Thursday, September 28, 2006

In Which We Learn a New Word

The magnificently melancholy A.E. Housman wrote it, and Lukas Foss set it to music in his (not very interesting, secondo me) Time Cycle:
When the bells justle in the tower
    The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
    Of all I ever did.

So the bells do what, now? Justling would seem to have the true onomatopoeic thing going (à la rustle) and of course bells and onomatopoeia are friends from way back. But bells bong and clang and tintinnabulate — they don't susurrate.

Turns out, weirdly enough, that "justle" is merely a variant of "jostle." Evidently the poet's attention isn't drawn by the noise of the bells at all, but by their efforts to elbow one another out of the way.

Bells. Go figure.


At 9/29/2006 1:14 PM, Anonymous Marc Geelhoed said...

I think Housman's trying to say that the bells are merely moving in the wind—yes, I know there's no mention of wind, but bear with me—and thus, not making any sound. The sight of a bell swinging so little that it's soundless is rather melancholy, I say.

At 9/29/2006 1:19 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Interesting....But not convincing I think. If a silently moving bell is so striking — and I agree, it would be — then surely it's worth saying so explicitly? I mean, you can't expect a reader to intuit something that's unusual enough to send you into a funk and to your writing desk, right?

At 9/30/2006 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Housman is at best a minor poet, and, at worst, is unreadable. The use of "justle" here instead of "jostle" simply shows his poor taste or his poor craft. There's no reason at all to give his poetry any attention.

At 10/02/2006 2:05 PM, Anonymous Marc Geelhoed said...

Right, Josh, you can't expect readers to intuit anything. Poets get a little leeway, or more so than novelists, but yeah, he expects too much. Maybe Housman was too far into his cups to realize it, though.


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