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AWADmail Issue 225

September 3, 2006

A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages


From: Karen Shelton (shelk foster.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--epithalamion

Nobody sent me and my beloved, but poetry-hating, husband an epithalamion when we married 35 years ago. But every now and then, when I think he can stand it, I quote to him some stanzas from Ogden Nash's "Tin Wedding Whistle". I always abridge it when reciting it him, to cut down on the chances of being whacked with a pillow. Here are the last few lines:

    Near and far, near and far
    I am happy where you are;
    Likewise I have never larnt
    How to be it where you aren't.
    Then grudge me not my fond endeavor
    To hold you in my sight forever;
    Let none, not even you, disparage
    Such a valid reason for a marriage.
There seem not to be many epithalamions in modern American culture, but if we want to start using them, I would vote for "Tin Wedding Whistle".


From: David Lee (lee_david92 yahoo.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--epithalamion

It's interesting to note that a thalamus can also mean a part of the brain that receives sensory inputs, the receptacle of a flower, or a women's apartment in an ancient Greek house, also called a thalamium.


From: George Gopen (ggopen duke.edu)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--epithalamion

By far the most remarkable of the known epithalamia, I think, is the one Edmund Spenser wrote for his own wedding in 1595. A man in his 50s then, he was marrying the 20-something daughter of a merchant -- hardly the typical circumstance for an epithalamion, which required higher social status. And he was writing his OWN epithalamion -- unheard of -- which caused all sorts of moments for potential embarrassment. The poem seemed extremely long and formally irregular -- 23 stanzas of anywhere from 15 to 18 lines plus a 7-line envoi. Each stanza had two or three "short" lines -- with fewer than the otherwise consistent five poetic feet. He inserted bits of humor here and there --- a bit of self-mockery -- and handled the delicate bedroom scene by narrating it as a cinemagraphic camera shot that enters the room, slowly approaches the bed, and swerves upward at the last moment to comment on the divine metal carvings of angels on the headboard -- leaving the people essentially unobserved. This poem was held high in the literary canon until the past decade or two. I know one leading Renaissance scholar who refers to it as "the most beautiful poem in the language". But most people can't understand why it goes on for so long.

In 1960, Columbia University English professor A. Kent Hieatt unearthed something stunning about the poem. He counted the iambic pentameter lines (that is, without the "short" lines): There were 365 of them -- corresponding to the days of the year. There are 24 stanzas in all -- corresponding to the hours of the day. The poem splits neatly into two inter-referential halves of twelve stanzas -- with stanzas 1 and 13 talking to each other, as do 2 and 14, 3 and 15, etc. -- the number 12 corresponding to the months of the year. If you leave off the seven-line envoi, which contains 6 "long" lines, you get 359 long lines in the main body of the poem -- which corresponds to the number of degrees the earth travels around the sun in a calendar year -- one short of the circular 360. And just in case you're not yet convinced all this was intentionally fashioned, here's the clincher: Spenser was married on June 25 -- Midsummer Night's Eve, the shortest night of the year (please recall he was in his 50s, marrying a gal in her 20s) -- on which day in Ireland there were sixteen and a quarter hours of daylight. One quarter of the way through his 17th stanza we find the line "Now night is come."

Hieatt was great at unearthing all this, but didn't know what to do with it. It seems to me that Spenser was playing God, creating a small poetical world in which everything was structured according to incredibly strict rules that no one could perceive -- in imitation of how we go through life not understanding the grand, intricate, and micro-managed "plan" of God. The word "poet" comes from the Greek "po-ein", meaning "to make" or "to create". The only way human beings can truly create -- that is, to bring into existence something that theretofore had never been -- is by naming. Our primary image for this comes from the Book of Genesis, where God creates only by naming: "Let there be 'light', and there was light." (Poets in medieval Scotland were called "makars".)

So Spenser was playing God. And symbolically, all those "time" numbers had to do with humans being able to overcome time and mortality only by marrying and procreating. Only through the marriage bed can you escape from the prisonhouse of time's numbers.

