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Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Ancient men marveled at the regularity of the movements of the heavens, which enabled them to predict the paths of the planets.  It was not until modern times though that we were able fully to appreciate just how mathematical are the laws that govern the operations of the physical universe—all of it, not just the visible parts.  Music is mathematics applied to pitch and time.  It is more than that, but not less.  So poets from Milton to MacDonald to Lewis and Tolkien have, in an appropriate metaphor indeed, portrayed creation as a song or a dance.  It was in Job all along: at creation the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.

 

COMMENTARY, JOB 38:7

The Novas were the trumpets,

The Black Holes played the bass,

The Comets were the clarinets,

The concert hall was Space.

 

The Stars were violins,

The Angels sang in thirds,

The Planets danced a minuet,

Jehovah wrote the words.

 

And still they sing together,

And with the inner ears

The clear-souled man can listen yet:

The music of the spheres.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Wordy Wisdom: Why We Love Our Living Language

Okay, I admit it.  I’ve been pretty harsh about words these last few weeks, and that’s not fair at all.  Words are wonderful.  Words are magical.  Words allow us to craft our thoughts, just so, and lead our readers on a path of thought, adventure, whimsy.  Finely crafted words invite us to trespass into other worlds for as long as our eyes are captured by the pages.

Let’s be honest.  We love words!

(Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog… )

So, enough of the lambasting of the poor unworthy adjectives and the literal things that aren’t literally literal (… actually, no, I’ll never give up in my fight against poorly used “literally”).  Let’s focus instead on well-crafted and well-used words.

First of all, after how twitchy Twain made us about those pesky adjectives and poorly placed adverbs, I think we need to call him out on how little credit he is giving to beautiful writing.   When I think of descriptive passages and the images they summon to the imagination, I think of George MacDonald’s Phantastes:

“The trees bathed their great heads in the waves of the morning, while their roots were planted deep in gloom; save where on the borders of the sunshine broke against their stems, or swept in long streams through their avenues, washing with brighter hue all the leaves over which it flowed; revealing the rich brown of the decayed leaves and fallen pine-cones, and the delicate greens of the long grasses and tiny forests of moss that covered the channel over which it passed in the motionless rivers of light.”

What I see.  What do you see?

What I see. What do you see?

 

Now, maybe we are all seeing different trees bathed in different light, different leaves and different moss. Does it matter?  Does it make the image that this passage conjures for each of us any less lovely?  Adjectives can easily become trite, meaningless, and overdone.  An adverb is more often excessive than a necessity.  However, in the right place at the right time, we can use words to transform a wisp of an idea into an image that is almost tangible, and there is something eminently satisfying in the product.

Furthermore, as readers, we have the privilege more often than we realize to appreciate the wordsmithing of others, their images and ideas unfolding before us.  We make the images our own and so both share them with their creator and adopt them into our own library of treasured thoughts and stories.  This is the constant and endless delight of the reader, an abundance of words transformed into an infinite store of impressions.

The wonderful thing about words is that, while we do submit to their meanings on the one hand and allow them to create a picture for us when we approach them, we are on the other hand and in another way their masters.  We are the creators of the words themselves and we are allotted some of the responsibility of giving them meaning.

Sometimes this goes horridly awry, and more than one stuffy wordophile (I don’t exclude myself from this category, by any means) turns a nose up at such travesties as ain’t and irregardless and… you were waiting for this one… literally.  Words that aren’t words or shouldn’t be words or aren’t being used the way they should be used – we gaze in most respectable and erudite horror upon these little gremlins of our language and try (uselessly, alas) to squish them the way Twain squishes adverbs.  Of course, he didn’t have very much success either (Do you see those adverbs I just used, Twain?  And I’m not even sorry).

But there are two things that we must remember, no matter how stuffy we are or how much we love to preserve our sacred, lovely, beautiful vocabulary just as it is.

