Stan Carey has another excellent post at Sentence first, about J.R.R. Tolkien’s “deep interest in language”; I urge you to read it and savor Tolkien’s anecdote about “a little man… in a dirty wet marquee,” a fellow soldier during WWI (which Stan takes from Arika Okrent’s wonderful book), but what I will quote here is a bit from a letter from Tolkien to his son Christopher:

Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an allegory. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen si-’la lu-’menn omentielmo [‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’], and that the phrase long antedated the book.

No wonder I loved the trilogy as a teenager!


  1. … and why my dissertation at university was about LOTR 🙂

  2. Ok, first of all: @Alice Maximum RESPECT!
    I believe Tolkien. Only someone with deep love for languages would 1) create a language and 2) write more than a thousand pages just to fit it in a context.

  3. Tolkien: “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”
    As someone with active interest in both linguistics and literary theory (and in the problem of the humanities/science divide in general), this quote was an instant favorite.

  4. Alice, is your dissertation available electronically? I’d love to read it.
    Leonardo: Tolkien was the last of the old philologists, whose research program was to deeply understand the literature of a language through deeply understanding the language. Fragments of this research program gave us modern linguistics, anthropology, and some kinds of literary theory.

  5. Yes, I’ve heard that his defense of Beowulf as literature (as opposed to a mere historical-linguistic document) had a lasting impact on academic circles. But I’m yet to actually read “The Monsters and the Critics” or his scholarly work.
    Would you like to elaborate more on what kinds of literary theory were particularly influenced by philology? (I’m still struggling to form a comprehensive picture of the various linguistic and literary schools/trends/approaches.)

  6. Sorry Jonh, it’s not available and, most of all, is in italian, my mother language 🙂

  7. I’m pretty sure the language wouldn’t bother John. What was the topic?

  8. dearieme says

    There’s a thought. In English we usually say “mother tongue”, but “tongue” sounds pretty old-fashioned otherwise.

  9. michael farris says

    I’d say that ‘first language’ or ‘native language’ is more common than ‘mother tongue’ in American and that if ‘tongue’ is used than ‘native’ sounds more idiomatic than ‘mother’.
    What’s the expression in Italian?
    In Polish it’s usually język ojczysty, literally ‘father(land) language’.

  10. J. W. Brewer says

    I think I most typically say “cradle language” rather than first/native/mother, but I wouldn’t treat my usage as much evidence of which alternative has what market share in AmEng generally. I do hope that there are no Tolkein enthusiasts who have gone so far as to try to raise a hapless infant with Quenya as his/her cradle language, as has I believe been done a few times with Esperanto and possibly (although the mind reels) with Klingon?

  11. michael farris says

    “I do hope that there are no Tolkein enthusiasts who have gone so far as to try to raise a hapless infant with Quenya as his/her cradle language, as has I believe been done a few times with Esperanto and possibly (although the mind reels) with Klingon?”
    There are some native speakers (and semi-native speakers) of Esperanto but none of them are monolingual (which would be perverse). Interestingly the ways they speak esperanto are not regarded as models of usage to be emulated (for a few different reasons which are irrelevant here).
    IINM the Klingon native speaker project was abandoned due to lack of enthusiasm on the part of the child in question. People often forget that children can and do choose which languages to speak (and will show preferences different from their parents). The lack of any other input besides the father may have had something to do with the child’s lack of enthusiasm although that’s more a guess than anything based on data.
    I think it would be hard to raise a child with Quenya is the fact that some parts of the grammar are left unexplained by Tolkien as in a case that’s in the tables but whose meaning is never explained (or maybe I’m thinking of the other Elf language?)

  12. Italian would in fact be a moderately high barrier for me (how jolly the lot of an oligoglot; if I were given the choice of a superpower it would be the gift of tongues), but since it’s not accessible anyway, it doesn’t matter.
    There are a few hundred denaskuloj, or native speakers of Esperanto, often people whose parents had no other common language. They are, of course, at least bilingual in the local language. The most famous are probably George Soros (‘will soar’ in Esperanto) and the chess-playing Polgár sisters.
    “La infanoj diris, ke mia turbo estas Kreisel!” —Ino Kolbe, Leipzig, age 3
    As for Klingon, D’Armond Speers tried to raise his son as a bilingual English/Klingon speaker by speaking only Klingon to him, until the kid told him around age five to knock it off already.

  13. Bathrobe says

    (for a few different reasons which are irrelevant here)
    Could it be related to the comment on Hebrew and SAE at the other thread (on Languages of the World)? Namely, it’s heavily influenced by the mother tongue of the teachers?

  14. michael farris says

    That’s a big part of it, but partly in reverse. That is anything distinctive they might do (and spontaneous usage by them is an underresearched topic) will be assumed to come from the influence of the parents’ other language(s). That might or might not be the actual case, of course.

  15. The problem Speers faced seems to occur regularly with parents who try to raise bilingual children in a language that has no environmental presence; at some point the kid finds out his minority-language parent can also understand the dominant language, and may decide to simply use the latter all the time. I know a guy who taught his son French from the cradle (himself being not a native speaker); eventually he had the same problem, and it took a lot of effort to overcome it—exposing the kid daily to French cartoons and songs and taking him to French language classes (just to get some language partners) and so on. Even then, his son often talks to him in Portuguese, though he can understand French and can speak it well if he feels like it (he’ll code-switch after watching a cartoon etc). I suppose the lack of material and speaking community for Klingon would make the issue even harder.
    Btw, Portuguese expressions for “mother language” are very common (língua-mãe or língua materna). Cradle language is not used AFAIK. In fact our cognate to “language”—língua—means both language and tongue (the organ), just like its Latin predecessor, and there’s no separate word specifically for tongue. We do have one only for language, though: the slightly more formal idioma (cognate to “idiom”, but meaning language).

