Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Fossil Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet (1844):
For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.
Richard Chenevix Trench, On the Study of Words (1851), Lecture I:
Emerson has somewhere characterized language as 'fossil poetry.' He evidently means that just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrated lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would else have been their portion,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves, of men whose very names have perished, there are these, which might so easily have perished too, preserved and made safe for ever! The phrase is a striking one; the only fault one I can find with it is that it is too narrow. Language may be, and indeed is, this 'fossil poetry'; but it may be affirmed of it with exactly the same truth that it is fossil ethics, or fossil history.

Language then is 'fossil poetry'; in other words, we are not to look for the poetry which a people may possess only in its poems, or its poetical customs, traditions, and beliefs. Many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem, having stores of poetical thought and imagery laid up in it. Examine it, and it will be found to rest on some deep analogy of things natural and things spiritual; bringing those to illustrate and to give an abiding form and body to these. The image may have grown trite and ordinary now: perhaps through the help of this very word may have become so entirely the heritage of all, as to seem little better than a commonplace; yet not the less he who first discerned the relation, and devised the new word which should express it, or gave to an old, never before but literally used, this new and figurative sense, this man was in his degree a poet—a maker, that is, of things which were not before, which would not have existed but for him, or for some other gifted with equal powers. He who spake first of a 'dilapidated' fortune, what an image must have risen up before his mind's eye of some falling house or palace, stone detaching itself from stone, till all had gradually sunk into desolation and ruin. Or he who to that Greek word which signifies 'that which will endure to be held up to and judged by the sunlight,' gave first its ethical signification of 'sincere,' 'truthful,' or as we sometimes say, 'transparent,' can we deny to him the poet's feeling and eye? Many a man had gazed, we are sure, at the jagged and indented mountain ridges of Spain, before one called them 'sierras' or 'saws,' the name by which now they are known, as Sierra Morena, Sierra Nevada; but that man coined his imagination into a word which will endure as long as the everlasting hills which he named.
William Dwight Whitney, Language and the Study of Language: Twelve Lectures on the Principles of Linguistic Science (1867), Lecture II:
Once more, a noteworthy and often-remarked similarity exists between the facts and methods of geology and those of linguistic study. The science of language is, as it were, the geology of the most modern period, the Age of Man, having for its task to construct the history of development of the earth and its inhabitants from the time when the proper geological record remains silent; when man, no longer a mere animal, begins by the aid of language to bear witness respecting his own progress and that of the world about him. The remains of ancient speech are like strata deposited in bygone ages, telling of the forms of life then existing, and of the circumstances which determined or affected them; while words are as rolled pebbles, relics of yet more ancient formations, or as fossils, whose grade indicates the progress of organic life, and whose resemblances and relations show the correspondence or sequence of the different strata; while, everywhere, extensive denudation has marred the completeness of the record, and rendered impossible a detailed exhibition of the whole course of development.
For more on this subject, see Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Literary Language and Victorian Philology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 281-287 (The Geological Analogy).

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