First, for a language to be alive, it must be allowed to grow, change, and flourish.  Now, I do still firmly believe that trimming little, rogue branches is in the tree of la langue‘s best interests.  We should definitely discourage the words that are senseless and correct mistakes as they come our way (in the nicest way possible so that our friends don’t start apologizing every time they write anything they know we’ll see… Not that this ever happens to me).   However, aside from the words that just plain shouldn’t be allowed, there are new words and new meanings that are always springing up, and I think that we might approach these with more fascination and excitement than gloomy discouragement.  Our language is still alive!  It is growing!  Our culture, one generation after another, is exploring and creating and inventing new words and new meanings as our world continues to change.

And some words are just fun to say, aren't they?

And some words are just fun to say, aren’t they?

 

Take for example a word that is quite appropriate for this post: text.  A word that means words, born of the idea of a substance, like textiles, something you can touch and feel and hold in your hand.  Something solid.  In our technological age, text has changed.  We might become a bit nostalgic about it, but we might also see the magic in it.  Text has grown and expanded, still attached to the page, but also floating off of and away from it, a collection of thoughts sent invisibly (magically, as far as I’m concerned) from one device to another.  It’s not just a thing anymore.  It’s an action.  I can text someone.  Let’s set aside the usual bemoaning of what the digital age has done to our youth’s perspective of the written word (a worthy subject for another day) and just contemplate how many ideas are being sent in all directions all the time.  Because text has changed.

The second thing that we must remember about words is that we are not passive onlookers.  We are a part of our culture’s language, and we participate in its lively evolution.  Words don’t magically appear; someone starts the process.  Shakespeare is responsible for the use of a massive number of words in the English language.  We can go into a zany rant about a bedazzled arch-villain because Shakespeare was awesome and creative (short story idea, just in case someone wants it).  We chortle and gallumph because Lewis Carroll wrote nonsense that just might make sense.  Words are fun, and while I sometimes like to say that only Masters of English should be allowed the privilege of adding to our vocabulary (I told you I was a stuffy elitist), the fact is, if you write it, text it, say it, or share it, and someone else loves it and passes it on, a new word or meaning can very easily be born.

So to end this month’s long-winded, wordy exploration of reading, writing, and the words we use, I want to know what you think of words.  What is your favorite word to say?  What word do you love for its meaning, origins, or impact?  What fabulous word do you think should be added to our vocabulary?  Maybe we can spread a new one and make our language grow a little more (something to replace literally as an intensifying adverb, perhaps?  Please, I beg of you!)

* * *

Previous Bits of Wordy Wisdom:

Too Much of a Good Thing

Very, Very Verbose

I Literally Died!

High Trinity: Now I lay me down to sleep

“But these are all dead, and I am alive!” I objected, shuddering.

“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough! Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!”

“The place is too cold to let one sleep!” I said.

“Do these find it so?” he returned. “They sleep well—or will soon. Of cold they feel not a breath: it heals their wounds.—Do not be a coward, Mr. Vane. Turn your back on fear, and your face to whatever may come. Give yourself up to the night, and you will rest indeed. Harm will not come to you, but a good you cannot foreknow.”

George MacDonald, Lilith ch. vii (1895).

The other night I fell asleep with my windows open. A refreshing chill awakened me. Summer’s days were numbered. Autumn was literally in the air.

Vigorously as I maintain that spring is the joy and crown of the seasons, I have come to appreciate the retreat of summer before the advance of autumn.  There are obvious reasons for this: crisp air, golden afternoons, brilliant leaves. Thautumn washout gqpere are, however, less obvious reasons: lengthening shadows, shortening days, death. If spring’s motif is resurrection, autumn’s motif is death. What is the succession of changing leaves but a vivid death march, with the brilliant maples in the vanguard and the subdued crimson of the stately oaks holding the rearguard? And, when the last of the oak leaves has given up the ghost, what remains on the branches? Thousands of magnificent little death monuments, the bronzed beech leaves.

For the conclusion of last year’s Trinity season, I wrote a paean to maturity under the sun.  Under the sun, though, what follows maturity? Death. In embracing the former, we cannot help but receive the latter — to lay down in the cold, not knowing when we will rise.