  16. Tolkien was the last of the old philologists….
    One of the last. Auerbach, Spitzer, Curtius. Paul Pelliot had the linguistic chops but didn’t really do literature.
    Nietzsche thought that philology’s decline had started in the generation before his.

  17. I recently heard the Frisian folksingers Nanne & Ankie, who are enthusiastic esperantists, perform some songs in that language. It was odd — the uniform structure of the words and repetitive endings led to a sort of auditory and rhythmic monotony.

  18. JE: Curtius died 1956, Auerbach 1957, Spitzer 1960, Tolkien 1973.

  19. Leonardo: Anything to do with textual criticism, close reading/explication de texte, New Criticism, or hermeneutics has its roots in traditional philology, though sometimes the shoots turn their backs on the roots.

  20. The Tolkien quote reminds me of the story Lewis Carroll told about The Hunting of the Snark: he wrote the whole thing to accommodate the line, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see,” which had popped into his head on a country walk.

  21. There’s quite a nice bit about Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in Cantor’s “Inventing the Middle Ages”. By the way I bought that Okrent book on LH’s recommendation and it is bloody awful.

  22. John C.: I guess I forgot about Tolkein the fictionist. His philological work was ca. 1930. I never had any idea when his trilogy etc. was written; it already seemed old in 1963.
    His bald assumption that Beowulf was a Christian monastic production has annoyed me ever since I first saw it. The Christianity is incredibly thin there.

  23. By the way I bought that Okrent book on LH’s recommendation and it is bloody awful.
    Sorry it didn’t please you. What bothered you in particular?

  24. Leonardo: are you from Portugal/ Brazil/ portuguese speaking country?
    I’m Brazilian, studying in England. Being in a university environment I met a lot of foreign famlies like mine, each one with a different situation regarding children and languages. My son is starting to use a lot of English mixed with Portuguese (he’s 4); I met a Brazilian family in which the children only spoke in English even with the parents (the mother English and the father Brazilian) only speaking in Portuguese. I guess the children have the final word on that.

  25. A serious lack of intellectual depth, combined with an irritating and patronizing tone of voice. Okrent wanted us to know a lot about herself, but I wasn’t interested in her. Some of the human interest stuff is mildly diverting but I wanted to see a lot more linguistic thinking; her academic background (as opposed to her enthusiastic geekery) wasn’t properly used at all. I thought the book would have been fine as a magazine article…

  26. John: I knew that the Polgar sisters were taught Esperanto by their father, but native speakers? Are you sure?

  27. Bernardo Bueno, do you know Leonardo Boiko?

  28. No, I don’t – seems like a nice guy, though!
    Truth is I’m new here – I have no idea how it took me so long to find this blog.

  29. Hello compatriota! I’m a Brazilian too, currently in São Paulo undergoing my second degree (on Japanese lit). I know a friend about to travel for a scholarship at the University of Manchester 🙂
    I just noticed Japanese Google Chrome uses bokokugo 母国語 “mother-nation-language” for the default language (i.e. “Show a translation toolbar for pages not in the bokokugo”). According to ja.wikipedia, this word appears to be a direct calque of “mother tongue” (as well as the simpler version bogo). Both are an order of magnitude less common, on at least, than kokugo “national language”, the traditional name for Japanese in a school setting etc.

  30. How about that! Nice to meet you, Leonardo!
    I’m doing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at University of East Anglia, in Norwich. I’ve taken some Japanese lessons, but I’m very bad at it.

  31. Alan: It seems I was mistaken about the Polgárs.
    John E: The Lord of the Rings was written in 1937-49 and published in 1954-55; it has been called the last World War I novel. It’s clear that Tolkien saw the author of Beowulf as someone like himself: a Christian writing about pagan times, whose characters have never heard of the Christ, but who know the One God, which is why all specific indications of pagan religion (worship, ritual, theology) are absent.

  32. That’s what struck me as false about his interpretation of Beowulf. I doubt that Christians that early had the capacity to role-play as pagans. Dates for Beowulf vary from the eighth c. to the eleventh, but to my knowledge no Christians during that span used occult Christian symbolism the way Melville or Joyce (or Tolkien) did. Alcuin did testify that his junior monks still recited the heroic literature, which he denounced, and presumably some of those may have Christianized some of it, rather thinly as Beowulf seems to have been. (At one point I inventoried the evidently Christian or at least monotheistic lines in Beowulf, which were not many and not at all subtle and seemed limited to monotheism and hatred of monsters, and to me they all seeemd more or less like insertions).
    Of course, Beowulf could have been a Christ figure of sorts, in a Melvillian Joycean way, but to me he’s more like a figure from Frazerian universal mythology than a Christian hero in a Christian poem.
    Charlemagne made arrangements to preserve the Frankish epic, as I remember, though it’s all lost now. Which specific epics Alcuin denounced, I don’t know, but the names sounded Norse or Anglo-Saxon (Ingvald was one I think).

  33. Bathrobe says

    Charlemagne made arrangements to preserve the Frankish epic, as I remember, though it’s all lost now.
    What a pity! It might have given French nationalism a totally different direction from what eventually emerged. For better or for worse, who’s to say.

  34. Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?
    For an explanation of that phrase see the WiPe on Ingeld and Alcuin.
    MMcM’s links almost never resolve, for me, to the pages he intended to link. I think he has subscriptions to things (such as JSTOR, in other cases) that pass him through directly to the briar-patch, while non-subscribers get stopped by the tarbaby.

  35. I don’t think I’ve seen him link to the interior of a JSTOR article, though he’ll link to an article with a mention that it’s JSTOR for those who have access; his Google Books links always work for me.

  36. Why then, when I follow the link behind his “Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?”, do I land at a Google Books page with a picture of the cover of a book called Bêowulf-Materialien zum Gebrauch bei Vorlesungen ? I have never gotten beyond such overview pages with MMcM’s Google Books links.
    Maybe there is something else that is causing this to happen: the fact that I am connected through a German provider, perhaps ?

