I fell in love with sound; the sense came later

The second night, before the curtain came up, the director of our play, "Pygmalion," buttonholed me near the dressing rooms.

"I have some feedback," he said with an impish grin.

Of course one shouldn't ask for feedback if one might not like it. But I had.

"You're enjoying the language too much," he said.

I was slightly taken aback. But then he did an imitation of me (playing Colonel Pickering) saying one of my lines: "Excuse the straight question, Higgins. Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?"

His imitation was very funny and, he later admitted, a wicked exaggeration, but his tortuous elongation of the vowels, overcooked relish of each syllable, hammering of every consonant, and deep wells of emphatic silence caused me to laugh and wince simultaneously.

"I don't sound like that!" I exclaimed.

That night, I delivered those lines with clipped, military efficiency. Higgins (who had evidently had a short nap when I'd been saying them previously) said afterward that he was caught off guard by my sudden acceleration. He grasped at his line, though, and out it came: "Have you ever met a man of good character where women are concerned?"

But it has set me thinking. I wonder if it is possible to enjoy the language too much. I realize that Pickering is a character who sees words as a straightforward tool rather than a procession of sounds to be savored and rolled around the tongue. So on stage, I needed to be more of Pickering and less of me.

My childhood and education have fostered an affection in me for the rhythms and cadences, the mellifluent and sonorous undulations and resonances of spoken English. I also love the "light fantastic toe" of English words, the hop, skip, and jump of them - and even, on occasion, their extended vowels. Words have meanings, I know, but the sheer sound of them can be quite wonderful.

To me, at an early age, what the words said was scarcely the point. I didn't understand half of them anyway. Fascinating rhythm was everything - something that the tradition of nursery rhymes and jingles has long recognized.

From "Rub-a-dub-dub/ Three men in a tub" to "Sing a song of sixpence/ A pocket full of rye," the music of the words became well rooted in me. I actually associate certain word patterns with certain people in my childhood. "Mary, Mary quite contrary/ How does your garden grow?" was one of my mother's habitual recitations. And, when an apology was required, she almost automatically intoned: "Beg your pardon/ Mrs. Harden/ My black cat's/ In your back garden."

I associate the following with a Yorkshireman who worked in our market garden: "Half a pound of tuppenny rice/ Half a pound of treacle/ Mix it up and make it nice/ Pop goes the weasel!" He taught me this doggerel in the potting shed. I had no idea why a weasel would go pop (I still don't), but I loved the words and repeated them endlessly.

With "Nursey Percy" I associate a long, alliterative counting verse that begins, "One old ox opening oysters." She could sometimes be pestered into reciting it in the back of the car on long, boring journeys. I hadn't found it in a book until today. There it is in a footnote in "The Annotated Mother Goose." The version in this volume is different from Percy's, and I wonder if she had elaborated it to suit herself. The Mother Goose's second line, for instance, is "Two tee-totums totally tired of trying to trot to Tadbury." But Percy's went: "Two toads totally tired trying to trot to Tisbury." I prefer hers.

All this was a marvelous world of word nonsense. And it turned out to be a splendid basis for enjoying poetry. My brother had a poem called "Silver" by Walter de la Mare on his bedroom wall. Its imagery is magical, and the slippery sheen of the words and their whispering evocation of a moonlit night seemed to be matched by the unknown mystery of words like "casements" and "cote" and "couched."

In downloading it now from a website, I see that the spellcheck disapproves of "shoon" and "moveless." These are the two words that appeal to me most. They are unusual and powerfully descriptive. They contribute to the poem's music. They occur in the first two lines: "Slowly, silently, now the moon/ Walks the night in her silver shoon." And in the last two: "And moveless fish in the water gleam,/ By silver reeds in a silver stream."

In my school days, we learned poems by heart. This was not torture. Quoting them ever after - though it may be torture to listeners - is not pretension. It is more a matter of pleasure, like singing in the shower. My brother sometimes launches dramatically into: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree:/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea...."

I'm reasonably sure he has little idea what this Coleridge poem is actually about. He just celebrates the words and his achievement in remembering them.

My wife's father apparently liked to come out with "Abu Ben Adam (may his tribe increase)...." at odd moments. He also liked W.B. Yeats's: "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,/ And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:/ Nine bean-rows/ will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,/ And live alone in the bee-loud glade."

I can see how apt this would be for going to work, or to a football match, or out with friends.

My own weakness for this sort of verbal extroversion involves far too much Shakespeare, one or two gems from Keats, and an overdramatic snatch of Byron, a poet who generally fails to touch me much: "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean - roll!/ Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;/ Man marks the earth with ruin - his control/ Stops with the shore...."

And there I stop, too. I remember no more.

This may well be fortunate, particularly at breakfast or when we have visitors who are easily embarrassed. After all, I don't want to be accused of enjoying the language too much.

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