Category Archives: history of the English language

Athwartships and Holy Foreskins

An Athwartships Sort of Day

circumcision-of-christIT’S EASY ENOUGH TO BUMP ME OFF-TASK; throw a word such as DEPERM in my path and I’m off to the races.

I encountered DEPERM during a friendly game of Words with Friends. It was Janice M., one of my friendliest (and most formidable) WWF rivals, who laid out DEPERM for 39 points. My first thought, when I saw the unfamiliar word, was “hair.” Most of my woman friends have, at least once, permed and regretted it. Was it now possible to UN-perm? Had I stumbled on a new solution for overcooked hair?

Turns out DEPERM is a nautical thing. According to dictionary.com, to deperm is to “reduce the permanent magnetism of (a vessel) by wrapping an electric cable around it vertically athwartships and energizing the cable.” Wow. Move over, deperm. Make way for athwartships. 

Athwartships (say it five times real fast) means “sideways (across a vessel),” but it’s far too delicious a word to withhold from landlubbers (see below). Think of parents whose kids are just starting to dress themselves: “Great job, Belinda! Oh, but you’ve put your left sock on athwartships.”

A landlubber is not a land-lover so much as a person who is unfamiliar with sailing and the sea. Sailors, it seems, use the term with contempt. Lubber, meaning “lout” or “clumsy person,” comes down to us through Middle English, possibly from Old Norse. I learned this from Kevin Stroud, whose podcast on the history of the English language is tied for first place in my PPR (personal podcast ranking), alongside David Crowther’s History of England.

emelye-in-the-garden-from-boccaccios-il-teseida

Lady fingers

Podcasts contributed a great deal to my sanity during two years when I was ill. For days on end, the only voices I heard were Kevin’s and David’s, and I realized that these guys need more than good material. They have to be credible, entertaining, and trustworthy—the last, because, after all, I was letting them into my bedroom.

David, in particular, kept me laughing. As a demonstration of his offbeat approach to history, I’ve transcribed the last few minutes (starting at 30:57) of History of England Episode 121, “Counter Revolution,” in which David is describing some of the holy relics that drew European pilgrims to religious shrines during the Middle Ages. My transcription isn’t perfect. It conveys nothing of David’s flawless comic timing. For that, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

Occasionally a British idiom or pronunciation slipped by me. I omitted David’s mention of a relic that sounded like “the Holy Hand Grenade at Antioch” because I’m pretty sure medieval armies didn’t have hand grenades.

Once at the shrine, the pilgrims would pay money to go and see the holy relic. At Walsingham, for example, we are talking about a sealed jar containing the Virgin Mary’s milk. Nails were very popular, and bits of wood from the True Cross…. Durham [Cathedral] proudly boasted the body of Saint Cuthbert but also the head of Saint Oswald. At Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, they had a vial of Christ’s blood. At [the Abbey of] Fécamp in Normandy, they had Mary Magdalene’s entire arm… until Saint Hugh rather ruined it all by nibbling off a bit of her fingers….*

st-bridgetNone of these, of course, competed with the big one…. I speak, of course, of Christ’s foreskin. The Holy Foreskin, as it was known, turned up in 800 A.D. when Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo. It was an object of great popular veneration, as you can imagine. Indeed, like any relic it was capable of performing miracles, so that even Saint Bridget was able to report that when an angel dropped bits of it on her tongue she had an orgasm, which, it appears, for Saint Bridget was a twenty-four-carat miracle….

But there was a problem….  Rival foreskins kept appearing, until eventually there were twenty-one Holy Foreskins spread around Christendom… [creating] something of a glut in the foreskin market…. Monks kept appearing in Rome demanding that the Pope make a ruling on which was the authentic foreskin. One theologian tried to solve the problem by claiming that the Holy Foreskin had ascended into Heaven to become the rings of Saturn…. Eventually the Church cracked… and in 1900 it became a crime worthy of excommunication to even talk of the Holy Foreskin. I await my Bull of Excommunication as we speak… but I give notice that any foreskins found lying around my house will be binned rather than venerated.

__________

* Saint Hugh—at that time Hugh of Lincoln; he wasn’t canonized until 1220.

 

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Standing Firm on ‘Podium’

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A podium is something you stand on

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.

Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.

There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.

…or this:

Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.