  37. That’s cos you’re in the USA, Lingo.
    We in Europe have to use a proxy server to get MMcM’s links.

  38. David Marjanović says

    Frankish epic? That would indeed have been interesting. Pretty much all that’s left of Continental West Germanic epics are Hildebrand & Hadubrand, and that’s in a really remarkably bad translation from Old Bavarian (complete with /b/ written p) into Old Saxon, where the lost Old Bavarian original may itself have been a translation from Langobardic.

  39. I used “epic” loosely for whatever it was that disappeared. I assume that it was mostly heroic poems of one sort or another.
    I have a very high admiration for “Beowulf” and have to give credit to Tolkein for being the first to treat that poem as literature rather than as just as and Old English text. (Though I suppose that by now, Tolkein sinned by doing that. I just recently saw Bachelard summarilly dismissed as a mere humanist).

  40. Of course Beowulf is not “the Christian hero of a Christian poem.” Far from it. He is not even an antitype of Christ, never mind an occult symbol. But the poem is, in one sense, a straight reply to Alcuin’s indignant rhetorical question: Beowulf is an exemplar of the human heroic virtues, the cardinal (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) as opposed to the theological (faith, hope, love). Although he is not a fully Christian exemplar, he still has moral lessons to teach Christians. The same is true of Aragorn, or on a different plane, Frodo.
    And all these characters hold what might be called (in a different sense than usual) a negative theology. They do not know God or how to rightly (from a Christian viewpoint) worship him. But what they do know, uncompromisingly, is who is not God and is not to be worshipped or submitted to: the monsters, the Dark Lord, the Enemy of the Brethren. And for them, unlike us, the resistance required of them is physical as well as moral.

  41. I’d just say that that’s how a Christian would read the poem in order to be able to like it, the way the Aeniad was read. But Tolkein seemed to be saying that the poem itself was written by a Christian poet.
    Tolkien was, at some point at least, a bit uncomfortable with the Christian emphasis of CS Lewis and his other friends of that type. The documentation of this point is buried in the farthest recesses of my memory and is unlikely ever to be retrieved.
    Full disclosure: as a young doubting Christian ca. 1960 I was given a dose of CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, and I have since renounced them in all their works and all their ways, and Tolkien did not escape the carnage.

  42. first to treat that poem as literature
    I dunno. Didn’t Morley, let’s say, treat it as the start of English Literature, rather than some sort of pre-literature? Maybe it’s the teleological aspect that’s the problem?

  43. Maybe it’s the teleological aspect that’s the problem?
    I.e. a Whiggish interpretation ?

  44. Exactly. And the casual equation of race, nation, language and literature, still used today, but not unselfconsciously.
    Continuing with English Writers, since that was my example, the point is much more explicit in the second edition than the first. (First link abroad-friendly. The Internet Archive messed up and scanned Vol. I, Pt. 2 twice and not Pt. 1.) Which I’m inclined to say makes perfect sense, with the Delhi Durbar smack in the middle.

  45. Grundtvig the Beowulf scholar mentioned by Morley was a sort of cheerful Lutheran anti-type of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. He was a major figure in the Danish Lutheran Church and Danish politics and a leader in education reform. Via immigration he can be regarded as a distant ancestor of Wobegonianism.
    I was assured by my sources that no one before Tolkien took Beowulf seriously as literature rather than as an early Germanic text of historical interest, but apparently my sources lied.

  46. Well, maybe a middlebrow (ante litteram) survey doesn’t treat any literature sufficiently deeply or seriously.
    Like Morley’s first chapter squeezes contemporary anthropology and philology into just a few pages. And so, of necessity, glosses over much messiness, like Jones’s treatment of Anquetil-Duperron, which Rask characterized as, “einer Neidschrift voll Gift und Galle, und des Verfassers Namens durchaus unwürdig.”

  47. Grundtvig is honored not only by Lutherans but also by American Episcopalians. It’s a pity he isn’t better known internationally, because all the internationally famous Danish authors (Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Anderson, and Isak Dineson — Naxo isn’t internationally famous and stop saying that!)were weird as hell, and if you throw in Hamlet people get a very false impression of the Danish people.

  48. Tolkien didn’t like Narnia because he thought it was a hopelessly inconsistent mish-mash, and he didn’t like Charles Williams’s stuff (while liking him personally) because Tolkien was a Christian anarchist who saw Williams’s Byzantium as an oppressive universal empire. And he notoriously disliked allegory, though very sparingly employing it himself, once indeed in his Beowulf essay, whereas the other two are riddled with it.
    I was only even a nominal Christian briefly, between about seven and about fourteen, and consider that a slightly more excusable youthful folly than my year of Objectivism that followed. (What followed that has no name — “anti-Sadean libertinism”? — but I’m still enmeshed in it.) I’m very fond of both CSL’s and GKS’s work, but I have to force myself to consciously overlook their political and literary faults, as I suppose Hat compels himself to overlook Pound’s or Dostoyevsky’s (I can swallow the latter but not the former), or as another sort of person altogether could force himself to consciously overlook Blake’s or Tolkien’s.
    But the fact is that I started reading Tolkien at about the same age — the Ballantine paperbacks were an eighth birthday present from my mother — and his work has become a part of me, sunk down to the bottom level, as it were, coloring how I think. So I can’t see it as other people do.

  49. Bathrobe says

    What exactly is a Christian anarchist?

  50. a Christian anarchist?

  51. as I suppose Hat compels himself to overlook Pound’s or Dostoyevsky’s
    Not so much a matter of “compelling myself” (which makes it sound like I’m screwing up my face and swallowing castor oil) as having divorced my appreciation of artistic work from my feelings about the artists as people. I realized long ago that if you don’t do this, and if you’re consistent and do enough biographical research, you’ll find yourself left with almost no art to enjoy. I was aided in this by discovering Pound at an early age and finding his poetry irresistible and his ideas unconscionable, and by contemplating the question “If we discovered horrible things about Homer the man, would that diminish the Iliad and the Odyssey?”

