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.....Creation by the Word.... - Sri Aurobindo

Letters on Poetry and Art ->On His Poetry and Other's Poetry->Practical Guidance for Aspiring Writers ...

 

Remarks on English Usage

 

Some Questions of Pronunciation and Usage


I am in general agreement with your answer to Mendon¸ca strictures on certain points in your style and your use of the English language. His objections have usually some ground, but are not unquestionably valid; they would be so only if the English language were a fixed and unprogressive and invariable medium demanding a scrupulous correctness and purity and chaste exactness like the French; but this language is constantly changing and escaping from boundaries and previously fixed rules and its character and style, you might almost say, is whatever the writer likes to make it. Stephen Phillips once said of it in a libertine image that the English language is like a woman who will not love you unless you take liberties with her. As for the changeableness, it is obvious in recent violences of alteration, now fixed and recognised, such as the pronunciation of words like “nation” and “ration” which now sound as “gnashun” and “rashun”; one’s soul and one’s ear revolt, at least mine do, against degrading the noble word “nation” into the clipped indignity of the plebian and ignoble “gnashun”, but there is no help for it. As for “aspire for”, it may be less correct than “aspire to” or “aspire after”, but it is psychologically called for and it seems to me to be much more appropriate than “aspire at” which I would never think of using. The use of prepositions is one of the most debatable things, or at least one of the most frequently debated in the language. The Mother told me of her listening in Japan to interminable quarrels between Cousins and
the American Hirsch on debatable points in the language but especially on this battlefield and never once could they agree.
It is true that one was an Irish poet from Belfast and the other an American scholar and scientist, so perhaps neither could be taken as an unquestionable authority on the English tongue; but among Englishmen themselves I have known of such constant disputes. Cousins had remarkably independent ideas in these matters; he always insisted that “infinite” must be pronounced “infighnight” on the ground that “finite” was so pronounced and the negative could not presume to differ so unconscionably from the positive. That was after all as good a reason as that alleged for changing the pronunciation of “nation” and “ration” on the ground that as the “a” in “national” and “rational” is short, it is illogical to use a different quantity in the substantive.
“To contact” is a phrase that has established itself and it is futile to try to keep America at arm’s length any longer; “global” also has established itself and it is too useful and indeed indispensable to reject; there is no other word that can express exactly the same shade of meaning. I heard it first from Arjava who described the language of Arya as expressing a global thinking and I at once caught it up as the right and only word for certain things, for instance, the thinking in masses which is a frequent characteristic of the Overmind. As for the use of current French and Latin phrases, it may be condemned as objectionable on the same ground as the use of clich´es and stock phrases in literary style, but they often hit the target more forcibly than any English equivalent and have a more lively effect on the mind of the reader. That may not justify a too frequent use of them, but in moderation it is at least a good excuse for it. I think the expression “bears around it a halo” has been or can be used and it is at least not worn out like the ordinary “wears a halo”. One would more usually apply the expression “devoid of method” to an action or procedure than to a person, but the latter turn seems to me admissible. I do not think I need say anything in particular about other objections, they are questions of style and on that there can be different opinions; but you are right in altering the obviously mixed metaphor “in full cry”, though I do not think any of your four substitutes have anything of its liveliness and force. Colloquial expressions have, if rightly used, the advantage of giving point, flavour, alertness and I think in your use of them they do that; they can also lower and damage the style, but that danger is mostly when there is a set character of uniform dignity or elevation. The chief character of your style is rather a constant life and vividness and supple and ample abounding energy of thought and language which can soar or run or sweep along at will but does not simply walk or creep or saunter and in such a style forcible colloquialisms can do good service.