The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of

“How ya’ doin’?”

Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…

I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?

…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:

Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?

Speaking is work…

…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]

and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.

This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.

podium-lectern

Illustrations from “What Is a Lectern or a Podium?” Message Masters Toastmasters

Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern. 

  • A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
  • A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
  • You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.

As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.

I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.

Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:

The Life & Times of Podium

  1. Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
  2. Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
  3. Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
  4. Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.

What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).

Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.

foot-of-a-vase

Where do you stand?

Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”

Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.

Is lectern lost forever?

I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West WingShe was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”

During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…

Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at  or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (mary@annagrammatica.com) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.

 

lecterns-galore

A plethora of lecterns

Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:

A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
http://messagemasters.squarespace.com/articles/what-is-a-lectern-or-podium.html

Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.

A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.

Source: http://questionsaboutpublicspeaking.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-podium-and-a-lectern/

More voices for the good and the true

The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
http://www.daily-chronicle.com/2013/05/06/never-again-confuse-lectern-for-a-podium/b57qunb/

Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
https://mannerofspeaking.org/2012/03/10/podium-vs-lectern/

Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
www.dailywritingtips.com/podium-vs-lectern/

…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:

Podium-vs-lectern-megasite

Does it really matter?

No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.

From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…

Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”

I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.

 

Mary Campbell
July 23, 2016

 

 

 

What Do You Want?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

This journal… does for me what prayer must do for the truly religious—sets things in proportion again…. What is interesting, after all, is the making of a self, an act of creation, like any other, that does imply a certain amount of conscious work. Ellen is very much aware of this, I feel. She would agree with Keats about “a vale of soul-making”…. May Sarton, Kinds of Love

Jean Lall… calls housework “a path of contemplation” and says that if we denigrate the work that is to be done around the house every day, from cooking to doing laundry, we lose our attachment to our immediate world…. [Something as homely as a scrub brush can be] a sacramental object, and when we use this implement with care we are giving something to the soul. In this sense, cleaning the bathroom is a form of therapy because there is a correspondence between the actual room and a certain chamber of the heart. The bathroom that appears in our dreams is both the room in our house and a poetic object that describes a space in the soul. —Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

nebr_purple_coneflower-140x138

I can’t tell you, item by item, how to live poetically any more than I could write my poetry and call it yours. The only “rule” that I know of for poetic living is practicing the “I-Thou” relationship that Martin Buber wrote about in his 1923 book I and Thou. 

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Van Gogh, 1890

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Van Gogh, 1890

I and Thou, Martin Buber’s classic philosophical work, is among the 20th century’s foundational documents of religious ethics. “The close association of the relation to God with the relation to one’s fellow-men … is my most essential concern,” Buber explains in the Afterword…. “One should [never view]… the conversation with God … as something that occurs merely apart from or above the everyday,” Buber explains. “God’s address to man penetrates the events in all our lives and all the events in the world around us, everything biographical and everything historical, and turns it into instruction, into demands for you and me.”

Throughout I and Thou, Buber argues for an ethic that does not use other people (or books, or trees, or God), and does not consider them objects of one’s own personal experience. Instead, Buber writes, we must learn to consider everything around us as “You” speaking to “me,” and requiring a response…. Walter Kaufmann’s definitive 1970 translation contains hundreds of helpful footnotes providing Buber’s own explanations of the book’s most difficult passages. —Michael Joseph Gross, Amazon.com review

In a way, Buber’s book is an elaboration on the “do unto others…” maxim often referred to as the Golden Rule

As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
—Luke 6:31

—which scholars refer to as the Ethic of Reciprocity and which exists in some form in virtually every religion. Anne Lamott has expressed it thus:

Jesus said, “The point is to not hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless. Can you write that down, and leave it by the phone?”  —Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

If you can consistently and joyfully practice I-Thou relationships (or the Ethic of Reciprocity), I have nothing more to tell you. You are already gentle with others and gentle with yourself. You never, ever beat yourself up. When you make a mistake, you correct it or, if that’s not possible, you learn from it and go on with your life. 

If — and this is more likely — you flounder around like the rest of us, then you might benefit from the modest wisdom I have gained on living joyfully and poetically:

Lighten up! The title of the late Richard Carlson’s 1997 book says it all: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — and It’s All Small Stuff.

