Behind Every Word

Geoffrey Heptonstall


The translators of the King James Bible, remarkable for its textual qualities, consciously chose a language that was becoming archaic even then. ‘Yea, verily thou hast.’ It was a wise move on both literary and sacral grounds, giving the words an authority derived from their traditional nature. Distanced from common usage, the language gained an equivalent reverence to Latin or Hebrew liturgies. Age-old wisdom requires age-old expressive means.

The origins of language are unknown, but language precedes recorded history. That much is known from the unchallenged observation that no known human society has been speechless. We refer to ‘a living language.’ Humanity itself is a creation of words. Words contain the meaning and purpose of being human, as opposed to animal, life. Language makes us. Therefore we cannot simply regard words as ours to do with as we wish. They are not material possessions.

This may seem undeniable, but denial, it seems, is possible. ‘Words are tools, like bricks,’ is the straightforward, no-nonsense approach of Susan Hill. In its reductionism this is disappointing. Adopting the plain style can lead only to a diminishing of spirit. It is simply too prosaic, too severe. It lacks the generosity which is the leavening of a literary endeavour. Creativity is a sign of perpetual youth. Caution may be wise, but it is too colourless to have much appeal.

We need a more expansive explanation of the mysterious sounds on our tongues, the mysterious symbols on the page. Is sculpture merely stone or metal? Surely not. The aesthesis is created from imaginative conjectures. For literature the conjectures are within the words. Writing is not simple and clear, like a statement of fact. Writing should make sense, or it is gibberish. On the other hand, good sense is not where writing is likely to find itself.

The mystery of words is to be found in their allusive (and elusive) meanings. Ambiguity, like irony, has a sophistication beyond the everyday use of language for technical or informative purposes. A journalist seeks to clarify. A poet seeks to invoke the reflexive possibilities a word may possess, especially in relation to other words. Where journalists explain, poets explore and enchant.

Whatever a writer’s intentions, writing follows its own course. The control of which Ezra Pound spoke is suspect both in terms of artistry and a wider view of the world. This was evidenced with devastating effect in the life of Ezra Pound. The solipsism of his aesthetic made for a literature of obscure references and incoherent rhetoric. His mind, disordered by any objective standard, was the subject of his poetry. Pound thought he had dominion over words. This thought led nowhere but a psychiatric hospital.

To write is to establish a partnership with the means by which we express ourselves. One word leads to another. The non-nonsenses materialist approach may arise not only from good sense but from an unconscious fear of the uncharted territory of the imagination.  Writing is based at least as much on intuition as intention. The imagination is sensuous and therefore not under the command of reason alone. Is it rational to tell stories other than to illustrate a moral or philosophic argument? Is it rational to talk of partnering symbols that act as metaphors?

Many things are not rational yet they are valid as feelings or experiences.  A poem I drafted seemed to be unsatisfactory. There came the usual cutting and rephrasing, but still it was incomplete. The middle was awkward and clumsy in a way that I could not have explained although I felt it. Surely the wisest course was to allow it to lie fallow and in the meantime to work on something else, notes for an essay perhaps. Yes, that was the wisest course.

It was impossible to leave the poem alone. I wished to leave it alone for a while, but found I could not.  I really could not. A sense of compulsion demanded of me that I complete the revision. I tried to resist this demand, only to be overwhelmed by the power it exerted on me. It was as if something beyond me was compelling me. Although that was how it felt, I was determined to shake off this feeling because it was absurd. The only way to resolve the matter was to accept the challenge, and to take the notebook in one hand, my pen in the other.

The revision took no time. It was simply a matter of rearranging three or four lines until the order was right. The poem now had a sense of completion and harmony. It may be that these feelings were all in my mind. Rationally this has to be the case. The fact remains that the compulsion was against my will, as if some anima within the poem was at work. I was not in control. An unconscious intuition was in conflict with my ego. Or, as I prefer to think, the muse was insisting I obey her.

