Incomprehensible English

In Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory the protagonist, a Mexican priest with some knowledge of English, comes across the following snippet of a poem and is utterly baffled by it:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally,
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

While reading this on my Kindle (which I had thought would be most useful for foreign literature), I had to look up several of these words with the built-in dictionary: a coot is a medium-sized water bird; hern (which wasn’t even in the Kindle’s ample dictionary and had to be sought online) is an archaic variant of heron; bicker is used not in the sense of ‘to quarrel’ but rather in a previously unfamiliar sense of ‘(of water) flow or fall with a gentle repetitive noise; patter’. Only after consulting the dictionary could I understand that we are dealing with a river or stream.

These four lines turn out to come from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Brook” (find the poem here in the same anthology that Greene has the priest leaf through). The following stanza even throws in a thorp, another word that very few people know today.

I’m sure that Greene included this snippet not just because it would baffle foreigners, but also because it would challenge English speakers of his day as well. Considering that Greene was writing only a mere 85 years after the poet, it just goes to show how archaizing Tennyson’s style was.

2 thoughts on “Incomprehensible English”

  1. This poem also came in for some ribbing in the Molesworth books, most notably here:

    Aktually there is only one piece of peotry in the english language.

    The Brook

    i come from haunts of coot and hern
    i make a sudden sally
    and-er-hem-er-hem-the fern
    to bicker down a valley

    that is the lot tho the Charge of the light brigade and the loss of the royal george and nearly peotry too. Even advanced english masters set THE BROOK they sa it is quaint dated gejeune etc but really they are all in leag with parents who can all recite it. And do if given half a chance.

    Even gillibrand’s pater General sir gustave godolfin gillibrand sa THE BROOK is tip-top and commend it to his men before going into batle insted of RUM. Not a bad wheeze aktually but i would hav an english master in front instead of a piper. In all the bulets, wams, bonks and xplosions no english master would escape his fate.

  2. It depends where you’re from. As a middle-aged, middle-educated southern Englishmen brought up in the country, I have no difficulty with anything except ‘hern’, which reminds me not of a heron but of Hern the Hunter. Thorp is fine but recognizable now only as a placename element. Reading the whole poem, I can’t see anything particularly archaizing about Tennyson’s style except the two words ‘hern’ and ‘thorp’.

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