Copyright © the Estate of Ross F. Lockridge, Jr., 2000, All rights reserved

Rhapsody in Words


[Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s] most engaging short piece, written on his twenty-third birthday, is "Rhapsody in Words," a comic dream allegory based on The Divine Comedy that gives his search a linguistic grounding. It resonates with the later quest of John Shawnessy. ...

This allegory has roots in medieval theology and Romantic poetics. Instead of an arbitrary sign, a word is potentially the incarnation of thought, and capable of taking us to the interior of its represented world. The word is a living thing. This is a poet's faith and it was Ross Lockridge's--in the face, he knew, of theoretical objections from most modern linguists.

--From Shade of the Raintree, by Larry Lockridge, pp 166-7.


[title page]

For Doctor Carter
Literary Criticism


Rhapsody in Words

(An allegorical dream)


A paper inspired from a reading of

Lowes' and Eastnan's comments on

the nature of words.


Ross F. Lockridge, Jr.


Rhapsody in Words


It was close to that mysterious hour that halves the night. Far in the northeast corner of a spacious house I sat alone. The lamp upon my study table cut a yellow cone from the dense stuff of night, and at the bottom of that cone there lay an open book over which I leaned with fascinated eye. For I had set myself a heroic task--to analyze Words, the very stuff out of which poetry is made and without which thought itself were impossible. So on that moonless night, at an hour when the unphilosophical lie drugged with sleep, I sat gazing at The Dictionary.

Words! Words! Words! So long had I studied them and so rapt had been my attention to the pages of The Dictionary that Words were no longer the simple messengers of thought that I had imagined them to be. They had become a riddle that would not let me be. "What, indeed," I asked myself, "are these conventional symbols that we blandly call Words--this bit-work of the brain, these little inadequacies wherein we are doomed to imprison Thought, the Imperishable, Emotion, the Unconfinable? What are these sluggish ministers of Ideal Beauty--these stupid infantries that plod and lose their way while the main action fails and is forgotten." And I continued somewhat in this vein: "These Words, monsters of ink, pygmy rulers of this world, are nought but an arbitrary convention and, in themselves, utterly devoid of meaning. They are a gibbering noise, a ludicrous cluck made by clicking the tongue, the teeth, and the palate adroitly together, or else they are a series of regimented files of twisting snakes along a page. Why is one word poetic and another prosaic? Why is it that one of these inky lines is called beautiful and reproduced upon a thousand pages and another is declared stupid and forgotten as soon as read? Why may the same word be in one context a thing of vital strength, alive with meaning, and in another context as dead as a stone? What are the families of words, and whence are words come?"

These and other questions restlessly haunted my mind, and as the deep of night drew near, the book before my eyes expanded, the printed words became alive, danced and dilated, became enormous, separated into groups. And suddenly I fell asleep and dreamed a dream of wondrous consequence....

I wandered in the twilight atmosphere of dream. Never did eye of man behold a stranger land. I made my way down a titanic avenue between two towering cliffs. These, though dim and rugged, seemed somehow faintly to copy the lines of a bookcase, and the very rocks that were strewn on every hand along the shadowy valley wherein I walked seemed by their queer, rectangular shape to resemble gigantic books in various attitudes, even as some careless hand might have left them upon a giant study table.

I had not journeyed far along my way when the valley ended before a mighty portal. Now, while I stood, debating in my mind whether or not I should enter, a hand plucked at my sleeve, and I turned to see a most extraordinary figure.
There stood before me an old man, a quaint old man, a most ridiculous old man. His person was exceedingly untidy, for out of every pocket of his faded black suit there hung shreds and tatters of printed pages. There was nevertheless something very grave, very formal, very authoritative about this old fellow. One felt he had been once exceedingly smart and correct and had become merely the worse for wear. His skin was as dry as paper, his eyes glittered as black as wet printer's ink, and his ears hung over in a manner that faintly recalled the corners of pages that have been folded down. A pair of spectacles were pinched upon his nose. While I stood in awe before this old man, not daring to laugh, for he was obviously a very pompous and important person, he spoke to me; and the opening and shutting of his lips was like the clapping to of a heavy volume.