This possibility may leave you speechless – with wonder or with amusement. We spoke of wisdom a moment ago. Let us return. It is an age-old truth that wisdom and folly are closer in spirit than surface appearances suggest. All the time we make choices with uncertain outcomes. Or we refrain from any choice. How wise these decisions are may not be clear at the time of deciding. Is it wise to restrain the wilder dreams of imagination?  Common sense tells us that to walk into the dark wood or to go through the looking-glass can lead only to dangerous consequences.

Caution is necessary, but the consequences of venture may be rewarding. They are likely to be acts of self-discovery. The getting of wisdom comes through the rash, impetuous, even impious acts that we all commit though not everyone learns how to turn the rawness of life into the poetry of truth.

Leaving everything to chance is folly indeed. We need to feel in control of our direction. The purpose of fiction is, in part, to describe the attempt to gain mastery of situations that can seem beyond control. Edmond Dantes, the prisoner condemned to perpetual solitary confinement becomes the Count of Monte Cristo seeking lifelong vengeance. He has exchanged one prison cell for another. A fellow prisoner made illicit contact, and taught him so much. He learned everything and nothing.

Reading the Inferno of Dante, I had a strange experience. A sense of bliss overwhelmed me. It is was akin to those unexpected, but welcome, moments of calm that may occur in a time of crisis. Our defences rescue us from terror or despair. That is one meaning of the poetry of truth. Out of the darkness comes the prospect, if distant and hazy, of light.

We may wish to identify it. We give it a name. So we search for a name, always remembering words are not bricks: they are butterflies.


Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was given the task of naming things. Names are useful in remembering something or someone. Names are more than mere functional tool: they give identity. A name may seem to speak of the essence of something or someone. Police, gendarmes, gardai three words with equivalent meanings in three languages. Yet, the cultural context distinguishes each of them. Each word belongs to a particular society, with differing traditions and histories that shape the nature of its law enforcement officers.

When named, something or someone is identified. We are who are we because we have a name—even if we feel uncomfortable with that name. Sometimes a name is said to suit someone, sometimes not. People change their names if they feel the given name is inappropriate or ungainly or in some other way unsuitable. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Or would it?

Whatever names we give things the purpose is to evoke a response in us. We recognise things by name when they are not present. We are given a sense of something – its sight or taste or touch or smell—by the word that represents the thing itself. Words are powerful indeed. The incantations of the magician or the prayers of the faithful testify to the power within the word itself.

Mnemosyne’s task was unenviable. Although some names may have emerged naturally from the thing itself, others would be more problematic. An awkward title can diminish a book’s appeal. What is needed is a memorable title that arouses the reader’s curiosity.

The title sets the tone. A potential reader must be attracted to the book. That initial glance is the crucial one. The Song of Names is an intriguing title. It sounds vaguely familiar Perhaps there is a Biblical reference? Norman Lebrecht, a music critic in mid-career, produced a compelling tale of a born storyteller. Why had it taken him so long? Because the story goes to the heart of things. The song in question is a register of names of vanished and forgotten victims of the Shoah. They need to be remembered so that their names live even in their death. Named, the disappeared are able to return in spirit.

In an anonymous mass, people are no longer individual human beings with thoughts and feelings. They are transformed into an abstraction, a blur where nothing is definite. We care about the people whose lives are known about, whose plight evokes our sympathy. They seem real in a way the nameless, countless victims of mass slaughter are not.

If that sounds heavy-going be assured that Lebrecht writes with a lightness of touch, with humour and with the plot devices of one who knows how to keep an audience on his side. Like a symphony, the novel varies the pace of each movement. There are interludes and familiar themes recurring.

Our identity is our guarantor of status as citizens, as human beings even. Identity has taken on a special significance. When we are asked now how we identify ourselves it is not simply a matter of certificates and passports. The question means ‘How do you see yourself?’

Any answer we give requires some basis in credible reality. We cannot choose who we are by whim. But we are likely to be selective. There may be aspects of our background and experience that take precedence in the picture we have of ourselves. It is not for others to say who we are.

The current stress on personal identity contrasts with and is in conflict with the communitarian principle which held the field for so long. Whether the change of mood is from expediency or conviction it is certainly predominant in the general air of public discourse. The relation between the individual and the community has a long history, often of extreme positions in place of the necessary balance.

