Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

In the beginning were the words

There are certain words and phrases that are so closely linked to a particular source that the association is never lost. Such words and phrases must be used cautiously, if not avoided altogether. Sometimes, the first part of a phrase is enough to prompt the rest. ‘To be’, for example.

Shakespeare’s works may be considered a national treasure, and so they are to the nation as a whole, but to the individual writer they are a minefield. To begin a story with ‘Now’ is to hear at once, like an echo, ‘is the winter of our discontent’.

Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to lay these traps for future writers.

‘To begin with’ belongs to Dickens. ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’

Dylan Thomas is sole proprietor of ‘To begin’, which can’t be heard without hearing Richard Burton’s voice intoning, ‘To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town.’

Dylan Thomas knew his way through the minefield well enough to be able to defuse a phrase and make it safe. ‘And once below a time I lordly had the trees and fields…’

The King James Bible starts with the words, ‘In the beginning’ rather than ‘Once upon a time’ because that phrase already had connotations which would have made it inappropriate.

‘In the beginning’ has connotations of its own now which ensure that, like ‘Once upon a time’, its effect in any context is, for good or ill, fixed for all time.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

To begin a sentence with ‘And’ (as we are taught not to do) is to evoke a spirit of biblical authority in the writer and something deeply portentous in the writing.

And that year she went with him to the Isle of Wight for a holiday. It was too exciting for them both, and too beautiful. Mrs Morel was full of joy and wonder. But he would have her walk with him more than she was able. She had a bad fainting bout. So grey her face was, so blue her mouth! It was agony to him. He felt as if someone were pushing a knife in his chest. Then she was better again, and he forgot. But the anxiety remained inside him, like a wound that did not close.

Almost any other paragraph chosen at random from Sons and Lovers would do to show how D.H.Lawrence adopts a biblical style – starting with ‘And’, reducing a narrative to a series of simple sentences with no subsidiary clauses – in order to give everyday events a significance deeper than they would otherwise have, raising them to the level of myth, which is how young men like D.H.Lawrence experience everyday events.

John Steinbeck adopted a similar style, though for different reasons, in his epic novels of American life.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.

The more immediate model in this case might be Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence or Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, but the rhetoric derives its power from the cadences of Elizabethan English. Those cadences run all the way through East of Eden.

Under the live oaks, shaded and dusky, the maidenhair flourished and gave a good smell, and under the mossy banks of the water courses whole clumps of five-fingered ferns and goldy-backs hung down. Then there were harebells, tiny lanterns, cream white and almost sinful looking, and these were so rare and magical that a child, finding one, felt singled out and special all day long.

Steinbeck composed his sentences to a Shakespearean rhythm, recalling Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ophelia in Hamlet.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died. They say he made a good end.

In Shakespeare’s hands, blank verse became a kind of rhythmic prose. The rhyming couplets of the early plays disappeared, except to signal the end of a scene, transformed into the far more fluid, irregular and varied lines of the late plays

In that respect, they are closer to the work of the committee appointed by King James to translate the bible for use in the new Church of England.

For I will pour water upon him
That is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground.
I will pour my spirit upon thy seed,
And my blessing upon thine offspring:
And they shall spring up as among the grass,
As willows by the water courses.

The committee’s prose, divided into lines to make it look like poetry, makes clear how little difference there really is between the two. If Shakespeare’s poetry were set out as prose, it would perhaps be easier for us to read and focus our attention on the rhythm, not the supposed metrical form.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Perhaps it would help us to see how Elizabethan poetry influenced the prose of later dramatists.

Physical beauty is passing. A transitory possession. But beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart – and I have all of those things – aren’t taken away, but grow! Increase with the years! How strange that I should be called a destitute woman! When I have all of those treasures locked in my heart.

I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines; I’m de ting dat makes yuh hear it; I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel – steel – steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!

One cannot sing just to please someone, however much one loves them, no, song must come from the inmost, like a thrush. How often I have said, in evil hours, Sing now, Winnie, sing your song, there is nothing else for it, and did not. Could not. No, like the thrush, or the bird of dawning, with no thought of benefit, to oneself or anyone else.

Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire, Eugene O’Neill in The Hairy Ape, Samuel Beckett in Happy Days are the inheritors of the Elizabethans. The rhythm of the language, as it was first formed, can be heard still in their plays, re-made to suit the times they lived and wrote in.

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This entry was posted on May 4, 2021 by in drama, Fiction, Literature, poetry and tagged , , .
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