  52. I agree with Language.
    What does fascism gain if you don’t read Pound, John? Nothing: you won’t become a fascist if you read him, fascism won’t infect your thoughts and it’s too late for Pound to get book royalties. 20C modernism was full of rightwingers; these were both new movements, and it was inevitable they would get mixed up. It’s not just Hamsun and Pound, either: there were the Italian Futurists, Emil Nolde was an early member of the Nazi party, Philip Johnson (“The German green uniforms made the place [Poland] look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.“), Terragni was a Fascist party member, le Corbusier consorted with the Vichy fascists. Ok, you don’t read Pound, but where do you stop? Post-war Germany was run almost completely by former party members, because they were the only ones left who were qualified to do so.

  53. Post-war Germany was run almost completely by former party members, because they were the only ones left who were qualified to do so.
    In the early ’70s in Germany, I quickly learned to stay out of the little 6-seat compartments that the local-service train coaches had in addition to open rows of seats. Those compartments were often filled with old folks who, in the general conversation, quickly noticed my American accent. Within 20 minutes, without any solicitation, they would start filling me in on how things under Hilter were not so bad, if only he hadn’t made those two mistakes with the Jews and Stalingrad …
    I knew zilch about German history when I came here, and was not interested in politics. But I knew enough to feel guiltless about avoiding that kind of it’s-not-as-bad-as-you-think crap in future. Groups of people who share fixed ideas spare you time and trouble in social interaction – you listen to one, you’ve already heard what the others will have to say.

  54. That explains why societies are a standard feature of human history – their evolutionary advantage is their cohesive predictableness. It makes life simpler for the unreliable intellectuals who actually change things (for better or worse) .

  55. I’m not the John addressed, but: beyond his politics, there’s a kind of thinness to Pound’s original poetry that makes it less appealing to me, and the Cantos are overreaching and patchy, and his understanding of Chinese history from De Mailla is ludicrous, and I find his slang annoying, and Social Credit is cranky, and his dreams of being a medival lord are pitiful, and and and…. It’s like he devised a new way of writing poetry and taught it, but without having enough poems to write himself.

  56. That explains why societies are a standard feature of human history – their evolutionary advantage is their cohesive predictableness.
    But the members of a society don’t all share the same views; and they only share the same political views, like in your railway compartment, when they’ve wiped out everyone else.
    It makes life simpler for the unreliable intellectuals who actually change things (for better or worse).
    Marx has been dead for… 128 years, are you sure it’s still intellectuals who change things? In the 19C intellectuals spoke and people listened, partly because hardly anybody else wrote books. These days intellectuals blog, tweet, write a column, the occasional book – but so does everyone else from Lonely Girl 15 to Arnold Zwicky. Wouldn’t you guess Perez Hilton’s influence is more far reaching than your old pal Peter Sloterdijk’s? – Slots probably doesn’t even tweet.

  57. Sloterdijk doesn’t tweet
    Wait, I take that back, I just got an SMS… Something about Wovon man nicht sprechen kann… – which reminds me, has anyone noticed lately how often Wittgenstein’s little saying is being used in English-language newspapers to mean, basically, “I don’t know the answer to that question”?.
    There was another example in today’s Observer, but now I can’t find it.

  58. Wittgenstein little saying … “I don’t know the answer to that question”
    The original German for that one is: Wovon man keine Ahnung hat, dazu sollte man die Klappe halten.

  59. I’m with John Emerson, and also with Primo Levi in his essay “On Writing Obscurely” (1976, reprinted in Other People’s Trades, 1985):

    Personally I am also tired of the praise lavished in life and death on Ezra Pound, who perhaps was even a great poet, but in order to make sure he would not be understood at times even wrote in Chinese, and I am convinced that his poetic obscurity had the same root as his belief in the superman, which led him first to Fascism and then to self-alienation: both germinated from his contempt for the reader. [emphasis added]

    So it’s not because Pound was a Fascist, and certainly not for his “maniacal hatred of bankers” (Levi), but because of the pointless difficulty of his poetry — the barrier of obscurity which, when torn down, reveals nothing at all worth having — that I have no use for him and his work.
    Hamsun is another matter: he is a great literary artist (at least in translation) and my view of him is Hat’s view of Pound. The others that Crown mentions I have not read, or even heard of most of them.

  60. Sorry, John. You did say “[Pound’s] political and literary faults”, that’s the source of the confusion.
    The Italian Futurists, Emil Nolde, Philip Johnson, Giuseppe Terragni, le Corbusier… you haven’t heard of most of them? Serious omissions apart from Johnson. But even he was part of the New York scene for two-thirds of the 20C, so I don’t see how you could have missed him. Maybe you don’t know Terragni, but he was a huge influence on half the people teaching at Cooper Union, a couple of blocks down the street from the Cowan residence. I think it’s serious, because a peek at the visual arts couldn’t help but round out your remarkable knowledge of literary modernism – works that weren’t created in the proverbial vacuum. Thanks for the Primo Levi essay, which I hadn’t heard of!

  61. Thanks, Grumbly. I’ll file that, it sounds better in German.

  62. Trond Engen says

    Hamsun is another matter: he is a great literary artist (at least in translation)
    He’s considered a master of language in the original Norwegian, and his voice is often unmistakenly Northern, in spite of his quite conservative (Dano-Norwegian) Riksmål. I’d imagine that that aspect may be hard to translate.

  63. Crown: The Italian Futurists, Emil Nolde, Philip Johnson, Giuseppe Terragni, le Corbusier… you haven’t heard of most of them? Serious omissions apart from Johnson.
    Ha ha, even I know about Nolde and le Corbusier. It transpires that Johnson put the Chippendale on the Sony Building. I’m not sure about the “Italian Futurists” – do you mean Mantovani, for example ?

