Thursday, December 03, 2009


Chimborazo, Cotopaxi

I received two interesting emails about W.J. Turner's poem Romance.

Ernie Moncada wrote:
The first time I read this poem, many decades ago, made me think back on my First Year HS Latin teacher, Fr. White (RIP), in whose class I first heard the words, Chimborazo, Cotopaxi. Fr. White was a no nonsense teacher and on many an occasion his fledglings' recitations in class gave him reason sufficient to grasp his head with both hands, look upward in dismay and in an extra loud voice cry out, "Chimborazo, boy, have you taken leave of your senses?" or "Cotopaxi, may God grant me patience." We were all certain these introductory exclamations must have been expletives or imprecations of some sort, unrecognizable and therefore probably of Latin or Greek origin.
David Norton wrote:
First, three cheers for Stephen Vincent Benet, who said what had to be said and did so more memorably than anybody else has done.

As for W. J. Turner's "Romance", there was a time when I too was much taken with this lyric, but now I figure that it's among the things that Benet was reacting against. Moreover, by way of a gradually extending acquaintance with the languages and geography of Latin America, I have come to recognize that Cotopaxi is pronounced as if the 'x' is (our) "sh", and much earlier I learned that Popocatepetl is neither spelt nor pronounced as (I take it) Turner imagined. For confirmation of this latter fact I refer you to Ernst Toch’s "Geographical Fugue", with which you’ll anyway be (if you're not already) happy to be acquainted:

When two of the three crucial names in the poem differ so strikingly from the way the author and (I suppose) most of his readers imagine them, "Romance" makes, I fear, a very feeble example of the magic of words.

(Toch, on the other hand . . . !)
I recently happened on a passage from Thoreau's Journal (July 22, 1851), in which he mentions the music of some Canadian place names:
It needed only a little outlandishness in the names, a little foreign accent, a few more vowels in the words, to make me locate all my ideals at once. How prepared we are for another world than this! We are no sooner over the line of the States than we expect to see men leading poetic lives, — nothing so natural, that is the presumption. The names of the mountains, and the streams, and the villages reel with the intoxication of poetry — Longueuil, Chambly, Barthillon ( ?), Montilly(?).

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