The Medium of the English Language
The medium of Giorgione’s Tempest is “oil on canvas”; the medium of Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed is “oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet.” Descriptions of a work of art’s medium seem to tell us everything and nothing, for our entire experience of art is dependent upon the artist’s intimacy with the medium, and yet the medium itself may seem weirdly mundane, especially when the artist harnesses everyday materials like a sheet. In the nineteenth century, the stuff from which art is made came to be called the medium because for hundreds of years the word had referred to something that acts as an intermediary, a piece of money or a messenger. The artistic medium enables a transaction between the artist and the world, and, over time, the history of those transactions has become inextricable from the medium as such, an inherited set of conventions. It’s not coincidental that it was also in the nineteenth century that the word medium was first used to describe a person who conducts a séance, a person who exists simultaneously in the worlds of the living and the dead.
Lots of people sleep on sheets. Very few people handle oil paint as provocatively as Rauschenberg, and even fewer deploy sheets as a way of forging a transaction between the interior space of the mind and the exterior space of the world, a transaction that gives other people, the audience, an enticing and sometimes puzzling way of rethinking their own relationship to those spaces. Members of the audience may draw a little, they may have a fine sense of color, but they respect the transaction that the artistic medium does not simply record but presents as a unique and enduring act in time. Sometimes, however, when the sheer otherness of the medium is foregrounded at the expense of a conventional signal of the artist’s mind at work, they don’t respect the transaction, in part because the artist doesn’t covet such respect: how can art be something made of a bed sheet?
How can art be something made of words, the same words used for newspapers and parking tickets? Unlike the media most commonly associated with visual and sonic artistry, words are harnessed by most people during almost every waking moment of their lives; they’re more like bed sheets than like oil paint or the notes of the diatonic scale. Even small children are skilled manipulators of language, capable of detecting and repeating the most subtle nuances of intonation and tone: how swiftly we learn that by shifting the accent from one syllable to the other, the two-syllable word “contract” can be either a noun referring to a kind of agreement (“contract”) or a verb meaning either to acquire or constrict (“contract”). But while children rarely confuse such words when they’re speaking, children don’t write the poems of Shakespeare or the novels of Henry James, and neither do most adults. We may sustain an easy mastery of language in our daily lives, but once we engage language as an artistic medium, that mastery is never secure: our relationship to language is constantly changing as we discover aspects of the medium that our prior failures and, more potently, our prior successes had occluded.
My medium is not language at large but the English language. When I was young I took this for granted, but over the years I’ve become increasingly conscious of the qualities shared by poems because they’re written in English, rather than Italian or French. I’m not fluent in those languages; while I’ve lived for a time in Italy, where my children attended Italian school, I spent much of that time sitting at a desk, trying to write poems in English. But my lack of fluency heightened my awareness of my medium. Living in Florence, I was incapable of taking my mastery of language for granted, and this incapacity not only reared its head when I was speaking broken Italian to our landlord; it infected my relationship to English, demanding that I hear the medium of the English language in particular ways, ways in which it has also been heard before. In Italian, the word for what we call a landlord is proprietario, just as in French it is propriétaire. And while those languages contain no version of the word landlord, a typically Germanic compound noun, the English language does contain the Latinate word proprietor: when we savor these possibilities, we are (as the meanings of the word medium suggest) undertaking a complex negotiation with the dead.
Every language has different registers of diction, but the English language comes by those registers in a particular way, one that reflects the entire history of the language. Unlike the romance languages, which were derived from the Latin spread throughout Italy, France, and Spain during the Roman Empire, English descended independently from German. Old English, the language of the eighth- or ninth-century poem we call “The Seafarer,” now looks and sounds to us like a foreign language, close to the German from which it was derived: with some study, one can see that the Old English line “bitre breostcaere gebiden hæbbe” means “bitter breast-cares abided have” or “I have abided bitter breast-cares.” The language of Chaucer’s fifteenth-century Canterbury Tales, or what we call Middle English, feels less strange, in part because its sense now relies largely on word order rather than on word endings: “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” or “then people long to go on pilgrimages.” And the Modern English of the Renaissance we can read easily, because it is the language we speak today, even though the language has continued to evolve: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”
Many complicated factors determined this evolution, but one of the most important was the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Once Norman French became the language of the English court, a new vocabulary of words derived from Latin began to migrate into Germanic English. The Old English poet could abide breast-cares, but he could not go on a pilgrimage or suffer impediments; those Latinate words were not available to him. Even today, we raise pigs and cows (from German, via Old English) but eat pork and beef (from Latin, via French), because after the Norman conquest the peasants who raised animals generally spoke English while the noblemen who ate them spoke French. We similarly inhabit a body but bury a corpse because the English language contains Germanic and Latinate words for the same thing, and, over time, we have made discriminations in their meanings. The traditional language of English law is studded with pairs of Germanic and Latinate words (will and testament, breaking and entering, goods and chattels) in which the meaning is not discriminated but reiterated, made available to the widest variety of people who spoke the rapidly developing English language.