2 April 1947


*


Your “through whom” in place of my “wherethrough” is an improvement, but it is difficult to reject that word as a legal archaism inadmissible in good poetry. Your remark about “whereas” in my essay seemed to me just in pointing out the obscurity of connection it introduced between the two parts of my sentence, but the term itself has no stigma on it of obsolescence as does for instance “whenas”: in poetry it would be rather prosaic, while “wherethrough” is a special poetic usage as any big dictionary will tell us, and in certain contexts it would be preferable to “through which”, just as “whereon”, “wherein”, and “whereby” would sometimes be better than their ordinary equivalents. I wonder why you have become so ultra-modern: I remember you jibe also at “from out” a phrase which has not fallen into desuetude yet, and can be used occasionally even in a common context: e.g. “from out the bed”.
I don’t suggest that “whereas” was obsolete. It is a perfectly good word in its place, e.g. He pretended the place was empty, whereas in reality it was crowded, packed, overflowing; but its use as a loose conjunctive turn which can be conveniently shoved into any hole to keep two sentences together is altogether reprehensible.
None of these words is obsolete, but “wherethrough” is rhetorically pedantic, just as “whereabout” or “wherewithal” would be. It is no use throwing the dictionary at my head—the dictionary admits many words which poetry refuses to admit. Of course you can drag any word in the D. into poetry if you like—e.g.:
My spirit parenthetically wise
Gave me its obiter dictum; `a propos
I looked within with weird and brilliant eyes

And found in the pit of my stomach—the juste mot.
But all that is possible is not commendable. So if you seek a pretext wherethrough to bring in these heavy visitors, I shall buck and seek a means whereby to eject them.

2 October 1934


*


As between the forms—“with a view to express” and “with a view to expressing”—the Oxford Concise calls the former vulgar.
I don’t agree with Oxford. Both forms are used. If “to express” is vulgar, “to expressing” is cumbrous and therefore inelegant.
On Three Words Used by Sri Aurobindo I should like to know what exactly the meaning of the word “absolve” is in the following lines from your Love and Death.
But if with price, ah God! what easier! Tears
Dreadful, innumerable I will absolve,
Or pay with anguish through the centuries . . .
There is another passage a few pages later where the same
word is used:
For late
I saw her mid those pale inhabitants
Whom bodily anguish visits not, but thoughts
Sorrowful and dumb memories absolve,
And martyrdom of scourged hearts quivering.
In the second passage it is used in its ordinary sense. “Absolution” means release from sins or from debts—the sorrowful thoughts and memories are the penalty or payment which procures the release from the debt which has been accumulated by the sins and errors of human life.
In the first passage “absolve” is used in its Latin and not in its English sense, = “to pay off a debt”, but here the sense is stretched a little. Instead of saying “I will pay off with tears”
he says: “I will pay off tears” as the price of the absolution. This Latinisation and this inversion of syntactical connections are familiar licences in English poetry—of course, it is incorrect, but a deliberate incorrectness, a violence purposely done to the language in order to produce a poetic effect. The English language, unlike the French and some others, likes, as Stephen Phillips used to say, to have liberties taken with it. But, of course, before one can take these liberties, one must be a master of the language—and, in this case, of the Latin also.
The word “reboant” occurs in The Rishi. Evidently it is a misprint. What ought to be in its place?
Why is it evidently a misprint? It is a recognised (though rare and poetic) English word, from Latin reboans. Reboare in Latin means “to cry aloud again and again”.

1931


*


What do you mean when you write of my poem, “It is very felicitous in expression and taking.”
I think Shakespeare wrote somewhere “Daffodils that come before the swallow dares and take the winds of March with beauty.” Charm or beauty that takes themind like that, is taking.


26 September 1936


On Some Words and Expressions Used by Writers of the Ashram


Under the gloam, like a withdrawing wave
I heard some flute-soul’s visionary woe . . .
If you can justify the word “gloam” I would suggest
I heard in gloam like a withdrawing wave
A visionary flute-soul’s plumbless woe.


23 September 1934


*


What is wrong with “gloam”?

 

I have no personal objection to the word “gloam”, I find it perfect—I was only doubtful about its existence because I did not remember ever to have met it before. I thought it might be a gap in my knowledge, so I looked at Chambers and the Concise Oxford but they share my ignorance. Then I thought it might be Spenserian, archaic or dialect, like Arjava’s trouvailles and in that case I would welcome it not onlywith pleasure but with confidence;
so I asked you whether you could justify it. Your answer sent me at once diving again into Chambers—you seemed to be so sure of this little gem of a word that I thought I must have looked at the wrong place or made some other frightful blunder.
But no, there is “gloaming” marching at the head of the words beginning with “glo” in a proud precedence but with no gleam of a gloam before it. There is only glitter which is not the same thing at all, not at all at all. Of course the word ought to exist, it is full of charm and suggests other beauties like “gloamy”, “gloamful” etc., but none of these language people seem to know anything about it. Or perhaps it is in the less concise and longer-winded lexicographers? Anyhow my remark stands; if you can justify it, it is a beautiful phrase. I prefer “in gloam” to “at gloam” though that too has its merits.