And the most wonderful number (please hear now in the background the musical theme for the Twilight Zone): Spenser wrote his poem in 1595. Hieatt wrote his stunning little book in 1960. How many years from one to the other? 365.


From: David Danzig (david danzig.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--palinode

A palinode appeared recently in the New York Times. Ogden Nash wrote the famous couplet, "The Bronx":

    The Bronx?
    No Thonx.
33 years later, he repented and wrote,
    I can't seem to escape
    the sins of my smart-alec youth;
    Here are my amends.
    I wrote those lines, "The Bronx?
    No thonx";
    I shudder to confess them.
    Now I'm an older, wiser man
    I cry, "The Bronx? God
    bless them!"
See nytimes.com.


From: Jim Helm (jameshelm oberlin.net)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--palinode

The original palinode, of course, was by Stesichorus, the Greek lyric poet of the 7th century BC. Stesichorus had written a poem about Helen of Troy (actually of Sparta), saying that she had deserted her Spartan husband and followed Paris to Troy, thus precipitating the Trojan War. The tradition holds that thereupon the poet was struck blind by Helen, whom the Spartans worshiped as a goddess. Stesichorus, realizing his error, then wrote another poem in which he claimed it wasn't Helen who went to Troy, but a phantom who looked like Helen. His sight was restored. The Latinate equivalent of palinode is "recantation" (from recanto, to sing again).


From: Tom Montgomery (tom montgomeryscarp.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--palinode

Gelett Burgess's poem reminds me of the one I wrote as a youth:

    I've never been a vitamin,
    I hope to never be one,
    But I can tell you, anyhow,
    I'd rather C than B1.


From: Graham Sutton (graham.sutton wwpct.nhs.uk)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--palinode

"Palinode" is also a Scots legal term for an apology and retraction.

In 18th c. defamation cases, the losing party as part of the settlement was required to write a palinode: a crawling apology and withdrawal of the defamatory statements. If he / she failed to do so, extra damages were imposed; yet there were examples where the words so stuck in the throat of the loser, that he / she preferred to pay.

As the century passed, the wording of the palinode became formulaic, until it was eventually dropped as a requirement.

Ref: Leneman L, "Defamation in Scotland 1750 - 1800", Continuity & Change 2000; Vol 15 p 209-234 (The source material is e-archived)


From: James Harbeck (jharbeck mediresource.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--epopee

This word shows up (in French) in the French version of the Canadian national anthem: "Ton histoire est une épopée des plus brilliants exploits", which means "Your history is an epopee of the most brilliant feats." The English version is something completely different, though -- that particular line of music is "From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee."


From: Dave Zobel (zobeldave aol.com)
Subject: Monody and Poe

Edgar Allan Poe's thrillingly ideophonic "The Bells", published in the year of his death, features the glumly echoing: "Hear the tolling of the bells -- / Iron bells! / What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!"

Stanza by stanza, the intricately toned poem descends through the moods brought on by bells of silver, gold, brass, and finally, despairingly, iron. Onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, repetition, caesura, and progressively longer and broader vowel sounds all conspire to bring us tumbling down through the octaves, and the ears are left -- truly -- ringing.


From: Nick Beltran Jr. (nbeltranii gmail.com)
Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--monody

I find today's word so apt to describe the literary pieces that floated in a forum in reaction to a friend's nightmare involving her own death. Someone posted Whitman's 'When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd', somebody offered Dickinson's 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death'.

My personal favorite however was John Donne's piece Death be not proud that seems to challenge death, and the one that comforted my friend.


From: Eric Shackle (eshackle ozemail.com.au)
Subject: ode

Could this be the world's shortest ode? O worm/U squirm. I composed it after writing a story about the annual Worm Gruntin' Festival in Sopchoppy, Florida. It's featured in the September edition of The World's First Multi-National e-Book.


Jokes of the proper kind, properly told, can do more to enlighten questions of politics, philosophy, and literature than any number of dull arguments. -Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-92)

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