  64. Architects are doomed always to be running into people who don’t know and don’t care. Everything I know about Giuseppe Terragni comes from this thread. The architecture around consists rectangular red brick schools, rather nice stone Catholic churches, a few Scandinavian Modern Lutheran churches, wood frame buildings, and prefab tin roof buildings. Not enough there to develop an interest.

  65. Many of Pound’s literary followers were quite different than him. Four of the six Objectivists were Jewish, and most or all were Communists at one point or another. Pound’s politics didn’t become toxic before WWII.
    Of the other Objectivists (they were not related in any way to AYN Rand, and they used the name first), Bunting was British and Niedecker was the only poet of any importance whose father was a carp seiner.

  66. Personally I am also tired of the praise lavished in life and death on Ezra Pound, who perhaps was even a great poet, but in order to make sure he would not be understood at times even wrote in Chinese, and I am convinced that his poetic obscurity had the same root as his belief in the superman, which led him first to Fascism and then to self-alienation: both germinated from his contempt for the reader.
    That’s absurd, and exactly the kind of thing people say when they want to lazily justify their inherent dislike of something. Nabokov was just as idiotic about Dostoevsky and Faulkner. All respect to Levi, but he really shouldn’t have been talking about things he didn’t know or care enough about to try to understand.
    the pointless difficulty of his poetry — the barrier of obscurity which, when torn down, reveals nothing at all worth having
    All respect to you too, but that’s equally absurd. Do you really think I, and a whole bunch of other intelligent folk, are completely deluded, somehow imagining we find things worth having in Pound? Or perhaps that we’re all lying? Really, is it so hard to just say “I don’t care for Pound”? I don’t like Brussels sprouts, but you don’t see me going around making up allegedly rational/universal grounds to justify my dislike.

  67. Pound’s politics didn’t become toxic before WWII.
    I don’t know what you mean by that; Pound’s politics were exactly the same before, during, and after the war, and all he did during the war was make stupid speeches, unlike a lot of people who went out and killed other people.

  68. During WWII Pound actually worked for the Axis powers, and his politics became impossible to ignore. The case may be similar with Hamsun — maybe he was already a sort of Nazi around 1900 when he wrote his best books, but at that time no one had a clear idea what these ideas would lead to. After 1932 or so it became increasingly clear.
    A lot of people besides Pound admired Mussolini in the 1930s, but not many during the 1940s.
    There are a number of Pound’s poems I still admire: many of the Chinese translations, Sextus Propertius, some of the other Personae poems, and maybe some scraps of the Cantos (but not many). As I said above, he found or devised a new way of writing poetry, but unfortunately didn’t have enough good poems to write.
    I confess again: some of my animus against Pound has been motivated by the Pound-worship of the English departments I encountered in the 1960s. I’ve also only been able to appreciate Joyce during the last decade or so, for the same reason. But I read Eliot before I ever met an English professor, so I always liked some of his things. (Recently I bought a copy of the Selden Rodman anthology I read in HS…. interesting).

  69. Wobegon has Ralph Rapson’s old Guthrie, since replaced by something of Jean Nouvel’s that I’ve only seen in posed photos. And Cedar Square West. The Duluth Armory on the site that photo links to, has charm, but is clearly a sad case. The Y just looks like an old building, but what do I know?

  70. Language is very fond of Basil, I remember.
    The architecture around here consists of…not enough there to develop an interest.
    You might as well say they only sell porn and knitting mags at your local drugstore, so there’s no point in reading. Well, ok there’s a difference, I admit, and I’m not saying everyone ought to be passionate about buildings, but… I do think that just as it has helped my understanding of the visual arts to know some little bit about science & modern literature, so my guess is that it would work the other way round too. A writer today may have feelings about cities – Paul Whatsit from Brooklyn comes to mind – that are related to the way an architect thinks about cities. Well, the same was certainly true a hundred years ago; look at the Futurists – not the Russians, Stu, but Marinetti’s crew: Saint Elia and the rest who were killed in WW1 – or the (in my opinion godawful) British group the Vorticists led by Percy Windham Lewis. He was, like Marinetti, really a literary fellow, not an artist. Le Corbusier knew Cocteau, Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Matisse, André Malraux, Josephine Baker, Braque & Picasso, Eisenstein, (I read in Nicholas Fox-Weber’s biography of le C. that after the war he even asked his US girlfriend Marguerite Tjader Harris to pass a message to her friend Ayn Rand that he was really interested in The Fountainhead; he identified with the hero, and the villain was a Beaux-Arts-style academic whom he would have hated). In short, all these people were very connected and if you’re at all interested in the spirit that produced the work, and the Zeitgeist of modernism, it helps to find out a little bit about them and what they did, and why.

  71. (I mean Basil Bunting of course, not the herb.)

  72. During WWII Pound actually worked for the Axis powers, and his politics became impossible to ignore.
    No he didn’t, he just made stupid speeches on Italian radio. And anyone who could ignore his politics before the war could equally well ignore them during it; I wasn’t born yet, but I hear there were more pressing matters to deal with.
    I confess again: some of my animus against Pound has been motivated by the Pound-worship of the English departments I encountered in the 1960s.
    I appreciate your saying that; I suspect that kind of thing is behind the animus of a lot of people who prefer to ground it in allegedly rational/universal reasons. “Brussels sprouts are BAD AND EVIL, that’s why I hate them!”

  73. I’m fond of the herb too; I used to grow it.

  74. That night a tall foreign-looking man with a switchblade big as a butcher knife open in his hand walked into the loft without knocking and said “Good evening, Mr. Peterson, I am the cat-piano player, is there anything you’d particularly like to hear?” “Cat-piano?” Peterson said, gasping, shrinking from the knife. “What are you talking about? What do you want?” A biography of Nolde slid from his lap to the floor.

