Magic And Water

A child in waterproofs plays in a circle of water jets

Wonder is not only a thing of childhood, although that’s when everyday things seem most miraculous. The child has been waterproofed by adults, but it is the hand with the missing glove he attends to.

We sense the mystery as a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, but there’s a magic in the way some writers use language that we rarely attend to. Written 1910-13, published 1934, these sentences describe another form of water as a small boat is tossed on a violent storm somewhere off the Venetian coast:

“Like unto oil, was the sea – the high sea, lifted high from its deepness. Never, no never before, had he sailed on a sea lifted so haughtily high as this sea, whose unfaltering billows rolled with velocity by, like high gods in pursuit.”

– Frederick Rolfe, from ‘The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole’.

The author, writing as Baron Corvo, ends each chapter of his novel with a summary sentence or a verbal set piece and this is the latter. Simple enough, you might say, but it works for me at three levels – the sense; the way the phrasing of the words mimics high waves; and the way it conjures up an actual sea I have known.

Rolfe is punctuating for a rolling movement. There is no real need for a comma after oil, but I don’t believe it’s accidental. He’s mimicking the waves in words and phrases.

I’ve savoured this description many times. You need to flow with it, of course: resistance is rarely futile when it comes to enjoying any form of art. If you read with an ear for the waves in the prose, you can feel them build up, crash and roll. You might call it reading for the seasickness. I think it’s connected to breath control, though the concept of that is in itself strange when we are reading silently and – presumably – can breathe whenever we like.

I could analyse the passage to bits – observing, for example, how ‘high’, repeated four times, helps create a rise and fall pattern; how the very shape of the word ‘high’ has a rolling motion, measured from the top off the ‘h’ to the bottom of the ‘g’ and back up again – that sort of thing. But perhaps that’s stretching a point.

I’ll never put my finger on it, and never really know if it’s just something that happens in my imagination when I step back and read the passage listening to its rhythm and movement, rather than for the sense.

We all know some mimetic words, (e.g. ones for sounds creatures make, like ‘ribbit’), but rarely see a mimetic paragraph. This one makes me understand how people can find poetry in unrhymed lines, or where the rhythm dances around a fixed pattern rather than adheres to it.

You may not be able to feel any waves in the passage, or might say it’s just a fluke, and that’s fine too. With all the artists out there, we will each find some that resonate with our character and experience with peculiar directness.

And I don’t want to imply Rolfe always gets it right for me. He also wrote as a set piece to end another chapter:

Truth is tarter than taratiddles; and nothing is tarter, terser, than truth on the track of tired trash in a trance.

I’ve always thought that was a step too far, although, reading it for movement rather than sense, you can feel, as the sentence thumps its way out, Rolfe’s alter-ego’s weary ‘So there then!’ with particular force .

I’m relying on my copy of ‘The Desire and Pursuit Of The Whole’, published by Gibson Square Books, which has ‘taratiddles’ rather than the form you’ll find floating around the internet. Is it a typo, did Rolfe invent the word, or recklessly (or unconsciously) adapt it to squeeze in another ‘t’? 

Shared for the weekly photo challenge: liquid.

24 Replies to “Magic And Water”

  1. I really like that paragraph. It reminds me of William Faulkner’s description of the great flood of 1927. He wrote it in a short story called “The Old Man” and like the flood waters his description of it went rambling on forever.

    1. My travels in Mississippi have made me wonder whether I ought to read Faulkner. He is mentioned often, like some kind of underground river.

      1. I’ve only read a two of his short stories but both have stuck with me for over 50 years, both because I had personal experiences I could relate to the story. But I also love his writing style. In “The Old Man” its because as a kid my parents drove us to see a flooded area of the Wabash River on the Illinois/Indiana line. It looked just like the description by Faulkner that I read years later. I could relate to his short story “A Rose for Emily” because a similar situation took place just up the block from where I lived when I was about eight years old.

        1. I feel sorry for whoever’s story was similar to ‘A Rose For Emily’, having looked it up online. His writing style is the reason I keep being tempted to read him as people often mention it.

          Our place of birth alters us more than we perhaps realise: I doubt I could have studied English in Mississippi without becoming familiar with Faulkner. In England, it was not too hard to sidestep him.

  2. There is nothing about this post I don’t love! Thank you, thank you! Not just a joy to read, but a steamer trunk of things to think about. Of course, your observation about not needing rhyme to qualify as poetry resonated. The sea-as-oil paragraph deserves several readings to capture the whole of it, and I guess that is quite in keeping with “The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.” To value the sounds of words is to write well, I think. It’s that ungloved hand, isn’t it?

    1. ‘The ungloved hand’ – trust you to make the connection! Yes, I was thinking of you when I added the bit about the rhyme. I was travelling and just snatching time to read when I saw your Poetry Day post and was sorry your pocket was poemless. It is a big question and we all have our own ideas of what is prose and what is poetry – or prosaic and poetical, a different thing. I value prose and poetry and if the two cross over a little, we could see that as nature defying human classifications, which it so often does – assuming it is nature that drives us to express ourselves.

      1. I have wondered from time to time why I get my knickers in such a knot about what poetry is. Why this need for definition? The one question leads to the other. Writing can lead one into answerless questions, methinks. But then maybe the asking, not the answering, is what’s important.

        1. You think about it because you care about it and you want to define because you are thoughtful.
          By the way, I hope that your thoughts are not tied up in inserting pictures. Your problems could be down to your browser. You can find out about that here:

          Something like Firefox might be something to try – the name might give you a smile or a grimace, depending on whether it works for you. The icon is like an orange fox wrapped around a blue world. It is not too hard to download it.

  3. A thoroughly enjoyable post that gives food for thought as well as entertainment in the reading. Thank you.

    1. I’m glad you liked it and a touch relieved it isn’t just me! The bit you mention helps builds a rocking motion.

    1. If you were to pick up this book, it would all come flooding back – it’s autobiographical in an if-only-I-could-write-my-own-future way.

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