Saturday, September 22, 2012


The Hisperica Famina and Modern Literature

R.A. Stewart Macalister (1870-1950), The Secret Languages of Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), pp. 78-79:
The style of Hisperica Famina bears a certain resemblance to some of the parodies of Euphues: there is certainly more of Sir Piercie Shafton in it than of Lyly himself, who when all is said and done is a writer of considerable charm, if taken in judiciously small doses. A closer though a more modern analogy is, however, available. These days of ours have seen the rise of a school of writers, whom the reader can readily name for himself, for they have earned their full share of advertisement. I have no title to speak critically or otherwise of them: I have to read so many books on subjects that I can understand, that I have no time to spare over books that I cannot understand, especially as I have no consuming ambition to succeed in doing so. My knowledge of these works is therefore limited to the chance extracts from them which I have come across from time to time in the periodical press. If I may generalize from these fragmentary data, their language is fundamentally English: but the sense, if any, is placed beyond the reach of ordinary persons by anarchic neologisms of idiom, accidence, and vocabulary; by artificial deformations of words, and violent wrestings of their orthodox meanings; by an occasional admixture of French (sometimes of Stratford-atte-Bow, or of an unknown variety even more remote from the Parisian standard); and by interspersed combinations of letters, not always pronounceable, and to me, at least, unintelligible. I am quite ready to admit the possibility that these writers may have grounds for self-congratulation, hidden from my undiscerning eyes. Critics tell me so, and in matters so far outside my competence I must believe what I am told. But originality is not to be reckoned among these assets.1 Every one of the vagaries above enumerated was anticipated twelve or thirteen hundred years ago by the authors of Hisperica Famina: the only novelty which has been introduced into the modern antitype is an occasional affectation of moral irresponsibility.

1 Even the ingenious mechanical device of enhancing literary effect by printing personal and geographical names with a lower-case initial instead of the orthodox capital is not original: I did it myself, in a dame-school, at the age of eight, and got 'kept in' in consequence; had I been born about fifty years later, I might have been rewarded with a whole holiday. Perhaps.
Hat tip: Ian Jackson.

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