THE world is in danger of being too acutely discovered. Pretty soon there won’t be any Nowhere. There will be a road-map through it for every tooting motor, a cloud-map through it for every wheeling airship. We are impelled to know and know and know, and all the time knowledge is such a stupid quarry to be always hunting down. The only real sport is mystery. Presently neither sea nor sky will be left for the spirit to adventure, yet the imagination must have somewhere to sail.
It is here that the world of words comes in so handily. That is a universe never to be reduced to terms of sense and science; words are too fraught with sense for that. Language is still a place of sun-gleams and shadows, of lightnings and half-lights, and things forgotten and things to be, of odors and tastes and pictures and hauntings, whole pageants of dead dynasties evoked perhaps by a small adjective. Words are so elusive, so personal, in their suggestion, that science will never bully all fancy out of us so long as we have words to talk in, to dream in.
It is just in proportion as words retain their mystery, that they retain their magic. So soon as they present too definite a picture, odor, taste, they lose their wizardry. We may outgrow our fairy tales, but there are few of us for whom some words do not always retain their witchery of suggestion, words that have never become in our minds too definite, words that still glimpse haze and mystery and the magic of ignorance. I would so much rather look into my heart for the meaning of a word than into the dictionary; it is one of many methods of defending one’s imagination from the encroachments of knowledge.
Some words possess a mysterious spaciousness: try ‘Homeric,’ think it, pronounce it, and you will see in the flash of that adjective men and women growing to god-size, taller, stronger, more beautiful than any but Homer ever thought of, and you will see everything in vast numbers, great herds of cattle for the hecatomb, tens of thoussands of men-at-arms surging, limitless spear-points pricking all the plain. No fleet, no army, could be so big and vast as that one word Homeric.
Another word that suggests number beyond any ciphering is the word ‘doubloon.’ Could any one ever feel so rich in terms of dollars as in terms of doubloons? This is because nobody with any imagination knows how much a doubloon is worth, or wants to, and people without any imagination can never feel rich anyway, no matter how many dollars or doubloons they have.
‘ Galleon ’ is a noun that twins with doubloon. A galleon is the staunchest vessel anyone can go to sea in, although it is only a word, not a ship any longer. There’s a splendor, a pride, about a galleon. It glides, it never sails, and it always has favoring winds, it commands them. Nobody can picture a galleon with sails a-flap in a dead calm, or with sails in ribbons in a gale. A galleon is always mistress of all weathers. On the other hand a galleon is not altogether a craft for highest emprise, it’s not what ‘merchant-adventurers’ would sail in. ‘ Merchant-adventurers,’ — there is a word that fits with a brawling and buffeting sea, or deadly tropic calm and the sighting of low, fronded islands, or the black rim of a pirate boat on the treacherous, unknown water. But what a ring of rollicking jollity and dauntless fellowship there is in that brave old compound noun, merchant-adventurers! It is one of the many words that, fading from our vocabulary, carry with them whole decades of history. It lays open all ’the spacious days of great Elizabeth.’ Yet when I apply it to definite names, Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh, instantly some of the magic fades. I want no names for my merchant-adventurers.
There are other words that echo to the vastness of the Elizabethan imagination. ‘Empery’ responds with the thundering conquests of Tamburlaine, which in turn were but echoes of the insatiable soul-quest of Kit Marlowe. The word to me spells Marlowe, and spells Keats; not all the world could supply the indomitable desire that is dreamed of in empery, not all the kingdoms of earth were enough for the empery of Tamburlaine. Empery is richer, vaster, more insatiably desirable than empire. Empire dwindles to a petty exactness beside it. Empire is not the only word to turn to magic by the addition of the suggestive suffix, ry. Ry might be termed the supernatural suffix, for it always has a connotation of spirit-peopled places. The word ‘glamour’ has in it a certain degree of magic, but change it to ‘glamoury,’ and see what happens, what glimmering vistas of elfland open forth. And if the y following the r be changed to ie, the result has even more of wizardry, which word is itself an example of my ry argument. Notice the difference of degree in glamour, glamoury, glamourie, and in ‘fairy,’ which is mild in meaning when set beside ‘faerie.’ And is there any word in our tongue so capable of evoking the sensations of that shivery borderland between the known and the unknowable as the dissyllable ‘eerie’?
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
The connotation of words in ry and rie is an example in the superlative degree of the magic of indefiniteness, but there is plenty of conjuring power in terms which have no supernatural suggestion. All the romance of a bygone period may often be better evoked by a word than by treatises of overdone historical research.
Often some word of wearing apparel may summon forth a whole pageant of costume. Try wimple, kirtle, shift. I should have no idea of the size or shape of the desired garment, should be helpless before my needle and scissors; but in spite of this ignorance, and, as I maintain, because of it, the word ‘wimple’ shall always call up for me peaked crown and flowing veil, and the cantering and the clinking and chattering of all Chaucer’s blithe procession; the word ‘kirtle’ flashes Perdita upon my vision, Perdita, the shepherdess-princess weaving her dance; and ‘shift,’ is a noun which crowds upon me all the crude, quick life of the ballads; for in this garment, beneath a hovering halo, forsaken ladies drowned were always floating about on midnight waters by way of reproach to their lords.
The innermost luxury of all sense-perception is never experienced from the too clearly analyzed sensation, however acute. ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.’ No music has such a spell for our feet as is implied in the words ‘piping’ and ‘fifing,’ but few of us have ever danced to piping or to fifing. In the realm of smell is any rose as sweet as the quaint word ‘ posy ’ ? Yet can you tell its shape, or color or odor? It is a spicy mingling of all the fragrance of all sweet gardens that ever were, — or that never were!
There exists nothing so toothsome as the food and drink we have never tasted and shall never taste. A ‘venison pasty’ never appeared on any menu we ever read, yet we know that we have never eaten anything so savory. Mead, canary, mulled wine, are drinks delectable. The mighty goblets of Valhalla ran with mead, and from them we quaff great hero draughts; canary fires all our veins with the tingling, ringing young exuberance of the Mermaid Tavern; while mulled wine is the most comforting of toddies, soothing to sleep after the cosiness and confidences of midnight slippers and dressing-gown.
There are few people so prosaic as not to possess, hidden away from their own and others’ investigation as securely as every man’s secret belief in ghosts, a whole conjuror’s chest of wizard words. I have merely mentioned some of those nouns which have for me the power to set me free to adventure the unknown. To every man his own words, his own enchantments, so long as they have might to release from the chains of knowledge, and to unshackle the imagination for the spirit’s free adventuring.