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.