Mind your language

A learned poet's mystifying mistakes

I expected better of Bernard O’Donoghue

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

I enjoy Poetry Please, but was shouting mildly at the wireless the other day when a northern woman poet was using the whining intonation that some seem to think the proper voice in which to recite verse. So I was glad that Bernard O’Donoghue came on, with an accent formed by a childhood in Co. Cork.

His poem ‘Gerund’ was about an only child who ‘grew up in a county council cottage by the roadside’ but was allowed to go on to secondary education (as many in Ireland then did not) because of his intelligence. At school, the poem says: ‘When Joe Garvey asked/ “What part of speech is desperandum?”,/ trembling, he volunteered “a gerund”,/ and then translated “what must be despaired of”./ How did he know?’

A good question, since desperandum, as in nil desperandum (a phrase in an ode by Horace), is not a gerund, but a gerundive. If the school incident was closely drawn from life, I’d suggest that the boy said ‘gerundive’ and Mr O’Donoghue forgot. I do not blame him, but it is strange for a poem to turn on a grammatical nicety and then get the nicety wrong.

What reinforced my surprise was that the poet misused a word in another poem on the programme. Called ‘Dockets’, it’s about a house-painter, who might if things had turned out differently have been the ‘clerk’ and set out things for Mass: ‘ciborium, amice, manciple and stole’. When I heard ‘manciple’, I thought it had just been a slip of the tongue in reading. But there it is in the author’s volume Farmer’s Cross.

A manciple is ‘a servant who purchases provisions for a college, Inn of Court, monastery, etc’. Chaucer has one in his Canterbury Tales. A maniple, on the other hand, is ‘a strip of material suspended from the left arm near the wrist, worn as one of the Eucharistic vestments’.

I do not say that, to write poetry, one must know what all words mean. (Even Browning nodded.) I found both poems agreeable otherwise. But it’s unexpected since Mr O’Donoghue is an Oxford don specialising in history of the language. We all make mistakes, but did no one at the publisher, Faber, notice?

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