"My dear sir," he began, "May I inquire what is your errand here," and then, as if in a footnote, he added, "'Errand'--not as you might mistakenly suppose from the same root as 'errant'--that is to say, 'wandering'--but rather from the Anglo-Saxon 'aerende.' Compare the Gothic 'airus,' or 'messenger,' a derivative of 'ar,' 'go.'" After punctuating this learned commentary with a final authoritative clapping to of his lips, he became silent, waiting for me to answer.

"My good sir," said I, somewhat at a loss, "I had been walking in this valley of yours when I came upon this yawning entrance and was forthwith rooted to the spot."

At these words, the old gentleman shook his head, pinched his spectacles, and said, "My dear sir, the expression 'rooted to the spot' is pleonastic, for that which is rooted is fixed in some spot firmly by the roots; hence 'to the spot' is redundant." After delivering himself of this in a dogmatic but kindly manner, the old gentleman continued: "You are, I take it, a dabbler in words; else I should not find you in this domain."

"Yes," said I, "I believe I do have a certain natural talent for words."

Again the old man pinched his spectacles, smacked his lips, and said, this time with a certain severity, "My good-natured but untutored young friend, the expression 'natural talent,' which you allow to slip so glibly from your lips is tautological, in that all talent is, by rigorous definition of the word, natural."

I might have been disposed to argue with this venerable man had there not been about him a certain solidity and preciseness that commanded my respect.

"Sir," said I, taking now especial pains not to speak incorrectly, "May I know to whom I have the honor of speaking?"

At this, the old fellow, a very dry old fellow indeed, chuckled in a peculiar manner that much resembled the rapid thumbing of many pages. "Why, my young lexicographer," said he, "is it possible that you should not remember me? I have been your constant companion and guide for many years. You have neglected me at times, but you always return to me as a court of last resort, from whose decisions there is no appeal. I have grown old in your service," and the old man looked ruefully at his threadbare garments.

"Why," said I, surprised by sudden understanding, "I know you after all. You are my old Dictionary."

"Precisely," said the old man with an air of dignity, but as he spoke, a number of leaves tumbled from his crowded pockets, and he was obliged to stoop over and pick them up before continuing.

"My well-meaning but unschooled young friend," said he when he had arisen, "I am ready to take you through a region to which I have reason to believe you are a total stranger. Sir, if I mistake not, you have but lately scoffed at words and grudged them the power they wield in this world. I cannot help but feel, my energetic but misguided young friend, that this feeling comes from a regrettable ignorance as to the nature of words themselves. And in this you are the more blameworthy for the reason that--as I have lately discovered--you have had the rare good fortune to belong, all unworthy as you are, to a fraternity of choice spirits who are delving into the mysteries of poetry and seeking to discover how some words have come to be poetic, some prosaic, and how all words may be of imperishable beauty according to their use. I feel it my solemn duty, my headlong but undirected young friend, to lead you through a domain from which you will emerge a man of some wisdom, one whose mouth and pen will be better fitted to use, without profaning it, the language that Shakespeare used. And now, my ardent but inexact young sir, behold the gateway to Wordland!"

And so saying, the austere old fellow indicated with an eloquent sweep of his hand and a scattering of many broken pages the yawning portal. And as he did so, I saw on the arch above the opening an inscription that read:

Watch well your accents, ye who enter here! In another moment, I had followed my eccentric Virgil through the door and into the Land of Words.

No sooner had we crossed that threshold than my ears were filled with a many-voiced utterance, as if a thousand tongues were lisping all together. This polyphonic sound came from an abyss, dark and perilous, that gaped at my feet.

As I gazed into this pit, I saw fantastic forms that were also sounds, so strangely does the primeval air of dream--a region of vast emotions and archaic wishes--blend the different worlds of sense and thought. It did not at that moment seem strange to me that a word could go about clothed in a shape, strangely human, or that the mere sound of vocables and consonants hissing together should be accompanied by a sensuous content or image of the word.

In the bottomless pit that opened before my feet, I saw many winding paths and downward-plunging circles, and these were occupied by words--armies of them, fantastic, tinkling, clanking,--throngs of them, speaking, shouting, laughing, weeping--hordes of them, old and young, fragile, evanescent, uncouth, obscene--the hideous, endless, magnificent brood of the Imagination.

