I once wrote a story about a drug called panglossium that allowed those who took it to speak all the languages that have ever existed – the living ones and the dead ones, the ones spoken by billions and the ones spoken by a dwindling remnant, the ones of which the hand of history holds a few tiny glittering feathers and the ones that have evaded the hand of history entirely. Panglossium would allow you to speak all of them, in every dialect and every mode. And to read and write them too, if they had an alphabet or an ideography.
One of the things I was interested in was what kind of literature users of panglossium would create for each other. I don’t think they would choose to write in a single language: they would mix languages (and it seems very unlikely that they would use much or perhaps any English). But I do think they would come closer to capturing the multitudinous flux of reality, which, in our reality, you can’t capture more than a sliver of when you use a single language. Or when you use a dozen languages, as some polyglots can in our reality. Maybe irreal panglossium would allow you to take a handful of reality or more.
I was reminded of panglossium recently because I wanted to write a poem about something I’d seen and been moved by: a band of white clouds and blue sky across which a gull slid swiftly on stationary wings. But I couldn’t do it to the standard I wanted. I couldn’t capture what I saw in two or three seconds: the grace of the gull gliding across the blue-and-white beauty of the sky. The gull wasn’t “gliding”, for example. That’s too slow a word. And I didn’t want to write a poem about my inability to capture that scene, because I’ve written one before about that inability:
Green on green on green
The light befalls me clean,
Beneath the birds.
And how I can capture
This mute green rapture
In blinded words? (7viii21)
The title of that poem is panglossic, in a way. And the poem itself did reach the standard required, because not-reaching-the-standard is part of the point of the poem. And even the greatest poet can’t reach the full standard and fully capture a scene like that. But some can get much closer than others, as Housman explained in his study of Swinburne:
If even so bare and simple an object as the sea was too elusive and delicate for Swinburne’s observation and description, you would not expect him to have much success with anything so various and manifold as the surface of the earth. And I am downright aghast at the dullness of perception and lack of self-knowledge and self-criticism which permitted him to deposit his prodigious quantity of descriptive writing in the field of English literature. That field is rich beyond example in descriptions of nature from the hands of unequalled masters, for in the rendering of nature English poetry has outdone all poetry: and here, after five centuries, comes Swinburne covering the grass with his cartload of words and filling the air with the noise of the shooting of rubbish. It is a clear morning towards the end of winter: snow has fallen in the night, and still lies on the branches of the trees under brilliant sunshine. Tennyson would have surveyed the scene with his trained eye, made search among his treasury of choice words, sorted and sifted and condensed them, till he had framed three lines of verse, to be introduced one day in a narrative or a simile, and there to flash upon the reader’s eye the very picture of a snowy and sunshiny morning. Keats or Shakespeare would have walked between the trees thinking of whatever came uppermost and letting their senses commune with their souls; and there the morning would have transmuted itself into half a line or so which, occurring in some chance passage of their poetry, would have set the reader walking between the same trees again. Swinburne picks up the sausage-machine into which he crammed anything and everything; round goes the handle, and out at the other end comes this noise:
Ere frost-flower and snow-blossom faded and fell, and the splendour of winter had passed out of sight,
The ways of the woodlands were fairer and stranger than dreams that fulfil us in sleep with delight;
The breath of the mouths of the winds had hardened on tree-tops and branches that glittered and swayed
Such wonders and glories of blossomlike snow or of frost that outlightens all flowers till it fade
That the sea was not lovelier than here was the land, nor the night than the day, nor the day than the night,
Nor the winter sublimer with storm than the spring: such mirth had the madness and might in thee made,
March, master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite.
That is not all, it clatters on for fifty lines or so; but that is enough and too much. It shows what nature was to Swinburne: just something to write verse about, a material for making a particular kind of sausage.
But what would Tennyson or Keats or Shakespeare have been able to write after taking panglossium?
• Poems and Brickbats – Housman’s study of Swinburne
• Verbol – (commentary on) my poem about inability and inadequacy