Every language in the world has its own phrase, fresh for the stranger’s fresh and alien sense of its signal significance; a phrase that is its own essential possession, and yet is dearer to the speaker of other tongues. Easily—shall I say cheaply?—spiritual, for example, was the nation that devised the name anima pellegrina, wherewith to crown a creature admired. “Pilgrim soul” is a phrase for any language, but “pilgrim soul!” addressed, singly and sweetly to one who cannot be over-praised, “pilgrim soul!” is a phrase of fondness, the high homage of a lover, of one watching, of one who has no more need of common flatteries, but has admired and gazed while the object of his praises visibly surpassed them—this is the facile Italian ecstasy, and it rises into an Italian heaven.
It was by chance, and in an old play, that I came upon this impetuous, sudden, and single sentence of admiration, as it were a sentence of life passed upon one charged with inestimable deeds; and the modern editor had thought it necessary to explain the exclamation by a note. It was, he said, poetical.
Anima pellegrina seems to be Italian of no later date than Pergolese’s airs, and suits the time as the familiar phrase of the more modern love-song suited the day of Bellini. But it is only Italian, bygone Italian, and not a part of the sweet past of any other European nation, but only of this.
To the same local boundaries and enclosed skies belongs the charm of those buoyant words:—
Felice chi vi mira,
Ma piu felice chi per voi sospira!
And it is not only a charm of elastic sound or of grace; that would be but a property of the turn of speech. It is rather the profounder advantage whereby the rhymes are freighted with such feeling as the very language keeps in store. In another tongue you may sing, “happy who looks, happier who sighs”; but in what other tongue shall the little meaning be so sufficient, and in what other shall you get from so weak an antithesis the illusion of a lovely intellectual epigram? Yet it is not worthy of an English reader to call it an illusion; he should rather be glad to travel into the place of a language where the phrase is intellectual, impassioned, and an epigram; and should thankfully for the occasion translate himself, and not the poetry.
I have been delighted to use a present current phrase whereof the charm may still be unknown to Englishmen—“piuttosto bruttini.” See what an all-Italian spirit is here, and what contempt, not reluctant, but tolerant and familiar. You may hear it said of pictures, or works of art of several kinds, and you confess at once that not otherwise should they be condemned. Brutto—ugly—is the word of justice, the word for any language, everywhere translatable, a circular note, to be exchanged internationally with a general meaning, wholesale, in the course of the European concert. But bruttino is a soothing diminutive, a diminutive that forbears to express contempt, a diminutive that implies innocence, and is, moreover, guarded by a hesitating adverb, shrugging in the rear—“rather than not.” “Rather ugly than not, and ugly in a little way that we need say few words about—the fewer the better;” nay, this paraphrase cannot achieve the homely Italian quality whereby the printed and condemnatory criticism is made a family affair that shall go no further. After the sound of it, the European concert seems to be composed of brass instruments.
How unlike is the house of English language and the enclosure into which a traveller hither has to enter! Do we possess anything here more essentially ours (though we share it with our sister Germany) than our particle “un”? Poor are those living languages that have not our use of so rich a negative. The French equivalent in adjectives reaches no further than the adjective itself—or hardly; it does not attain the participle; so that no French or Italian poet has the words “unloved”, “unforgiven.” None such, therefore, has the opportunity of the gravest and the most majestic of all ironies. In our English, the words that are denied are still there—“loved,” “forgiven”: excluded angels, who stand erect, attesting what is not done, what is undone, what shall not be done.
No merely opposite words could have so much denial, or so much pain of loss, or so much outer darkness, or so much barred beatitude in sight. All-present, all-significant, all-remembering, all-foretelling is the word, and it has a plenitude of knowledge.
We have many more conspicuous possessions that are, like this, proper to character and thought, and by no means only an accident of untransferable speech. And it is impossible for a reader, who is a lover of languages for their spirit, to pass the words of untravelled excellence, proper to their own garden enclosed, without recognition. Never may they be disregarded or confounded with the universal stock. If I would not so neglect piuttosto bruttini, how much less a word dominating literature! And of such words of ascendancy and race there is no great English author but has abundant possession. No need to recall them. But even writers who are not great have, here and there, proved their full consciousness of their birthright. Thus does a man who was hardly an author, Haydon the painter, put out his hand to take his rights. He has incomparable language when he is at a certain page of his life; at that time he sat down to sketch his child, dying in its babyhood, and the head he studied was, he says, full of “power and grief.”
This is a phrase of different discovery from that which reveals a local rhyme-balanced epigram, a gracious antithesis, taking an intellectual place—Felice chi vi mira—or the art-critic’s phrase—piuttosto bruttini—of easy, companionable, and equal contempt.
As for French, if it had no other sacred words—and it has many—who would not treasure the language that has given us—no, not that has given us, but that has kept for its own—ensoleillé? Nowhere else is the sun served with such a word. It is not to be said or written without a convincing sense of sunshine, and from the very word come light and radiation. The unaccustomed north could not have made it, nor the accustomed south, but only a nation part-north and part-south; therefore neither England nor Italy can rival it. But there needed also the senses of the French—those senses of which they say far too much in every second-class book of their enormous, their general second-class, but which they have matched in their time with some inimitable words. Perhaps that matching was done at the moment of the full literary consciousness of the senses, somewhere about the famous 1830. For I do not think ensoleillé to be a much older word—I make no assertion. Whatever its origin, may it have no end! They cannot weary us with it; for it seems as new as the sun, as remote as old Provence; village, hill-side, vineyard, and chestnut wood shine in the splendour of the word, the air is light, and white things passing blind the eyes—a woman’s linen, white cattle, shining on the way from shadow to shadow. A word of the sense of sight, and a summer word, in short, compared with which the paraphrase is but a picture. For ensoleillé I would claim the consent of all readers—that they shall all acknowledge the spirit of that French. But perhaps it is a mere personal preference that makes le jour s’annonce also sacred.
If the hymn, “Stabat Mater dolorosa,” was written in Latin, this could be only that it might in time find its true language and incomparable phrase at last—that it might await the day of life in its proper German. I found it there (and knew at once the authentic verse, and knew at once for what tongue it had been really destined) in the pages of the prayer-book of an apple-woman at an Innsbruck church, and in the accents of her voice.
Meynell, Alice. “Anima pellegrina!.” 1909. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 15 Oct 2008. 25 Nov 2015 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/meynell/anima_pellegrina/>.
Every language is a persuasion, an induced habit, an instrument which receives the note indeed but gives the tone.
The human mind loves the bondage of words and is apt, when freed from one form of their tyranny, to set up another more oppressive than the last.
The man's attitude towards a book of poetry which is tough to him, is to drop it, even as the gods would have him do; the woman's is to smother it in a sauce of spurious explanation, and gulp it down.
Among world-wide objects of speculation, objects rising to the dignity of a mundane or cosmopolitish value, which challenge at this time more than ever a growing intellectual interest, is the English language.
I don't believe we really love each other, but we cling to each other out of ennui.