Word and Symbol: Studies in English Language
By C.L. Wrenn
Charles Leslie Wrenn was born in 1895. Not much is known of his early years, but he ended up as a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford. He was also a Professor at King’s College, London, and in 1946 he came to succeed J.R.R. Tolkien’s position as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He became a serious member of the Inklings in the 1950s, particularly with the “ham-feast” of 1952. It was C.S. Lewis who took the initiative to bring Wrenn into the group. He was liked by all, though he was not as interested in playing about with fantasy writing and stuck to his academic field. He died in 1969. While this book is not particularly spiritual, some of the concepts it touches upon are, and the literary criticism is certainly of assistance when examining other works.
Word and Symbol (1965)
Rewrite of 1942 lecture
Wrenn did not agree with the general concept that literary criticism had evolved into a science. He was interested in the idea of the meaning of words and not just from a linguistic standpoint, but that of philosophy as well. He brings up many different contemporary works on the subject, along with his opinion of them, particularly Ogden and Richards’ work. He endeavors to point out that symbolism and words are not necessarily at war with each other. In other words, plain language versis the high vaulted symbolic which do not have to be opposites and the symbolic is not “better” than plain basic meaning in something. One can appreciate Middle Ages texts without dragging in symbolism. He also brings up computers and their influence in linguistics. Of course when he wrote this it was speculation, but he was bang on. He was not very interested in the origins of words and symbols, but rather their development. An interesting point he brings up is that language does not have to have an association with sound. Written or drawn symbols can convey the meaning of something even to people speaking different languages. There are technical terms which are written out in user manuals but that most people don’t use in every day speech. He also points out that meanings in words can be added or changed dizzyingly quickly– it isn’t a slow evolutionary process. He disagrees with separating linguistic and literary studies. In literary, the symbolic has gone rampant with no checks in reality and in linguistics it has become devoid of any historical perspective. Outer language is for things common to all people, like the animal ‘pig’. Inner is that of a culture. For example, if I walked up and called you a ‘pig’ you wouldn’t take to kindly to it. That is an example of inner language influences. In another culture it might mean you were sweet and wholesome, but it would also mean the actual animal, or outer language meaning. Wrenn suggests a third, which is that which each individual brings to the meaning through their own experience. If you had a pet pig that you loved very much you might get a sort of happy warm feeling inside when you thought of pigs, and might write something where ‘pig’ had yet another meaning, at least for you. The second and third are what makes translation of language so difficult, since a full cultural background is required. Wrenn then attempts to define ’symbol’, mostly by saying what it is not. Interestingly he also points out, “of all forms of language the current colloquial at any time, and especially under modern conditions, is the most unstable, trivial and flat” (12). As for trying to properly understand older documents, “to appreciate medieval literature one must explore a vast field of background matters — cultural elements, archaeology, history, vanished patterns of thought, and so on…while loading the study with so much peripheral material, besides the basic work to be done philologically, that literary texts may lose their properly literary significance and aesthetic value. On the other hand, if in order to get the fullest literary values from the study of early texts one reads them simply as literature largely divorced from knowledge of the languages in which they are preserved…would have had no meaning to the medieval ears and minds for which it was originally intended” (13-14) in other words, a proper balance of philological and literary appreciation must be gained.
Saxons and Celts in South-West Britain (1959)
The O’Donnell Lectures for 1958 at Oxford
Wrenn was interested in a comparison of Irish and Anglo-Saxon literature, and chose South-West Britain because it was an area he was already familiar with. There are magico-religious elements, which sometimes blur with the Christian, particularly in Celtic origins. First of all, both cultures made use of similar rune structures which were both written signs and also used in magic. Even the art is somewhat similar, with images from Sutton Hoo reflecting that in illuminated manuscripts. Wrenn also looks a good deal at the similarity of words in the different cultures, perhaps even borrowed from each other. For example, Celtic Christians were obsessed with stone crosses, and there is some mention of Irish in the Brut as well. They both were interested in religious hermitage, and memorialized it in song. There may be some Irish influence in Beowulf as well, perhaps simply due to copying the manuscript for preservation. Wrenn goes into the similarities of meter in their works as well. He particularly took note of Glastonbury and Cornwall where the cultures blended. Relatively little Old Cornish has survived, however. He spends some time on the Cornish Arthur legends and related place names which is extremely detailed.
