Coming down the road I saw an elephant

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure in my pain, –
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain, –
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain.
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Sir Philip Sidney
Sonnet 1, Astrophil and Stella

When a friend, having read my piece on rearward prepositions and double no-nos, asked me if I actually did stick to any of the ‘rules’ of English, I stopped to consider the matter. I came to the conclusion that I probably did, but largely without knowing it, having absorbed many of them in the course of everyday communication, as well as having them handed down to me in education. After all, I speak French, so I’m aware of the grammatical construction of a different language. Also I did two or three years Latin at school, so I know well enough where men like Dryden and Lowth are coming from. But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter much where I got my own usage from, because now I have had a lifetime of just letting it flow – latterly as a writer and poet – and finding out that every word we speak, write, or type is a work of creation. We are beings of expression, not simply of information.

ps2Still, however, my friend pressed me. “Notwithstanding your refreshingly anarchic view of your native language, is there a line you will not cross? Is there one of these fussy rules that you yourself would not dream of transgressing?”

Well, to be honest, there is one that always hits me right in the eye, makes me turn up my nose, purse my lips, grind my teeth, set my jaw, and wiggle my ears – the misrelated participle, or a clause containing one. Much though today’s liberal linguists tell me not to worry, the damn thing still bugs me. That’s why I started this article with a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney. What a poet! Although he did not, strictly speaking, introduce the sonnet form into English poetry, it was his work that gave it currency in the late 16c. The lines of the sonnet above are ‘alexandrines’, having twelve syllables each, and many of them defy the reader’s expectation of strictly iambic metre. Thus, here in the childhood of the English sonnet, before Shakespeare’s pentameter had become the norm, we have a form with a remarkable amount of freedom and expressiveness. But right there at the end in the lines…

Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

… can be seen a monumental grammatical misrelation. It is the poet who is great with child, helpless, biting his pen, and beating himself, but in apposition to that we find his Muse related grammatically to all that helplessness and beating.

Do I care that much? Well, in this context, in the context of this marvelously free-running poetry, no I don’t. if anything, the grammatical misrelation, deliberate or not, seems to fit the voice of the poem – the poet and lover, distracted and frustrated, groping for the right words and being surprised by some simple advice from his Muse, which breaks in on his mood. It’s almost as if the misrelation signals that sudden but refreshing intrusion. But consider the following:

Sitting on some iron railings, the Royal Family were easy to see.

Yes, I suppose they would be, perched up there, but it hardly fits with the ideal of regal dignity! Of course we know that it’s not the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, et al, who are perched on the railings, but the onlooker, and the context of that statement would make that clear. However, what strikes me about that sentence is that the misrelation and the picture it conjures up makes it ugly, awkward, and breaks my own rule of euphony. I simply wouldn’t say it, because saying it would make me feel uncomfortable, would make me feel that I was saying something ugly, and that’s a good enough reason not to say it.

Consider another sentence:

Born in Russia, his operas are considered his finest work.

The misrelation in this sentence is much less startling, because although the opening phrase ‘Born in Russia’ is in apposition to the grammatical subject of the second phrase, ‘his operas’, it’s pretty obvious we’re talking about the composer himself. It’s a relatively harmless example, and not excessively ugly.

What worries me, however, is that if we don’t make a point of avoiding, as far as we can, this kind of misrelation, we are going to find ourselves, from time to time, stumped. Consider the following scenario: I’m sitting at my computer right now, and a friend rushes in to my room. “Guess what,” she says, “coming down the road I saw an elephant!” She says no more than that, but waits for my reaction. My grammatical brain tells me instantly that it was she who was coming down the road. 12But wait! Because we’re so used to misrelation, how can I be sure about that? Three pictures form in my mind. Firstly, based on grammar, I see my friend walking down the road, and spotting an elephant in a fenced paddock. Secondly I see the elephant coming down the road, and my friend seeing it from the relative safety of an upstairs window. Thirdly – oh what the hell! – I see my friend coming down the road from one direction and the elephant coming down the road from the other. I have to ask her for clarification.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What do you mean what do I mean?” she asks with a frown. “I mean coming down the road I saw an elephant!”

And we’re back to square one.

I wonder, actually, whether inserting a comma into her sentence would help? Is there any difference between…

Coming down the road I saw an elephant.

… and

Coming down the road, I saw an elephant.

The trouble is, you can’t actually hear a comma. Isn’t English absolutely wonderful! That, by the way, was a rhetorical question.

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