Friday, December 5, 2008

Seamus Heaney, Poets Laureate, and big words

I'm trying to figure out whether Seamus Heaney is officially Ireland's Poet Laureate or not, and the internet is giving me very conflicting stories. I see news items in which he is referred to as such, but the Wikipedia doesn't even say that Ireland has a poet laureate.

I remember my classmates at the Drogheda Grammar School complaining about him, and I thought that they said he was the poet laureate. But now I'm not sure, and I've been looking it up for so long that the words "poet" and "laureate" have lost all meaning to me. Maybe he is, like, de facto poet laureate; my friend Tash says, "We have a Poet Laureate? First I've heard. Still, if it's anyone, it'll be him...."

He's Irish and a poet and a Nobel laureate, so I guess that's close enough.

This is the poem about which I specifically remember hearing complaints; they had to study it for the Leaving Cert. His wife is rummaging in a drawer, and she reminds him of a skunk. Now I feel like I should study Seamus Heaney. It's so easy to get sidetracked.

Should you be reading Seamus Heaney's introduction to his translation of Beowulf -- to return to the topic ostensibly at hand -- you may come across a number of unfamiliar words. Perhaps being a poet does not incline one to write clearly in prose, or perhaps I'm thinking of being an academic. In any case, here are some words that I encountered with which I was unfamiliar or only sort of familiar (you know, when you've read a word enough times that it makes sense to you in context, but then you realize that you couldn't define it if you were asked); I will regard this as practice for the verbal section of the GRE. Mmm... Latin.

All definitions are via and/or the Wikipedia; I sure miss Reed's OED subscription.

in illo tempore: "at that time"

effulgence: "A brilliant radiance."

tumulus: "An artificial hillock, especially one raised over a grave, particularly over the graves of persons buried in ancient times; a barrow." Or, in geology, "a domelike swelling or mound formed in congealed lava."

foundedness: Well, actually, doesn't know what he means by this. Nor do I. We'll get there...

lambency: "An appearance of reflected light"; the adjective lambent is defined as "flickering lightly over or on a surface," or "effortlessly light or brilliant," or simply "having a gentle glow; luminous." David said he knew this one because there is a video game in which you can get "lambent armor." Apparently I've missed a lot by not playing video games.

chthonic: "Of or pertaining to the deities, spirits, and other beings dwelling under the earth." Also, "pertaining to the earth; earthy." This makes more sense to me in context; Heaney seems to use it to mean something like "inherent" when he says that "the dragon... could be read as a projection of Beowulf's own chthonic wisdom refined in the crucible of experience" (Translator's Introduction, xxxi).

There are probably more, but those are all the ones I can think of for now. This is the sentence that got me started on this topic to begin with (Heaney is speaking of the dragon): "Once he is wakened, there is something glorious in the way he manifests himself, a Fourth of July effulgence fireworking its path across the night sky; and yet, because of the centuries he has spent dormant in the tumulus, there is a foundedness as well as a lambency about him" (Translator's introduction, xxx).

Heaney's meaning is clarified somewhat by the following sentence, in which he describes the dragon as "at once a stratum of the earth and a streamer in the air, no painted dragon but a figure of real oneiric power..." (xxx). But really. This is what I mean about poets writing prose. He could have just said, "The dragon, having slept in the earth for a very long time, comes out all luminous and airborne (sparkly and flying!), which juxtaposition contributes to his impact and complexity in the reader's impression." Or even "DRAGON=AIR+FIRE+EARTH."

But no. Then I wouldn't get to brush up on my Latin roots.


Shana said...

yr so smrt u hurt my brain

Eric said...

No "foundedness" in the OED, either. It probably just means "the quality of being founded." The dragon was underground for a while and almost seemed like it had a foundation there, perhaps?

"Chthonic" makes me think of this old webcomic

Leigh Walton said...

Heaney is great for just that reason - he has both an earthiness and an effulgence to him. The passage you quote is pretty goofy, though. Chalk it up to a poet's infatuation with vocabulary.