‘Standard’ Old English (1933)
Lecture for the Philological Society, London
There are many different terms for the various sorts of Old English, such as Classical or Late West-Saxon. There was a great emphasis at the time of teaching ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon, but what precisely that was remains to be seen. There were many dialects of Anglo-Saxon, just as there are in English today, and possibly more pronounced. It seems most people’s idea of ‘pure’ was early West-Saxon, “or, rather, of the mechanical over-systemizing of a scheme first devised…to help beginners” (59) and mostly had to do with King Alfred’s era. The result was simply squabbling chaos as to what exactly ’standard’ meant and which dialect and time was ‘better’, most of which took place in the late 1800s. To complicate matters further, many dates and origins of manuscripts were thrown up with new archaeological evidence that seemed to contradict the accepted views. Early West-Saxon was far from standardized. Wrenn provides a sampling table of the differences in the so-called ’standard’ Old English. In fact, it is in the later texts that more standard spelling seems to come into use. Wrenn covers all the other major works on the subject and their weaknesses. He stays mostly to primary MS sources for his talk. Basically, like all other languages, there was nothing ’standard’ about Anglo-Saxon, and those studying and teaching it would do well to remember that.
On the Continuity of English Poetry (1958)
Wrenn takes on the question of whether pre-Chaucerian literature/poetry has any bearing on the present day. Their style was extremely different, but only to the untrained eye. The main problem is that originally such works were meant to be heard, not read. With the printing press, written works became more widely available and thus people spent time reading quietly on their own, rather than hearing it from someone else out loud. One writes a script for a radio drama differently than for television, and it was the same sort of issue. Old English is known for ceremony, progressive conserving of tradition, creatively assimilating foreign material and ‘Gnomic’ moralizing. For the most part, even in modern English poetry, most of those remain– look through Chaucer and on forward and those elements will be there. What people mostly react to, Wrenn terms as “heresy of the subject-matter. This heresy is the judging — consciously or unconsciously — of a poem by its subject matter alone,” (80). People thought differently then, and people know will react to it, regardless of the many other obvious similarities. Another is that of language, as word meanings tend to shift through centuries and leave readers confused. Older poetry tended to have a lot less to do with ‘love’ as a subject, but looking at the poem itself there is no great difference with later authors such as Chaucer. One of the obvious being that of stress, which whether looking at Old English or William Langland, appears quite similar. In fact, if you look at Piers Plowman’s word ‘certes’ it is very similar in use to ‘dude’ of the twenty-first century. The general form of poetry has remained unchanged, but has always tried to revolutionize the way words are used to express ideas.
On Re-reading Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (1943)
For English Association
This is more random than the other papers, because it is more like a blog post of Wrenn’s impressions upon rereading Shepheardes Calender. He begins with the flower-assage of the April Eclogue. “It is a subtle and quite inexpressible blend of meterical verbal music, suggested symbolic significances, and romantic sound-associations recalling the Middle Ages” (97). He points out that flowers in that time were known for their smell and power of healing. Even today herbs such as lavender are known to have medicinal qualities. He compares the passage to the Gawain Poet’s “Pearl”, which frankly did not occur to me. I see that poem as relating more to jewels, but to each his own. I do recall a passage where the precious pearl is lost among the deep grass which struck me rather strongly. Wrenn gets sidetracked into Faerie Queene for a bit and finally comments on the closing lines of Calender. There is a question whether the acknowledging “with the Pilgrim that the Ploughman playde a whyle” is referring to both Chaucer and Langland, or simply Chaucer’s “Plowmans Tale”. Wrenn hopes it is the former, as do I. He goes on at some length with illustrations into that question and does not come to any definite conclusions. There is some experimentation in language in the Calender, which does not always work. There is also the question of how to read it. While most consider it northernly, Wrenn suggests a south-western accent is also “delightfully effective” (107). He covers some of the unique word uses in the work and closes with the conclusion that the Calender was an interesting experiment that did not entirely work out, but had some splendid moments and was, “an interesting collection historically” (113).
The Language of Milton (1957)
Milton tended to be very serious with his experimentations in language, “indeed no poet has ever more deliberately and fully carried out such a task” (115). Wrenn compares him with Spenser at some length, in their willingness to try new things with words and meaning. He thinks that Milton was the last or one of the last who wrote to be heard rather than read, which is important to keep in mind. Sometimes his spelling reflected how he wanted a word spoken, for example “his form wrauth doubtless represents something far nearer to the actual sound he preferred in this word…than wrath” (117). He tried all sorts of things, including alliteration and careful word choices. Milton also enjoyed using words with double meanings which enlarged the symbolism of a phrase but could also become confusing. He was well familiar with older versions of the English language and liked to make use of them with his own twist, to the point that some said “Milton writes English like a dead language” (125). Some of this he felt necessary, out of respect for the subject matter of some of the poetry. Milton knew what he wanted in his words and went for it.
