The music of language
Have you ever given any thought to the music of language? You know when you go to the movies and there’s a sound track to go with the pictures and the sound track sort of tells you how you’re supposed to feel in this bit. Here you’re tense with eerie long drawn out notes capturing the mood; there you’re sad (the violins kick in); another exciting part is full of drumming. Even pictures need sound.
As writers we have to provide the whole deal – pictures, emotions, smells, story. Choice of words, length of sentences help to convey sound and feelings and pictures.
John Masefield’s little poem ‘Cargoes’ has stayed with me since I first read it at high school because the poet has used language so very well.
QUINQUIREME of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
Read the first verse aloud. You can almost see the sweat glistening on the backs of the slaves as they pull the oars to the time of the great drum on the stern. And that’s because Masefield used words that fit the rhythm of rowing. Three syllables in ‘quinquereme’ and in ‘Nineveh’, and again in ‘distant Ophir’. The triples persist in the cargo list.
The second verse is about a sailing ship. The whole verse is full of sibilants and my mind is filled with an image of filled sails, warm seas running past her bows. The list of cargo sways with the swell.
In the third verse the words chosen are sharp, chopped, bitten-off. The grotty steamer butts through the cold waters of the channel. We don’t even get an image of the shore as we do in the other two – just the mad March days. The cargo is clipped and terse.
To me, this use of language is masterful. Most of us know that when you’re writing something exciting you use short, direct, active language, avoiding ‘ing’ words and so on. The choice of words is important, too. Onomatopoeic words (words that sound like what they mean) can be very powerful. Everybody knows a few; crack, pow, zip, tumble, clatter. Cleverly used, language can convey so much more than just the meaning of the words.
For instance, in the second verse Masefield doesn’t use the word ‘sailing’ or even a synonym. Who would think of using the word ‘dipping’ for a ship at sea? But think about; it’s so right it conjures up such a wonderful visual. In a similar vein, you won’t find ‘butting’ in your thesaurus under sailing or steaming, either. Yet it thrusts the image at you; a stormy sea, a bow crashing through spray.
Masefield is just one example; there are many others from whom we can learn how to use language as a symphony, music that carries readers along with us. Do you know of any?