  75. Trond Engen says

    Incidentally, on architecture and literature, Dagbladet today on the Norwegian novelist Jan Kjærstad’s admiration for Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

  76. Well, the English Department was BAD and EVIL.
    I liked Kenner’s book on Pound, but wished he’d written it about someone else. So I read one nof his books on Joyce, but I thought his book about Pound was better. Things don’t always work out perfectly.

  77. …I, and a whole bunch of other intelligent folk, are completely deluded, somehow imagining we find things worth having in Pound? Or perhaps that we’re all lying?
    If this discussion were in a British newspaper, pretty soon someone would mention the emperor’s new clothes. They do it about once a week in the art review comments. They usually just write: Isn’t this the Emperor’s new clothes?
    Every time I plant basil it gets eaten by snails (and why shouldn’t they?), and dies.

  78. Well, the English Department was BAD and EVIL.
    Now, that I believe.

  79. Ah yes, that Philip Johnson. The name wasn’t distinctive enough to me in this context. Le Corbusier I knew of but haven’t read; the other two were complete unknowns.
    As for Cooper Union, my primary associations with it are engineering rather than art and architecture, doubtless because my best friend in high school attended there as an engineering student. I have sat in the Great Hall a time or two to attend public meetings and to hear speakers, though none so notable as Abraham Lincoln, whose speech there bootstrapped him into the Presidency.
    Hat: No, of course I don’t think you’re deluded. And I don’t think Pound’s poetry is BAD and EVIL, just that it has zero appeal to me. I have a good friend, a thoughtful person who loves fantasy and science fiction, who can’t stomach The Lord of the Rings because of its lack of a high-tension plot and its involved (“omniscient”) narrator.

  80. it has zero appeal to me.
    I have no problem with that, and I think it’s a far better reason than alleged “pointless difficulty.”

  81. I used to be a lot more willing to toss around phrases like that until I aged enough to find myself, with some embarrassment, liking artists I had previously disparaged, like Cecil Taylor (or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, The Monkees). Now I try to be more careful about not equating my taste with the universal and eternal.

  82. Dry wit from Wikipedia:
    “Rudolph Carnap wrote an article where he argued that almost every sentence from Heidegger was grammatically correct, yet meaningless. Of course, some philosophers who were not logical positivists disagreed with this.”

  83. I totally agree, Hat. If your taste were universal and eternal, then mine couldn’t be. And I would not be willing to accept that.

  84. “A star shines on the hour of our meeting”,
    I missed this the first time around. But something like this is said in a crucial passage of the Secret History of the Mongols, except that it is the sun. The Onggut leader’s greeting when he first visits Genghis Khan and declares his allegiance is something like “Seeing your face is like seeing the sun come out from behind the clouds.”

  85. I heard a speech there by Jim Stirling, another dead architect you won’t have heard of. Really it was much more of a lecture than a speech.

  86. I’m not a fan of his Sackler. I know the site’s a challenging shape, but the stairs are steep and the gallery layout is confusing. But at least it hasn’t fallen apart like Otto, where they moved Busch-Reisinger from the quirky building Adolphus (too young to be a St. Louis Achtundvierziger, I think) had donated.

  87. Bathrobe says

    The first time I heard of Philip Johnson was when I listened to David Bowie’s song Thru These Architect’s Eyes.
    Stomping along on this big Philip Johnson
    Is delay just wasting my time
    Looking across at Richard Rogers
    Scheming dreams to blow both their minds.
    It was also the first time I got an inkling that architecture should be taken more seriously by those interested in the arts. Perhaps these lines were about AJP 🙂
    All the majesty of a city landscape
    All the soaring days in our lives
    All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
    All the joy I see
    Thru these architect’s eyes

  88. I remember the Sackler wasn’t very positively reviewed at the time it was built – why is there a “Sackler” at both Oxford and Harvard, btw? Who was this international Sackler? – but I’ve never been inside. The gallery layout may be bad, I do think it’s an outcome of one of his teaching methods though which was to have students make a 3-d drawing of the entry sequence to their building. That way you have to consider the relative heights of the adjacent spaces as they will be perceived sequentially by a visitor. I’ve always found that a brilliant bit of teaching, though nowadays I see it’s very pomo (a modernist would call it fussy and just make everything the same). Leicester, Stuttgart & the Cambridge History library were his great buildings that will always be remembered, in my opinion, though sadly not in Britain where Cambridge still makes many people (historians, mostly) froth at the mouth.
    I didn’t know Otto had fallen apart. MIT’s always chosen the right architect, but never got their best building.
    Bath, I didn’t know that David Bowie lyric. At first I was thinking of David Byrne, who I believe studied architecture at RISD, but I’ve no idea why Bowie would write that. He’s quite literate though: I heard him quote “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” many years ago, before Larkin became ubiquitous in England, in answer to a chat-show question. Don’t forget “So long Frank Lloyd Wright”, by Simon & Garfunkel. I remember hearing that in 1970-ish and wondering who this Frank guy was.

  89. before Larkin became ubiquitous in England, in answer to a chat-show question.
    At first reading I thought these two clauses went together, and was going to ask which chat show it was that made Larkin ubiquitous.

  90. There’s also a Sackler at the Smithsonian. Arthur Sackler made his fortune promoting Valium as the cure for the 20th Century.
    Harvard, not MIT. To be fair, it’s only the external wall of Werner Otto Hall that’s beyond repair and will be replaced in the new Renzo Piano thing. Harvard sued Gwathmey Siegel and Walsh Bros. Construction, so a detailed engineering report, if it was carried out, is probably part of a gag order agreement. I did read speculation that the vapor barrier had been breached, maybe by the telecom sub. Or even museum staff themselves, as apparently happened with Rafael Moneo’s addition to Wellesley’s Davis Museum. I’m a bit out of my depth on the technical aspects of these spaces, which I’m sure are more familiar to you.
    Common wisdom used to be that MIT got more experimental work that Harvard. But now that donors of eponymous lifescience buildings want A-list architects, it’s seeming more the same on both sides of town.
    MIT did get much of architectural interest. But also famous works of self-indulgent anti-intellectualism.