24 September 1934


*


Of course the big dictionary in the library mentions “gloam” —and not just as an archaism or obsolecism: it does it the honour, which it more than deserves, of calling it a variant of “gloaming”. Etymologically too, there can be no objection: “gloaming” and “gloom” derive from the same Anglo-Saxon “glo¯m,” so if “gloom” is legitimate, “gloam” is a fortiori so. Not necessarily—if one proceeded in that argument, the English
language would soon be a chaos. Besides, at least twice before it has passed under your eyes and
you have never demurred: I used it over a year ago in Pointers:
From the sea rise up
Fingers of foam
Trying to pierce through

The veil of gloam
And I remember Harin’s use of it:
In me, the timeless, time forgets to roam,
Drunk with my poise, grown sudden unaware,
Offering up its noontide and its gloam
Withdrawn in a lost attitude of prayer.
If it were an obscure uglification, I could understand your objection; but as you admit its rare beauty and cannot doubt its sense nor its etymological coinability, and still reiterate your remark about the necessity of my justifying it I conjecture some solid principle behind your diffidence. Why should one hesitate to enrich the language?
It did not strike me in your poem. As for Harin, I never object to what he may invent in language or in grammar, because so much mastery of language carries with it a right to take liberties with it. But I am more severe with myself and others. However, if it is in the big dictionary, that is sufficient. Even if it had been an archaism, it would have been worth reviving. But if it had been a new invention, it would have been more doubtful—one could invent hundreds of beautiful words but the liberty to do so would end in a language like Joyce’s which is not desirable.


25 September 1934


*


The English reader has digested Carlyle and swallowed Meredith and is not quite unwilling to REJOYCE in even more startling strangenesses of expression at the present day.
Will his stomach really turn at my little novelties. “The voice of an eye” sounds idiotic, but “the voice of a devouring eye” seems to me effective. “Devouring eye” is then a synecdoche —isolating and emphasising Shakespeare’s most remarkable quality, his eager multitudinous sight, and the “oral” epithet provides a connection with the idea of a voice, thus preventing the catachresis from being too startling. If Milton could give us “blind mouths” and Wordsworth
thou Eye among the blind,

That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep, is there very much to object to in this visioned voice?
Can’t accept all that. “A voice of a devouring eye” is even more reJoycingly mad than a voice of an eye pure and simple. If the English language is to go to the dogs, let it go, but the Joyce cut by the way of Bedlam does not recommend itself to me.
The poetical examples have nothing to do with the matter. Poetry is permitted to be insane—the poet and the madman
go together: though even there there are limits. Meredith and Carlyle are tortuous or extravagant in their style only—though they can be perfectly sane when they want. In poetry anything can pass—For instance, my “voice of a tilted nose”:
O voice of a tilted nose,
Speak but speak not in prose!
Nose like a blushing rose,
O Joyce of a tilted nose!
That is high poetry, but put it in prose and it sounds insane.


5 May 1935


*


What about this: “It is the voice of an insatiable picturesqueness
. . . ”
A voice of picturesqueness is less startling but hardly better English than “a voice of an eye”. I can’t stomach the two expressions because they are not English. You can’t say “voice of a devouring eye” any more than you can say “voice of a tilted nose”. To the English reader the expression would sound grotesque, incongruous, almost comic.
A voice of picturesqueness would also sound incongruous, for picturesqueness applies to visible things, not to things audible like a voice.

