Tag Archives: the oxford english dictionary

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.


Odi Barbare Poem VI- a question (pt 1)

I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.

In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.

Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.

The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.

This is the first verse of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage
Make a pranged voice nasal through a ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.

The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.

Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.

With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:

  • reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
  • put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
  • give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
  • give instructions or information to;
  • shorten, abbreviate, abridge.

None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.

The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.

Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.