Thursday, 21 July 2011

More Seldom

Here's a little bit of poetry by E.E. Cummings (corrected for punctuation and missing capitals)

Love is more thicker than forget,
More thinner than recall,
More seldom than a wave is wet,
More frequent than to fail.

i quote it only because there was a question on the Dear Dogberry page as to whether anything could happen more seldom.

Seldom is usually an adverb, like often. So let's have a look:

I often wash.

I wash more often.

Compared to:

I seldom wash.

I wash more seldom.

Oooh no! Can't do that. However, in America seldom is often used as an adjective. In fact, Shakespeare adjectivised it in the sonnets:

Blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.

That's how Cummings seems to be using seldom in the poem above, as a straight synonym for rare, not rarely. The line means something like "Waves are very wet, and love is very rare; indeed the rareness of love is greater in extent than the wetness of waves".

However, more still feels awkward when applied to adjectives of diminution. As in:

Alice was more small now.

The pile is more little.

All of which leaves you with two options: you can be very simple, reasonably simple, or extraordinary.

The very simple solution is to replace more seldom with less. So "I washed less".

The reasonably simple is replace more seldom with more rarely. This still has echoes of awkwardness because it sounds like "more small" etc. So if you don't want to be extraordinary, you should just add -er and -est. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did this back in 1748 when she wrote:

Complainers are seldom pity'd, and boasters yet seldomer beleiv'd.

And Mark Twain kicked all common usage out of the door when he wrote that:

The seldomest spectacle on the Mississippi to-day is a wood-pile.

And what Montagu, Cummings and Twain have done is seldomly utterly wrong. Here's that poem in full:

Love is more thicker than forget,
More thinner than recall,
More seldom than a wave is wet,
More frequent than to fail.

It is most mad and moonly
And less it shall unbe
Than all the sea which only
Is deeper than the sea.

Love is less always than to win,
Less never than alive,
Less bigger than the least begin,
Less littler than forgive.

It is most sane and sunly,
And more it cannot die
Than all the sky which only
Is higher than the sky.

The only pop song I can think of that contains the word seldom.

P.S. I've written about seldom before here.

1 comment:

  1. You picked a weird mix of the Massive Attack tune... is the one that is still a classic