Defy entropy. Have a plan but don’t be a slave to it. Find and practice your dharma, your “righteous path, way of living, and ethical system… largely found within oneself, through contemplation, rather than in the external world.” ProQuest

Engage your imagination. As Nora Roberts points out in her novel Captivated, “The imagination [is] portable, unbreakable, and extremely malleable.” Be creative. Know that your potential is literally unlimited.

Show up. Be conscious and aware and totally in the moment.

Liberate yourself. Be larger than life. Do what you do with class and panache, beauty and grace. Practice courage. Be brave. Go the distance to become not just a good singer/dancer/accountant/cashier but a great one. 

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech of 10 May 1994

Keep moving. Continually co-create yourself. Let your actions be learned and practiced but not slavishly habitual. Play. Pretend. Always be aware that you have choices. Solve your problems as they arise.

Find your balance — that place between (a) spontaneity and intuition and (b) wisdom and orderliness. Napoleon Hill, in The Law of Success, maintains that the most successful people are those who trust their sixth sense.

Assignment 33.2

garden-of-eden-print-c10101487

  1. Make a list of 100 things you want. We’ll call these your goals. The items on your list can be grand or trivial: a movie you want to see, a new restaurant you want to try, habits you want to form, things you want to do before you die, places you want to visit, people you’d like to meet, desired changes in relationships….
  2. Choose just one thing from your list. It makes absolutely no difference which goal you choose.
  3. Write loosely in prose about, or make a diagram of, the distance between you and the goal and the steps you can take to overcome that distance. Conclude with reaching the goal.
  4. Close your eyes and imagine, but don’t write down, how you will feel when your goal is reached.
  5. Condense your prose into a Spenserian sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. An example is the following sonnet (1595) by the English poet Edmund Spenser. The metrical pattern is generally iambic pentameter, and it is easier to discern if you understand that, four hundred years ago, many words were pronounced differently, with added syllables. The first line, for example, might have been spoken thus: “Hap-PY [or, more likely, HAP-py, making the line slightly irregular] ye LEAV-es! WHEN those LIL-y HANDS”; and the word derived in line 10 was probably pronounced “de-RIVE-ed.”

    Happy ye leaves! when those lily hands, (a)
    Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
    Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands, (a)
    Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight. (b)
    And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
    Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c)
    And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
    Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book. (c)
    And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
    Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
    When ye behold that angel’s blessed look, (c)
    My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss. (d)
    Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
    Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)

    NOTE: Do not overtly express your feelings of victory or accomplishment in your poem. Let your artistry, and the rhetorical devices you use, do that for you.

    • Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
    • Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

    Edmund Spenser 1552-1599
    Edmund Spenser 1552-1599

     

     

     

For Honest Poverty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 32.2

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Robert Burns, Part 2

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 

robt_burns_alex_nasmyth_18281

Robert Burns wore his heart in his poetry. His topics range from romantic love to radical politics. In meter and rhyme, he attacked the church, the class system, and the inequality of gender roles.

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

Burns was born thirteen years after the Battle of Culloden, the beginning of the end of the traditional Scottish Highland way of life, and of the clans. The British, who had nominally controlled Scotland since the 1707 Acts of Union but had never been able to harness the independent Highlanders, mercilessly seized Highland farms, killing the occupants or driving them off their land summarily, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The Highlands were cleared, the clan system abolished, the wearing of the tartan prohibited.

Thus, Robert Burns

belonged to a nation which had lost its independence but was at the same time part of a larger state in whose successes he could rejoice and in whose better government he was interested, so that his patriotism was always of a peculiarly double sort. His attachment to what, for want of a better word, must be termed his class, that is, to the lower orders, broadly conceived, reinforced and buttressed his nationalism. —Robert Burns Plus, accessed January 28, 2009

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. [Burns was a] cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, [and] celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries…. His influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

The poem “Is There for Honest Poverty” is a plainspoken, songlike expression of Burns’s democratic principles. These were radical for the time. Read, for historical perspective on class distinction, the delightful novel Emma (1816), by Jane Austen. The title character is a wealthy, beautiful, clever, and basically kindhearted member of the rural aristocracy, but one with a misguided rigidity in matters of social class.

