Judith Dundas – Paronomasia in the Quip Modest: From Sidney to Herbert

Paronomasia in the Quip Modest: From Sidney to Herbert

Judith Dundas

Published in Connotations Vol. 2.3 (1992)


Judith Dundas investigates the use of the quip modest in works by Sir Philip Sidney and George Herbert.

There is a form of wit that explains itself quite readily to the modern reader. I refer to the so−called metaphysical conceit, the discordia concors,1) which has affinities to our contemporary taste for the yoking together of unlike things through metaphor or simile. Less well understood is the attachment of such a poet as George Herbert, noted for his devotional simplicity, to patterns of sound that were deemed particularly witty. One of these, the figure paronomasia, bears a certain resemblance to the discordia concors of the metaphysical conceit in that it connects unlike things through similarity of sound. Beyond the goal of witty expression, however, both these forms of connection are designed to lead the reader toward a new understanding of the subject. Before turning to specific examples of paronomasia in Herbert's poetry, let us consider briefly the rhetorical purpose of this figure and the use to which it was put in the poetry of someone from whom Herbert learned a good deal about constructing a poem: Sir Philip Sidney.2)

Instead of using a single word in a double sense, as the "pun" does,3) paronomasia, using two words, emphasizes a resemblance but not identity of sound, as in the "O fate, O fault" of Sidney's sonnet 93. The effect is partly musical in somewhat the way that assonance is. Indeed, Cicero refers to paronomasia as what "the Greeks call 'assonance,' when the variation is in a letter or two."4) Among the possible variations are the adding of letters, the omitting of letters, the transposing of letters, or the changing of letters. What is crucial is that "similar words express dissimilar things."5)

The usefulness of this figure in repartee or retorts is explained, in guarded fashion, by Quintilian: "It does, however, sometimes happen [→page 224] that a bold and vigorous conception may derive a certain charm from the contrast between two words, not dissimilar in sound… ."6) Citing one example that he finds worthy of commendation, he notes that "the sense is forcible and the sound of the two words, which are so very different in meaning, is pleasant, more especially since the assonance is not far fetched, but presents itself quite naturally, one word being of the speaker's own selection, while the other is supplied by his opponent."7)

Sidney is fond of using this figure in passages of argumentation in his Arcadia. An example cited both by Abraham Fraunce in The Arcadian Rhetorike and by John Hoskins in Directions for Speech and Style occurs in Musidorus' plea to Pamela to understand his love for her: "But alas, what can saying make them believe whom seeing cannot persuade?"8) Ironies abound in such echoes. Pyrochles reflects on his predicament of receiving the unwanted love of Basilius and Gynecia while loving Philoclea: "Truly, Love, I must needs say thus much on my behalf, thou hast employed my love there where all love is deserved, and for recompense hast sent me more love than ever I desired."9) Later, speaking to Musidorus, he seems again to challenge or complain to the gods: "… . methinks the gods be too unequal to mankind if they suffer not good to come from one kinsman to another by a secret infusion, as we find daily evil doth by a manifest infection."10) Satisfying both logically and musically, such sentences attest not only to the rhetorical skill of the speaker but to his moral convictions.

In the pastoral world of Sidney's shepherds, paronomasia proves useful for singing matches, where there is a direct need for answering back. Lalus, for example, in the first eclogues of the Arcadia, challenging Dorus to a contest of praise for each one's lady, asks: "Can I be poor that her gold hair procure myself?"11) The contrast of meaning in "poor" and "procure" is pointed by the similarity of sound; the effect is of paradox. Another example from the eclogues that is cited by Abraham Fraunce is: "But nameless he, for blameless he shall be."12) It is sometimes hard to say whether such echoes are reflective of real debate; the musical context gives priority to the repetition of sounds. As Cicero notes, "there is sometimes force and in other cases charm in iteration of words, in slightly changing and altering a word."13)

[→page 225] But Sidney's use of the figure for musical and witty effect perfectly exemplifies what rhetoricians of the late sixteenth century had to say on the subject. Both Peacham and Puttenham cite him. Puttenham, for example, noting the "pretty sport" of playing with similar words, says: "Sir Philip Sidney in a dittie plaide very pretily with these two words, Loue and liue, thus. And all my life I will confesse, ⁄ The lesse I loue, I liue the lesse."14) Quoting also an anonymous poet who used the words "prove" and "reprove," "excuse" and "accuse," Puttenham says that these words "do pleasantly encounter, and (as it were) mock one another by their much resemblance."15)

Since such repetitions are consciously and deliberately used, all the rhetoricians warn against falling into affectation. John Hoskins notes Sidney's care not to overdo the figure and cites Astrophil and Stella for the sonnet in which Sidney refers to "'dictionary method' and the verses so made 'rhymes running in rattling rows,' which is an example of it."16) If Sidney implicitly criticizes John Lyly, Hoskins is more direct in remarking that Lyly, "seeing the dotage of the time upon this small ornament, invented varieties of it; for he disposed the agnominations in as many fashions as repetitions are distinguished… . But Lyly himself hath outlived this style and breaks well from it."17)

Interestingly, Scaliger says that this figure is "not to be used in serious poetry," that it is "appropriate for epigrams, satires, comedy, and is at its most graceful when from one word by a slight alteration, we extract the contrary."18) Henry Peacham similarly refers to it as a "light and illuding [or mocking] forme" and says that it "ought to be sparingly used, and especially in grave and weightie causes."19) How Herbert takes this "light and illuding forme" and makes it expressive of his religious faith is the immediate question before us.

