The Power of English

That is indeed a cat in a hat.

Andrew M. Brown in the Telegraph had some things to say about poetry yesterday. And they are good things, well said.

I want to extend that a bit though, because while I agree with him on poetry, I think it goes well beyond what we call poetry. One of the glories of English is its power to be memorable when well used. I mean phrases like “When in the course of human events”, “We, the people”, or “The sunshine patriot, the summer soldier”. are just made for memory, aren’t they? These particular ones are both political, and American, but it’s not exclusive territory.

Our friends may know that Jess has been quite ill, and many of us were quite worried about her. In reflecting on what I have always found so memorable about her, one of the things is her way of writing, which is very simple, without being simplistic, and very understandable (I wish mine was!). But the other thing is her use of snippets of poetry which tend to make her point stick in memory.

Whether it’s Kipling’s “Dogs return to their vomit” or G.K. Chesterton’s

tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher

Which so moved me, when Jess used it in a post that it has become one of my catchphrases, or indeed, Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” especially in its reordering by T.S. Eliot, in Little Gidding. Once you have teased out the author’s meaning, you will never forget the phrase, or the meaning either.

It seems to me to be something that English does better than most languages, and I suspect it’s part of the reason for the rise of English in the modern word.

I stumbled on to something interesting reading Philip Larkin’s letters. In 1972, when he was compiling the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, he wrote to John Betjeman saying: “I have tried… to keep to poems that make me laugh, cry or shiver.” The poet laureate then helpfully wrote a newspaper review in which he praised Larkin’s selection for its “emphasis on what makes you laugh and what makes you shiver”.

Nor, I think is it limited to poetry, the best written English often seems to be written to be spoken, and it’s something the writers of early modern English did superbly. Shakespeare’s plays, I’ve always thought, are much more understandable when read aloud. The same is true for Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or indeed the King James Version of the Bible itself. There may be better translations, I’m not qualified to judge, or even better versions to quietly read and study, but nothing could be more beautiful to listen to these declaimed aloud. The same is true for Jefferson’s Declaration and indeed is much of the reason why English speeches, and sermons are so powerful.

Now the Cambridge Poetry and Memory Project, concerned about our outsourcing of memory to digital devices, is studying how learning poetry affects us. Ever since Mr Todd at my school introduced us to Blake’s “pale virgin shrouded in snow”, I have intermittently tried to learn poems. When you fix the lines in your memory, buzzing neurons unpack the meaning, building unconscious links between phrases, picking up echoes, dredging up emotions from the past.

Larkin said Dylan Thomas stuck “words into us like pins”, and Thomas is fun to learn because there’s something so fine-sounding, powerful and elemental about his phrases: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.

Via Memorable poetry gives you that tell-tale tingle – Telegraph Blogs.

We hear much these days about the need for more STEM education, it is true enough. But we need to be very careful that we avoid throwing out “the baby with the bathwater” to very specifically not turn a phrase, because if we downgrade the humanities very far (and it is not merely the technical people doing so, much damage is also done by people using novel and/or incorrect definitions and far exaggerating problems) we risk weakening our language, and the power of our ideas.

About NEO
Lineman, Electrician, Industrial Control technician, Staking Engineer, Inspector, Quality Assurance Manager, Chief Operations Officer

4 Responses to The Power of English

  1. *Btw, please keep us abreast of Jessica’s illness (as much as possible of course), some of us know next to nothing here, but she is in our daily prayers!


    • NEO says:

      Thank you, Father. For obvious reasons we have said little in public but she appears to be on the road to recovery, Thank God.

      Many prayers were indeed involved. 🙂


      • That is great news! May she continue on the mend! The Lord is good!

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Indeed He is.


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