But I had not long to stand aloof in contemplation of this scene, for my guide led the way, and together we descended and emerged upon the first level of the pit.

"This," said my guide, "is the circle of onomatopoeic words. Here, for instance, are the words that are grossly imitative in sound." And, in fact, never before had I heard such a pandemonium of sounds. It seemed to me in my dream that each word was both a sound and a shape sometimes human that subtly reflected its personality. There were mooings and hissings and chortlings; cluckings, moanings, and raspings. Occasionally words would become connected in a string that described some object and at the same time imitated the characteristic sound of that object. Thus there was a string of words that rattled and grided as if on rails of iron; and words that made a stridulous tempest of noise as if a million locusts were rubbing their gauzy wings together; and words that mingled in seraphic harmonies as of angelic hosts invisible. As I stood entranced at this spectacle that filled my eyes with images, this succession of noises that ravished my ears with sound, my guide called forth from the throng a strange fellow, who had a head like an owl, with large eyes solemn and winkless, and who uttered a low, quavering cry like hounds baying the deer in distant woodlands. He stood before me; yet when I asked him his name, he replied only by a howling and hooting, never blinking an eye. The old gentleman seemed mightily pleased with him and whispered to me confidentially, "A very pretty specimen of the poetic selection, if you will. This fellow is Ululation, come over from the Latin where he was Ululo, to howl, from ululo, screech-owl." Thereupon, my quixotic guide did a thing that seemed incompatible with his dignity by joining in with Ululation; and the two of them howled together for some time.

However, the old gentleman soon stopped, dismissed his weird companion, clapped his lips together, and, taking me by the arm, escorted me down to a lower circle. Meanwhile, he dispersed the following information:

"It is not necessary, my enthusiastic but as yet uninitiated young friend, that words be consciously imitative in order to produce onomatopoeia. We have upon this circle a number of words that may produce more subtle effects of onomatopoeia. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by quoting from one of my favorite authors. The young Keats, who studied diligently under my supervision, wrote this line:

'Forlorn--the very word is like a bell.'

Observe how the word 'forlorn,' whose derivation is from the Anglo-Saxon word 'leosan,' 'lost,' and the intensive 'for,' is here identified by sound and subtle meaning with the far-off and pilgrim echo of a bell."

"You seem," said I, "to be conversant with the poets."

"Oh, indeed I am," quoth the old gentleman, puffing with self-esteem. "I may say, without exaggeration, that I am literally stuffed with quotations. My younger brother, College Dictionary, is without them, I confess, being a superficial sort of fellow, but useful enough for the beginner. As for me, I can illustrate every word with a quotation." And as if to prove this fact, the crotchety old fellow squared off and quoted disconnected lines for a half-hour without stopping, until he lost his place. Then taking me again by the arm, he continued: "Consider, for instance, a few of my metallic words." And suiting action to words, he led me to a place where a number of lusty gentleman were blowing on various peculiar horns. Together they made a noise of sonorous trumpetings, blowing with rounded cheeks. Others carried sheets of metal that they beat, producing reverberating plangencies.

"Stop," said my guide. "Did you know that the musical instruments themselves have names of a poetic quality? Take, for instance, this fellow." As he spoke, I saw nearby a motley horde of creatures that resembled musical instruments. From the crowd at the old gentleman's command came one, a long, reedy fellow on stilt-like legs, with an exceedingly long mouthpiece protruding like a tail from his back.

"This," said the old gentleman, "is Bassoon. He gets his name from the quality of his voice--that is to say, basso or low." Bassoon rejoined his companions, intoning in gutteral accents as he went. While we were leaving this circle, I heard the liquid chime of flutes and winding of the mellow horn. I heard the open-throated sousaphone in muffled numbers booming distantly; I heard the burly viol's broad lament, the restless drum's incessant rigadoon, the pure sharp urge of clarinets--all to a gradual sloping music blent. But most of all I heard the rich emergence of the violin, the desperate pain of strings and singling wood.... Half-drunk with drinking in the burning wine of harmony, I might have tarried forever in this circle, but my quizzical companion was restless to continue.