In the merciful providence of God we need not flee the brilliance or the cold of advancing death.  This thing, which once was our dread enemy, has been conquered by a Man. It is now His instrument for cleansing the old earth’s palate for the new earth, and our palate for the resurrection. Just as sleep has ever been His instrument for cleansing our palates for the new day, and autumn His instrument for cleansing the world’s palate for the freshness of spring.

“He that will be a hero, will barely be a man”

Then first I knew the delight of being lowly; of saying to myself, “I am what I am, nothing more.” “I have failed,” I said, “I have lost myself—would it had been my shadow.” I looked round: the shadow was nowhere to be seen. Ere long, I learned that it was not myself, but only my shadow, that I had lost. I learned that it is better, a thousand-fold, for a proud man to fall and be humbled, than to hold up his head in his pride and fancied innocence. I learned that he that will be a hero, will barely be a man; that he that will be nothing but a doer of his work, is sure of his manhood. In nothing was my ideal lowered, or dimmed, or grown less precious; I only saw it too plainly, to set myself for a moment beside it. Indeed, my ideal soon became my life; whereas, formerly, my life had consisted in a vain attempt to behold, if not my ideal in myself, at least myself in my ideal.

George MacDonald, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women ch. 22 (1858).

Faith and Faerie: Reflections of Another World

When I was asked to do a devotional for today’s post, I really didn’t know which direction to turn.  For someone who loves fantasy, the works of Lewis are an obvious choice for an intertwining of faith and faerie. But Lewis’s brilliance has its sources, and I thought that perhaps one of Lewis’s favorite writers, George MacDonald, would be of service in this discussion, as well.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis says:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

mist irelandAs Christians, we know that “another world” is the heavenly kingdom, but as we are, for now, separated from that future dwelling, we are left with promises and our imagination.  For many of us, exploring and creating fantasy worlds can temporarily satiate the driving need to find “another world” to which we truly belong.  But Faerie Lands can play the role of more than just escapism; they can both act is a reflection of Reality and become that faintest of connections to “another world” which compels us forward in our walk toward it.

The fantasies and faerie worlds that we construct, no matter how wonderful, are still impermanent.  The kind of fantasy that MacDonald, Lewis, and many others strive to write is a kind which attempts to draw us out of our immediate Reality and take us to another world, but only temporarily.  Then, like a mirror, these worlds begin to reflect our Reality in a different form, and we can’t help thinking that some of these enchanted landscapes seem very familiar. Inexorably, we are drawn back into our own world, but when we return, we understand something of our world better, while the yearning for another world remains, perhaps stronger than ever.reflections isle of skye loch

MacDonald says in Phantastes:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? – not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier?  Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still.  Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself.  All mirrors are magic mirrors.  The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

castle scotland craigmillarA beautiful reflection is exactly what MacDonald strives for in his depiction of Faerie Land.  With lush descriptions, strange and surreal, whimsical and lovely, MacDonald draws his wandering hero into the depths of Faerie and compels us along with him.

But as with all reflections, there is a place where they join with Reality.  We can be in one and touch the other.  MacDonald’s Faerie Land is not meant to stand entirely apart:

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men, and sometimes startle the common eye with an association as of cause and effect, when between the two no connecting links can be traced.

From the very beginning, Faerie is intertwined with our world.  It reflects our own world, but it also connects us to another.  It both satisfies and increases our longing for that Other World that we know exists.  And so, if this fantasy world as MacDonald portrays it – a reflection of Reality and an echo of something greater beyond it – if this is not only accessible, but ever-present, then we might begin to realize that its higher Form, that Other World that we all long for, is also in our midst.  The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, tangible, glorious, the source of all deep magic, drawing us further into it.

This is why I find Faerie and fantasy so beautiful and so satisfying: they have the ability to reflect our Reality while simultaneously summoning forth faint, but glorious images of the true Other World.  The best Faerie stories form a connection between us and what we were made for.