Speakers of English may or may not be aware that their language is by its nature different from itself, but any interaction with English as an artistic medium depends on the deployment of words with etymologically distant roots — words that sound almost as different from each other as do words from German and Italian. Notoriously, T.S. Eliot incorporated quotations from foreign languages into his poems, but in The Waste Land, when he jumps from German words (“das Meer”) to words borrowed from the French (“famous clairvoyante”), he is exaggerating what English-language poems do inevitably all the time. The line “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” mixes Germanic and Latinate diction strategically (the plain folk playing off the fancy pilgrimages), and the sentence “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments” does so more intricately, the Germanic monosyllables let, true, and minds consorting with the Latinate marriage, admit, and impediments to create the richly polyglot texture that, over time, speakers of English have come to recognize as the very sound of eloquence itself. One hears it again in Keats (“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”), in Browning (“the quiet-colored end of evening smiles”), or in most any poet writing today. Coleridge famously called Shakespeare “myriad minded,” a phrase that itself wedges together Latinate and Germanic words, and the very medium of English-language poetry is in this sense myriad minded.
It’s possible to write Modern English as if it were an almost exclusively Germanic language, as James Joyce does in this passage of Ulysses, evoking the alliterative rhythms of Old English poetry by giving priority to Germanic monosyllables and treating English as if it were still a highly inflected language, in which sense need not depend on word order:
Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship.
It’s also possible to write English as if it were an almost exclusively Latinate language, as Joyce does in this passage of Ulysses, frontloading Latinate vocabulary and weeding out as many Germanic words as possible:
Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed.
But these bravura efforts of parody and pastiche sound more like the resuscitation of a dead language than the active deployment of a living one; it’s difficult to speak English so single-mindedly. In contrast, Shakespeare’s language feels fully alive in Sonnet 116, and yet its drama nonetheless depends on the strategic juxtaposition of a Germanic phrase (“true minds”) with a highly Latinate phrase that a speaker of English might never say (“admit impediments”), just as that speaker probably wouldn’t say “babe bliss had” or “with sapience endowed.” We don’t speak of the cow who jumps over the moon as “translunar,” though we could.
We do speak of the “Grand Canal” when we come to Venice, deploying two Latinate words; but to a native speaker of Italian, the word grande simply means big. As an Italian friend of mine once said, all we’re thinking about is size: the canal is big in the same way that your hat might be too big, “troppo grande.” The difference between our deployment of the Latinate phrases “Grand Canal” and “admit impediments” is that in the former case we are scripted by the language we deploy, our typically awe-struck response to the history of Venice produced by the language we speak. In the latter case Shakespeare has made a choice, as in other circumstances any speaker of English might also make a choice: saying “look how big the canal is” is different from saying “look how grand the canal is.” It is at such junctures that our language begins to function as a medium, something that acts as an intermediary, a transitional object. Nothing is automatically an artistic medium, though anything could be.
A medium, says the psychoanalyst Marion Milner in On Not Being Able to Paint, is a little bit of the world outside the self that, unlike the resolutely stubborn world at large, may be malleable, subject to the will while continuing to maintain its own character. The medium might be chalk, which cannot be made to produce the effects of watercolor. It might be a copper plate coated with a thin layer of silver and exposed to light. It might be a rosebush, pruned and fertilized into copious bloom, or an egg, exquisitely poached. In the realm of psychoanalysis, the medium is the analyst, a person who can be counted on to respond to the wishes of the analysand without needing to assert his own, as any person in an ordinary human relationship inevitably would.
But neither the analysand nor the artist may indulge in any infantile wish of dominating the medium completely. A visitor to Picasso’s studio once recalled that, after squeezing out the paint on his palette, Picasso addressed it, first in Spanish, saying, “You are shit. You are nothing.” Then he addressed the paint in French, saying, “You are beautiful. You are so fine.” This conflict of attitudes (in this case so contentious that two languages are required to enact it) seems crucial. For if the artist loves the medium enough to submit himself to its actual qualities, resisting exaggerated notions of what the medium can do at his beck and call, then the result will likely be something recognizable as a work of art, a transaction between the mind and the world that is played out in the material reality of the medium.