It were impossible to describe all the wonders I beheld in my dream. But as we continued on our way, my benevolent guide stopped often to introduce to me quaint personalities in the Land of Words. There was a level where were none but dulcet words--words that were low music in the ear. In another circle were words that appealed to the sense of touch. There were words here of a cushiony softness, suggestive of velvet or of satin. In this circle of Wordland, the old man accosted a maiden clad all in shimmering silk.

"This is an aristocrat of the level," said he. "Her name is Sericious, and her genealogy is a long one, for she carries with her an oriental tincture of old China and trails her silky robe across the marble atria of Rome."

So saying, he brought me into another circle; but no sooner were we arrived than the air was full of a noise so hideous and our noses were so offended by miasmic odors that we were forced to depart in great haste.

"This is the circle of foul and ugly words," exclaimed the old gentleman. And in fact on every side were creatures of abnormous mien, uncouth monsters that limped with a horrid speed or shot with griffinesque swoopings from the air. The old gentleman tried to retain his composure, but was soon obliged to clap his fingers to his ears and run at a great rate of speed, sifting pages on every hand. After us, came the ghastly host of ugly words, croaking, shrieking, chuckling, and leaping about in grotesque babooneries. And though we ran like the wind, we were unable to shake off one or two fellows who persisted in running alongside of us, shouting their names in our ears. One of these was a demon of a scrofulous look, his skin infested with parastitic lice. "Pediculous! Pediculous!" he shrieked. "What does that mean," I asked the old gentleman, when we had finally gotten safely out of the circle. "Why," replied my guide, puffing hard, but gradually regaining his equanimity, that caitiff is merely trying to hide his loathsomeness under a high-sounding name. But I know him well enough--the rogue. He has come over practically unchanged from the Latin, and he is none other than the equivalent of our Anglo-Saxon word 'lousy,' which, by the way," he added with a twinkle in his eye, "you and others of your generation have invested with a pejorative meaning." And with a knowing wink, he adjusted his black suit, and, taking me by the arm, led me down the path into another circle.

Now, I was conscious of a depressing change. For as we emerged into this circle, the atmosphere turned to a chilly dusk, and the only sounds were faint sepulchral mutterings. Sinister figures reared their vague outlines across our path and moaned their names in funeral monotones. Try though I might, my face was blanched with fear, and I clung in trepidation to the arm of my stout old guardian.

"Ha," said he, "You have need of your courage here. These are the eery words." There came forward even then a lank, graveyard figure whose name was Mortuary, and another the color of ashes, whose name was Cinerary. After a time, a fellow, bunchbacked and with a leprous face, came up to me and, fixing me with a dead eye, whispered that his name was Gibbous. Not oversoon for me we left this circle, and I respired gratefully as we took the descending path to another circle.

As we were making this descent, I took notice of a homely little fellow who had been dogging my heels for some time. He had the appearance of an ugly pigmy, squat and stupid. I turned and asked him his name, but his only reply to all my questioning was, "Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh." I asked my guide who this strange little fellow might be, but no sooner had he espied the dwarf than the old gentleman fell into an apoplectic rage, and, producing an umbrella that was conveniently hidden in his voluminous coat, he began to belabor the ugly little creature with it, hurling meanwhile the most vigorous imprecations at the mannikin.

"Get out of here, you little monster," shouted my guide, quite beside himself with rage. "I have told you to keep out of my sight." And, exhibiting surprising energy, he chased the little creature out of sight. After a time he returned, still considerably ruffled.

"That," said he, "is that barbarous little fellow, Uh huh. He has no business here at all. "He is very nearly the ugliest work in the language, and the Lord only knows where he came from. There is a perfectly decent and gentlemanly fellow named Yes, whom this ugly dwarf is eternally trying to supplant. You must have encouraged him," he continued, turning to me. "Else he wouldn't have been following you." I disclaimed all intercourse with the inelegant little Un Huh, and was careful not to let him come near me during the remainder of our voyage.

