Tuesday March 5, 2013
English - A colourful language
By FADZILAH AMIN
COLOURS play such a large part in our lives. But we might take them for granted until a song, a poem or a novel reminds us of their beauty.
During a visit to America in 1991, I picked up The Best American Poetry 1991 and was struck by a poem called Leaves by Lloyd Schwartz. Let me quote a few lines:
“You’ll be driving along depressed when suddenly / … for a moment the whole world / comes to. Wakes up. Proves it lives. It lives – / red, yellow, orange, brown, russet, ocher, vermillion, / gold. Flame and rust. Flame and rust, the permutations / of burning. You’re on fire. Your eyes are on fire.”
It was not a forest fire that was being described, but the beautiful autumn colours of leaves in late October in some parts of North America. I have seen stretches of woods in those colours in North Carolina, Ohio and New York state.
The colours and shades of colours mentioned in the poem are in a spectrum from yellow to vermillion and their richness has an uplifting effect on the persona of the poem, who refers to himself as “you” to give the experience a general application.
This effect is described in terms of fire, standing for liveliness and excitement. Seeing such a glorious sight takes away one’s depression for a while: “You’re on fire. Your eyes are on fire.” The general impression of the various shades of colour is summed up as “Flame and rust.” – colours that range from the yellows and reds to reddish brown and brown.
This use of colour in nature as an uplifter of one’s spirits can also be seen in the lyrics of some songs. The following free translation (from the original Portuguese) of the first few lines of the Brazilian song Manha De Carnaval, made and sung by Susannah McCorkle is an example:
“The light rises up from the sea. And spreads till it fills the whole sky. / Lavender rose and gold. The colours of dawn unfold. Sweet moment you long to hold As it passes by.” (You can listen to this at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=Oa9Pc2gO3OY)
The song is known in English as Carnival, and its usual English lyrics, for example in the version sung by Perry Como, begin as follows (available at www.youtube.com/ watch?v=rM_L4jBZzgw):
“I’ll sing to the sun in the sky,
I’ll sing ‘till the sun rises high,
Carnival time is here,
Magical time of year,
And as the time draws near,
Dreams lift my heart!”
However beautifully Como sang this version, one can’t help noticing the lack of precise naming of the colours of dawn that enriches the McCorkle version of the lyrics.
While Schwartz’s description of the colours of autumn leaves includes both primary colours and shades of these, McCorkle only mentions three precise shades of colours of the sky at dawn: lavender, rose and gold, with both descriptions enabling the reader or listener to see those colours in his mind’s eye.
Randolph Stow, an Australian poet (1935-2010) has a most evocative poem called Landfall, which works on two levels and uses colours to paint an attractive scene of a future landfall (first sight of land after a sea voyage) and homecoming imagined by a sailor-traveller.
Here is how it begins:
“And indeed I shall anchor, one day—some summer morning / of sunflowers and bougainvillea and arid wind — / and smoking a black cigar, one hand on the mast, / turn, and unlade my eyes of all their cargo; / and the parrot will speed from my shoulder, and white yachts glide / welcoming out from the shore on the turquoise tide.” (www.robertadamson.com/poem/ stow.htm)
Not all the colours are mentioned by their names, but one can easily “see” the sunflowers as bright yellow- orange, and the bougainvillea and parrot as multicoloured and equally bright.
Those colours that are mentioned are the black of the traveller’s cigar and the white of the yachts, the latter contrasting beautifully with the turquoise of the sea.
I have never been to Western Australia where Stow grew up, but I imagine that the source of this scene lies there.
The imagined scene is so beautiful that when he turns to it, the returned sailor, using a sailing metaphor says he will “unlade my eyes of all their cargo.” By “cargo”, he surely means all that his eyes have seen on his travels (metaphorical or otherwise).
These he wants to “unlade” (unload) from his eyes as one would want to discard, or at least push aside, memories of what one has seen. Two lines of the second part of this poem suggest this: “And when they ask me what I have seen, / I shall say I remember nothing.”
Colours by themselves can be used to suggest feelings and concepts more vividly than uncoloured expression. Take the following short poem called Cherry Robbers by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) for example:
“Under the long, dark boughs, like jewels red / In the hair of an Eastern girl / Shine strings of crimson cherries, as if had bled / Blood-drops beneath each curl. / Under the glistening cherries, with folded wings / Three dead birds lie: / Pale-breasted throstles and a blackbird, robberlings / Stained with red dye. / Under the haystack a girl stands laughing at me, / With cherries hung round her ears-- / Offering me her scarlet fruit: I will see / If she has any tears.”
Nothing is explained in the above poem: everything is described and implied. The crimson cherries in the first stanza are compared to red jewels “in the hair of an Eastern girl” and also to blood drops.
This combines the qualities of beautiful exoticism and deadliness, which is developed in the second stanza by the image of the three dead birds “stained with red dye”. Eating or gorging on the cherries must have proved fatal to them.
In the final stanza, we find the traditional use of the colour red (as well as scarlet, one of its shades) as a symbol of sexual passion.
The persona fears that passion may have made the girl unhappy, even though she is laughing, just as eating the cherries has killed the birds. That is why he wants to see “if she has any tears.”
* Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at email@example.com.