Spells

“Spell” is one of my favorite words. It relates language and magic; to spell a word is to describe what phonemes it is composed of, to cast a spell is to say a word of power and thus control reality. It also just means “word” or “news,” as in “Gospel” = “Good News,” and its German cognate “Spiele” means, in  addition to everything the word means in English, “play” and “game” –  “Ich spiele Cello,” “Die Baseball-Spiel hat Spaß gemacht.”

This is just one of the reasons that the poem I’m almost certainly going to choose for my “exemplary poem” in Junior Poet (we choose one poem by our poet, memorize it, recite it at the beginning of our panel, then give a reading of it; at that point the professors start asking questions and other poems come into the picture) is “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” supposedly the longest sonnet ever written in the English language (there are eight stresses per line).

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘ vaulty, voluminous, … stupendous
Evening strains to be tíme’s vást, ‘ womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.
Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ‘ her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height
Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ‘ stárs principal, overbend us,
Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being has unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steepèd and páshed—qúite
Disremembering, dísmémbering ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ‘ damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,
Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ‘ Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind
Off hér once skéined stained véined variety ‘ upon, áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck
Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds—black, white; ‘ right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind
But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ‘ twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack
Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

I don’t want to give a detailed reading of this poem right now – perhaps in a month or so. But keep it in mind. It’s one of my favorite poems in the English language, and one of the main reasons for that is its incantatory quality – Hopkins said it was meant to be “almost sung” – and howo the word “spelt” is there in the title. What does it mean? That the prophecy of the Apocalypse (this poem is about the end of the world) is there to be read in the Sibyl’s leaves? Or that the prophecy is spelt out, caused, by the fact of it being prophesied? I think both connotations are meant to be present. And that’s what’s great about the word spell – it takes many distinct but related concepts and gives one word to the entire set, so you can use this one word “spell” and evoke an entire backdrop of meaning – “language,” “magic,” “news,” “game,” etc.

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