Self-knowledge is surely the key. By knowing others, we know ourselves. Solipsism does not enable us to offer a valid identity. Our humanity comes not through self-will but through our relation to others. It is not a question of losing oneself in a labyrinth of anonymity. It is a question of becoming oneself in a human society.

‘Know thyself’ was the watchword inscribed at the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi. It presumes that we can recognise ourselves. The true self is not the carefully constructed exterior. The inner self is another person entirely.

It may be that we discover ourselves not through introspection but stumble upon the truth unexpectedly. Jane Eyre finds her true self in the trials of a life that would have crushed a lesser person. It was Rochester’s deception and betrayal that strengthened her resolve to be her own self and not someone’s governess or someone’s wife. Jane was defined by her rather than by a subservient position that would mire her permanently in a half-life of duty.

This is not a matter of gender alone. Jane Eyre says much about a woman’s place in Victorian society, especially a woman with no resources beyond her personal integrity. As a novel it works only in that context. But the moral position it presents has a universal interest. We all can learn something of substance. The demands and trials (and betrayals) of life are not the exclusive province of one type of person in one situation. If that were the case Jane Eyre would remain on the shelf gathering dust and mildew. In actuality it lives. She lives.

Her independence led to love. ‘Reader, I married him,’ is the notable line towards the novel’s conclusion. But note it was she who married him, not the other way round. It was a union on her terms. A radical prospect in mid-Victorian Britain when marriage was little more than a matter of property. Charlotte Bronte paved the way for others to follow in their writing about love.

Consider the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop. Dick Swiveller, as his name implies, is erratic and potentially a wastrel. But he is charming, and (of fundamental importance to Dickens) he has a good heart. Encountering a servant girl, he is immediately attracted to her. Retained as a drudge, she does not know her name. She knows nothing of life beyond her status as a chattel. This condition, however, has not broken her. She is bright and spirited. She runs away to look after Dick who has fallen ill. He sees to her education and welfare.

Dick calls her the Marchioness not out of mockery but to honour her natural nobility. Eventually he decides on a more credible name, Sophronia, before she is further named as Mrs Swiveller. The Marchioness is one of Dickens’s most endearing characters. She is written with love. Perhaps she is too much a fairy tale creature to ever live beyond the pages of the book where she remains ever young and enchanting.

She is counterbalanced by Quilp, a figure of disturbing malevolence, who is indifferent to the feelings of others. He relishes his power to control, or to ruin, those within his influence.

With such characters Dickens, an entertainer of genius, moves into a deeper, darker world. The mundane reality of Hard Times gives way to the unearthly spirits who dwell in the land where nothing is as it seems because nothing is innocent. In such a world innocence cannot survive.

As a metaphor of society it reflects an uncomfortable truth. A seemingly benevolent organisation may seek to incorporate everything and everyone within its reach. The individual is anonymous. The social identity of the organisation is based on a myth of itself, a myth which, if challenged, lapses into psychosis. It is indeed a mad world, my masters. Survival depends on personal integrity and conscience. We survive by acknowledging the strength of our humanity. ‘No coward soul mine.’  Emily Bronte declared. That says everything we need to know.


William Golding’s The Inheritors inspired a quite remarkable commentary by Ted Hughes. Above the pieties of routine criticism comes this consideration of what Golding was seeking to find in his second, and possibly finest, novel.

The inheritors are us, the species Homo Sapiens. Our Neanderthal predecessors are confronted by more intelligent, though not necessarily more sensitive, people. For Hughes the development of modern humanity was a series of genetic accidents rather than a conscious process. The implication, as Golding suggests, is that modern humanity is unfinished. We are not the last word.

Arguably such accidents of evolution are not matters of chance, but of the free development within the benevolence of Creation. Not everyone would agree, of course. Both Golding and Hughes worked in contention with the concept of benevolence as the spring of nature. This pessimism closes down many possibilities.

There is in the poetry of Hughes a vision of life impelled by a primeval force. There is a rawness, a violence even, in the poetry of Ted Hughes, a vision of a godless world:

Through the window I see no star:

Something more near

Though deeper within darkness

Is entering the loneliness.

