The Magic of Proper Names

Here’s another piece from the wonderful John O’London’s Unposted Letters:

“Proper names have an interest and fascination all their own and delight in them is a sign of coming literary ability in boy or girl, just as, I am fairly sure, is a love of long words and a tendency to bombast. It shows a feeling for words and an early stretch fo imagination. I once had a schoolfellow who, in a certain hour of compulsory but self-selected Bible readig, usually spent it in devouring passages like this:

“And they removed from Ezion-gaber and pitched in the wilderness of Zin, which is Kadesh. And they removed from Kadesh and pitched in Mount Hor, in the edge of the land of Edom… and they departed from Mount Hor and pitched i Zalmonah. And they departed from Zalmonah and pitched in Punon. And they departed from Puon and pitched in Oboth… And they departed from Almon-diblathaim and pirched in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo.”

The more the Israelites “pitched” through names like these, the mroe did his eyes open to he knew not what.

Isaac Disraeli pointed out that proper names produce remarkable illusions. But are they illusions? If you think of the names of great poets and writers, and, so to speak, sound them on the tuning-fork of interpretation, you may be surprised to find how approapriate they seem to those who bore them. Not without reason Tennyson exclaimed: “Milton! A name to resound for ages!” For, indeed, the mane resounds – I know not in what way – but it resounds. The short i, followed by a liquid and a dental consonant (and these by a quiet drop ito thunder) tells on the ear. Tennyson, whose own ame seems so expressive of his poetry, would never have written “Shelley” or “Keats” – “a name to resound for ages.” Milton himself had an inimitable ear for great names and their age-long resonance:-

“Peor and Baailim

Forsake their temples dim,

With that twice-batter’d God of Palestine;

And mooned Ashtaroth,

Heaven’s queen and mother both,

Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine;

The Lybic Hammon shrinks his horn,

In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammus mourn.”

Francis Thmpson had this gusto of the proper name:-

Rabble of Pharoas and Arsacidae

Keep their cold house within thee; thou hast sucked down

How many Ninevehs and Hecatompyloi

And perished cities whose great phantasmata

O’erbrow the silent citizens of Dis

And Coleridge had the same instinct:-

I asked my fair one happy day,

What should I call her in my lay;

By what sweet name of Rome or Greece:

Lalage, Neaera, Chloris,

Sapho, Lesbia or Doris,

Arethusa or Lucreece.

“Ah!” replied my gentle fair,

“Beloved, what are names but air?

Choose thou whatever suits the line;

Call me Sapho, call me Chloris,

Call me Lalage or Doris,

Only, only call me thine.”

The lady’s argument may appear to be that names are “air” and matter nothing. But, you see, she slipped in -“whateer suits the line.” And it is because it is the way of a name to suit the poet’s line or thought that names are so pregnant with suggestion.

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