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Thursday, 31 January 2013
Home arrow Writers and the dictionary arrow Auden arrow Auden in OED Supplement
Auden and dictionaries
Auden's poems (particularly the later ones) are peppered with abstruse vocabulary, much of which can only be elucidated with the help of a dictionary - sometimes a dialect dictionary, but often the OED. Auden's obsession with this work originated in his early years, and may have been related to his other early passion for geology; in both cases (as Trench and others had seen) meaning could be discovered by exploring the layered strata of the past. (On Auden's interest in geology see his ODNB entry, by his literary executor Edward Mendelson, and Carpenter 1983, e.g. p. 14. His brother, John Bicknell Auden, became a distinguished geologist and has his own ODNB entry).

Humphrey Carpenter's biography describes how, while an undergraduate at Christ Church, Auden impressed many of his contemporaries with his voracious appetite for words:
In his conversation as in his poetry, he used a vocabulary drawn from scientific, psychological and philosophical terminology, and from his discoveries among the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words like 'glabrous', 'sordes', 'callipygous', 'peptonised' (which all appeared in his poetry during this period) delighted him but disconcerted his listeners. 'I did not understand much of what Wystan said,' recorded one undergraduate contemporary, who nevertheless 'felt it was important because of the portentous manner in which he said it.' (Carpenter 1983: 66)
And Carpenter gives a memorable account of the pride of place enjoyed by OED in Auden's study in his house at Kirchstetten, Austria:

Auden's workroom—the upper room, reached by an outside staircase, and always shown proudly to visitors, was…bare, with piles of books (no bookcases), a desk on a raised platform by the window, and a portable typewriter on which Auden composed his book-reviews and articles and made fair copies of his poems. The most prominent object in the workroom was a set of the Oxford English Dictionary, missing one volume, which was downstairs, Auden invariably using it as a cushion to sit on when at table—as if (a friend observed) he was a child not quite big enough for the nursery furniture. (Carpenter 1983: 390-1)
By 1972, when he returned to Oxford (to live in grace and favour lodgings at Christ Church), Auden's copy of OED was so worn out he was considering buying a new one (Carpenter 1983: 419; apparently reliant on Rosen 1975: 219).

The effect on his poetry is one on which critics have remarked with some asperity. As Frank Kermode points out in a review of Epistle to a Godson, a collection of Auden's poems published in 1972, 'sometimes you find two learned freaks together, in such a way that it looks as if the poet has only that morning been browsing [through the dictionary]: eutrophied, eucatastrophe; obtemper, obumbrate'. [1] Denis Donoghue reacted with similar tartness to the same collection, in a review entitled 'Good Grief':
...Mr Auden, it is well known and in part approved, has been making merry with the dictionary in recent years. I suppose he thinks of them as pure poetry, containing thousands of words virtually untouched by human hands; marvelous words now archaic, obsolete, and for that very reason waiting to be resuscitated by a poet addicted to that pleasure. . . . [2]

A particularly preposterous poem is entitled 'A Bad Night' and subtitled 'A Lexical Exercise'. It is crammed with words lifted from OED which, out of context, are virtually unintelligible: hirple, blouts, pirries, stolchy, glunch, sloomy, snudge, snoachy, scaddle etc. In context, however, they are much more communicative:
Buffeted often
By blouts of hail
Or pirries of rain,
On stolchy paths… (ll. 10-21; Auden 1976: 631-2)
The syntax, together with the sound qualities of these unfamiliar words, rough out for us a perfectly adequate impression of their meaning, and OED functions as a useful reference point, giving us the definitions of the words and instances of their use that Auden himself presumably read and pondered upon as part of the 'exercise' of composing the poem. OED is helpful not only in explaining to us what Auden apparently meant, but also in providing clues as to why he chose as he did. Auden's use of hirple at line 8 ('Far he must hirple,/Clumsied by cold') may have been prompted by one of OED's citations for hoast, a word which crops up further down in the poem ('Fetched into conscience/By a hoasting fit'), from Ritson's Scotish Songs (1794): 'He hosts and he hirples the weary day long'.

OED
citations may also explain Auden's choice of the word curmurr in 'Thanksgiving for a Habitat X' ('two doters who wish/to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish/belong in restaurants'), where the reference is to the undesirability of cooing lovers as guests at a dinner party. OED defines curmurr merely as 'to make a low murmuring or purring sound'; the single illustrative quotation (from Blackwoods Magazine in 1831) more precisely connotes the behaviour of two lovers over a meal: 'They two [cats] sit curmurring, forgetful of mice and milk, of all but love'. The verbal noun curmurring gets a separate entry in OED, and is defined as 'a low rumbling, growling, or murmuring sound'; the two illustrative quotations (one from Burns, one from Scott) both use the word to refer to the noise made in digesting food - suggesting prandial connotations closer to Auden's use than to the OED definition. It seems possible, perhaps likely, either that the various quotations suggested the context of the word in Auden's poem, or that his context reminded Auden of the quotations, and hence recalled the word curmurr to him for use in this instance. Earlier in the same poem, Auden's apparently archaic use of the word port as a verb ('only cops port arms') may similarly have been triggered by reading the last quotation for this sense in OED1, dated 1711: 'They had ported arms without license'.

One can go on playing this game indefinitely, returning to the Dictionary with the words Auden seems to have lifted from it in the first place, and trying to retrace his readings through the pages of OED in an attempt to shed some light on the way his mind connected disparate contexts.



Source: this page is based on Brewer 2007b: 193-95.

Footnotes
[1] Originally published in The Listener in 1972; reprinted in Haffenden 1983: 470-73). obumbrated ('Talking to Mice') is (mis)printed obumbated in the original English and American editions and in the complete collection of Auden's poems published after his death (Auden 1976), but the MS in the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library reads obumbrated. Auden may well have found the word in OED1. It was not treated by Burchfield; OED3 (draft entry March 2004) updates OED1 by defining it to mean 'overshadowed' as well as 'overclouded' and labelling it 'obsolete'; it reproduces OED1's two quotations, from 1592 and 1751 (Smollett) and records no later example.
[2] Originally published in The New York Review of Books in July 1973; reprinted in Haffenden 1983: 480-84.
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