How good is your English? This month you can check just how many English 'colour idioms' you know with this test
by Alan Townend.
So, how many questions did you get right? The good thing with this test is that you can take it as often as you like until you know all the expressions by heart. And if you want to find further explanations for any of the phrases, just click on one of the "explanations" links
Of course you have been waiting for Alan's latest essay and I'd like to thank you for your patience. Here it is:
It's one of those words that has found it difficult to be taken seriously. It started off all right and then lost its way, consorted with the wrong types and finally became a shadow of its former self. Even if you make the first letter into a capital one, it still fails to cut the mustard (reach expectations). And the word I'm on about? It's 'romantic'. In the minds of most of us it's often associated with lightweight fiction. You know the sort of thing – boy meets girl, girl meets boy, girl falls out with boy, boy falls out with girl. I hope you appreciate how desperately unsexist I'm being because where I spend my days you have to be p c or politically correct.
Anyhow at the end of the book there's a huge reconciliation, kisses are exchanged all round, they get married (of course) have tons of kids and live happily ever after. Now the Queen of this type of fiction here was Barbara Cartland, who went on to become a Dame, a sort of honour for services to whatever. She churned out or should I say wrote around 700 romances. She always dressed in pink, masses of it. In fact her house, not a million miles away from where I live, was (and still is) pink. Sadly we never met! She died at the age 99 in 2000. For those who have already gobbled up all her 723 books, the good news is she has left behind some 170 unpublished novels. This final collection, believe or not, is called The Pink Collection!
But let's go back to the glory days of 'romantic' because it is in that sense that I would like to use it. In the late 18th century early 19th the Romantic Period of literature flourished in the UK and in other countries of Europe. And to me it is in poetry that it reached its peak. The gospel of Romanticism was, according to the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850): all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. But we'll return to William later.
The youngest of the three I want to mention is John Keats (1795-1821). John tragically died young and never really reached maturity in his poetry but what he left behind is always treasured and appreciated. Now, the true romantic in those days was always yearning for the unattainable or looking back to the past, which was also impossible to reach. Perhaps this sense of never reaching happiness is best shown in his poem: Ode on a Grecian Urn where he sees two lovers pictured on the urn and reminds us that they will never touch each other but their love for one another will remain for ever:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Keats started life training to be a doctor and became familiar with the gory nature in those days of working in a hospital, taking part in amputations without anaesthetics and facing the susceptibility of being exposed to disease. His early death was a result of catching a common illness for that time, consumption in the lungs. He died in Rome and asked the friend who was travelling with him to have these words inscribed on his tombstone: Here lies one whose name was writ on water, unaware that he would still be well remembered some 200 years later. In the north of London there is a museum to Keats. It is in fact the house he lived in. In each room there are notes about who had been there and what had happened. You know the room he first met the girl he fell in love with. Most spooky of all is the room where he coughed up blood and told his friend: This is my death warrant. I remember the hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I went there for the first time and read that.
Our next poet is of a different stamp altogether, Gordon Byron (later Lord Byron), a fashionable romantic who loved to do the unconventional. He always dressed in a swirling cloak and as he had a club foot, he walked with an exaggerated limp. Fashionable young men at the time in London also wore cloaks and walked with a limp even if their feet were fine. At Oxford for a time he kept a bear in his study at his college. When he inherited the title he made some boisterous speeches on social reform in the House of Lords and in 1823 he formed the Byron Brigade and went to Greece to fight for the Greeks who wanted independence from Turkey. There was even talk about his becoming King of Greece but in 1824 at the age of 36 he contracted marsh fever and died in Missolonghi without having fired a single shot in anger.
His poetry is full of honesty and also reality although the subject is as ever death and love. The twist with Byron is that he says in effect it's probably just as well his love has died because he didn't really want to see her grow old and ugly!
I know not if I could have borne
To see thy beauties fade;
The night that follow'd such a morn
Had worn a deeper shade:
Thy day without a cloud hath pass'd,
And thou wert lovely to the last,
Extinguish'd, not decay'd;
As stars that shoot along the sky
Shine brightest as they fall from high.
The last poet in my trio is William Wordsworth, the granddaddy of all romantic poets. He was the longest lived of the group but whenever you see pictures of him, he always comes across as a soul in torment. He became so involved and obsessed with the composition and writing of his work that his contemporaries often couldn't get through to him as they felt that he inhabited another world, removed from reality. In all of his work it was his sister, Dorothy who was closest to him. She would accompany him on his long walks when he 'composed' his poetry, she cooked and kept house for him, even doing structural work on the house and when she was not caring for his well being, she would painstakingly write out his poetry in fair copy for dispatch to the publisher.
Local villagers where they lived were intrigued to see the pair out walking as William skipped back and forth, according to the rhythm of the verse he was creating and Dorothy, in total empathy would be doing likewise. In his early youth he travelled in France inspired with the idea of protest and rebelliousness in the spirit of the French Revolution. In fact he became so involved that he fell in love with a French girl and fathered her child. This enthusiasm somewhat lessened when he realised his responsibilities and also that in this Revolution, the English weren't actually flavour of the month (not well liked) and so he legged it back to England, abandoning his lover and their daughter. He and Dorothy also visited north Germany with the aim of William meeting fellow romantic poets there.
It didn't really work because they didn't actively socialise. A meeting was arranged for William to meet Friedrich Klopstock, the German poet. Apparently they eloquently spent over an hour together but there was one major problem and that was that neither understood the other's language. At the turn of the century William married, which clearly had a devastating effect on his sister, who had a hysterical fit on the wedding day and didn't attend the ceremony. Eventually they all three settled in his beloved Lake District in the north west of England. But sadness and tragedy dogged him over the next few years as two of his sons died, his brother drowned at sea and his devoted sister had a mental breakdown.
Just to add to his troubles, the poet Coleridge, on occasion a good friend, frequently stayed at the house, a man prone to numerous mood swings mainly caused by his drug addiction. But William persevered, creating some of the finest poetry in English. It isn't surprising that he sought refuge in the natural world around him and it wasn't until after his death (1850) that perhaps his finest work was published – Prelude to Poetry. This series of books is an autobiographical epic poem, which describes his progress towards being a poet. I only have space to quote one small snatch. It describes how one night as a child he rows on a lake and has the frightening sensation that natural objects around him are taking on human attributes:
Went heaving through the water, like a Swan;
When from behind that craggy Steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge Cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Uprear'd its head. I struck, and struck again
And, growing still in stature, the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measur'd motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.
I hope I have conveyed what I consider 'romantic' to be in its proper literary form. I doubt the lady draped in pink I mentioned at the start will ever be held in such esteem hundreds of years in the future as are my three poets. I think all you can say about the pink adorned Barbara is that she did write an awful lot and perhaps it's appropriate that I used that particular epithet.
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