As we walked on, I observed that the old gentleman accelerated his steps and began to busy himself with straightening his garments and with tilting his hat at a rakish angle. His eyes gleamed, and he rubbed his hands together as if in anticipation of some gratifying event.

"Ha," said he, "as we descended into the next circle, "I must confess that I am rather partial to the inhabitants of this circle. How are you, my dears?" And he ran forward impulsively to a group of lovely damsels who in diaphonous garments were disporting on a grassy slope. With many antiquated gallantries and stiff genuflexions, removings of his hat and flutterings of his pages, the old man introduced me to this bevy of pretty girls. He called out a pretty miss, of wondrous grace and charm, whose manner was coy and appealing.

"This," said the old gentleman, "is an exquisite girl with whom all the poets are in love. We cannot have her around too much. Her name is Sweet." Then, espying another lovely maiden, of willowy form and motion, he brought her forward and introduced her as Lissom, a charming and unsophisticated girl whose name had been shortened from Lithesome. There were many other pretty personalities of this sort--Blithe and Beauteous and Debonair. I thought the old gentleman would never leave. Finally, however, after stealing a kiss from Lissom, he was persuaded to depart, but this he did reluctantly, casting many a backward glance of coquetry over his shoulder.

And as we hurried on, he showed me a place where were other damsels neither so fair nor so winning as those we had left. Some of these were but half-clothed, and others, tricked out in meretricious gawds, reclined on couches of wanton ease, to which they attempted to entice the old gentleman. And they murmured their scarlet names in honeyed tones--Wantonness, Concupiscence, and Dalliance.

And we passed through many another circle, until on one of the deepest curves, we encountered a shining armament of words, from which advanced one clad in armor of burnished greaves and glinting shoulder-pieces, with sword and glistering helmet of hard steel.

"And who are you," said I to this heroic figure.

"I am," said he, "a word that you have misused for many a year, and it is time you found out who I am."

"I know you not in this guise," said I.

"I am Splendid," said the fellow. "Henceforth, restore me to my pristine excellence in your speech." And stalking away with majesty, he joined others of his kind--Radiance, Resplendence, Effulgence, and Incandescence, from whom shot an intolerable light.

Now as this brilliant light streamed all about us, the old gentleman took from his pocket a heavy watch that he consulted with deliberation. Then said he,

"Alas, the hour is late. We have been obliged to pass by the circles of Scientific Words, of Latin Words, of Greek Words, and many other wondrous places that I feign would have shown to you. We are come to the end of our journey. I have already taught you much, but my lore is inexhaustible, and you may return to this Land of Words again and again. I hope that you have realized in this brief excursion how each word, although it was originally a conventional symbol, has become a living essence that inhabits some mystic realm, some dreamland common to the race, where it dwells in mysterious and imaginative linkage with sights and sounds and imperishable ideas. You see," he continued, "you see that the little black marks of ink or the cluckings of the tongue are only valuable as keys to some magical region that is not far from the heart of reality."

"Alas," said I, "My kind old sir, how sad I am to part from you. But are we indeed finished? What is this massy door that I see before me and that we have not opened as yet?" And I pointed to a closed door of colossal proportions, made all of a metal whose brilliance was like the sun's.

"I cannot take you there. There I must leave you to your own devices," said the old custodian of Wordland, and he wiped a tear from his eye. "Behind that door is the answer to the final enigma of words. There is the answer that all the poets have sought and all the literary critics. There may be found the secret of the very source of words and symbols and conventions in the heart of reality itself. But I," said he, and he bowed his old head and pathetically brushed some powdery crumblings from his sleeve, "I am only a pedantic old fellow with a number of dry facts crammed into my head. I can never pass that door." And he held out his hand to bid me farewell.

But I turned to the great door, and, imperiously urged, smote mightily on its resounding sides. Even as I did so, I observed that my antique companion underwent a singular change. His skin began to crack, his lips clapped together many times convulsively, his face and form began to sift down to the ground in heaps of printed paper....

And suddenly the clanging of the great door dwindled to the pattering clamor of the alarm clock, and I awoke to see the golden morning sun paling to sickly yellow my burning table lamp, and, on the table before me, an old and tattered Dictionary.

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