Emma persuades her young and impressionable friend Harriet not to marry the well-spoken, prosperous farmer who is courting her. The girl would be marrying beneath herself, Emma explains, and Emma herself would have to “drop the acquaintance.”

emmaAusten, in her gentle way, exposes Emma’s folly; she is properly ashamed. The author writes satirically, of course, as in all her novels, about artificial distinctions between “gentlemen” with inherited wealth or social position and those who had to earn their living — as merchants or tenant farmers, for example. The egalitarian fervor of the French Revolution (1789-1799) had not gone unnoticed in England, and it certainly influenced the politics and poetry of Robert Burns. 

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and “Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known across the world today include A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s A Man for A’ That” [“Is There for Honest Poverty”], “To a Louse,” “To a Mouse,” “The Battle of Sherramuir,” “Tam O’Shanter,” and “Ae Fond Kiss….”

He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009 

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wiklipedia

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wikipedia

Assignment 32.3

  1. Analyze one of the poems at “The Ploughman Poet“: (a) What intimate glimpse of Burns’s soul does it provide? (b) How does it do so (through language, rhyme, meter, metaphor, and other poetic conventions)?
  2. Write a poem patterned after Burns’s style that illustrates one deep conviction of your own.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.
  6.  * * *

 

Customarily

There was a madness about Mardi Gras… — the music, the masks, the mayhem all crashing together into a desperate sort of celebration … that was both gleefully innocent and rawly sexual. He doubted [that] the majority of the tourists who flocked… [to New Orleans] for the event understood or cared about the purpose of it.  —Nora Roberts, Midnight Bayou

Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

Carnival in Rio: Mangueira Samba School Parade (photo by Felipe Ferreira)

Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is the final day of Carnival, the three-day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday (some traditions … [consider] Carnival … [to be the] time between Epiphany…  [Twelfth Night] and Ash Wednesday). The entire three-day period [before Ash Wednesday] has come to be known in many areas as Mardi Gras.—Wikipedia

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 23

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 2: Rituals and Traditions and Festivals and Customs and Celebrations and Ceremonies and Habits… Oh, My!

Every weekday morning, when I was in high school, I woke, at precisely a quarter to six, to the crisp click of my dad’s Zippo lighter, signaling the first cigarette of the day, the beginning of his morning ritual, through which he moved, brisk but unhurried, with a precision that made timepieces unnecessary.

teenage_girl_bruthsing_teethDad would smoke his cigarette, don his terry-cloth robe, fetch the newspaper from the front porch and take it into the downstairs half-bath… from which he would emerge, 11.37 minutes later, to climb the stairs and take his shower in the upstairs bathroom. The shower water shutting off was my cue to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my clothes (this often involved a couple of trips to the clothes drier in the basement and sometimes a hasty ironing job), find my books and my homework, experience a moment of anxiety about the homework left undone, and skip breakfast if I wanted to be ready when Dad left for his downtown office, so that I wouldn’t have to take the city bus to school and could maybe finish my homework in Dad’s car.

Living poetically: an orderly life

Dad’s morning routine illustrates one of the great benefits of ritual and an essential ingredient in living poetically: maintaining order. If one is going to live poetically, then one must be efficient whenever possible, thus allowing oneself the liberty of being artistically inefficient at predictable times.

This is a lesson I was slow to learn, which is why, when I was working full time at an 8-to-5 job, my daughter, Marian, usually ate her cereal in the car on the way to day care.

travel_driving_on_country_road_istockFor purposes of this lesson, I’m going to fudge the boundaries of words such as ritual, custom, festival, celebration, ceremony, and tradition. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably, sometimes not.

It is the custom (and the law), for example, in the U.S. to drive on the right side of the road and to GO when the stoplight turns green. Some over-the-road truck drivers customarily flick their headlights to let passing cars know that it’s safe to return to the right lane. Back when most highways were only two lanes wide, it was customary to tap on the horn as a signal to the car in front of you that you were about to pass it.

These are practical customs, adopted to make driving safe and efficient. You could, I suppose, consider them traditions, but they are hardly rituals or ceremonies or celebrations. The custom of driving on the right side of the road quickly becomes a habit — something you do automatically, without thinking. Imagine the chaos if every morning, when you got into your car to go to work, you (and the rest of the drivers in your community) had to make up your mind as to which side of the street you wanted to drive on and what to do if you encountered a green stoplight.