5 May 1935


*

 

In my lines—
This heart grew brighter when your breath’s proud chill
Flung my disperse life-blood more richly in!
a terminal “d” will at once English that Latin fellow “disperse”,
1 but is he really objectionable? At first I had “Drove”
instead of “Flung”—so the desire for a less dental rhythm was his raison d’ˆetre, but if he seems a trifle weaker than his English avatar, he can easily be dispensed with now.
I don’t think “disperse” as an adjective can pass,—the dentals are certainly an objection but do not justify this Latin-English neologism.

12 June 1937


*


Why should that poor “disperse” be inadmissible when English has many such Latin forms—e.g. “consecrate”, “dedicate”, “intoxicate”?
I don’t think people use “consecrate”, “intoxicate” etc. as adjectives nowadays—at any rate it sounds to me too scholastic.
Of course, if one chose, this kind of thing might be perpetrate—
O wretched man intoxicate,
Let not thy life be consecrate
To wine’s red yell (spell, if you want to be “poetic”)
Else will thy soul be dedicate
To Hell.
but it is better not to do it. It makes no difference if there are other words like “diffuse” taken from French (not Latin) which have this form and are generally used as adjectives. Logic is not the sole basis of linguistic use. I thought at first it was an archaism and there might be some such phrase in old poetry as “lids disperse”, but as I could not find it even in the Oxford which claims to be exhaustive and omniscient, I concluded it must be a neologism of yours. But archaism or neologism does not matter. “Dispersed life-blood” brings three d’s so near together that they collide a little—if they were farther from each other it would not matter—or if they produced some significant or opportune effect. I think “diffuse” will do.

 

1 Sri Aurobindo had written in the margin of a typed copy of this poem: “What is this Latin fellow “disperse” doing here?”—Ed.

13 June 1937


*


What do I find this afternoon? Just read:
Suddenly
From motionless battalions as outride
A speed disperse of horsemen, from that mass
Of livid menace went a frail light cloud
Rushing through heaven, and behind it streamed
The downpour all in wet and greenish lines.
This is from your own Urvasie! Of course, it is possible that the printer has omitted a terminal “d”—but is that really the explanation?
I dare say I tried to Latinise. But that doesn’t make it a permissible form. If it is obsolete, it must remain obsolete. I thought at first it was an archaism you were trying on, I seemed to remember something of the kind, but as I could find it nowhere I gave up the idea—it was probably my own crime that I remembered.


29 June 1937


*


The noons of heart betray the lofts
Which splendid strength of Truth enfurls.
Now, look here! What are these lofts? I read in the Dictionary “loft”: Attic; room over stable; pigeon-house; flock of pigeons;
gallery in church or hall; (Golf) backward slope in clubhead, lofting strokes. Now if some of these things can be betrayed by the noons (at a pinch, but not of the heart), none of them, not even the last can be enfurled. Not even the most splendid strength has ever enfurled any loft in the world, not even if it be curled and whirled a hundred times over for the desperate effort.

27 December 1936


*

 

In my use of “loft” I follow its derivation fromGerman “Luft” = the air, and Icelandic “lopt” = sky, upper room.
Derivations are depravations—even when they are right they are useless,—what matters is what the word means, not what something else meant which gave birth to the word.


Notes on Usage Apropos of a Translation of Sarat Chandra Chatterji’s Nishkriti2


I have gone carefully through the proof of the first chapters of The Deliverance, but find most of these unexplained red marks totally unintelligible; sometimes I can make a guess, but most often not even that. What, for instance, is the objection to the use of “its” and “it” for a river?
There seems to be an objection to any metaphors or figures such as “the scales of public opinion” or “a river rejecting someone from its borders”. This seems to me astonishing; at any rate the figures are there in the original and one cannot suppress them in a translation or alter arbitrarily the author’s substance.
Objections are made also against quite good and appropriate English words such as “beggared” and “quadrupled” or against perfectly correct phrases like “All that was now a history of the past” or “reaching” a figure or “dropping” some money or “he sat at home in his room” in the sense of remaining inactive.One can say, for instance, “He sat in his palace listening to the footsteps of approaching Doom”. So too there appears to be some objection to the phrase “neither X nor another”, a common English turn; to “started (in the sense of beginning an action or movement) a relentless insistence and importunity”.3 Vivid epithets, e.g., “rapid visits” or familiar and lively phrases such as “she was back again”, are found to be improper and objectionable. “Cares of her household” gets a red mark, though


2 Above a typed copy of this letter, Sri Aurobindo wrote the jocular heading: “Note on the red marks in the proof of ‘The Deliverance’ ”—Ed.
3 One can say for instance, “He started an obstinate resistance which never flagged nor ceased”.

