Colloquiality

2004-01-23

In a letter to Emerson scholar Regis Michaud of January 1918, Robert Frost writes as follows:

Some twenty-two lines in "Monadnoc" beginning "Now in sordid weeds they sleep" (I don't need to copy them out for such an Emersonian as you, Michaud) meant almost more to me than anything else on the art of writing when I was a youngster; and that not just on the art of writing colloquial verse but on the art of writing any kind of verse or prose. I suffer from the way people abuse the word colloquial. All writing, I don't care how exalted, how lyrical, or how seemingly far removed from the dramatic, must be as colloquial as this passage from "Monadnoc" comes to. I am as sure that the colloquial is the root of every good poem as I am that the national is the root of all thought and art. It may shoot up as high as you please and flourish as widely abroad in the air, if only the roots are what and where they should be. One half of individuality is locality: and I was about venturing to say the other half was colloquiality. The beauty of Emerson's "Uriel" and "Give All to Love" is that it is well within the colloquial as I use the word....

The lines from Emerson's poem "Monadnoc" to which Frost refers are as follows:

Now in sordid weeds they sleep,
Their secret now in dulness keep;
Yet, will you learn our ancient speech,
These the masters who can teach.
Fourscore or a hundred words
All their vocal muse affords;
These they turn in other fashion
Than the writer or the parson.
I can spare the college-bell,
And the learned lecture, well;
Spare the clergy and libraries,
Institutes and dictionaries,
For the hardy English root
Thrives here, unvalued, underfoot.
Rude poets of the tavern hearth,
Squandering your unquoted mirth,
Which keeps the ground, and never soars,
While Jake retorts, and Reuben roars;
Tough and screaming, as birch-bark,
Goes like a bullet to its mark,
While the solid curse and jeer
Never balk the waiting ear.

What is this "colloquiality"? It is the living language of conversation, the "hardy root" and grounding of any language in its day-to-day use by individuals speaking together.


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