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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Andrew Marvell: By the River Wharfe



Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss): photo by Ken Hammond/USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)


Oh what a Pleasure 'tis to hedge
My Temples here with heavy sedge;
Abandoning my lazy Side,
Stretcht as a Bank unto the Tide;
Or to suspend my sliding Foot
On the Osiers undermined Root,
And in its Branches tough to hang,
While at my Lines the Fishes twang!

Andrew Marvell: from Upon Appleton House, in Miscellaneous Poems (1681)


Curtis Roberts said...

There is such liveliness in this poem and picture combination. (The rainbow trout has a lot of personality. I'd sort of like to be his/her campaign manager, seeing how far he/she has gone -- USDA poster fish; Beyond The Pale.) Reading and seeing By The River Wharfe is the "liveliest" I've felt all day. I knew nothing about the River Wharfe -- "the most volatile, fastest rising river in the World" -- or what osiers were, but now I do.

TC said...


Yes, that handsome trout is definitely getting itself out and about in the great world; and, it seems, even beyond; all the way to where we are.

I would like to think Andrew was fishing without a hook, lolling about on the bank, a lazy toe or finger trailing in the water, less interested in actually catching those Fishes than in imagining catching them, and in love, as I have always been, with that wonderful echoic word for the plucking of a tense string.


Is there a more poetic word in English?

"To *Twangue*, resonare" -- Levins, Manipulus Vocabulorum, 1570.

Fair enough done by, if briefly, the word was, there in the Tudor lexicography.

Samuel Johnson, not always so dispassionate, was less than impressed: "Twang. A word making a quick action, accompanied with a sharp sound. Little used, and little deserving to be used."

SJ cites Prior:

There's one, the very best in all my quiver,
*Twang!* thro' his very heart and liver.


Jonson's linguistic conservatism of course always comes out in his prejudicial examples.

For the derivative "twangling", which he defines as "contemptibly noisy", he gives Shakespeare:

She did call me rascal, fidler,
And *twangling* jack, with twenty such vile terms.

(Pity the poor disrespected twangler.)

Coleridge, later on, is somewhat kinder: "When twanged an arrow from Love's mystic string", & c.

Shot in the heart. (I once read a rather great if scary account of the life of the executed killer Gary Gilmour, which I believe had that title. A twang or two on the heart strings in that.)

The Marvell poem, Upon Appleton House, is, by the way, great fun. A huge discursive country house poem and a rich quarry that includes family history and personal sketches as well as celebrations of the neighbouring fields, rivers and woods, together with more solemn reflections on such matters as civil war and the historical meaning of same.

It was one of the most placid and agreeable periods of the poet's life. He was employed teaching languages to Mary Fairfax, daughter of Thomas Fairfax, erstwhile commander of the parliamentary armies. Upon the end of hostilities TF had retired to his country residences in the Pennines. The principal seat was at Nun Appleton, hard by the convergence of the Wharfe and the Ouse in an extremely lovely part of rural Yorkshire. He was quite a civilized fellow and in his retirement his several hobbies there occupied him: collecting coins, medals and mss., translating and composing verse, improving the estates.

Bringing in Marvell as his daughter's tutor was a brilliant hire for Fairfax, whose tastes were literary and antiquarian. It was a very fine time for Marvell as well. No one one knows for sure, but I am inclined to think that much of his better known lyric poetry was written over the several years of his residence with Fairfax, from 1650.

Curtis Roberts said...

Thank you for the amazing history of “twang”. I should have thought about its history, but didn’t, and never knew. Unlike “prink”, a less commonly used very good word, which came up in a poem (Portrait of the Author as a Politely Homicidal Child) and discussion a few months ago, I’ve lived with twang all my life, like most people, I guess, mainly in connection with Duane Eddy (e.g., $1,000,000 Worth of Twang). For the last year, I’ve been trying to locate in my house a really interesting record I misplaced called Twang! A Tribute To Hank Marvin and The Shadows. I know you’ve written about Neil Young, and if you haven’t heard the record, it includes a version of Spring Is Nearly Here, which Neil recorded as a guitar duet with his boyhood friend Randy Bachman (Guess Who; BTO). I recall the liner notes saying that they didn’t need to rehearse at all before recording it because it was a number they’d played so often together as teen-agers. It’s a twangy AND quite touching piece of music and performance. I will read Upon Appleton House. By the River Wharfe was great.



Thanks for all such rambles around the grounds of Nun Appleton House! (where better to be in any case).

TC said...

