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A Number Of Old English Words With Different Meanings In Prose And In Poetry

By Author: Peter King
Total Articles: 73

The word 'mere' is it anomalous, being one of a number of Old English words with different meanings in prose and in poetry, in prose signifying always 'lake' or 'pool' but in poetry always 'sea'. Beowulf is the one exception, and this poetic lake behaves uncannily like a sea: 'Surging waves mount up from it wan to the clouds, when the wind stirs up fierce storms, until the air darkens and the heavens weep'. As Roberta Frank has noted: 'The effect of blending the poetic word with its common homonym in daily life was to bring the monstrous home: "detefabula narratur"'. Even a passing acquaintance with modern French or German should be enough to alert a sensitive wordsmith to Thomas Sabo the forked etymology of 'mere' and Tennyson, as we have seen, also read Old English in the original. 'Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind', published in 1830, imagines crisis of faith as a troubled sea, and religious security as the serene 'curls And ripples of an inland mere'. Two years later 'Eleanore' contains another 'inland mere', balanced later in the poem by an 'outer sea', expressing even more clearly his awareness of the etymological doublet.

In The Passing of Arthur, published in 1869, he puts it to use. The last great battle against the heathen takes place 'by the winter sea' (line 171), and also close to 'a great water' (line 180), the home of the Lady of the Lake, separated from the sea only by 'a dark strait of barren land' (line 178). It is referred to as a 'mere' repeatedly, yet poetically it is overwhelmed by images of the sea: Adam Roberts is surely right to argue that the Lady of the Lake 'occupies ambiguous ground between Christianity and the pagan world'. But the most obvious representatives of Thomas Sabo Jewellery the pagan world are the Saxons of the north, explicitly identified with the sea in Tennyson's memorandum, an identification hammered home repeatedly here with the 'northern morn' and 'noises of the Northern Sea'. The 'won to wolcnum' (line 1374) of Beowulfhas become not only the 'wan water' (line 804) of Gareth's mere, but also the 'wan wave' (line 129) of the sea that breaks over the bodies of the slain. Arthur beholds the carnage in the waves and feels himself 'but King among the dead' (line 146), a realm in which the leper, and the dancing dead of Gareth, also dwell. This cannot but render problematic the final departure of Arthur over the sea: 'He passes to be King among the dead' (line 449). Tennyson blends mere and sea in order to bring the monstrous home into the heart of the poem. A Christian empire has fallen and a new barbaric order inhabits the heart of the realm.

On closer inspection, however, the blending points back to unsettling elements the realm has always contained. Arthur himself has been associated from the beginning not just with the Lady of the Lake but also with the sea. In The Coming of Arthur a mysterious 'ship, the shape thereof A dragon winged' appears, suggesting in a sea-faring context the beaked prows of the Saxons rather than a Welsh dragon. As Merlin and Bleys look on, it deposits Arthur on the shore beside Tintagil:
And then the two Dropt to the cove, and watched the great sea fall, Wave after wave, each mightier than the last, Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame: And down the wave and in the flame was borne A naked babe, and rode to Merlin's feet, Who stoop and caught the babe, and cried 'The King!'

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