(The Thought-Fox)

This is the territory of the Evil Eye, of superstition, of fears that may or may not be wholly a matter of imagination. What lies within our minds is as powerful, and as dangerous, as any external enemy. The formal values of this poetry is undeniable, but it may be appreciated rather than admired. Hughes’s poetry may be said to lack the quality of charm, bearing in mind the origins of the word in the realm of magic.

In Czarist Russia wandering preachers were attended to, even revered. In the West they would have been suspected of witchcraft, or in modern times, madness. Their belief was that death could be overcome. A metaphysic of transcendence infused its way into the early stages of development after the Revolution (but not of course into the materialist totality that came to define and undermine the Soviet experiment.)

Something of this metaphysic is a leitmotif of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. It begins with the funeral hymn Eternal Memory, and a sense of transcendence permeates the narrative. It was a novel that the Soviet authorities found problematic. Widely circulated but for many years not officially published, it raised questions not easily answered. No governing body welcomes a challenge, especially if that challenge is based on ideals that pragmatists cannot accept easily but cannot wholly deny.

The doctor’s lover, Lara, declares that their love is greater than the Revolution. The idea is itself revolutionary, a challenge to the mechanised societies of East and West. The idea is there in Chaplin’s Modern Times.

Chaplin’s plea is for the integrity of the personal in an age characterised by the mass. In City Lights a blind flower girl mistakes a tramp for a rich man, especially when he secures the funds to restore her sight. Now a sophisticated young woman, she is amused to see a lovelorn but ragged vagrant. Then she takes his hand. The caption says simply, ‘YOU!’ That final image is devastating.  Do we not live for such moments? The homeless, nameless figure in the social margins becomes a fully human being, a thinking, feeling and loving man.

There are young homeless on our city streets, huddled in doorways, books in their hands. They have found in literature not a consolation but a way out of their situation. Their reading liberates them as nothing else can. Their hopes and ambitions are articulated not through despair, nor through desperate political initiatives but through literature. It is the written word, printed, that mediates between their lives and their dreams.

Literature is the secret agent of change within society. When the transformation is complete it will be articulated through the word, written or spoken, the literate word not the half-truths and speculations of the market place but the vital word sequestered, as the truth so often is.

There is a tradition of dissent in writing. The established order has its support network, but a distancing from institutional thinking has the air of an obligation. Governments are suspicious of literature. Seeing clearly means seeing through the pretensions, hypocrisies and calumnies of power. Sadly, writers can be co-opted by honours, money, and a modicum of fame. Worldly success seduces some whereas others remain true to their vision.

No self-respecting writer is among the elect of this world, and there is no citadel to secure a writer’s position. Goebbels himself threw Thomas Mann’s books on the infamous bonfire in Berlin. Neruda fled for his life across the Andes.  Subsequently he appealed to Brezhnev (in vain) for the release of Daniel and Sinyavsky. There is an unconscious irony that the statue to George Orwell stands (with unconscious irony) outside his model for the Ministry of Truth.

There is a social history that a writer cannot avoid. The censor always casts a shadow. And then there is the informal but no less poisonous censure. The self-righteous are never self-aware. They may live in fear of that self being exposed to the public gaze. They fear the independence of mind that, far from ‘sowing the seeds of discord’ discovers new harmonies in an unfamiliar tempo.

A writer also inherits the traditions of the craft. Reading widely, especially in contemporary work, is essential. No work of literature arises sui generis. Behind every word are previous words. That means that words written now are written to the future. On the one hand it is placed here and now. On the other hand it is part of a continuum. Like a river it is constantly, if imperceptibly, changing course. And the waters are indivisible. Everything in the river is integral to its confluence. What begins out of a fissure in the earth develops from a stream to a great concourse that merges into the oceans that encompass the world.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven's Invention, a novel (Black Wolf 2017) and three poetry collections published by Cyberwit: The Rites of Paradise (2020), Sappho’s Moon (2021) and The Wicken Bird (2022). A new collection will appear soon.

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