The way paronomasia lends itself to argument makes it a figure that Herbert could use in his debates with God—a method of structuring his poems that may or may not be a revelation of personal conflict but that certainly bears a resemblance to Sidney's own fictitious debates in Astrophil and Stella, as in the already cited "O fate, O fault" of Sonnet 93. In his representation of a conflict between the claims of the world and the claims of the spirit, Herbert has a subject for which paronomasia is admirably suited, since it draws together opposed ideas through a [→page 226] likeness of sound. He has deliberately chosen to put his wit in the service of his faith: "If thou shalt give me wit, it shall appeare, ⁄ If thou hast giv'n it me, 'tis here.20)

Herbert's self−imposed requirement that his wit should serve his faith and should have the effect of humbling the speaker, as well as the reader, creates a tension stronger than Sidney's contexts assume. In using two words similar in sound but opposite in meaning, Herbert underlines the two perspectives of his poetry, that of man and that of God.21) This doubling back on what he appears to be saying, this criticism of his and all human desires, turns his answering back to God into God's answering back to him.22) His poem "The Quip,"23) a title that epitomizes the theme of answering back in a clever fashion, has several examples of paronomasia; here are some of them:

The merrie world did on a day
With his train−bands and mates agree
To meet together, where I lay,
And all in sport to geere at me.

First, Beautie crept into a rose,
Which when I pluckt not, Sir, said she,
Tell me, I pray, Whose hands are those?
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

Then came quick Wit and Conversation,
And he would needs a comfort be,
And to be short, make an oration.
But thou shalt answer, Lord, for me.

In the last stanza quoted, the refrain gathers new force from the repetition of the "or" syllable that precedes it. Of course, "came," "Con−," "com−," and "make" are also related through paronomasia. Then, in the final stanza, another sound proclaims the triumphant conclusion:

Yet when the houre of thy designe
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large, say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.

[→page 227] The words themselves answer back, as "designe" and "thine" sweep away "fine."

The pattern of quipping by means of the repetition of sounds is used to great effect in Herbert's poem "The Sacrifice."24) Wordplay in religious contexts has, of course, a long history.25) To give just one instance, the Venerable Bede cites examples of paronomasia from the Psalms, such as "they confided in thee and were not confounded."26) When Christ in "The Sacrifice" retorts to his enemies, he often makes his point more emphatic and ironical by pairing words of similar sounds but opposite significance. Here is one of the most notable examples:

Some said, that I the Temple to the floore
In three dayes raz'd, and raised as before.
Why, he that built the world can do much more:

Was ever grief like mine?   (65−68)

The effect is certainly witty, but the wit itself becomes an instrument of transformation.

It is a regular feature of Herbert's style to correct one word by another, similar in sound, but more exact from the religious point of view. Often the humbling of the human being in the face of the divine is shocking: "Legs are but stumps, and Pharaohs wheels but logs" ("Praise III"). The echo of the word "legs" by the word "logs" reduces human pride in physical attributes as well as in accomplishments, just as the man who "digs" for gold "falls in the ditch" ("Avarice").

Some of the contexts in which Herbert uses one word to mock another are more complex. He may even separate his pair of words so that the reader must be alert to sounds that reinforce meaning. But the very unobtrusiveness of the echo delights as well as teaches. His short poem "The Foil" has a play on "foil"⁄"foul":

God hath made starres the foil

To set off vertues; griefs to set off sinning:

Yet in this wretched world we toil,

As if grief were not foul, nor vertue winning.

Though grief is at first quietly described as the "foil" of sinning, when this particular foil attracts the adjective "foul," the point is brought home.

[→page 228] Used in this manner, paronomasia readily juxtaposes the values of two worlds, pitting one against the other and using the retorts of profane poetry in a contest already decided in God's favor. In fact, Herbert's presentation of rebellion is a rhetorical figure to dramatize two sets of values. The language of warfare fills such poems as "The Reprisall" and "Artillerie." In the former poem, the crossed parallels of "confession" and "conquest," "come" and "overcome" not only describe his going over to God's side but underline it by means of the reiterated syllables:

Yet by confession will I come

Into the conquest. Though I can do nought
Against thee, in thee I will overcome

The man, who once against thee fought.   (13−16)

The syllable "con" moves from the "with" of "confession" to the "completely" of "conquest," as well as to the implicit confession that only thanks to these two "con−s" the word can makes sense for man, just as in the other pair, "come" turns victoriously, but gently, to "overcome."

