The Relish of Dim Names
WHO has not felt the ineffable charm that lurks in names that hark back to distant lands and times remote from our own ? Do we not all, however sophisticated, feel some sympathy with the old Scottish cummer whose ear tingled with delight whenever she heard the great Doctor Chalmers ringing out that “ braw word, Mes-o-po-taw-mia ” ? And who is there that has not sighed with Sir Thomas Browne in impotent longing to know what song it was the Sirens sang ? The ear is certainly tickled sweetly by brave sounds that smack of mystery ; and the unknown has ever the old, old spell for the heart of man. Distance and dimness are enchanters still, despite the telescope of archæology ; nor has the world now for the first time to learn how it stirs the pulse of adventure to be challenged by the occult.
Surely Astolat is a more taking sound than Guildford, and Bernicia fills the mouth more refreshingly than the modern counties that mark where the ancient kingdom stood. The elder gods, whom men heard with throbbing ears in the cave of Trophonius, bore sweeter names and drew nearer to the heart of humanity than official Zeus and Hera. They were of Pan’s kin; and Blake, had he chosen, could have painted them all, for he loved to paint what no eye but his could see.
When Ezekiel tells of his visions by the river Chebar, the very names he utters are mystic, and have a secret power over the soul. It is just so, too, when Coleridge sings of Kubla Khan : —
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Alph has all the majesty and nameless awe that cling to that dread phrase in the book of Revelation, “ I am Alpha and Omega.” There is many a name in Marco Polo that swells with limitless grandeur, like the Jin released by the fisherman from the fetter of Solomon’s seal.
“ Silken Samarkand ” is a sound of far greater magic to me, who know it not in the flesh, than if I had lived there for half a lifetime ; and the name of Bassora acts like a mirage upon the mind, bringing before the inner vision amazing vistas of golden mists and shadowed waters and dreamy gardens, with barges at the marble stairs, in which veiled beauties are about to flee forth from the harem. Bagdad hums with the nocturnal adventures of Haroun ; and Babylon still takes with its name the perfume of that great love which sweetened the eyes of Amytis the Mede with the sight of her native mountain foliage.
There are names that sound to me like the requiem for dead Templars, and there are names that whisper of treasure hidden in a garden; names that sing of wine quaffed on housetops in warm lands amid the murmur of soft voices, and names that linger long in the ear, chiming there with sweet sounds of the past, which somehow remind one of roses, smooth - petaled and fragrant. Others there are that flow gently over the lip with a serenity that brings to mind the daily walk and conversation of the tranquil children of God who call themselves Friends; and others again that sound a tocsin before they are fairly out of the mouth.
The memories that link these things together are too subtle for analysis ; and yet too strong are the impressions that cling to such names to be mere creations of the fancy. Sometimes I am prone to believe that they are so real in their relations, dim, undefined, and unidentifiable though they seem to be now, that in the infinite leisure of the future they may suffice to reconstruct the past.