J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and pedantry

Excessive or undue concern for petty details; slavish adherence to formal precision, rules, or literal meaning- OED 1(b)

I’d like to spend some time conrasting two slightly different kinds of ‘slavish adherence’ to literal meaning in order to point out that this isn’t always a bad thing especially if you substitute ‘attention’ for ‘adherence’.

I’ll start with Prynne before moving on to Hill-

‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ was published by Mountain earlier this year and contains (mostly) a number of debates about the direction that English verse might take. EI is important because of its close relationship with the beginnings of the Cambridge School- two of the main contributors were Peter Riley and J H Prynne.

EI ran from January 1966 to April 1968 and Neil Pattison’s introduction observes that-

The Intelligencer was by its nature fragile. It was a testing ground for young poets countenancing revolutions in their art, their writing ineluctable from their dreams of radical change in the order of social life. It was a ground from which those poets could address with liberty the central questions of poetic vocation, contesting the role of the poet in that order. They addressed these questions through the risk of practice, staking that risk of practice, taking that risk against trust in the group’s commitment to sustaining the attempt and through volatile discursive practice.

Neil goes on to observe that EI is still relevant today and that “the work of sabotage it calls on unfinished” which seems to be a bold claim but it is borne out by the collection that the three editors have put together.

We now turn to the primary / ongoing saboteur, J H Prynne and his ‘A pedantic note in two parts’ in which he takes on the Oxford English Dictionary with regard to its definition of ‘winsome’. This starts by reproducing the OED’s definition which ends with “The current sense came into the literary lang, from where it must have survived with specialized meaning.” As this was written in the sixties, I’m taking it that this refers to the first edition, the second edition has- “Sense 3 came into the literary language from northern dialects”, sense 3 is -“Pleasing or attractive in appearance, handsome, comely; of attractive nature or disposition, of winning character or manners”. In a paragraph placed alongside the 1st edition definition Prynne has:

“From the new Oxford dictionary of Etymological Evasion and Cowardice. The specific rune of our only tolerable condition (a) suppressed and (b) “specialized meaning” imported into the (god help us) from the (one presumes) non-literary north. This is our modern permafrost of the spirit.

Which is a reasonably forthright rant, I will refer to said tome as ‘ODEEC’ from now on. We could of course quibble with whether this kind of inaccuracy merits the overly dramatic but well phrased final sentence but it is always good to have modern icon knocked around. I get annoyed when the ODEEC seems to miss the ‘point’ or provide a sufficiently nuanced or precise definition but Prynne’s last sentence does take annoyance to a new level.

He continues (in a paragraph that goes across the page) with-

The English rune wynn was the name for “bliss”; it was a proper name, reaching right across Germania and back before the division of the Indo-European peoples. It is the same root as the Latin Venus (which is also a proper name).

There then follows a progression from Venus to the use and ‘meaning’ of runes quoting Tacitus and a range of academic texts. This ends with-

The proto-Germanic rune *wunjo “bliss” is now a name no longer audible at our current wave-length: and being a total opponent of names The Oxford Etym. Dict. will do nothing to take us back, to the sounds of our proper selves.

The other, more recent example of Prynne’s pedantry that springs to mind is his close (excessive?) fretting over the various definitions of ‘listen’ from ‘The Solitary Weeper’, none of which meet his requirements although this is to do with precision rather than etymology. Now that it’s being pointed out to me, I am more than a little dismayed by the loss of the ‘bliss’ element of winsome but I don’t think that I’m cut off from any of the sounds of my proper self. I’d also like to question the use of ‘proper’ in this particular context and query ask aspect of my self might be described with such a word?

Geoffrey Hill, in his brilliant essay ‘Common Weal, Common Woe’, attacks the OED on a couple of different fronts. This is the first:

The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v Chiefly dial. To fail to remember; to forget. (trans. and absol.)’. If this may be thought to be sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkins’ context. ‘Disremembering’ in ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’ is not, as the Dictionary presumes, ‘failing to remember’, ‘forgetting’; it is ‘dismembering the memory’.

There then follows a fairly detailed description of the other ways in which the dictionary lets Hopkins down. This is to be expected as Hill is Hopkins biggest admirer and the most eloquent proponent of his work. I neither understand nor like Hopkins but do recognise his importance and feel that greater attention should have been paid to his specific usage. There is a wider point that poets will extend the language with new words and shades of meaning and perhaps our lexicographers ought to pay more attention to the work that poets produce.

The other area that Hill is especially good on is the way words were used in the past. He targets the Dictionary’s citation of Clarendon its entry on ‘dexterity’.

No one reading the OED entry would be able to deduce that dexterity was one of the rhetorical Janus-words of seventeenth century politics or that Clarendon was a master in his style of deployment.

The sin here is twofold- the relevant definition is given as “Mental adroitness or skill; ‘readiness of expedient, quickness of contrivance, skill of management’ (Johnson); cleverness, address, ready tact. Sometimes in a bad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness” and “A dexterous or clever act; in bad sense, a piece of ‘sharp practice’. Obs” neither of which capture the 17th century usage and the Clarendon citation, used as an example of the first definition, is the meaningless ‘The dexterity which is universally practiced in these parts” which has been ripped out of context and more properly ‘belongs’ to the ‘sharp practice’ of the second definition.

The little that I know of the 17th century deployment of ‘dexterity’ leads me to take Hill’s side but it is interesting that he should single out a definition that is incomplete rather than wrong.

To the innocent bystander it may seem that Prynne and Hill occupy different planets but this ‘slavish’ attention produces the finest work that we have. Paul Celan is the other word obsessive that springs to mind.

All of which leads me to my ‘point’ which is to reiterate that perhaps it is now time fou critics to forsake theoretical and ideological niceties and (to paraphrase Pound) read the fucking words.


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