The satisfaction of art may consequently be found in a poached egg or a child’s speech, but I suspect that we’re most often moved to call a work of art great when we feel the full capacity of the medium at play, nothing suppressed, as if the artist’s command of the medium and the long history of the medium’s deployment by previous artists were coterminous — which, in a sense, they are.
It is for Shakespeare’s power of constitutive speech quite as if he had swum into our ken with it from another planet, gathering it up there, in its wealth, as something antecedent to the occasion and the need, and if possible quite in excess of them; something that was to make of our poor world a great flat table for receiving the glitter and clink of outpoured treasure. The idea and the motive are more often than not so smothered in it that they scarce know themselves, and the resources of such a style, the provision of images, emblems, energies of every sort, laid up in advance, affects us as the storehouse of a kind before a famine or a siege — which not only, by its scale, braves depletion or exhaustion, but bursts, through mere excess of quantity or presence, out of all doors and windows.
These two sentences by Henry James enact the Shakespearean work they describe: they overwhelm us with a feeling of an unstoppable excess that’s registered in rhythm, sonic echo, syntax, and, most fundamentally, diction. The strategic juxtaposition of Germanic and Latinate words is as immediately apparent here (“constitutive speech,” “great flat table,” “the occasion and the need”) as it is in Shakespeare, and at the end of each sentence this strategy is raised to virtuosic heights with phrases that revel in the collision of Germanic bluntness and Latinate elaboration: “the glitter and clink of outpoured treasure,” the “mere excess of quantity or presence, out of all doors and windows.”
These sentences sound like James, but by performing the action they describe, the sentences also imply that linguistic virtuosity in Modern English is in some indelible way Shakespearean, and the implication, though easily abused, is not merely sentimental. Shakespeare was a powerful writer who in his lifetime was poised at exactly the right moment to take advantage of the medium that the English language had only recently become. He could reach for effects that had been unavailable to the poets of both “The Seafarer” and The Canterbury Tales, and because of the particular power with which he did so, poems we think of as great, poems that harness the full capacity of the medium, tend to sound to us Shakespearean. But what we are really hearing in such poems is the medium at work; what we are hearing is the effort of a particular writer to reach for the effects that Modern English most vigorously enables. The polyglot diction of a phrase like John Ashbery’s “traditional surprise banquet of braised goat” feels idiosyncratic because it is also conventional, empowered by its author’s intimacy with his medium.
Yet unlike Shakespeare, James, or Ashbery, some writers hang back from harnessing the full capacity of the medium. At least since the time of Plato, artists working in any medium have been both covetous and distrustful of artifice, and at least since the time of Chaucer, writers working with the English language have tended to associate apparently trustworthy plainness with Germanic vocabulary and possibly suspicious artifice with Latinate vocabulary: the diction of the English language has become the site of an ancient conflict.
Would you believe, when you this monsieur see,That his whole body should speak French, not he?That so much scarf of France, and hat, and feather,And shoe, and tie, and garter should come hither,And land on one whose face durst never beToward the sea, farther than half-way tree?
These lines from Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary, express a common enough impatience with the affectation of French fashion, associated here as it might be even today with insincerity and pernicious notions of femininity. The lines sound different from Shakespeare (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”) or James (“the glitter and clink of outpoured treasure”) because Jonson has clothed the English monsieur in an unnaturally high proportion of Germanic words (body, speak, hat, feather, shoe, tie, land, face, sea, tree), avoiding the French-derived Latinate vocabulary that the monsieur would presumably affect. Our propensity to associate truthfulness with this strategically plain diction is encouraged by a directness of argument (“Would you believe”) and an attenuated series of nouns (“and hat, and feather, / And shoe, and tie”). Jonson’s condemnation of artifice is achieved through exquisitely artificial means.
One can think easily of more polemical versions of this strategy in both verbal and visual art, versions that encourage us to imagine artifice as something categorically to be avoided. But inasmuch as the medium of the English language offers choices, those choices must constantly be renegotiated, for once they harden into principles (“good writing depends on direct statement and plain vocabulary”or “good writing depends on elaborate surfaces and arcane vocabulary”), then the language is no longer being engaged profitably as a medium. The formulator of the principle has suffered the illusion that his love for the medium has conquered the medium, and the words are no longer (like the paint on Picasso’s palette) beautiful shit; they’re simply beautiful. Shit, from the Germanic scitte. Beautiful, from the Latin bellus, via the Old French bel.