But even in a poem so void of military imagery (though "striking" in its description of the Passion) as "The Thanksgiving," Herbert plays with the idea of threatening God. I cite a stanza here, not because it uses paronomasia but because it exemplifies his habit of representing himself as locked in a struggle with God, like Jacob wrestling with the angel:

Nay, I will reade thy book, and never move

Till I have found therein thy love;

Thy art of love, which I'le turn back on thee,

O my deare Saviour, Victorie!   (45−48)

In the beginning, God, not Ovid, wrote The Art of Love,27) a method of conquest now used by the speaker−reader against the author himself. But both win when God wins, and the language of conflict is nothing if not factitious.

Predetermined as the outcome of the battle with God is, Herbert, in "An Offering," gives a vivid portrayal of the divided heart:

But all I fear is lest thy heart displease,
[→page 229] As neither good nor one: so oft divisions
Thy lusts have made, and not thy lusts alone;
Thy passions also have their set partitions.
These parcell out thy heart; recover these,
And thou mayst offer many gifts in one.   (13−18)

By relating the words "passions," "partitions," and "parcell," he draws our attention to divisions in the heart and the need to recover wholeness or rather "one"−ness.

Following the example of religious writers from the earliest times, Herbert chooses this "light and illuding forme" to describe the drama of sin and salvation as it is fought out in the human heart. Essentially, paronomasia allows him to mock human pretensions through a figure of deliberate ambiguity and irony. Thus, in "The Crosse," he judges himself as he complains to God: "These contrarieties crush me; these crosse actions ⁄ Doe winde a rope about and cut my heart." By relating the word "crush" of his lament to the word "crosse"—the cause of his lament—he finds, by means of a pun on "crosse," the answer to his problem. An apparent conflict reveals the action of divine grace:

And yet since these thy contradictions
Are properly a crosse felt by thy sonne,
With but foure words, my words, Thy will be done.   (34−36)

The "corrosive" has turned into a "cordiall," to use the paired words of "Sighs and Grones." It can be no accident that both these words contain the syllable "cor," the Latin for "heart," though "corrosive" of course has a different root. In the echo of the syllable, Herbert represents the essence of salvation as experienced by the revivified heart.

Fittingly, if at first glance, surprisingly, Puttenham gives paronomasia the playful name of "The Nicknamer," or one could say, "The Miscaller."28) Certainly Herbert likes to distinguish, as Sidney did, between the true name for something and the nickname. This is a rhetorical device that may simply use alliteration to contrast two things, as when the Princess in Love's Labor's Lost rebukes her suitor, the King of Navarre, for paying her the compliment of saying: "Rebuke me not for that which you provoke: ⁄ The virtue of your eye must break my oath" (5.2.347−50). [→page 230] She retorts: "You nickname virtue; vice you should have spoke, ⁄ For virtue's office never breaks men's troth." But when Herbert contrasts like−sounding words, he calls attention even more forcibly to "nicknaming."

In his poem "The Rose," he doubles back on himself as he defines the pleasures of this world, represented by one kind of rose, in the light of the eternal, represented by another kind of rose.29) To make the distinction clear, he proceeds to substitute the word "deceits" for the word "delights":

Or if such deceits there be,

Such delights I meant to say;

There are no such things to me,

Who have pass'd my right away.   (9−12)

Answering an imaginary wordly friend, he then puts his choice more positively but with a rhyming paronomasia that carries its own message.30)

But I will not much oppose

Unto what you now advise:

Onely take this gentle rose,

And therein my answer lies.   (13−16)

Though recognizing that embracing the rose of this world brings its own scourge in the form of thorns, followed by repentance, the poet chooses another path to redemption. So important to the very invention of the poem is the pair "oppose"⁄"rose" that he repeats it in the final stanza, along with a new pair, "choose"⁄"refuse":

But I health, not physick choose:

Onely though I you oppose,

Say that fairly I refuse,

For my answer is a rose.   (29−32)

Gathering up all the assocations in literature with a heavenly rose, including Christ and his Church as the Rose of Sharon, Herbert speaks in such simple words that, appearing almost to set aside the logic of [→page 231] rebuttal, he makes one highly symbolic flower, in its contrasted significance, do the work for him.

Throughout The Temple, Herbert's quips become more pointed through the pairing of words of similar sound. But, like the old faith in etymology as enshrining the essence of what is named, his paronomasia brings to our attention resemblances in words that could be seen as a key to the truths of our existence.31) What Puttenham, in his description of rhetorical figures, had treated under the rubric of ornament has, in Herbert's poetry, not only the appearance of everyday speech, but also the force of revelation: "heav'n" becomes the sinner's "haven" ("The Size"). Is there, after all, a divine paronomasia, with a consistent mocking of this world by the other? Such at least seems to be implied in Herbert's use of the figure. A passage in his poem "Assurance" may serve to sum up the place of paronomasia in his rebuttal of his "enemies'" arguments:

But I will to my Father,

Who heard thee say it. O most gracious Lord,
If all the hope and comfort that I gather,
Were from myself, I had not half a word,

Not half a letter to oppose

What is objected by my foes.   (20−24)

It is the same kind of answer as "The Rose" offers but here stated in terms of language itself.32)

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