Concordance-Making in New Zealand
As a child and as a young person I received much advice — some good, some bad, some indifferent, all useless. I have grown up into neither lawyer, doctor, nor spiritual pastor, so my advice is not a marketable commodity. Therefore, having freely received, I now freely give — advice.
To those wishing to become thoroughly acquainted with the work of an author my advice is simple, —• “Concord him.” There is no surer method. At once you get his innermost meaning, and test his best worth. If his writing be great, the enthusiasm with which you attack the work will be great, and will grow greater as the work grows. Spite of weariness of the flesh, of writer’s cramp, or of the many other devices whereby Satan intrigues to make your hands idle that he may mischievously use them, you stick to your work. Day by day, week by week, even year by year, the work and your ardor together increase. Daily your spirit with exceeding joy meets the author’s spirit. At length the work is finished, and the knowledge of “Something attempted, something done” warms your heart as it warmed the Blacksmith’s. Woe to the man who concords secondrate stuff! Drearier toil could scarcely be imagined, lacking the Divine Fire. But, given Genius to work upon, no task could be more absorbing. The Lust of Finishing seizes you, the newest novel fails to tempt, social duties are forgotten, meals are tiresome necessities only, and bedtime an interruption.
While the spell was upon us, our friends facetiously christened our home “Concord.”
Firstly, because we were always concording.
Secondly, in affectionate remembrance of our household gods — Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, but chiefly old Bronson Alcott, the father of that pathetic family of which Louisa was the star.
Thirdly, because there was no discord there.
Again, we received much advice: “Cruden became a lunatic. You had better take care. Don’t work too hard.” Or, “ Mary Cowden Clark spent sixteen years upon her Concordance. Do you expect to do yours in less time?” Or, “ Why did you choose Whitman’s poems ? Surely it would have been wiser to do some more popular author. Nobody reads Whitman except a few cranks like yourselves. No one will need your concordance.” Or, “Could n’t you spend the time more profitably on original work ?” Or, “How do you know that some other Concordance of Leaves of Grass will not be brought out before yours is finished ? ” And the speaker would proceed to relate the saddest of Baring-Gould’s stories: of the poor shoemaker who loved his Bible, and who wanted to make the study of it easier for others, and who indexed every significant word therein, spending all he had — time, money, life itself, on the work. And how, when the Herculean task was done, he — with great gladness — bore his burden of precious toil to his clergyman, only to find it “ love’s labor lost,” —to learn that the work had been done three centuries before. “ And the poor man died of a broken heart,” we are reminded; to which we would gayly answer in Walt’s own words, “ The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him.”
Just so the work is to the worker, and comes back most to him. It cannot miss, and no one will ever get quite as much out of the Concordance as the Concorder does. It indeed “ comes back most to him.” Robert Browning says somewhere (if I had a Browning Concordance by me, I could give chapter and verse),—
That I experience, must remain
When I read these lines — years ago —they practically made over my scheme of life. They became my working motto. So, as I had found in Walt Whitman great stores of faith, hope, and love, I hailed the chance of sharing him with others; and it was with great good-will that I joined in helping to make a “ Complete Concordance of Leaves of Grass.”
For the information of those who have not done any such work — a fairly large percentage of the Cultured Class — it would be well to explain the method of work. Drawing a bow at a venture, I hit a typical line: —
Next, take the index paper. In a column, at the beginning of each line, stand the letters of the alphabet. Write the title of the poem and its page at the top of the paper thus: —
Roaming in Thought, page 216.
On line G enter good.
On “ H “ hastening.
On “ I “ immortality.
On “ L “ little.
On “ O “ over.
On “ R “ roaming.
On ” S “ saw, and steadily.
On “ T “ thought, towards.
On “ U “ universe;
marking each entry “ line 1,” because it is the first line of that poem. Next, enter these words on uniform sheets of paper, which contain all previous entries of the same word. Should any word not have occurred before, take a fresh sheet, write the word plainly at the top, and enter your new word thereon. When entering the word, write the quotation in which it occurs, also note name of poem and number of line. These sheets are kept in bundles, one for each letter of the alphabet. To save handling, let all words having the same initial letter be consecutively entered from the index paper. Every sheet must be placed scrupulously in alphabetical order in the bundle, or the result will be confusion worse confounded.
It will be seen that the line just concorded had to be written out twelve times, once when indexing and eleven times when entering upon the sheets. Hence the work is to be most highly recommended for giving the worker a full, true, and particular knowledge of the poet’s words and meaning. The way in which the esoteric purport of a line or poem gradually emerges and yields itself up to the patient Concorder, when writing it for the twelfth or maybe the twentieth time, is as beautiful as it is amazing. Then too, the joy of living, day by day, in ever closer communion with the mind of a great poet, is not to be lightly esteemed. So, even supposing some one else should publish the work before us, it cannot rob us of past joys, or of present wisdom, acquired in the process of doing the work.