English words derived from German may often seem vulgar or truthful; English words derived from Latin may often seem officious or magical. But while words come trailing centuries of associations, the context in which the words are redeployed may alter those associations instantly, if not permanently.
They have imposed on us with their palehalf-fledged protestations, trembling aboutin inarticulate frenzy, sayingit is not for us to understand art; finding itall so difficult, examining the thingas if it were inconceivably arcanic, as symmet-rically frigid as if it had been carved out of chrysopraseor marble — strict with tension, malignantin its power over us and deeperthan the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp,rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.
The effect of these final lines of Marianne Moore’s “The Monkeys” depends, like the effect of Jonson’s poem, on a variety of interdependent elements (syntax, line, rhythm, sonic echo), but once again the effect is registered most deeply in the poem’s diction. Moore manipulates her medium, segregating Germanic from Latinate diction, so that when we finally reach the catalog with which the poem concludes, its string of mostly Germanic monosyllables seems to rise magically, extruded from the intricate sentence that has preceded it: “hemp, / rye, flax, horses, platinum, timber, and fur.” In contrast, almost all of the nouns preceding the poem’s final line have been derived from Latin (protestations, frenzy, tension, power, flattery, exchange) and so have most of the modifiers (inarticulate, difficult, inconceivably, symmetrically, frigid, malignant).
But of the verbs driving us through this sentence, luring us through a verbal texture that is almost overwhelmingly rich but never grammatically unclear, only about half of them are Latinate (impose, examine, proffer); the other half of them are as bluntly Germanic as the string of nouns with which the sentence concludes (understand, find, carve). And of the seven nouns in that final string, while six of them would readily have been harnessed by the Old English poet of “The Seafarer” (hemp, rye, flax, horses, timber, fur), one of them stands out as egregiously Latinate. Platinum was first discovered in the new world by the Spanish, who thought it was an inferior form of silver: they called it platina, a diminutive form of the word plata, meaning silver. Why does Moore compromise her division of her medium into Germanic and Latinate vocabularies if the effect of the final line depends on that division?
Moore is an incessantly virtuosic writer, but it’s important to see that in this sentence the power of her diction is not showy or contrived. A blunt shift from Latinate to Germanic vocabulary might seem like a trick or a joke, as when T.S. Eliot begins “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” with the word (which is also a tetrameter line) “Polyphiloprogenitive.” Such effects have their place, but it is almost always a place created by comic juxtaposition. In contrast, Moore wants her shift in diction to feel revelatory or uncanny, not clever, and the effect depends not on a principled division of the medium of the English language into its constituent elements but on a more nuanced inhabitation of the medium’s varieties of diction, the blunt string of nouns (hemp, rye, flax) prepared for by a group of more widely spaced verbs (stand, find, carve) that have already opened our ears to the range of possibilities available in our language. Though Moore’s sentence is a theatrical manipulation of those possibilities, it sounds not like an artificial reduction of the medium (“babe bliss had”) but like an inhabitation of the medium (“the glitter and clink of outpoured treasure”).
Even today, more than a century after her birth, Moore is often thought of as an egregiously fastidious or impersonal poet, a writer who offers us the verbal equivalent of something like embroidery. I find this judgment of her achievement unfathomable, as does anyone who registers the way in which the passionate momentum of her sentences embodies her convictions. What we’re hearing in those sentences is, once again, the power of the harnessed medium, for Moore is, like Shakespeare or James or Ashbery, not simply a writer with an extraordinarily large vocabulary but also a writer who is acutely conscious of inherited gradations within that vocabulary, gradations we harness unconsciously in every sentence we speak. This is why her sentences, like those of her greatest predecessors, may feel simultaneously ordinary and revelatory, elaborate and plain. The sentence I’ve quoted from the end of “The Monkeys,” a sentence that asks us to attend not to what is artificial or contrived but to what is fundamental and plain, is after all spoken by a cat. Once again, a work of art’s interrogation of artifice is achieved through exquisitely (or, perhaps in this case, bluntly) artificial means. Is platinum a false kind of silver or is it a thing unto itself, like hemp or flax?