  91. Famous works of self-indulgent anti-intellectualism: with MIT and “Otto” I was of course thinking of Gehry’s Stata (which I’ve never seen in the flesh).
    I’d guess that Larkin’s “They fuck you up” is now up there with “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough” as most quoted lines of poetry in Britain.

  92. Hat: If you prefer “zero appeal to me” to “pointless complexity”, I should probably be happy to leave it at that, but I can’t quite, being as much afflicted with GAS as most Hattics.
    Well then. “Point” means “purpose”, and it’s the most elementary fact about human beans that their purposes differ: what is to Alice a pointless waving of a dead chicken (< kapores) is to Bob a conventional expression of feeling and to Charlie a deeply meaningful spiritual experience. So “pointless complexity” means that it’s pointless for me to unpack the complexity, because there’s nothing inside that I want.

  93. J. W. Brewer says

    “Pointless” could I suppose depending on context mean either “pointless for me, given my circumstances” or “pointless for anyone, or at least anyone whom I would consider minimally reasonable.” What syntactic or pragmatic clues were there than John Cowan’s evaluation of Pound should have been read to convey the former meaning? (FWIW, I don’t think all or even most of Pound’s pre-Cantos work should be characterized as particularly “complex”; certainly not in a pejorative way.)

  94. Well, I’m not in a position to quantify it, but certainly some of the pre-Cantos material has the same troubles. Consider his version of “The Seafarer” as compared with a straightforward modern translation. “Hew my heart round and hunger begot / Mere-weary mood.” Puh-leeze.
    Nor is it even the case that when you unwrap the poem, you just get the original. For one thing, the archaism in Pound’s version isn’t present in the original; I know this sounds like I’m comparing Pound to Pierre Menard here, but really, “The Seafarer” is pretty straightforward OE poetry at the level of language (certainly at other levels of interpretation it’s another story). Even if you agree with Pound’s removal of the ending, there are severe problems of tone and theme.
    But that’s not to say I don’t have a favorite Pound poem, because I do, and here it is:
    Winter is icumen in,
    Lhude sing Goddamm,
    Raineth drop and staineth slop,
    And how the wind doth ramm!
    Sing: Goddamm.
    Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
    An ague hath my ham.
    Freezeth river, turneth liver,
    Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
    Goddamm, Goddamm, ’tis why I am, Goddamm,
    So ‘gainst the winter’s balm.
    Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
    Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.

  95. Bathrobe says

    I don’t think Pound’s “translation” of the Seafarer was ever meant to be a modern translation. It was more a rediscovery of the “forgotten familiar” as “exotic”, which Pound saw as a potential source for a new poetic. The experiment involved creating something new by exploiting the surviving fragments of the old language. A kind of poetic Saxonism.* G. M. Hopkins did something similar and produced strikingly original poetry. You can argue about how successful Pound was, but you can hardly fault him for an archaic tone not found in the original. That wasn’t the point. Pound was experimenting with poetry, not creating a modern translation.
    * “Saxonism” being the movement to use Anglo-Saxon words in English prose wherever possible, excluding Romance, Greek, Latin borrowings. Interestingly, there is virtually nothing on the Internet about Saxonism, not even an article at Wikipedia. Has the term and the concept utterly disappeared?

  96. Bathrobe says

    Thinking back about 30 years, if I remember rightly, Fowler or someone of that ilk has an entry on Saxonism. I have no references here.

  97. Bathrobe says


  98. There is a WiPe article on Anglo-Saxon linguistic purism. The URL ends with “Saxonised_English”. The article mentions one 19C William Barnes, who suggested using “sunprint” instead of “photograph”.

  99. the ungothroughsomeness of stuff

  100. Bathrobe says

    “Anglo-Saxon linguistic purism”. That’s it. But I think the term “Saxonism”, as an existing term, is preferable to the made-up Wikipedia one. Wikipedia isn’t supposed to make things up…

  101. the ungothroughsomeness of stuff
    Impenetrability ?

  102. Bathrobe says


  103. Hmph.

  104. J.W. Brewer says

    I had more been thinking of the facet of early Pound seen in, e.g., “All the while they were talking the new morality / Her eyes explored me.” But in googling to check the accuracy of the quote, I came across this stirring attack on the Anglo-Saxon epic tradition:

  105. Fowler or someone of that ilk has an entry on Saxonism
    Just so. There is also one on anti-Saxonism, though he admits that there aren’t any anti-Saxonists.
    Of his examples, birdlore and folklore were mentioned here last year.
    And Barnes some years ago. We can now read his work online, too.

  106. And Barnes some years ago
    That stuff is going to take some getting used to. On the page you linked, I find this definition:

    Ablative (fromness case). The case of the source of the time-taking.

  107. I’m not opposed to Ander-Saxon (also called Anglish; indeed, I wrote a pamphlet once called “Know Your Rights When You Are Stopped In Markland”, based on a similarly named pamphlet issued by the ACLU, as well as the Onemade Lands of Markland’s Writ of Rights. Unfortunately, I lost them, and there don’t seem to be any copies remaining online. The Fifth Amendment, however, went something like this:
    No Man shall be held to answer for a deathly, or otherwise bad-reckoned Evildoing, unless on a Foreplacing or Wrongsaying of a Great Swearinghide, except in Befallings arising in the Land or Sea-Warriory, or in the Wapentake, when under Truethrall in Time of War or folkish Risk; nor shall any Man be underthrown for the same Wrong to be twice put in Risk of Life or Limb; nor shall be togetherdriven in any Evildoing Thing to be a Witness against himself, nor be lossyielded of Life, Freedom, or Ownership, without due Ongoing of Law; nor shall what is owned be taken for folkish Brook, without fair Payback.
    (The word risk is French, from late Latin, and ultimately perhaps from Arabic. Unfortunately, I can find no substitute for it, and at least it sounds Germanic.)

