January 19, 2005

More on Browning, Pippa and all

My post this morning on Twat v. Browning left several questions open: how did the writer of the OED's entry on twat know how Browning formed his idea of its meaning? What was Vanity of Vanities (1660) and who wrote it? And how did Pippa Passes, KY, get its name?

By the time I checked my email this afternoon, all these questions had been answered by notes from readers.

Anthony Hope sent a page from Dr. Bowdler's Legacy, which reads in part:

In 1841, Browning published the long dramatic poem Pippa Passes, now best known for the lines “God’s in His heaven/ All’s right with the world.” Toward the end of it, he sets up a kind of Gothic scene, and writes:

Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

The second of these lines created no stir at all, presumably because the middle class had truly forgotten the word “twat” (just as it had forgotten “quaint,” so that Marvell’s pun on the two meanings in “To His Coy Mistress” has fallen flat for six or eight generations now). A few scholars must have recognized the word, but any who did behaved like loyal subjects when the emperor wore his new clothes, and discreetly said nothing. No editor of Browning has ever expurgated the line, even when Rossetti was diligently cutting mere “womb” out of Whitman. The first response only came forty years later when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, collecting examples of usage, like Johnson before them, and interested to find a contemporary use of “twat,” wrote to Browning to ask in what sense he was using it. Browning is said to have written back that he used it to mean a piece of headgear for nuns, comparable to the cowls for monks he put in the same line. The editors are then supposed to have asked if he recalled where he had learned the word. Browning replied that he knew exactly. He had read widely in seventeenth-century literature in his youth, and in a broadside poem called “Vanity of Vanities”, published in 1659, he had found these lines, referring to an ambitious cleric:

They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat;
They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat.

If you are sufficiently delicate and sheltered, it is possible to take the last word as meaning something like a wimple, and Browning did. A fugitive and cloistered virtue can get into difficulties that even Milton didn’t think of.

Andrew Gray answered the question about Vanity of Vanities:

It occured to me that in 1660, an untranslated work in English would likely have been printed in the UK; as such, there was a very good chance a copy was still around, and a reasonable chance it had actually been titled that.

So I checked COPAC (copac.ac.uk), which is a remarkably useful resource - a single search interface for most of the major university (and deposit) libraries in the UK. It produced two records:

Vanity of Vanities: or Sir H. Vanes Picture to the tune of the Jews Corant. [A satirical ballad.] / [by] Vane, Sir Henry . 1660

Vanity of Vanities or Sir Harry Vanes Picture. : To the tune of the Jews Corant . 1660

although on examination the second is a microfilmed copy of the first, which is held at the British Library. On further digging they also hold a 1659 copy; I don't know if there was a difference between the two, or if the OED deliberately chose the more recent edition for the sake of it.

I assume Harry Vane was Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who among other things served as the governor of Massachusetts; his father had been dead for five years, so it likely wasn't him. Interesting chap, by the looks of it...


[Update 1/23/2005: Dan Holbrook wrote to correct this attribution:

I've got access to Early English Books Online at my school, and having read the poem in question, I think it's pretty clear that Sir Henry Vane is the subject (hence "Portrait"), and that he wouldn't have written such disparaging things about himself (of his father and him: "The Devil no're see such two Harry's"). Given the authority many readers (I, for one) attach to Language Log, it would probably be a good idea to edit the old post before this error propagates all over the internet.

Sure enough. Our library has EEBO too, and so here is an image of the (anonymous) broadsheet. It's nice to see that Language Log is considered the Weblog of Record, if only for anonymous 17th-century religious-political song lyrics.]

And Paul Bickart wrote:

From my copy of "American Place Names" by George R. Stewart (Oxford University Press, New York (1970)):

Pippapasses KY Named, ca. 1915, by a schoolteacher from Browning's poem, with the idea of doing good by unconsciously influencing other people.

Doesn't get us a whole lot forrader, does it?

Well, it's a good start. For one thing, it confirms that Pippa Passes was actually named for the poem, rather than (say) a sequence of narrow gaps between mountains named for some Appalachian pioneer. And it tells us that the place was named in 1915, by a schoolteacher.

And the odd demographics of Pippa Passes offer a clue about who the schoolteacher might have been, and what context the naming might have taken place in.

Population (year 2000): 297, Est. population in July 2002: 295
Males: 58 (19.5%), Females: 239 (80.5%)
Median resident age: 20.8 years
White Non-Hispanic (97.3%)

What sort of hamlet in the mountains of Kentucky would have a female population of 239 out of 297, and a median resident age of 20.8 years?

Well, part of the story seems to be that Pippa Passes is the home of Alice Lloyd College. This doesn't entirely explain the demographics, since ALC is said to have 557 students, 45% of whom are male. Maybe the men's dorms are outside of the town limits?

Anyhow, the school's history apparently

traces back to a community center founded by Alice Geddes Lloyd, a newspaper reporter from Massachusetts who moved to Kentucky in 1916 for health reasons. By 1923 the center had evolved into a junior college, and in 1980 it became a senior college.

I think we can identify Ms. Lloyd as the schoolteacher responsible for the name. She seems to have been quite a woman, and very much the sort of person who would have adopted Browning's Pippa as a totem.

And for lagniappe, John Kozak writes:

To Browning's 'twat' I'll add Bulwer-Lytton's: in "The Coming Race", a novel about an underground race of amphibian super-beings, we get, in a passage about one of their leading thinkers:

Among the pithy sayings which, according to tradition, the philosopher bequeathed to posterity in rhythmical form and sententious brevity, this is notably recorded: "Humble yourselves, my descendants; the father of your race was a 'twat' [...]

B-L adds the gloss "(tadpole)" after this. I /think/ what he was referring to is a Suffolk dialect word "twud", but I don't have anything decent to check that against.

Happy new year!

Same to you, John!

[Update 1/20/2005: In reference to twud, Ray Girvan writes:

This fits with the regional rhyme (I've seen it in Arnold Silcock's "Verse and Worse") - "an 'ornet lived in a 'oller tree, an' a narsty spiteful twud were 'ee" - where "twud" is usually interpreted as "toad".



Posted by Mark Liberman at January 19, 2005 05:57 PM