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25 August 2010 @ 07:59 pm
assorted flailings about early modern diction  
1. I should have noticed this before, because it's obvious--and maybe I did notice it on some subconscious level--but: Horatio's "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" is both the first time Horatio permits himself to use a proper endearment toward Hamlet (or one of very few times, at the least), and the first time he permits himself the use of "thee"--and it's only, of course, when Hamlet is dead that he allows himself either of these things, after being so watchful and circumspect throughout the rest of the play. I was watching little bits of the RSC/Gregory Doran/David Tennant Hamlet (oh yes, party all the time, that's me!), and suddenly that fact just hit me, and broke my heart all over again. Oh, Horatio.

(I wish I could remember what talk I went to or article I read about the fact that adjectives of sweetness had a much bigger impact then than they do now.)

2. Thinking about words like "doubt" and "nice," which no longer mean (or only mean, since "doubt" goes both ways, doesn't it: Hamlet can say "I doubt some foul play," but he can also write "Doubt that the stars are fire," in much the same way we would) what they would have meant for a sixteenth-century audience. I don't know much about linguistics, more's the pity, but I love words like that: for all their ability to cause confusion, I love the way they surface suddenly in a sea of easy comprehension, and force one to turn aside a bit, think about difference, about the link between word and thought, and how it's easy to think that the way we think about things is the natural way to do so.

3. I'm also reading The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood, in very small increments--a few pages a day, maybe. Here's a review of the book written by Diane Purkiss (whose book on the English Civil War has been in the queue since I bought it in a London Blackwell's years ago, since apparently the way to get me not to read a book is to let me buy it):

So far my sole complaint is that I wish the book included even more of the Verneys' letters to each other, because they're so enjoyable to read. Here are my favorites so far:

--from Ralph Verney to his Oxford friend John Dillon, asking for news from London, 22 February 1634 (I love how playful this one is)
We country clowns hear various reports of Mr Prynne's censure. [author's note about William Prynne snipped] Some say he is to lose his hand and ears, others say his head only; a third sort there are that say neither hand nor ears, but he must pay £6000 and endure perpetual imprisonment. I know none can relate the truth of this better than yourself, for you love not pleasing amatory dreams in a morning slumber, nor lazy stretchings on a downy bed; no, your spirit scorns such soft contents. I dare say you rise early every star chamber day to hear the sage censures of the grave counselors; to you therefore I fly for information" (51)

(Also, I always love the use of "fly" in that way--not merely "go" or "turn"--and how energetic it is.)

--from Sir Edmund Verney to his younger son Edmund ("Mun"), on his dissolute behavior at Oxford, April 1637 (a little seventeenth-century guilt trip)
Son--and now I have said that, my griefs grow high upon me; for you were a son in whom I took delight; a son that I had a particular affection for above some others, and above most of my children. But God has in you punished me for that partiality...you are now grown so lewd and false that I blush to think you mine...I find by your mother that you are run in debt both to your tutor and divers others, and I perceive by her importunity that if I would pay these debts you have now promised a great amendment and I find you have fooled her into a belief of it. But Sir, let me tell you...as you have left yourself and me for your mean company, so I can leave you to them without any farther care of you. I will say no more, but that by your being my unworthy son, I am made your unhappy father." (61-2, ellipses in original)

(Apparently it worked, too!)

And these two are touching, and rather extraordinary. Sir Edmund Verney was Charles I's knight-marshal, and went with the king during his attempt to put down the Covenanters in Scotland in 1639. Sir Edmund writes to his eldest son Ralph from York, 1 April 1639:

Good Ralph
Since Prince Henry's death I never knew so much grief as to part from you; and truly, because I saw you equally afflicted with it, my sorrow was the greater. But Ralph, we cannot live always together. It cannot be long ere by course of nature we must be severed, and if that time be prevented by accident, yet we must resolve to bear it with that patience and courage as becomes men and Christians; and so the great God of heaven send us well to meet again, either in this world or the next. (84-5)

("We cannot live always together." *sniff*)

Then, when Sir Edmund volunteers for an expedition to cross the Scottish border, Ralph writes to persuade him against it, in terms that are somewhat startling for a son to his father (10 May 1639):

You may easily guess how this afflicts me, for if you go (knowing your forwardness) I shall never think to see you more, but with grief confess that never man did more wilfully cast away himself. Till now I never had the least reason to suspect your affection, but when I see you thus hastily run to your own ruin, and as it were, purposely to lose that life that is so much dearer than my own, how can I think you love me? Hath the vain hope of a little fading honour swallowed up all your good nature? Are your compassions quite shut up? Will neither the numberless sighs of your dearest friends, nor the incessant cries of your forlorn widow, nor the mournful groans of your fatherless brood, prevail to stay you? Are you so absolutely resolved by this one act to blot all your former? And (by needless hazarding yourself) expose your wife and children to perpetual misery, and entail afflictions upon your whole posterity?" (91-2)
litlover12 on August 26th, 2010 01:39 am (UTC)
Ah, they really knew how to write letters in those days. *sigh*
tempestsarekind: viola readingtempestsarekind on August 26th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Very true. I never wrote letters anything like these, but all the same, I do miss sending and receiving them!
viomisehuntviomisehunt on August 26th, 2010 01:57 am (UTC)
You would post this on a day when my tongue is sore and swollen from allergies (Pollen) and can't read aloud. (Smile)

And that speech to the son sounds vaguely familiar, although don't think I was as eloquent and there is a brevity of profanity there. (grin)

tempestsarekind: world in peril? have some teatempestsarekind on August 26th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Oh dear! I hope you're feeling at least a bit better.

I particularly like that letter--the more things change... :)