Wednesday 10 March 2010

When Did You Stop Beating Your Choirboy?

Spot the connection between these two:

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
   - Eliot's Waste Land

  - Today's Times

You can't work out the tense in either. The "read" in Eliot and the "hit" in The Times could both be past or present.

The English verb has three principle parts: I write, I wrote, I have written. Some verbs make do with two: I walk, I walked, I have walked. And some lazy, idle, good-for-nothing verbs make do with one: I hit, I hit, I have hit; burst, burst, burst; read, read, read.

There's a particular problem with read as, though the parts are all written identically, the first is pronounced as reed and the others as red. This awkwardness often pops up on the Letters Page:

Dear Sir,
I read this paper every day.

Dear Sir,
I read this paper every day until 1947 when your journalism went to the bloody dogs.

And the reader has to jump back to the beginning of the sentence and repronounce the word in his head. T.S. Eliot, I suspect, intended this ambiguity of sound and tense in The Waste Land. It is the last line of a section whose grammar and subject have become increasingly confusing until, with this line, it breaks up like a bad telephone connection. The advantage of being a Top Poet is that all your mistakes are assumed to be intentional.

Given that hitting children became illegal under German law in 1980, The Times' ambiguity is commendably reckless.

"Me again. How about a nice Emperor's Crown?"

1 comment:

  1. Now I'm absolutely in awe of your wit and your writing. Thank you.