 

one speaks of “household cares”, “cares of State”, cares of all kinds. A fever (one must not refer to it as “it”) is allowed to throw a person down, but not to let him rise from his bed.
Incomprehensible?
All these startling red-ink surprises are packed together in the short space of the first chapter. But in the second we meet with still bigger surprises.One is not allowed to “make time” for anything, a most common phrase, or to “leave” a responsibility to someone. A meal must not be “vegetarian” though a diet can be, and though one speaks in English of “a frugal vegetarian dinner”. One is not allowed to have a school task to do or to “prepare” a task; but unhappily that is done in England at least and in English.
“Today” is objected to because it is applied to past “time”; but it is put here as part of the tone of vivid remembered actuality, the past described as if still present before the mind, which is constant in the original. Similarly, a little later on, “the early dusk had fallen a couple of hours ago”; in strict narrative time it should be “before” and not “ago”, but though the author writes in the past tense, he is always suggesting a past which is passing immediately before our eyes. I do not see how else the translator is to keep this suggestion. One could use more correctly the historic present: “It is winter and the dusk has fallen a couple of hours ago”; but that would be to falsify the original.
All right of passage is refused to a humorous use of the phrase “give voice”, nor can one “retort” instead of merely replying. There is perhaps a syntactical objection to the use of “desperate” at the beginning of the sentence, on p. 6, but the objection is itself incorrect. One says “Pale and haggard, he rose from his bed”. One is not allowed to speak humorously of a “portion” instead of a “part” of a big bed so as to emphasise its bigness and the dividing of it into occupied regions by the “gang”. A heart is not allowed to “pound away”, still less to pound “dismally”. The objector seems to damn everything vividly descriptive, everything new in turn, phrase or image, everything in fact not said before by everyone else. A man lying down is not allowed to “start up”, though the dictionary meaning of the word is just that, “to rise up quickly or suddenly”, e.g. “he started up from his bed” or “from his chair”.What again is meant by the objection to such recognised locutions as “to take away the (bad) taste” or “much she cares”, and why should there not be an “implacable pressure” or why is one forbidden to “get out money” from a box? These red marks are terribly mysterious.
The criticism of the sentences “How could you etc.” and the use of “today” is intelligible and to a certain extent tenable. I have tried to explain on the proof itself why the ordinary tense-sequence can be disregarded here. In the latter case it is not so much a question of grammar as of the use of the word “today” for a past time. If it can be so used in order to express more vividly the actual thought in the mind of a person at the time, the unusual tense-sequence follows as a matter of course. I have, however, yielded the point for the sake of Sarat Chatterji’s reputation which, we are told, is imperilled by our audacities of language.
Chapter III. The objector begins with a queer missing of the obvious sense in the use of “my” and “us”. He goes on to challenge the possibility of “entering into” explanations, discussions etc. though it is commonly done, e.g. “He entered into a long discussion” or “You needn’t enter into tedious explanations; a few words will be enough.”
Chapter IV continues the inexplicable chain and “implacable” series of red objections. I have written “a discussion was in process”, which is a quite permissible phrase, but alter it to “progress” just to soften the redness of the red mark. But why cannot Atul “hold forth” as every orator does and what is the matter with the “cut” of a coat, a phrase sacred to every tailor?
People in England do, after all, “blurt out” things every day and they “laugh in the face” of others, though of course it may be considered rude; but “to laugh in the face” is not considered as bad grammar—or bad English. “To give the order” is wrong in the opinion of the objector; but since the purchase of particular things like coats or suits has just been talked about, it is quite correct to say “the order” instead of “an order”.
One can’t “speak out”, apparently, (or perhaps “speak up” either, one can only just speak?), nor can one “see to the making of coats” for a family. Also it is wrong to ask “what is wrong”. It is wrong, it seems, to say “All in the room”; so an Englishman is mistaken when he says “Tell all at home that I am not coming”!
So too you can’t speak “once more” or “seek for”4 anything! The use of the plural of “devotion”, common in English,5 is red marked as an error!
Chapter V. One can’t “labour” to get a result, or “cover up” anything in the sense of “hiding” or even try to do it; one can’t put somebody up6 to do something, though in English it is constantly done. There is an objection to such perfectly natural figures as “could not summon up any reply” or “the sharp edge of your tongue” or “smouldering secretly within herself”. The objector seems indeed to cherish a deadly grudge against figures and images; he is opposed also to colloquial expressions (e.g. “get” out money, “give it here”) even in dialogue. He objects to my putting straight into English the Bengali figure of “falling from the sky”. There is an almost identical phrase in Frenchwith exactly the same sense, “to fall from on high” or “to fall from the clouds”:7 so I do not see why it should not be done, since it ought to be at once intelligible to an English reader. I note also that words cannot “jump” to the tongue, but why not? they manage to do it every day. Poor Shaila cannot “need” a cup.8
Then what is wrong with the sentence “Do you think everybody is your sister” i.e. the speaker herself? It is simply a vivid way of