Halloween

On the other hand, it is customary and traditional for children to wear costumes and go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Few children, however, are aware that Halloween

…has roots in the Christian holy day of All Saints and the… ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain — a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture, …sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The ancient Gaels believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead became dangerous for the living by causing… sickness or [damaging]… crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits, [to hide from them], or to placate them. Wikipedia

pumpkin_fieldAs was often the case when a civilization became “Christianized,” missionaries finessed Christian holidays into traditional pagan celebrations. The name Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (or All Hallows’ Even), because it falls on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, now called All Saints’ Day, which in Christian theology commemorates those who have died and, presumably, gone to Heaven.

As Halloween symbols, skeletons and jack-o’-lanterns have ancient meaning as well, but, for most kids, Halloween is just an excuse to dress up, get together with friends, and eat a lot of candy. Without being aware of it, they are participating in an ancient and multilayered ritual.

Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, 2006

Mardi Gras

Worldwide, the carnivals that precede the forty-day sacrificial season of Lent traditionally comprise several days of extravagance and self-indulgence — in sharp contrast to the ensuing (partial) fast, which is meant to

…[prepare] the believer—through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial—for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. —Wikipedia

Weddings

The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

The official wedding portrait of Princess Grace and Prince Ranier III of Monaco

Associated with weddings are rituals, celebrations, ceremonies, and customs, all rolled into one series of traditions — from bachelor parties and bridal showers to Catholic masses and chivarees. During the wedding, the bride is supposed to wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue” (often a garter), though nobody remembers why. 

According to Wikipedia, “exchanging rings may be the oldest and most universal symbol of marriage, but the origins are unclear. The ring’s circular shape represents perfection and never-ending love.”

Why rituals matter

Rituals and ceremonies often mark transitions — seasonal, cultural, and individual. Weddings, baptisms (if you believe that baptism is necessary for salvation), wakes and funerals, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras, even “divorce parties” are ways of delineating a change in status… of indicating unequivocally that before the ceremony things were one way and after the ceremony they are another way.

An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

An 1883 print depicting an Irish wake

I had always thought that wakes and “viewings” of the deceased were unnecessary and even macabre, until my mother died without warning in 1974. At the age of 62, she had a massive stroke at home; Dad rode to the hospital with her in the ambulance, while my sister, Pipi, and I followed in my car.  The three of us sat in a waiting room, watching television as Richard Nixon announced that he would resign the presidency the next day, August 9. Periodically, some medical person would appear with an increasingly gloomy “update” on Mom’s condition. We were finally allowed to see her, though she was practically unidentifiable behind flanks of machines and forests of tubes.

Late in the evening, the machines and tubes were removed, Mom was declared dead, and we were asked if we wanted to see her again. Our unanimous reaction was, “Ugh,” whereupon her body was donated to the Nebraska Anatomical Board, a sort of clearinghouse for cadavers that would be used for medical research. We held a memorial service, but of course there was no viewing, no cemetery burial, not even an urn for her ashes.

Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

Tulips (Floriade canberra); photo by John O'Neill

Well, it was a mistake, at least on my part. Somewhere in my psyche there was persistent denial: I had not seen her dead, therefore it was possible that she was not dead. I had this recurring dream that she had gone to Japan and would be back any day. During my waking hours, I experienced depression, panic attacks, even hallucinations.

I spent a lot of time with Dad in the home he and Mom had shared, helping with laundry and sewing buttons on his shirts. I watched Mom’s tulips and perennial herbs cleave the thawing earth in the spring. I don’t think I actually “went on with my life,” as they say, until Marian and I moved to the Washington, DC, area almost a year and a half later.

When Dad died, eleven years after we lost Mom, I was not about to make the same mistake. He had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected, but I arrived at the hospital (in response to a nurse’s phone call) minutes after he died. When I entered his room, held his cold hand, kissed his ashen face, I felt an enormous sense of relief. “He’s not here,” I thought. “This isn’t Dad. He’s gone away.”

Rituals and celebrations connect us with each other, nudging families and communities together. Researchers have found that “social” people, who regularly spend time with their families and friends, are happier and live longer than people who are comparatively isolated, even by choice.

