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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

14 February 2020

Malcolm Guite reflects on William Shakespeare’s ‘dressing old words new’

IN A moment of surprising modesty — for a son­­net sequence that he claims will outlive marble and gilded monuments — Shakespeare co­nfesses that

. . . all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent.

He is too modest here; for Shakespeare not only refreshed the currency of language, improving words’ value and increasing their circulation, but he was also responsible for coining, for freshly minting hundreds of new ones, still in circula­tion. Indeed, his additions to our vocabu­lary were “multitudinous”, to borrow one of his own coin­ages.

But the real value of this little piece of self-deprecation is its underlying metaphor of lan­guage as coinage, as currency.

Like the coin of the realm, language is vulnerable to both inflation and forgery. Words such as “community”, “excellence”, “inclusion”, and “diversity” can be printed and reprinted, spent and overspent, until, exhausted by so many false applications, they start to lose their true value. Estate agents, for example, who can sell you only a house, now routinely claim to sell you a “home”.

Eventually, we get to the point at which a se­quence of inflated words, pasted together, almost guarantees the absence of what they once signified. A country that proclaims itself as a people’s democratic republic is almost certainly a tyranny.

This is where Shakespeare’s claim for poetry comes in. If the advertisers and politi­cians exploit words and strip them of their real meaning, then the task of poetry is to rescue and restore them, bring them back up in the world, by “dressing old words new”.

T. S. Eliot understood this task, and put it well when he wrote that

. . . our concern was speech, and speech
impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe.

Eliot saw that poetry itself might strain words almost beyond their limit — not by cheap­en­­­­ing them, as hucksters do, but by demanding more meaning from them than they can man­age.

I sometimes reflect that it wouldn’t be much fun to be a word under Eliot’s command, pushed over the top, as he made one more “raid on the inarticulate”.

Eliot may have been a Commander-in-Chief, but I see myself as something more like a genial host, inviting words to gather and refresh them­selves on my page, hoping to overhear and re­­member their conversation, writing in the con­viction that all the words I use are older and wiser than I am.

That was certainly my thought when I wrote this little sonnet:


I turn a certain key within its wards,
Unlock my doors and set them open wide
To entertain a company of words.
Whilst some come early and with eager
Others must be enticed and coaxed a little;
The shy and rare, unused to company,
Who’ll need some time to feel at home and
I bid them welcome all. I make them free
Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me.
I set them in the order they like best
And listen for their wisdom, try to learn
As each unfolds the other’s mystery,
And though we know each word is my free
They sometimes leave a poem in return.

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