4 “For” and “after” can be used with “seek”. One can say “He sought for an excuse but found none”; one would not usually say “He sought an excuse”. So too you can say “He has long been seeking for spiritual light but in vain.”
5 E.g. “She was still at her devotions”.
6 Cf., in kindred but slightly different senses, “He has not acted on his own initiative, I know by whom he has been put up to do this”; “A straw candidate put up for the occasion by a small secret clique”; “This is a put up job; there is nothing sincere or spontaneous in the whole affair”.
7 “tomber d’en haut”, “tomber des nuages”.
8 One can say, “she needs help and sympathy in her trouble”, or “you need rest and a change of air”, or “for this I need scissors and paste, get them”. Then why not “I need the cup”?

 

saying “Do you think everybody will be as patient with you as myself”, or, “Do you think you can speak to everybody as you do to me”.
I have written at length because the publisher and perhaps others seem to have been upset by the vicious red jabs of this high authority. In most cases they seem to me to have no meaning whatever. If they have, we should be informed to some extent at least of their why and wherefore. There are, too, a few doubtful points in half a dozen sentences, points on which Englishmen themselves differ or might differ. I am ready to go through the whole book if the proofs are sent here. But I cannot revise or alter phrases, locutions or figures which, so far as I know English, are either current or natural or permissible,—unless I am told why these are thought to be incorrect or improper.
I cannot altogether understand Professor Maniyar’s criticism.
What does he mean by irregular language? If he refers to the style and means that it is bad, unchaste, too full of familiar or colloquial terms, not sufficiently dignified, bookish, conventional in phrase, not according to precedent, he is entitled to his view, of course. If he and the objector represent the Indian English-reading public, then Dilip must consider the matter. For in that case it is clear the book will not be understood by that public, may be banged and bashed by the reviewers, or may for kindred reasons be a failure. The suggestion that Sarat Chandra’s high reputation will be tarnished and lowered by Dilip’s deplorable style and my bad English and horrible grammar, not from any fault of his own, is very alarming. In that case Dilip ought to have the book corrected by some University professor who knows what to write and what not to write and its style chastened, made correct, common and unnoticeable. I don’t think Amal will do. He is too brilliant and might make the hair of the correct and timid reader rise on his head in horror; besides Amal does not know Bengali.
The question also arises whether an English reader (an English Englishman, not made in India) would equally fail to appreciate the book; he might find it too Bengali in character and substance and—who knows?—agree that the style of the translation is unorthodox and “irregular”. But here we are helpless— we cannot make the experiment, for the war is on and England is far away and paper scarce there as here.


5 August 1944

Sri Aurobindo

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The only way to come a little close to him is to love him sincerely and give oneself unreservedly to his work. Thus, each one does his best and contributes as much as he can to that transformation of the world which Sri Aurobindo has predicted.

The Mother
(Vol. 12, pp. 398-99)