The Value of Spelling as Evidence (1933)
Address to the Philological Society, London
Wrenn first sadly admits that the “Society for Simplified Spelling” which was formed to correct the seemingly haphazard spelling of English did not succeed. Part of the problem is that while language evolves, spelling remains strictly static, a point which Wrenn humourously illustrates. In fact, written spelling often has little to no relationship with its spoken form. Language needs “the periodic adjustment of any discrepancy between pronunciation and spelling whenever such occur” (131). He turns first to Beowulf as a manuscript. He points out that runes and so forth might not be as easy to translate as we all seem to believe now. Not everyone had a fixed standard spelling all the time. Some historians point to spellings as proof of a date of a manuscript, many of which conclusions were later debunked by proper evidence. Basically, spelling cannot be used to date manuscripts– it turns into a highly technical analysis and loses sight of the larger picture. Wrenn is very fond of place-names and often brings them up as examples. There are also what Wrenn terms ‘ghost-words’ “having no other existence than that begotten in the mind of scribe, compositor, editor, or lexicographer, but which later come to lead a life of their own in the language” (138) and further confuse spelling. Indeed, many a printer’s typographic error has lead to something quite interesting. Most of the time, the mistakes are simply that — mistakes. There are also problems with ‘ghost-pronunciation’ of words which lead to still more problems. Sometimes looking carefully at older poetry, one can guess at the original spelling and therefore correction of a word and restore it. It is difficult to pinpoint scribal errors, but sometimes it is worth a try by going back to the earliest version and working from there. Some spellings were for rhyme purposes. Often one that will sound perfect when read will look odd on paper, so the spelling was simply adjusted to match. Wrenn comments that phonetic spelling would be helpful, but there is still some purpose to a vague standardized spelling, at least for future generations who are trying to understand it.
Henry Sweet (1933)
Address to the Philological Society, London
Perhaps the greatest English Philologist, Henry Sweet, accomplished much. He had many years in business before he entered Balliol College and philology. He was interested quite early on in Anglo-Saxon and published some important works, even as an undergraduate. He studied pronunciation in living languages for some time, including Bangor Cymraeg. He scientifically laid out philology and simplified Anglo-Saxon for the beginners. He was a great admirer of phonetics and reformation of spelling. He published many primers in Old and Middle English. Eventually he turned from older English to grammar, but was saddened by not making the new position of Professorship of English Language and Literature. Sweet worked alone, without support from other people and his treatment merely added to his general suspicion of others. The result was that he became even less likable than ever and spoke without any reference to others, so his recognition came mostly posthumously. Sweet also held, however, “a scholar would make his best contribution to knowledge with the background of his own national culture and character” (158), and therefore had no interest in modern German, thus his Old English did suffer slightly. He completed an important work on the history of modern language teaching, and also began working on Arabic and Chinese. He believed in the scientific method of forming a hypothesis, then working tirelessly to gather evidence and decide whether or not it was right. “The writer of such a book is bound to express his opinion definitely on all questions on which his mind is made up, even if he stands alone in his views” (161). In 1901 he was again frustrated from a position that clearly should have been his — Professorship of Comparative Philology. Despite his highly technical pulling apart of language, he did love and appreciate its aesthetic value as well. Despite being ignored or openly cut at Oxford, Sweet kept on with an extraordinary volume of works, although his personal relations became even worse. He basically shut himself up in his rooms and worked nonstop. He had incredible energy and persistence, and his work became the basis of all later thought. Wrenn commented “I know of no book which packs so much clearly set out and stimulating fact and thought into so small a space” (168).
Linguistic Relations between England and Russia (1945)
The Slavic and East European Review
Wrenn concentrates on Great Russian as a language, rather than the entire Soviet Union. Both languages do have obvious similarities which could not be said of, say, English and Chinese. The connections appear quietly for some time, but begin being clear in the late fourteenth century and became serious in the late sixteenth. Both seemed to influence the other linguistically. The main differences are in that of grammar. Clearly borrowed words are evidenced on both sides, and each other’s literature was translated back and forth. Even in original Leo Tolstoy you have passages in English. Wrenn again points to ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ language (see notes on “Word and Symbol”) with regards to Russian and English. While the two languages did not have heavy influences on each other, they did still have some which should not be forgotten.
T.S. Eliot and the Language of Poetry (1957)
Wrenn begins by wondering if Eliot had any merit at all or was just part of a popular craze of the time for no actual literary reason. He gives several selections from the various works, which are a bit haphazard, particularly in his early poetry. Eliot throws in random over-the-top words for no apparent reason other than to have them. His later works sort themselves out and are more integrated. He was “intensely language-conscious” (188). Mostly, Wrenn gives selection after selection with a few notes, commenting that Eliot enjoyed mixing all sorts of languages together for added effect. After writing several plays, Eliot turned to more ordinary use of words and language. But the question becomes, “how near to prose may the language of verse drama go without ceasing to have significance other than that of prose?” (193), the answer being that in Eliot’s case it had ceased and become prose. Wrenn then compares Yeats with Eliot in their interest of common language and ballads. Eliot knew a great deal of English and other languages, and “sought to make the language serve ‘in some graver subject’” (195). Most of his popularity was due to his early works, which fell short from a literary stand point. Wrenn pointes out that it is in his later achievements that he is to be commended, not on random popular fanaticism.