Of Language – Mary Gilmore

Of Language


How now, Horatius! Hath language hours?
Sleeps it awhile to wake again renewed,
As chrysalids pupate the many-hued?
Or aging, man-like, hath it mellowed powers?
Sometimes (I dream) language, like Time, devours
The end that earliest it urgent wooed,
Changing its dandling to still stranger brood
As flowers will change to seed, and seed to flowers!
And this crude speech of ours we use today,
Crude as new must, Time-ripened may seem fine
As anything we heard great Sydney say,
Or Shakespeare plunder from the muses Nine;
While future times may, even here, unpack
All that these few poor words, so halting lack!


Flower turns to seed, and seed returns – a flower
One seed makes many flowers, one flower much seed.
Thus from a word shall mighty thinking breed,
And single thoughts to words increase the dower.
Are not all words old thought new-set to power,
Late-visible where we, late-come, may read,
Losing in them the habit of the weed,
And climbing where, unlearned, we still must cower?

Speak not of history in stone! For I
Can show you history written deeper yet –
The simple words nor youth nor age forget
Passed lip to lip as centuries went by;
The caravans of years these leave behind,
Shards for which man made ladders for the mind.

Mary Gilmore 1919

Well what is the nature of language? How does it vary with time and interpretation over time. These two sonnets by Mary Gilmore explore these questions. Much thought has been given to the nature of language as well as adherence to sonnet structure.

Looking at the first line – ‘Hath language hours’ … well ‘hath’ is not a word used nowadays but quite common years ago – so here we see a word that has changed in usage over time so in this sense language has hours. Definition (or understanding) may have hours too … for example the common association and meaning of word ‘gay’. But will words (or text) have a deeper or new understanding that future generations might unravel, for example an insight laying latent for many years. I think more the case that new generations will extend or use the words of the past in new creations of their own.

Of course context at the time of writing is highly in the mind of the reader who lives in that time. For future generations may not understand the relevance or appreciate any sting that might have been in the words at the time of writing. But I do like the notion of words as seeds.

Seeds lie in the ground and they are dead until they germinate. Words only come alive when they are read or heard by a person. The understanding, interpretation and associative images and thoughts conveyed by words is in many ways a highly personal and unique experience. I may mention a ‘wheel barrow’ – you may see a red one straight away for what ever reason – so the ‘flowers’ that are generated may be many types – not too mention any vegetables suddenly appearing out of the ground because of strong personal association.

From a word mighty things may breed. Well all words are the product of thought – we think before we speak or write. I think this is the case even for spontaneous output – what do you think? … it doesn’t have to be true of course … that’s another issue. So all words are reflective, history … the product of old-thought … and as Mary Gilmore says, – ‘are not all words old thought new-set to power’.

Of course it could be argued that poetry is often the product of much thought but whether that makes the words more or less powerful in the mind of the reader is of course debatable (I nearly said food for thought).

… and I do like the last lines … history is not cold stone … history is living a history linked by the words expressed from generation to generation … history is attached to every word as death is attached to life.

For those reading this from Oz have a look at a $10 note and you will see Mary Gilmore.

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