Presenting the past, on the page.

Because I tend to live in the moment, I forget that everything moves on, that change is inevitable, until something happens to make me realise I’ve been left behind.  I’m not talking about technology here, though I’m always running to catch up with that.  This time, I’m thinking about how we use words.

Okay, so that’s pretty much what my job is.  Even when reading for relaxation, I find myself noting interesting phrasing. In particular, I love colloquialisms.

Growing up, I’m not sure I realised they existed.  When inviting friends round, I’d say, ‘We’re having Mary for tea.’ with no comic intention.  Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but it was years before I realised the correct reply to that was, ‘Roasted, boiled or fried?’

Oh, I knew that language had adapted, over time.  The books I inherited, a wide selection of old poetry, novels and plays, were sometimes waded through with more determination than enjoyment.

“When will your hounds be going out again think ye, Mr Benjamin?” inquired Samuel Strong, a country servant of all work, lately arrived at Hanley Cross, as they sat round the saddle-room fire of the “Dragon Inn” yard, in company with the persons hereafter enumerated, the day after the run described in the last chapter.”

The humour of Handley Cross, by RS Surtees was far beyond me.  It was not because the vocabulary was tricky, I understood most of the individual meanings, it was the syntax: the way the sentences were constructed.  I have kept the book, and will try it again, one day.

john-donne-hires-croppedThe love poems of John Donne, 1572 – 1631, on the other hand, I went back to time after time.  To read them was to be bathed in warmth.  These scenes involved me. Sometimes through the use of familiar imagery:

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Or because he described emotion with such power that I was drawn to the idea of it.  Passion oozed between his words, along with joy.  What a wonder his love was, more powerful than sunbeams:

I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;

I found the language both archaic and invisible.  We’ve ditched the ‘how dost thou?’ form of address, but the sun still rises, and love still happens, in blinding all absorbing beautiful moments that eclipse the universe. Did he imagine his words would not only be quoted, three hundred and eighty-five years later, but retain their ability to melt the reader or listener? I doubt it.

The trick is, that the readers every writer addresses are those in their present. To do that, it pays to use language that fits them.  How many contemporary readers will be drawn in by a novel that begins:

My Lord of Tressain, his Majesty’s Seneschall of Dauphiny, sat at his ease, his purple doublet all undone, to yield greater freedom to his vast bulk, a yellow silken under-garment visible through the gap, as is visible the flesh of some fruit that, swollen with over-ripeness, has burst its skin.

st martin's summerYet in 1909, when Rafael Sabatini wrote St Martin’s Summer, this wordiness was the accepted mode.  His first chapter is littered with archaic words and phrases yonder, pish, quoth he, nevertheless and several people are ‘sent to the devil’, just in case we forget we’re in the seventeenth century. Today, we’re more likely to find this in parody.

Which isn’t such a bad thing.  If you look at parody from the other side, isn’t it a form of compliment?

What’s my point with this ramble? Well, it occurs to me that one of the things I look for, when redrafting, is falling back into that antiquated way with sentences. I know I’m not alone in this, because there is a specific term for this tendency: it’s called overwriting.

My theory?  It happens when I’m most self-conscious about the blankness of the page and thinking myself a writer.  What I should be doing is following John Donne’s lead, and immersing myself in the story I want to share.

19 thoughts on “Presenting the past, on the page.

  1. Interesting post Cathum. One of the hardest things for me when writing dialogue in a historical context is knowing whether I’ve over-egged it or not. But sometimes when I read it back…or worse read it aloud, it makes me cringe. I like you’re theory though, I think you’ve hit on something there.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Lovely read, Cath, and truth! It’s one thing to read such language–more often than not I can accept it from other writers. But if I were to use such language, I can feel myself forcing it. Oh, it might work for a bit of humor from a character–and I can think of a few who’d LOVE to ramble like this–but I couldn’t write with such constructions and maintain any sort of serious, or at least nonhumorous, tone. But that doesn’t mean such constructions don’t have their place. It’s just not quite as big a place as it used to be in literature, if that makes sense…

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  3. Love these insights and so true that when you’ve read and studied literature from those writers you mention, and their ilk, you can become influenced by their style and in particular, their verbosity! On a personal note and as a fledgling blogger, my daughter’s always telling me how long and complicated my sentences are – making a hatchet job necessary before posting. Sometimes I’m in full agreement but at other times I feel rather wistful at their chop. Great read, thanks. Mary

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Mary. Glad you enjoyed it.

      How useful to have a daughter willing to proof read your blogs – I’m enjoying them, by the way, very much.

      A tutor at university once told us you always chop the phrases you love most, and that’s as it should be. I’ve held onto that thought whenever I cut something that makes me feel wistful, as well as the section that’s had to be expunged. I put my favourite deleted phrases on a separate document, because one day I’m going to find a way to use them. Maybe all of them, in one glorious splurge.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your words brought back memories. My grandmother was a great book reader, and I used to borrow hers. I read those old tomes but can no longer bear the excessive verbiage in those old book. But they gave me my love of language and expanded my vocabulary.
    In a school report, a teacher called me verbose. And that’s why I edit. Quick in, and quick out is my motto today. I don’t always stick to it, though.
    But an aside. One year, I met a colleague on our return to work after the Christmas break. .
    ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ I asked.
    ‘We had my gran for dinner.’
    I laughed. ‘We had turkey.’
    No laugh from my colleague who said, ‘She died on Boxing Day,’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bitter-sweet memories, it seems.
      You make a good point with the consequences of reading those ‘old tomes’, and just like you, I’m sure they influenced my love of language. They definitely expanded my vocabulary, I still like words that people rarely use any more.

      I wonder if your colleague ever figured out what you meant about the turkey, and saw the joke? I have to weld my lips together around home, because it’s a phrase that is still used.


  5. Fun to read your musings. I was thinking …
    Writers before photography, let alone instant photography, took their time over creating images with words. The thinking process, too, was slower, and I guess readers enjoyed the gradual unfolding of long sentences. Re: John Donne, he aimed for distilled essence, like most remarkable poets.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love how great passages–like those you mentioned are like old valued friends. They bring memories of the entire writing and evoke emotion. ‘Bells bells bells bells’–I thought that was such a dumb name until I read the poem. Now, all I have to do is say those words and I’m inspired.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh yes, those special friends, who don’t let us down, even though we might sometimes out-grow them, or drift away. Thank you for the ‘Bells, bells bells bells’, I’ve not explored Poe’s poetry. What a beauty this one is.


  7. John Donne – one of my favourite poets. Right from the 60’s this was the one I loved the most –

    Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,
    for thou art not so, and those whom thou thinks thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me –
    from rest and sleep which but thy pictures be, much pleasure -then from thee much more must flow – rest of thy bones and soul’s deliverie.

    Hope I’ve got that right – it’s been in my head for 50 plus years! I remember the one you mention, but not quite as well!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is a beautiful poem. Reading your quoted lines reminds me that I should get back to him, because I’m the other way round to you. It was the love poems that caught my attention, I have only hazy memories of the rest. Thanks for the nudge.


  8. I think of when someone reverently commented on Shakespeare, “we just don’t talk like that anymore.” It always makes me sad. But, at the same time, most people don’t have the patience for long-winded wording. Sad…

    Liked by 2 people

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