A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

A Campbell family picnic in Des Moines, c. 1946

When I was growing up, none of our relatives lived in Omaha, and, as the youngest of my generation on my dad’s side, I found our rare family get-togethers tedious in the extreme. As an adult, though, I discovered to my surprise that my older cousins were funny and interesting, even though it was usually a funeral that brought us together. We have had two non-funeral-related family reunions in the last twenty years, and both have been delightful, with copious sincere expressions of regret that we don’t see each other more often. If one of the other Campbells were to plan a reunion and send me an invitation, I would eagerly attend. But, however fine a time we have at our reunions, we return to our comfort zones and follow the path of least resistance, and to date no additional reunions have been planned, which is a pity.

child_with_posy_for_momTruthfully, now… would you give your mother flowers or take her out for a champagne brunch if there were no such thing as Mother’s Day or if we, as a culture, didn’t traditionally celebrate birthdays?

Rituals connect us with our history and our ancestors. I have heard of Jews, descendants of those who fled one of the numerous European Inquisitions, growing up in Mexico and the American Southwest, practicing customs such as ritual handwashing and candle-lighting without knowing that such traditions were relics of their ancestors’ “Jewishness.” These are people who had no idea that they were descended from Jews… but their rituals outlasted their theology. (See Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews, by Janet Liebman Jacobs)

Rituals, traditions, and customs lend structure to our days, weeks, months, and years. As mentioned above, a lot of things just aren’t worth the effort that would be needed to continually make decisions about them.

Take the Christmas tree. The custom of cutting down an evergreen tree, taking it home, hauling it into the house, setting its trunk in a bucket of water, and decorating it with garish balls and beads, probably originated in pre-Christian times as a reminder that living things can thrive even in the dead of winter. The modern tradition, in which the trees became associated with Christmas, seems to have originated in northern Europe some five hundred years ago.

Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

Christmas-tree ornament (photo by Kris De Curtis)

If you decorate your house for Christmas, you probably have a Christmas tree. It might be a fir tree of some sort, or something that has been assembled in a factory to resemble a fir tree. You probably have your own family ritual that determines how and when the tree should be decorated. You might have been horrified, after you got married, to learn that your spouse’s family has one of those aluminum-foil-type trees and hangs only pink satin ornaments on it. Perhaps there were arguments about when the gifts should be opened: on Christmas eve or Christmas morning.

You could flout tradition and bring in a small sycamore tree, or maybe a palm. You could hang your ornaments and stockings on a coat rack, or you could pound a bunch of nails into the wall and drape tinsel across them. It would be odd but certainly not illegal. But why bother, when stores and parking lots are crammed with pines and spruces, and when you have a collection of beautiful Christmas-tree ornaments, some of which are family heirlooms?

Rituals of all kinds are exceedingly tenacious. When I was growing up, we opened the presents under the tree — those that came from distant aunts and uncles, and those that we gave to each other — on Christmas eve. My sister, Pipi, as the eldest of the three of us kids, got to hand out the gifts, and we opened them one at a time, in an orderly way. We wouldn’t have dreamed of opening a gift while someone else was opening hers.

victorian_family_christmasThe presents from Santa Claus — filled stockings and wrapped boxes beneath them — were, naturally, opened on Christmas morning in a sort of frenzied free-for-all — except that everyone had to be there. My brother, John, and I would roust Pipi and Mom and Dad out of bed so that Christmas Day could begin.

John and I insisted on maintaining this ritual even when we were in high school and Pipi was in college. To this very day, I’m uncomfortable opening a gift — any gift — while someone else in the room is opening one… unless its Christmas morning, which is, as mentioned, exempt from the one-gift-at-a-time rule.

Rituals revisited

Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

Kids in Halloween costumes (photo by Charles Nguyen)

Some traditions have become totally severed from their origins. We no longer dress up at Halloween in order to protect ourselves from evil spirits, nor does Halloween have any religious significance except, perhaps, to Satanists. But we continue to observe Halloween for valid social and cultural reasons.

The tradition of hazing originated as a test of manhood — a rite-of-passage ceremony associated with an organization or a society. While it might have been a useful way, at one time, to “separate the men from the boys” in preparation for battles or hunting expeditions, hazing has, among some groups, degenerated into a sadistic display of boorishness.

