Late fall. Most trees are bare now. The leaves on most oaks are tenacious. The willow oak in my front yard is no exception. Of the three trees planted at the same time, it has grown the most during the summer, almost doubling in height. I noticed it one morning last week, tall and filled with handsome dark brown and burnished dark orange leaves. I then knew its name was Erik. It is not a name I would have expected: Erik. The tree was definite that the spelling of the name end in k. That makes since, since it is an oak.
Language changes. A couple of Sundays ago I told my massage and Reiki therapist, “I have lain on my right side this week.” I realized how strange the sound of “lain” was. Would it have been less strange had I said, “I have been lying on my right side this week”?
We used to have a verb, “lie,” meaning “recline.” It was used this: “She lies in the sun every day during the summer.” “I am going to lie down now.” “She has lain in the sun all summer.” “I lay there yesterday.”
There is a different verb, “lay,” meaning “put or place.” It is used thus: “I will lay the rake against the fence.” “Yesterday I laid the rake there.” “I have laid the rake there all summer.” Now “lay” is also used to mean what “lie” used to mean.
What happened is that the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” Thus: “Yesterday she lay in the sun.” Since the past tense of “lie” is the same word as the present tense of “lay,” the usage became blurred. Now the verbs are interchanged, with the forms “lie” and “lain” becoming mostly unused.
Together: “I will lay the rake against the fence and then lie in the hammock.” “He had laid the rake against the fence before he lay down in the hammock.”
I recently read a novel by a young college English composition teacher, and he interchanged the verbs at random. In The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, David Sedaris published an essay in which the verbs were interchanged. If the editor of The New Yorker did not “correct” the usage, I guess now that the verbs are used freely together as one.
It’s fun to watch language change. I remember when my high school sophomore English teacher frowned on the television advertisement, “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should.” What’s the problem? It was not tobacco usage; it was language usage. It used to be that the word “like” did not connect clauses. (Look that up, or not.) At that time, English teachers and editors would prefer, “Winstons taste good as a cigarette should,” since it was proper for “as” to connect clauses.
What’s next? I’m hearing people interchanging past and past perfect tenses. For example, “I waited” and “I had waited” now are used to mean the same thing. Know the difference? (There is one.) I’m pretty sure that soon there will be no distinction in meaning.
It’s not only English. Over a decade ago, when I was spending a month in France, my host and hostess were amazed that I was speaking the subjunctive mode. They said that it was not used in spoken French any more.
I am textbook English and textbook French Bill.
Reading for the Season: Phyllis McGinley, A Wreath of Christmas Legends. (1967). Illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. The book is a collection of short poems which retell Nativity legends from the Middle Ages. Some poems give explanations, such as why the stork is associated with babies, why the robin’s breast is red, why the cat is aloof, why the owl is nocturnal . There are beautiful and magical stories of the rosemary, the pine tree, the bees, the stars, and several other images.
My favorite legend is “The Birthday.” Angels choose sleeping children and transport them to Heaven to play and party with Jesus. “Along the tasseled floors / They drive their rainbow hoops like charioteers . . . make kites of meteors . . . Reach forth to touch the spinning galaxies . . . climb the unfading trees / Of that celestial weather.”
The chosen children, returned safely by the angels, remember but “cannot speak / Such wonders by their names, / So presently fall silent.”
Conclusion: “The child whom Christmas captures / Grows beautiful and wise, / Possessor all his days of arts and raptures / And heaven-dazzled eyes.”
The illustrations, drawings, are interesting and beautiful.
Listening for the season: Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Hodie: A Christmas Cantata” (1956). London Symphony Chorus, Choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Symphony Orchestra, soloists Elizabeth Gale, Robert Tear, Stephen Roberts. Richard Hickox, conductor. EMI Digital.
“Hodie” is Latin for “Today.” The text of this 70-minute work is from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John; poems by the English poets Miles Cloverdale, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, George Herbert, W. Ballet, William Drummond, and Ursula Vaughan Williams.
The third movement, “Song,” text by Milton, from “Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” contains the beautiful and often quoted lines: “But peaceful was the night, / Wherein the Prince of light / His reign of peace upon the earth began: / The winds, with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kiss’d / Whispering new joys to the mild ocean / Who now had quite forgot to rave, / While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.”
I love the ninth movement, “Pastoral,” text by George Herbert, “The shepherds sing: and shall I silent be? / My God, no hymn for thee? My soul’s a shepherd too . . . ”
The eleventh movement, “Lullaby,” text by W. Ballet is as lovely a piece as I know.
The cantata begins with a choral and orchestral fanfare: “Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! / Hodie Christus natus est!
Contrasting movements make the piece dramatically successful. There are a “Song,” two movements named “Choral,” “Pastoral,” “Lullaby,” “Hymn,” “March of the Three Kings” (with beginning and ending marked by brass and tympani), and triumphant ending, “And heaven, as at some festival, / Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.” (Milton)
I am intrigued that at the center of the piece is a poem expressing agnosticism, Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen.” Is it an acknowledgement of the secular times of the mid-twentieth century? What commentary is the poem making about the strongly religious ideas of the other movements?
I have heard part of the last movement, “Ring out, ye crystal spheres,” (text, Milton) performed by talented choirs, but I have not heard the entire piece performed in public, and I would like to do so.
Thank you for reading. I hope your week will be good.