  108. Treesong says

    For the Saxonism ending the thread, I remind you of ‘Uncleftish Beholding’: .

  109. @John Cowan: ‘plight’ may come closest to what you’re looking for, and it’s an honest-to-God Saxonism with multiple West Germanic cognates. Even if it’s rather archaic in this sense, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative. ‘Frese’ (cognate to Dutch ‘vrees’) didn’t make it out of Middle English, and ‘danger’, ‘hazard’ and ‘peril’ are distinctly Romance.

  110. Trond Engen says

    ‘plight’ may come closest to what you’re looking for

    Or ‘threat’. Or ‘fear’, if one can reclaim an older meaning of the word. Maybe one in each case?

    But ‘due’? That’s French too.

  111. marie-lucie says

    Alon: ‘danger’, ‘hazard’ and ‘peril’ are distinctly Romance

    Danger and peril have Latin etymons, but hazard ?

    The third word has typically Germanic features:

    – The initial was originally a true [h], a glottal consonant preserved in German and English. The consonantal pronunciation has been largely lost in French (except in some dialects) but a consonantal memory is preserved since this now “ghost” consonant still acts consonantally in cases where it finds itself between vowels, as with le hasard [l∂ azar], not *l’hasard *[lazar] (here the asterisk indicates an incorrect form), or after a plural suffix -s which would be silent before an initial consonant in the next word but pronounced [z] before a vowel, hence les hasards [le azar] not *[lez azar].
    – The ard at the end of the word is not from a Latin suffix but a Germanic one (probably Frankish). It first occurred in Germanic borrowings but was also adopted in the formation of new French words.

  112. Etymonline says s.v. hazard:

    c. 1300, from Old French hasard, hasart (12c.) ‘game of chance played with dice,’ possibly from Spanish azar ‘an unfortunate card or throw at dice,’ which is said to be from Arabic az-zahr (for al-zahr) “the die.” But this is doubtful because of the absence of zahr in classical Arabic dictionaries. Klein suggests Arabic yasara “he played at dice;” Arabic -s- regularly becomes Spanish -z-. The -d was added in French in confusion with the native suffix -ard. Sense evolved in French to ‘chances in gambling,’ then ‘chances in life.’ In English, sense of ‘chance of loss or harm, risk’ first recorded 1540s.

    All of which, unfortunately, is inconsistent with the h aspiré. The TLFI entry explains it as analogical: “avec un h- dû au fait qu’au Moy. Âge, les mots à initiale vocalique, et particulièrement les mots étrangers, étaient souvent écrits avec un h- (FEW).” I suppose that “FEW” is the “Französisches Etymol. Wörterbuch” also referenced by the OED (quoted in the Ozymandias thread).

    Back to English, the unmodified OED1 (1898) etymology is the az-zahr one; it gives the Occitan, Portuguese, Italian, and Mediaeval Latin equivalents, none of which are spelled with h-. But if the word was originally Germanic, it seems to have been completely lost from that family very early.

    “Native suffix” in Etymonline would better be “nativized suffix”. The TLFI entry for -ard says it is originally from Frankish names in -hart ‘hardy’, but (as you say) has spread widely to French words.

  113. marie-lucie says

    Thanks JC. It makes sense that the word should be from Arabic, given its probable context of use.

    About the letter h used before a vowel initial: Arabic words, including the article, which appear to begin with a vowel, actually begin with a glottal stop (as do similar German words). Speakers of languages without either sound, or with just one, often confuse the two. For instance, my mother could not pronounce English [h] and replaced it with a glottal stop, which is not significant in French but can be used for emphasis. On the other hand, Edith Piaf in a famous song pronounces Allez at the beginning of a sentence with initial [h] (as was mentioned in another post). It is not surprising then that some Arabic words or utterances should have been transcribed with initial h, and this letter interpreted as representing the glottal consonant [h]. This would have been more likely in a language such as Old or Middle French which still had this sounds in its inventory (mostly in words of Germanic oritin) rather than the more Southern languages which did not have it or had already lost it.

  114. John Cowan says

    The OED was updated in 2018, and still gives the az-zahr etymology, conceding that the word is not Classical Arabic but attributing it to “colloquial Arabic” without saying which one. Zar does appear in Persian > Turkish > various Eastern European languages, so it’s pretty likely that it did/does exist.

  115. January First-of-May says

    The problem Speers faced seems to occur regularly with parents who try to raise bilingual children in a language that has no environmental presence; at some point the kid finds out his minority-language parent can also understand the dominant language, and may decide to simply use the latter all the time.

    I’m reminded of the unfortunate story of my first cousin Nir. Brought up in a family that would have been probably called multiethnic if it wasn’t all Jewish, he had, IIRC, his father speaking English to him, his mother speaking Romanian, his grandmother speaking Russian… there were others, I think, but I forgot the full list.

    Alas, when around the age of three and a bit he had shown no inclination to use any of those, all of said relatives, afraid that he’d never start to speak at all, got tired of the charade and switched to Hebrew (which of course they all knew). Obviously, the boy had almost immediately started speaking Hebrew.

    He had since learned English fairly well (probably mostly in school), but, as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t know much, if any, Russian. (For some reason I never thought to ask about Romanian.)

  116. PlasticPaddy says

    Someone wrote(ogden nash?) the man who writes in saxon is the man to use an ax on”.

  117. This seems like a reasonable place to drop a link to Jason Lutes’ one-page summary of Tolkien’s life.

    Ëalä Eärendel engla beorhtast ofer middengeard monnum sended

  118. Very nice!

  119. David Marjanović says

    Not “unto man”! Unto men, plural!

Speak Your Mind