Assignment 23.1

Prepare a three-column table. In the first column, list the most important customs and traditions you observe. In the second column, summarize the origins of those customs and traditions. In the third column, indicate the relevance they have for you today.

Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will comment on it and return it to you.

Next: Advent — What Are You Waiting For?

Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

Aztec Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, c. 1500 (photo by David Monniaux)

The Sun Returns…

…and other metaphors of Christmastide

victorian_calendarsanta

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 22

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide

At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

NEWGRANGE

Newgrange today, aerial view

Newgrange today, aerial view

There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

***

MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.

“And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
some disguise and go from house to house, for
revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

Maenad

Maenad on Wheel of Life

She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.

Decorative mistletoe

Decorative mistletoe

“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”

“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”

And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”

 

* * *

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

Refrain

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)

Yule log

Yule log

“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

* * *

Wassailing

Wassailing

WASSAILING

Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

* * *

TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

Assignment 22.1

Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster

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Everybody Wants to Be Happy

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 18
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

Someone Is Seething

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

 

It’s a good thing to let people know how much you like them. It’s strange but true that people usually forget to do that, but then when you see how the littlest compliment can make a person sit up lively you say to yourself, oh yeah. —Elizabeth Berg, Joy School

Objects

 

I asserted in Chapter 1 of this course that “reality is essentially nonphysical — love and truth and desire and ideas are ‘more real’ and certainly more powerful than tables and chairs….” Our choices and actions are motivated by concepts, or abstractions — wanting, needing, wondering, questioning, grieving, imagining — not by objects.

Chapter 2 began with the observation that “everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is ‘a parade of odd and wonderful events.'”

If objects brought happiness, then the person with the most objects — the greatest number of possessions — would be the happiest. This is manifestly not the case.

  • Research has shown that the poorest people and the richest people are about equal on the happiness scale, which is to say that they are equally unhappy. It’s the folks in the middle – those who have enough, who enjoy what they have, and who enjoy sharing it – who are the happiest.
  • “Close relationships, more than personal satisfaction or one’s view of the world as a whole, are the most meaningful factors in happiness. If you feel close to other people, you are four times as likely to feel good about yourself than if you do not feel close to anyone. -Magen, Birenbaum, and Pery 1996” (1)
19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

19th-century cottages in Crafton, Buckinghamshire

A family scrimps and saves to buy a house. They find the cottage of their dreams, they agonize over whether to paint the parlor Eggshell or Winter White, they spend hours examining carpet samples that (to the untrained eye) look exactly alike. They put up tasteful wallpaper. They purchase “window treatments.” They reupholster Grandmother’s priceless Eastlake-style furniture. They decorate little Marianna’s bedroom to resemble a princess’s chamber, compete with four-poster bed and organza canopy.

One evening Dad has to work late, and when he finally turns his car into their cozy cul-de-sac, he sees that the cottage of their dreams is engulfed in flames. Is he worried about Grandmother’s furniture or the trendy window treatments? No; he has to be restrained by firefighters from charging into the burning building to rescue Mom and little Marianna. Nothing else matters. The objects aren’t important. He can’t breathe, he can’t think – until one of the firefighters guides him to a neighbor’s yard, where Mom and Marianna are sitting, shaken but otherwise unharmed, sipping hot chocolate. His world comes back into focus. All is well.

It is one’s abstract, intangible relationship to objects — not the objects themselves — that define one’s reality. Years ago I had to sell my father’s Morris chair, which I inherited when he died, in order to pay the rent. I loved that chair. It was comfortable. It was beautiful. It bore the indelible imprint of my dad’s bony butt. Years later, I bought another chair, a prettier, more comfortable chair, a “better” chair, as objects go. But I still miss the Morris chair.

Fantastic Security System

Fantastic Security System

It’s the intangibles that matter. Physical objects function as metaphors for feelings and ideas – which is not to say that food and shelter are unimportant but rather that they are important only in the context of our need and desire for them.

Do you sleep more peacefully at night because of your security system or the locks on your doors? You could feel just as safe with a pair of dragons guarding the house, or with the knowledge that all the bad guys had finally been incarcerated. Your goal is the intangible sense of safety, by whatever means it is achieved. Security systems, locks, dragons are nothing to you except as metaphors for safety.