"Thanks for all such rambles around the grounds of Nun Appleton House! (where better to be in any case)."--Stephen
"I will read Upon Appleton House. By the River Wharfe was great."--Curtis

Very happy to hear two such sensitive readers have enjoyed this bit from Marvell's vast and wonderful poem.

I had a while back prepared a larger excerpt for posting, but was constrained by inhouse contention that "no one on the internet will get it". Hmm.

At any rate, here is a bit more of Andrew's inspired lolling-about in the woods and by the riverside:


Thus I, easie Philosopher,
Among the Birds and Trees confer:
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the Fowles, or of the Plants.
Give me but Wings as they, and I
Streight floting on the Air shall fly:
Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted Tree.


Already I begin to call
In their most-learned Original:
And where I Language want,my Signs
The Bird upon the Bough divines;
And more attentive there doth sit
Then if She were with Lime-twigs knit.
No Leaf does tremble in the Wind
Which I returning cannot find.


Out of these scatter'd Sibyls Leaves
Strange Prophecies my Phancy weaves:
And in one History consumes,
Like Mexique-Paintings, all the Plumes.
What Rome, Greece, Palestine, ere said
I in this light Mosaick read.
Thrice happy he who, not mistook,
Hath read in Natures mystick Book.


And see how Chance's better Wit
Could with a Mask my studies hit!
The Oak-Leaves me embroyder all,
Between which Caterpillars crawl:
And Ivy, with familiar trails,
Me licks, and clasps, and curles, and hales.
Under this antick Cope I move
Like some great Prelate of the Grove,


Then, languishing with ease, I toss
On Pallets swoln of Velvet Moss;
While the Wind, cooling through the Boughs,
Flatters with Air my panting Brows.
Thanks for my Rest ye Mossy Banks,
And unto you cool Zephyr's Thanks,
Who, as my Hair, my Thoughts too shed,
And winnow from the Chaff my Head.

TC said...


"I’ve lived with twang all my life, like most people, I guess, mainly in connection with Duane Eddy."

That makes two of us.

First, re. twang, a correction. I have, in my second reference to Samuel Johnson's lexicographic twanging, mispelled his name as "Jonson". Unforgivable.

Second, Curtis, I am encouraged by you to broach a bit more linguistic backstory on "twang".

There is perhaps a Greek equivalent. The verb *psallein*, "to pluck, play on a stringed instrument." From this comes *psalterion*, passing into Church Latin *psalterium*, psalter.

Thus, "the Book of Psalms" & c.

The Psalmist=an earlier incarnation of Duane Eddy?

About DE, 'tis indeed wonderful to consider that by plucking single-note melodies on the bass strings of a Chet Atkins model Gretsch 6120 hollowbody, turning up the tremolo and running the signal through an echo chamber (the latter trick probably Lee Hazlewood's idea), he was able to sell over 100 million records worldwide and thus become the most successful instrumentalist in rock history.

Talk about brilliant schtick.

Sheer genius.

Here to remind us of this is 21 seconds of Raunchy.

And, "for the record", while we're at it, a brief discography of Twang:

* Have 'Twangy' Guitar Will Travel -- 1958
* The "Twangs" the "Thang" —1959
* $1,000,000.00 Worth of Twang —1960
* $1,000,000.00 Worth of Twang, Volume 2 —1962
* Twistin' 'N' Twangin -- 1962
* Twangy Guitar —1962
* "Twang" a Country Song —1963
* "Twangin'" Up a Storm! —1963
* Twangin' The Golden Hits —1965
* Twangsville—1965
* The Roaring Twangies -—1967

For a time in the 1960s I attempted to imitate this sound on a Fender Mustang with a little echo-box amp, reverb turned all the way up, and heavy foot on the tremolo pedal. (I learned, once again, that the second temple is not like the first.)

Some thirty years later, evidently not yet having learned my lesson, I composed an entire novel about a misguided hillbilly savant who discovers with time that he is being manipulated by forces beyond his power, personified by a conspiracy of backwoods puppet-dwarves. He becomes the instrument of their control, & c. The novel was first titled Doofus Voodoo, then later The Spell. I have just now dug up the earliest draft and found that it was called Twang. The first sentence: "Twang went the golden heartstrings, when the witches plucked them..."

As the sales record of the work in question ended up falling short of Duane's totals by about 99, 999, 999, it appears there is more to capturing the secret of Twang than I will ever know.



Please tell your inhouse contender that someone gets it. "Like some great Prelate of the grove," Marvell is still, after all these years, still marvellous.

TC said...


Holy moly!

What could be more cheering on a dark cold cloudy sleepless morning than the idea of AM, under his antick Cope, moving

Like some great Prelate of the Grove

through the canyons (and channels!) of Gotham City...