Sumer is icumen in

I posted this years ago on the old blog, but as the solstice approaches, I have been thinking of it and thought I would trot it out again.

The Hilliard Ensemble sings the earliest known example of six-part polyphonic song, one of the major hits of the 13th century – the first of exactly two periods in which the world was knocked off its pins by English music. I think it still stands up well.


Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!


In Modern English:

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag leaps,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now.

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

(There is some controversy over the translation of uerteth. An alternative, favoured by the scatologically inclined, is that the stag is farting. This is an amusing idea, I suppose, but neatly destroys the parallelism of action in the line, and I find myself compelled to disfavour it.)


A person falling into a manhole is rarely helped by making it possible for him to fall faster or more efficiently.

—Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

Fake evocation

A sombrero fell out of the sky and landed on the main street of town in front of the mayor, his cousin, and a person out of work. The day was scrubbed clean by the desert air. The sky was blue. It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen. There was no reason for a sombrero to fall out of the sky. No airplane or helicopter was passing overhead and it was not a religious holiday.

—Richard Brautigan, Sombrero Fallout

This is a good way of hooking a reader: we want to know where that sombrero came from. But it does contain a wasted sentence, thrown in, apparently, in a failed attempt to provide ‘atmosphere’:

It was the blue of human eyes, waiting for something to happen.

That line is simply a cheat. One technique that bad writers use fairly often, and even good writers may fall back on despite themselves, is fake evocation – communicating mood by phony description. Instead of describing a thing and allowing it to suggest a mood to the reader, they flatly state what the mood is supposed to be and pretend that the thing described evokes it. It’s lazy, it’s a swindle against the reader, and it deserves no praise.

In the instant case, it appears to me that Mr. Brautigan (or, rather, the character who is writing the story-within-a-story that begins with this passage) wanted to shoehorn an expectant mood into the passage, so he looked for a place where he could plausibly insert the phrase ‘waiting for something to happen’. He did this by attaching it to a bit of physical description that, by itself, would do absolutely nothing to evoke such a mood, and then relying upon artistic licence to make readers (and critics) let him get away with it.

Incidentally, to say that eyes are sky-blue is descriptive, because sky-blue is a fairly definite colour. To say that the sky was eye-blue is just silly, because blue eyes are not all alike.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this at somewhat greater length in ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’.

(Reposted, with edits, from a comment thread on The Passive Voice.)

The limits of technique

I have just re-read (after a lapse of some years) Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, which first appeared in 1974. He addresses his polemic chiefly to computer scientists and computer-science teachers, but he is consciously aware that he is speaking more generally and philosophically. Some of what he says, it seems to me, applies to writers quite as well:

It happens that programming is a relatively easy craft to learn. Almost anyone with a reasonably orderly mind can become a fairly good programmer with just a little instruction and practice. And because programming is almost immediately rewarding, that is, because a computer very quickly begins to behave somewhat in the way the programmer intends it to, programming is very seductive, especially for beginners. Moreover, it appeals most to precisely those who do not yet have sufficient maturity to tolerate long delays between an effort to achieve something and the appearance of concrete evidence of success. Immature students are therefore easily misled into believing that they have truly mastered a craft of immense power and of great importance when, in fact, they have learned only its rudiments and nothing substantive at all.

A student’s quick climb from a state of complete ignorance about computers to what appears to be a mastery of programming, but is in reality only a very minor plateau, may leave him with a euphoric sense of achievement and a conviction that he has discovered his true calling.… He may so thoroughly commit himself to what he naively perceives to be computer science, that is, to the mere polishing of his programming skills, that he may effectively preclude studying anything substantive.

Unfortunately, many universities have ‘computer science’ programs at the undergraduate level that permit and even encourage students to take this course. When such students have completed their studies, they are rather like people who have somehow become eloquent in some foreign language, but who, when they attempt to write something in that language, find that they have literally nothing of their own to say.

The lesson in this is that, although the learning of a craft is important, it cannot be everything.

Replace ‘computer’ with ‘story’, ‘programming’ with ‘writing’, and so forth, and it stands as a pretty shrewd assessment of a rather common problem in recent fiction. On one level, you get the creative-writing graduate who has a superb grasp of technique, but does not know how to come up with an interesting story, and has been painstakingly taught not to care. On another, you get a certain kind of self-published writer – the one who thinks that volume is the sole and sufficient secret of success, and cranks out books as fast as he can shove them through the keyboard, without ever once asking, ‘Is this story interesting enough to be worth telling?’