It would be difficult to register the force of the collision of proffers flattery with hemp, rye, flax in a more exclusively Latinate language or a more exclusively Germanic language, but this does not mean that anything is lost when Moore’s poem is translated into German or Italian; on the contrary, it means that something is discovered, just as something is discovered when we look at Zanetti’s engravings of frescos by Giorgione on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, frescos that are so damaged that one can barely see them at all. We can’t expect one language to replicate the effects to which another is particularly amenable, but the act of translation does, when the host language is engaged as a medium, create a new poem, a poem that asks us to attend to the sound of the words, just as we attended to the words of the original.
Poetry, no matter if it is spoken or written, is most fundamentally a sonic art: we experience the language as an event in itself, not as a disposable container for meaning. In Old English poems the sounds of the words are organized in lines, lines that have four stressed syllables that must alliterate with one another in one of several patterns.
Bitre breostcaere gebiden hæbe
This line ends where it ends not because of how it looks but because of how it sounds, and when Old English poems were finally written down, they were written down as if they were prose: the line, which emphasizes the sound of the language, did not need to be registered visually on the page. In contrast, Shakespeare’s way of organizing the sound of the English language into lines (lines that contain five stressed syllables that do not necessarily alliterate but have a particular relationship to the unstressed syllables surrounding them) was registered visually on the page.
Let me not to the marriage of true mindsAdmit impediments.
We nevertheless recognize the first nine words of this sentence as a strategic variation of the iambic pentameter line not because of how they look; we recognize the line because of how it sounds, just as Shakespeare made it by listening to how the words sound.
Yet our now long-established habit of looking at poems, fostered by the rise of print culture, has altered the way poets think about the sound of poetry. Beginning in the later seventeenth century, poets we call Augustan or neoclassical grew to prefer a smoother iambic pentameter line, free of egregious variation, as if the line’s neatness of finish were a reflection of its appearance on the printed page. More recently, the habit of looking at poems has encouraged the production of a toneless free-verse line whose length is determined merely by its visual relationship to other lines on the page. Just as it seems logical that films will change to the degree that we expect to watch them on an iPad rather than in a movie theater, poems have changed because of the changing technologies through which the English language has been experienced, print being the most obvious. What electronic media will do to poetry remains largely to be seen.
But what is more remarkable is the fact that, over many hundreds of years, poetry in the English language has changed so little. The iambic pentameter line, which eclipsed the alliterative four-beat line deployed by Old English poets, was developed in response to the prosody of French poems that entered the ears of Middle English writers along with the French language itself, and no subsequent change in the sound of English-language poetry has been more momentous. It would be difficult to wedge Latinate words like “impediments” or “pilgrimage” into the Old English alliterative line even if those words had been available to Old English poets, and as Middle English settled into Modern English, the pentameter became essential not only to Shakespeare but to Pope, Keats, and Stevens.
The line remains essential to innumerable poets writing in English today, but this continuity of formal procedure is a symptom of a deeper continuity, one that also underlies the disruptive formal procedures of innumerable poets writing today. Like many of her modernist contemporaries, Marianne Moore avoided the pentameter; she often organized her poems in purely syllabic patterns, listening to syllables as such rather than to stressed syllables in relation to unstressed syllables. But the difference between Moore’s syllabic lines and Shakespeare’s metered lines — or Henry James’s prose, for that matter — pales in comparison to the pressure exerted on these lines by the material fact of the language. “The marriage of true minds,” “the glitter and clink of outpoured treasure,” “the sea when it proffers flattery in exchange for hemp,” “the traditional surprise banquet of braised goat” — this is the medium of the myriad-minded English language talking.
Once, when I was living in Florence, my daughter came home from school amused that an Italian friend had called her an “amica preferita” — a preferred friend, or what my daughter would have more naturally called, employing a Germanic rather than a Latinate modifier, a best friend. To my daughter’s ears, the friend’s Italian phrase sounded a little grand, but to Italian ears the phrase sounds completely ordinary, since Latinate vocabulary is the baseline in Italian, not an imported level of diction conventionally associated with high-class, official, or magical speech. Of course Italians have other ways of registering such distinctions, especially since the language we call Italian, which is what Latin became in Tuscany, is still for many Italian citizens a second language, the first being the language that Latin became in their particular region. But when English or Italian or any other language is harnessed as a medium, these givens become opportunities. There aren’t many occasions when a speaker of English would employ the phrase “preferred friend,” yoking the Latinate word with the Germanic, but in the unexpected context of a work of art, this phrase makes the music most typical of a great English sentence.
A poet as well as an influential literary critic and a professor of English at the University of Rochester, James Longenbach writes primarily on modernist and contemporary poetry. He is the author of the critical works Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism (1988), Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things...