Monday, October 19, 2009


Marcescence and Macabre Again

Thanks to David Norton for another example of marcescence, in Robert Frost's poem A Boundless Moment (see last line):
He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
He stood there bringing March against his thought,
And yet too ready to believe the most.

"Oh, that's the Paradise-in-bloom," I said;
And truly it was fair enough for flowers
Had we but in us to assume in March
Such white luxuriance of May for ours.

We stood a moment so in a strange world,
Myself as one his own pretense deceives;
And then I said the truth (and we moved on).
A young beech clinging to its last year's leaves.

Thanks to Roger Kuin for passing along the Oxford English Dictionary's etymological note on macabre:
< Middle French Macabré, of uncertain origin.

The Middle French word occurs first in Jean le Fèvre's Respit de la Mort (1376), where the author says 'Je fis de Macabré la dance': this is apparently a claim to have written a work called la danse Macabré. In form the word might be a popular alteration of Old French Macabé Maccabaeus (examples of Judas Macabré(s) occur at the end of the 12th cent.): see Französisches etymol. Wörterbuch at Macchabeus for investigation of the range of forms and spellings attested in Middle French for both the present word and for words and expressions independently derived from the biblical proper name. As regards meaning, it may be connected with the late medieval liturgical dance or procession called chorea Machabaeorum in Latin (Besançon, 1453) and in Middle Dutch Makkabeusdans (15th cent.), which has been explained as arising from 2 Maccabees 7: Französisches etymol. Wörterbuch suggests also the association of the liturgical office of the dead with 2 Maccabees 12:43-6 in the Vulgate (A.V. 43-5) as a reason for a link between a cult of the Maccabees and the dance of the dead tradition in art and literature. In Middle French the metaphor aller a la dance De Macabré 'to die' is found in the 15th cent.

A less likely explanation is that Macabré was the name of the artist who painted the picture which suggested the first poem on the subject. There is no evidence to support the theory that the word derives from Arabic maqābir, plural of maqbara cemetery (Moroccan colloquial Arabic məqāber, plural of məqebra tomb), or from Syriac meqabberēy gravediggers. For summaries of further explanations which have been advanced see Trésor de la langue française at macabre, Französisches etymol. Wörterbuch at Macchabeus.

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