Between these two, the world sees a lot of stories that might just as well not have been written at all. And yet the people who write them think they are accomplishing something, and in many cases, even feel that they have some kind of moral duty to persist and write their daily quota of pages. The idea of writing when one has something to say, it seems, scarcely occurs to them.

In the terms I used in ‘Style is the rocket’, these stories are all propulsion system and no payload. The rocket takes off with a satisfactory rush of smoke and flames, but at the end of its flight, nobody and nothing has been transported anywhere. This is a fine hobby for the rocketeer, but its entertainment value to anybody else, sad to say, is considerably lacking.

Pascal on composition

The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.

—Blaise Pascal

(Hat tip to Mary Catelli.)

On political correctness

Morals consist of political morals, commercial morals, ecclesiastical morals, and morals.

—Mark Twain


Here I am not trying to deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.…

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege.

—George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature

The term ‘political correctness’, which began (and justly so) as a term of abuse, has been embraced by a legion of liars as a justification for their lies; and it has been made so fashionable that nowadays, in most polite circles, it is considered an insult to accuse someone of not being politically correct.

The usual excuse made for this is that political correctness is about not offending people’s feelings unnecessarily; that anyone who opposes it must therefore want to be offensive, and that, you know, is a Very Bad Thing. This characterization of the issue is one of the Big Lies of our time, as a variation of it was in Orwell’s time. The real issue, now as then, is about the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies.

If Joe Bloggs wishes to say that two and two are four, or that Paris is the capital of France, or to make any other straightforward and uncontroversial statement of fact, he is working on a level where political correctness does not even come into question. What he says is correct, without any modifiers, or else it is in error. The moment you add a modifier to that adjective, you are moving away from the primary issue of truth vs. falsehood, and into secondary matters which may be in plain conflict with it. [Read more…]


At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

[Read more…]


As a sequel to my last post, I have received a charming and delightful email from a person who informs me that I am a ‘miserable fool’, that I am suffering from spiritual pride and need to turn to the Lord, and that the only way to do that is to do exactly as he, the writer of the email, commands. But it is I, you see, not he, who suffers from pride.

As a further balm to the wounded spirit, he offers this gem:

As for fiction, you haven’t enough broad and intense experience to ever convey the kind of depth and originality to the fantasy field (or any other) that makes for greatness or popularity.

I shall not reply to him in person; I have dealt with this character before; his eyes, ears, and mind are closed to everything and everyone, as far as I can tell, and the only thing he pays attention to is the din inside his own head. But I reply to him at large and in public, in the words of C. S. Lewis from The Pilgrim’s Regress:

But how can you help me after removing the only thing that I want to be helped to? What is the use of telling a hungry man that you will grant him his desires, provided there is no question of eating?

I put it to the 3.6 Loyal Readers – just in case I should be missing a jewel in a dunghill; I do not want to dismiss advice without a hearing. Is this man right, and I should give up writing fiction?

Narrative fatigue

A personal plaint.

According to that fearsomely encyclopaedic source, TV Tropes, a story, any story, is dead from the moment the audience utters the Eight Deadly Words: ‘I don’t care what happens to these people.’ This is a specific instance of a larger class of story-killers, which I propose to call narrative fatigue. Some other forms that it may take:

  • ‘I know what is going to happen to these people, and I’m not enjoying the ride enough to stay till the end.’ My reaction to any fiction by David Eddings. Other writers tried to waste my time with predictable stories. Eddings bragged about it in the text itself.
  • ‘I care what happens to these people, but I’ve lost all faith that I will ever find out.’ One of many possible reasons to give up on A Song of Ice and Fire.
  • ‘I care about these people, but nothing that is happening to them makes any sense.’ The #1 pitfall of magic realism.
  • ‘The things that are happening make sense, but the people themselves don’t.’ The #1 pitfall of those ‘slice of a Manhattan neurotic’s life’ stories so beloved of The New Yorker.
  • ‘I’d like to find out what happens, but I don’t want to work this hard for it. Cliff’s Notes, please?’ The #1 pitfall of self-consciously ‘literary’ exercises in stylistic weirdness.
  • Perhaps the worst killer of all: ‘It’s blatantly obvious that nothing is ever going to happen to these people.’

[Read more…]

Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.

Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners. [Read more…]