Everyday expressions and their poetic origins
Our impression of “poetic” language as distinct from “everyday” language is unsurprising. At first glance, the flourishes of ornate, pre-1900 verse seem incompatible with common speech, either by virtue of their conspicuously high diction or the maudlin matters they seemingly address. One might hesitate, for instance, to liken a romantic interest to a lovely and temperate “summer’s day,” as Shakespeare famously does in Sonnet XVIII, over the course of a casual verbal exchange, and understandably so; the nature of modern human interaction – particularly in an age that prizes speed and efficiency at the expense of the personal – makes poetic sentiment seem somewhat excessive for everyday circumstance, and poetic language seem unsuitable for everyday use. But distinguishing between “poetic” and “everyday” language fails to recognize both modes of speech as interactive forces that have shaped one another over the course of their mutual history. Indeed, you might be quoting poetry without even knowing it: innumerable everyday expressions have unrecognized poetic origins, spanning classical and contemporary eras. Here, a close examination of some of our most common sayings unveils a hidden record of our literary history, with poetic verse manifesting itself in countless phrases and colloquialisms passed down and repurposed for modern times.
Figuratively speaking: from albatrosses to chickens
Consider our figurative understanding of the albatross – defined as a “very large, chiefly white oceanic bird with long, narrow wings” – as a profound symbol for misfortune and burdensome guilt. The popular idiom, an albatross round one’s neck, is an allusion to English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), in which an albatross is shot by the eponymous mariner, bringing feelings of insurmountable guilt upon him and disaster upon his crew. “Ah! Well-a-day! What evil looks/Had I from old and young!/Instead of the cross, the Albatross/About my neck was hung,” he writes ominously. Nowadays, Coleridge’s words have been repurposed as an accusatory phrase lobbed around the political arena, often used to describe an unfortunate mishap in either policy-making or personal reputation. Another idiomatic phrase, to be sadder but wiser, can also be found in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with Coleridge characterizing his speaker at the conclusion of the poem as “a sadder and a wiser man [who] rose the morrow morn.” As well as enjoying widespread colloquial use, the phrase later reappeared in Meredith Willson’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “The Music Man” (1957), titling the musical number, “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl.”
From Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Southey, poets throughout history have preserved this age-old motif of birds as “harbingers of doom,” manifesting itself in the grim metaphor of chickens coming home to roost. Like the phrase you reap what you sow – stemming from the biblical saying, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” from Galatians VI – the notion of karmic retribution, or bad deeds coming back to haunt their originator, is reflected in what is most recognizably termed poetic justice. Chaucer, for instance, wrote that that “ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully retorneth agayn to hym that curseth, as a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest” in “The Parson’s Tale,” the poetic conclusion to “The Canterbury Tales”. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the modern incarnation of the phrase chickens coming home to roost was written by Robert Southey in the motto to his poem “The Curse of Kehama” (1810): “Curses are like young chicken: they always come home to roost.” The poetic turn of phrase entered the political arena after it was famously used by Civil Rights-era activist Malcolm X, who delivered a 1963 speech titled “God’s Judgment of White America” at the Manhattan Center, in which he responded to news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination with the retort that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”
All’s poetic in love and war
It is helpful, at least for some, to think of language as an heirloom passed down from era to era. Central to language’s “inheritability,” of course, is its enduring usefulness in conveying unchanging, universal sentiments; for instance, many smaller – but impactful – idiomatic expressions continue to catalog ageless feelings of personal and situational crisis, ranging from the beginning of time through our own conflict-ridden 21st century. The earliest appearance of the brief but loaded saying all hell breaks loose dates back to the late 16th century publication of “Misogonus,” an anonymously written play later compiled under R.W. Bond’s “Early Plays from the Italian,” though the phrase is found soon afterwards in many poetic contexts, including in Samuel Nicholson’s “Acolastus His Afterwitte” (1600) and Book IV of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,”(1667) in which the warlike angel Gabriel, encountering Satan in Paradise, inquires, “Wherefore with thee/Came not all hell broke loose?” Indeed, the conciseness of poetic language – or the ability to condense the emotional or dramatic into a more succinct form of expression– helps to explain the often effortless crossover of verse into common speech. Here, acts of heroism, vengeance, war-making, and even peace-making are broached by small but powerful phrases, including to be bloody but unbowed, a widely-recognized allusion to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” whose second stanza reads: “Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed.” Henley’s spirited invocation of strength through sacrifice leads us to Tobias Smollet’s articulation of a similar idiom, to bite the dust, in his 1750 translation of “Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane,” in addition to Samuel Butler’s 19th century English translation of Homer’s “The Iliad,” which describes the way in which “many of [Hector’s] comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him.” Earlier variants of the same phrase, including bite the ground and bite the sand, can also be traced back to John Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and Alexander Pope’s 1716 translation of Homer’s Iliad, though these days, aficionados of pop culture are more likely to recall Queen’s 1980s chart-topper, “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Even so, common phrases originating in verse don’t always possess grisly or outright negative connotations, often finding gravity in pathos and practice of evocative understatement. While much poetry places emphasis on the active or dramatic, paying homage to the art form’s consciously epic and performative origins, it is increasingly used to convey lovelier and more nuanced sentiments as it continues to evolve in our modern era. Take the tender phrase so close but so far away, which is currently first cited in an English translation of the Latin poet Martial’s “Epigrams,” but is echoed in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H,” in the elegiac utterance, “He seems so near and yet so far.” Even more recognizably, the nostalgic saying there’s no place like home can be found in J.K. Paulding’s “The Backwoodsman” (1818), which reads, “Whate’er may happen, wheresoe’er we roam, However homely, still there’s naught like home,” though an earlier quotation appears in Piomingo’s “The Savage” (1810). We may be tempted to conceive of poetry as a language apart from language – a strange, artistic dialect alienated from common speech – but we would be sadly mistaken. Spoken language’s literary heritage speaks for itself, continuing, as it always has, to bring poetic sentiment and forms of articulation into everyday experience.
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