- The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry by David-Antoine Williams
The Life of Words contends that 'etymology has a peculiar kind of validity for poetry, independent from other kinds of discourse' (p. 9). Such exceptionalism is nevertheless conditioned by other discourses—including lexicography, theology, philosophy, and of course the modern discipline of etymology itself. David-Antoine Williams teases out the implications of this multidisciplinarity for poetics in general, before addressing the work of five modern poets.
The book begins with a wide-ranging and much-needed history of thinking about etymology, providing context for a similarly broad survey of poetic etymologizing. Detailed analyses of chronologically and stylistically diverse poems lead Williams to argue that etymological 'wordplay' should in many cases be taken seriously as 'word-work' (or at least taken seriously as reflecting on whether we can take etymologies seriously: p. 69). He catalogues seven types of etymological ambiguity, the seventh encompassing 'the most radical and ramifying etymological ambiguities, where etymological polysemies go beyond local figuration to become prime motivators of poetic language' (p. 87).
Thoroughgoing etymological ambiguities are subsequently identified in Seamus Heaney, R. F. Langley, J. H. Prynne, Geoffrey Hill, and Paul Muldoon. Williams's close readings are lexicographical and even statistical, making refreshingly purposeful use of dictionaries and corpora. One particularly successful tactic is the listing of suggestive etymological complexes surrounding a connection drawn out by a poet; for example, when Langley finds four cognates of 'toe' ('token', 'sign', 'mark', 'miracle'), Williams additionally gives us 'teach', 'digit', 'index', 'diction', 'dictionary', 'deictic', 'vindication', and 'paradigm', which are all derived from Proto-Indo-European *deik-/*deig-(pp. 125–26). This expansiveness makes the significance of a poet's choices more apparent, and loosens the restraints etymology can impose on a critical argument. Conversely, we are always notified when a poet's etymologizing diverges from the authoritative account (usually found in the OED), which might be wearying were it not vital to a larger point about linguistic accuracy and precision in the epistemology of poetry.
The poetic consequences of 'the inherent precarity of etymological conclusions' [End Page 498] (p. 131) are central to the long chapters on Hill and Muldoon. With his deft analysis of Hill's 'favourite words' ('crux'; 'cant'; 'atone'; 'unre-'; 'métier', 'paradigm'), Williams diverges from Matthew Sperling's Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) in proposing that, for Hill, mistaken or fantastic etymologies are 'an activation and embodiment of the etymological "crux or crisis" itself' (p. 185). Muldoon's own logic of connectedness is also pursued in such a way as to make a linguistic corpus out of his literary oeuvre, discovering in his unique use of rhyme a 'hermetic etymology' (p. 222) which 'grows, and in growing accrues meaning to itself, which can at the discretion of the critic be called upon to inform a reading' (p. 254).
These studies pay only scant attention to how etymological ambiguities complicate critical discretion. However, Williams is nothing less than judicious in encouraging us to see etymology at work in poetic structures such as enjambment, metaphor, and pararhyme. His novel notation of pararhymes, for instance, allows a discussion of the 'correspondences between acoustic and semantic domains [that] are the dual axes of etymological relation' (p. 225), and of course poetic value. But it is poets' embrace of etymological errors—the notion that correspondences can be etymological in spirit, if not in fact—that makes etymologized language a paradigm of poetic language. Williams identifies 'paradigm' as a favourite word of Hill's, but it certainly counts among his own, too. Fitting, then, that in The Life of Words he has produced a paradigm of etymological criticism that should prove instructive for the growing body of scholarship in this field.