Old meanings are confusing enough without shoving two into a line, yet that is what Andrew Marvell did without a flicker of compunction in the opening line of The Garden. The modern reader would be almost excused for thinking that narcissistic men are going about impressing themselves. Though that may be so, Marvell is writing about men who futilely consign themselves to a labyrinth, or maze.
Labyrinths are terrible places, teeming with minotaurs and littered with lost threads, or at least that's how I imagine them. Hampton Court was a disappointment. The reason, of course, is that I was exposed to the myth of Theseus as an infant, though the really dirty bits were thoughtfully concealed from me until I was six.
Anyway, Theseus had to run into the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur and dash out again, all in time for tea. Ariadne, fearing that the tea would go cold, suggested the preposterously obvious idea that he take some thread with him, unwind it on the way in, and follow it on the way out. That way he would not be amazed.
What with the Trojan horse and Ariadne's thread, one can see the Attic genius for the bleeding obvious. To stop himself getting lost he had a thread. And what was the medieval term for a ball of yarn? It was, dear threadbare reader, a clue.
It was a clue that Theseus laid for himself in the labyrinth, it was a clue that led him back and dismazed him. If he had not had a clue of thread he would not have had a clue about how to escape. As John Pomfret wrote of the ideal woman:
She knows the best, and does the best pursue,
And treads the maze of life without a clue,
That the weak only and the wavering lack,
When they're mistaken, to conduct them back.
She does, amidst ten thousand ways, prefer
The right, as if not capable to err.
Slowly, of course, the clue that leads you through the labyrinth became the key that solves the puzzle, and then became the hint that helps you to solve the puzzle, and then, in 1914, received its apotheosis when it was attached to crosswords.
Incidentally, the original labyrinth (etymology uncertain) in which the Minotaur resided was designed by Daedalus, and has therefore been called a Daedal.
Now read this lovely poem by Auden. It's called The Labyrinth.
Anthropos apteros for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperament for getting on.
The hundreth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.
"Where am I?" Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.
If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I'm sure,
The Universe in minature.
Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?
All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.
Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?
Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.
His absolute pre-supposition
Is - Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.
The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.
My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I'm only lost until I see
I'm lost because I want to be.
If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.
All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man."
Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.
And buy the Complete Auden here.
The Inky Fool visits Hampton Court