Below is an excerpt from Guy Deutcher’s marvelous book The Unfolding of Language. It demonstrates how our language, and how all languages, for that matter, are strings of metaphors – not used in poetry or in poetic prose but in practical, everyday speech and writing.

Metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind…. Metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-processes of every one of us… because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we can describe and even grasp abstraction….

Metaphors which have become commonplace… are dismissed asdead metaphors…. They have come to be used so often in their metaphorical abstract sense that all semblance of their former vitality has been lost and they have firmly established themselves as the stock-in-trade of ordinary language….

People speaking of troubles brewing, anger simmering, resentment boiling, fanaticism fermenting, employees seething (literally: “boiling”) with discontent. People chew over new suggestions and digest new information…. We can have sweet dreams, bitter hatreds, sour relations, or half-baked ideas….

Someone Is Seething

Someone Is Seething

* * *

Sarah was thrilled to discover that the assessment board had decided to make her barmy rival redundant, after she suggested that he had made sarcastic insinuations about his employers….

Almost every word in [the sentence above]… was once a thriving image. If one puts the flesh back on these dry bones, and restores them to their original vitality, the result will be something like this:

Sarah was pierced to un-cover that the sitting-by plank had cut off to make her full-of-froth person-from-the-river overflowing, after she carried-under that he had made flesh-tearing twistings about those who fold him.

  • The word “thrill”… goes back to an Old English verb thyrlian, which originally meant “pierce” (and, incidentally, is related to the word nos-thryl, “nostril,” or “nose-hole”)….
  • “Rival” comes from Latin rivalis, meaning someone who shares the same river….
  • “Suggest” comes from Latin sub-gerere, “carry under”….
  • “Employ” comes ultimately from Latin plicare, “to fold”….

One could pick hundreds of other examples of abstract concepts, and the result would always be the same. They can’t help but go back to some terms from the physical world. Quite simply, then, metaphors flow from the concrete to the abstract because we need them to….

Suppose for a moment that there was no word around to describe “having” something. How would you go about expressing the notion? …Many languages today (most, in fact) don’t have a verb that corresponds to the English “have,” and so they use other ways of expressing possession…:

Russian
U menja kniga
at me book
“the book (is) at me” (= I have a book) ….

So or Soo (a Kuliak language, spoken in Uganda)
mek Auca eo-a kusin
aren’t Auca home-in clothes
“Clothes aren’t in Auca’s home” (= Auca has no clothes)….

Scratch a bit deeper… and you will find hundreds of metaphors that are no longer even identifiable remains, but merely dried-up skeletons whose original literal meanings have long been lost….

  • But comes from Old English be-utan, “by the outside.”
  • Except comes from Latin ex-cipere, “out-shut.”

[The author goes on to point out that “common intuition” understood the connection between space and time thousands of years before Einstein.] In language – any language – no two domains are more intimately linked than space and time…. We invariably speak of time in terms of space… [because] we think of time in terms of space. Consider some of the simplest words we use to describe spatial relations: prepositions such as in, at, by, from, to, behind, with, through. The examples below… show that all these spatial terms function just as well in the domain of …[time relationships]: 

Spatial relations already entail some degree of abstraction, since they are not things of substance that can directly be observed. (You cannot point at a “through,” for instance, any more than you can directly observe an “in.”) So might words for spatial terms in fact develop from something even simpler and more solid?

…There is hardly any part of the body which has not been enlisted as a metaphor for spatial and more abstract concepts, as the following examples illustrate.

“belly” →  “middle,” Albanian
në bark të javës
in belly-the week (= the middle of the week) ….

“mouth” → “in front of,” Mursi (spoken in Ethiopia)
dori tutuo
house mouth.of
“mouth of the house” (= in front of the house)

 (1) The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven, Ph.D

Next: Metaphorical You

Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crisis

A Time to Decide

When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”

 

Person, Place, or Thing

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 17
Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

[A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to NPR.org, published March 29, 2005

Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

The untidiness of nouns

How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

Jane Is Generous

Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

Jane Is Afraid

Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

      Jane found a cat

— but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

…the dichotomy of good and evil
…a method of separating egg whites and yolks
…her future as a thoracic surgeon
…her desire to throttle her little brother

The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.

Yuck

Table 1: Yuck

Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

Lesson 17.1 Assignment

Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.