There is a curious inequality in the size of the bundles. A is an average size, as are also B, D, E, F, L, M, O, P, R, W; but you must add together J, K, G, V, Y to make a bundle equal in size to A, or I. H, N, O, U together only equal A. Bundle C is twice the size of A, and bundle S is quite three times the size. This was surprising until one noticed how many of the most musical and sweetsounding words — poets’ words — begin with a sibilant. Next in bulk to C comes T, while Z has only four entries from Leaves, — Zeus, Zinc, Zones, and Zuyder Zee.
After about four years of steady work the concording is complete. All that remains to be done is the typing — each letter and each sheet being typed in alphabetical order. The manuscript meanwhile is stored in kerosene boxes, and, roughly speaking, occupies thirty-two gallons of space, or is equal in bulk to eight four-gallon tins of kerosene. Its weight is appalling; so, too, were the monthly bills for paper. When telling a friend —of the female domestic species — that our monthly bills for paper were at least five times as large as our butcher’s bills, her horror was so voluble and overwhelming that there was no opportunity to explain that we were vegetarians, though not of the bigoted variety.
Walt’s vocabulary is prodigious. He uses a fresh word every time, and always the right one. One would imagine Roget’s Thesaurus to have been his favorite reading, yet this cannot have been so, or Horace Traubel would certainly have told of it. Without the slightest consideration for the pains of his Concorders-to-be, Walt makes and uses compound words. Once used, he casts them aside and they appear no more, or else appear un-hyphenated, necessitating two new entries.
Penology is a fashion of the day. “ How not to make Criminals,” and the like; or, having already manufactured them under our elaborate system of prisons, police, punishments, “ How can We Cure our Criminals ? ” An eminent physician, interested in our literary labor, made a wise suggestion the other day. “ All great authors should be concorded,” he pronounced, “ and the work should be done by the educated prisoners.” Instantly we saw that he had hit upon a great idea, on the right thing to be done under the present wrong social circumstances. As in a vision we beheld the spirit-wearied prisoner, long thrown back upon his own angers and resentments, upon his sense of injustice, or maybe upon the memories of his own ill-deeds to others, or of others to him. We saw him transfigured by noble, useful work, by constant and uplifting occupation of hand and brain. If anything could make a man forget he is a prisoner, forget that green fields, flowers, fresh air, and freedom are not for him, this work would. It is the sense of futility which destroys a man’s best part, and one who was busied on this work would feel that, no matter what wrong he has done, or what good he has left undone, he now does great service for mankind; does work which, once done, is done for all time; work which will be of value to all students coming after him. And if the author whom he concords be not merely a “ Singer ” but an “ Answerer,” one who has the passkey of hearts, then indeed will anger and resentment die out of that tired heart. The riddle of his universe will be so far answered as to enable him to step off the treadmill-round of old thoughts, and his spirit will be healed.
says Walt. A scoffing friend took another view of the suggestion. “Why, you’d never catch an educated chap in prison again if he knew that sort of thing was ahead of him,” he jeered. “ Not a manjack of them would own up to reading or writing. It would clear the prisons of educated folk.” He was a scoffer who had no soul for poetry.
Besides the diversity in the size of the bundles of letters, there are whimsical inequalities of mention in the Leaves. To instance a single subject, that of “ Animals.” “The serene-moving animals teaching content.” While Walt mentions them as “ animals ” twenty-eight times, he has but four references to them as “ brutes,” which is quite in keeping with his position as a lover of animals; as one who has said, —
The harmless pussy-cat Walt names only once, twice only the dog, thrice the cow, while horses’ hoofs ring out galore. There is no pig amongst the Leaves, yet we find pork there, and although we find poultry, there are neither cocks nor hens. At any moment you may encounter strange beasts and reptiles among the Leaves ; the moose, the panther, rattlesnake, alligator, or the black bear searching for roots or honey, or the beaver as he pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail. You may meet herds of buffalo, or packs of winter wolves barking amid wastes of snow or icicled trees. And, going back to the “ Huge First Nothing,” you find monstrous sauroids, engaged in transporting Walt’s embryo in their mouths and depositing it with care. So the poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, passes over the whole earth, and, with apparently neither rhyme nor reason, commandeers beasts and birds for the purpose of his poems. And the why and the wherefore of the appearance is one of those mysteries known only to the poet, and him you may not cross-examine.
With thy shallow wit.
Vex not thou the Poet’s mind,
For thou canst not fathom it,—
was the sage advice given by our late Poet Laureate. Advice is sometimes worth taking.