opened his Virgil that they appear whenever he writes nature-poems for himself. […] As the reverence for Virgil faded, the capacity to supply the connotation faded with it. In the eighteenth century the meanings of the favourite Virgilian words are not defined in the dictionaries. They are beyond definition in the same way that Keats’s words are, though often for different reasons. They are indefinable because the dictionary cannot assess the Italian light they derive from the Georgics.

    Tillotson then goes on to discuss the different nuances of the word “gelid”, but I don’t have time to transcribe it.

  21. Fascinating, thanks very much for those great quotes!

  22. Just got to this line, describing Charon: “The freights of flitting ghosts in his thin bottom bears.” I wonder in what year that started eliciting giggles?

  23. @AJP Crown: In my experience, every country believes that being wiseasses is part of their own unique national character.

  24. Sir JCass says


    From Boswell’s Life of Johnson:

    Once, when the conversation turned on Campbell, Johnson mentioned that he had married `a printer’s devil’.

    REYNOLDS. ‘A printer’s devil, Sir! Why, I thought a printer’s devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.’

    JOHNSON. `Yes, Sir. But I suppose he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. (Then looking very serious, and very earnest.) And she did not disgrace him; the woman had a bottom of good sense.’

    The word bottom, thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slyly hid her face behind a lady’s back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotic power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, `Where’s the merriment?’ Then collecting himself, and looking awful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, `I say the woman was fundamentally sensible‘; as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.

  25. The terminus ad quem is 1781, then.

  26. Sir JCass says

    Funnily enough, I’ve just noticed Tillotson discussing this kind of thing. He notes Johnson himself laughing at Shakespeare for using words such as “blanket” and “dun” (I suppose that would have been funny to 18th-century readers because it also meant a bailiff). Such words were associated with the burlesque poetry of Butler, Swift et al. so the Augustans tried to avoid them in serious poetry, leading to the use of periphrasis. Wordsworth subsequently reclaimed them and now the periphrases themselves look odd and are subject to parody. Tillotson writes:

    We can appreciate this linguistic repugnance by examining our own over such a word as blooming. It is Saxon and ‘beautiful’ (i.e. pleasant to say, having pleasant original associations). It was overused by eighteenth-century poets and therefore vulgarized: it was ‘successfully employed in some ludicrous parody’: it even became slang and a euphemistic swear-word; it therefore seems ludicrous whenever it is now met in eighteenth-century poems.

    I don’t think there’s any way of future-proofing your language against such vicissitudes. Yeats’s “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay” now seems unintentionally funny and that was only written in the 1930s.

  27. Yes, all we can do is be resigned to the smirks of those who come after us. (“Haha, he said ‘smirks’!” — a twenty-second-century reader.)

  28. Sir JCass says

    Nothing can beat Henry Vaughan’s “How brave a prospect is a bright back-side!” though.

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