Ricocheting Around Inside My Blog!

I love words. In fact, I’m a word enthusiast. No, actually, I’m a word aficionado. I like the way words look, the way they sound, and the way they require me to rearrange and reposition my tongue and lips and teeth! I like the “mouth feel.”

I love euphonious words, especially: supine, scissors, fantabulous, panacea, disambiguate, luscious, discombobulate, scintilla, tremulous, orbicular, woebegone, sonorous, ethereal, pop, holler, britches, entwine, hullabaloo, phantasmagorical, serendipity, slew, velvety, liminal, dusk, ever, and even meniscus.

I love euphonious phrases, too: thread the needle, rev the engine, a touch ticklish, doplar sonar, sweet and sour, bad’s the best, or one of my own creation–recalled from a dream that I once dreamt–blue-pigeon-feather happy.

However, all of my favorite melodious phrases and words pale in comparison to the phrase considered by many linguists (who study phonaesthetics and know all about the properties of sound) to be the most beautiful word in the English language: cellar door! I was flabbergasted when I made that discovery, but matters of sound are so momentous and so weighty that lengthy debates surround them. For example, many people attribute the coinage of cellar door to fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien who used it in his 1955 speech “English and Welsh.” But as American lexicographer Grant Barrett established in his February 11, 2010, New York Times article aptly titled, “Cellar Door,” we must give credit to Shakespearean scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper who used cellar door in his 1903 novel Gee-Boy.

Sometimes one of these little beauties gets stuck inside my head and manifests a fierce determination not to go away. For example, the melodious word ricochet has been bouncing around in there for an epoch at least—perhaps even longer—and it’s not alone. It’s flourishing there as part of an entire phrase—an entire stanza, actually—from “The Lanyard,” a poem by Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

Mind you: I don’t mind the fact that the stanza from the poem and the word ricochet won’t go away. I love poetry just as much as I love melodious words and phrases. And who doesn’t love Billy Collins?

And it’s easy to understand why this particular stanza from Billy Collins’ poem would linger in my mind. Like the speaker in his poem—presumably Collins himself—I, too, have been ricocheting slowly off the walls of my home library, moving from my cluttered desk with my personal computer (where I carry out my home-style professorial responsibilities) to my even more cluttered farm table with my considerably smaller tablet (where I fulfill whatever it is that I achieve when I write—whatever writing is—and where I first began this blog on November 26, 2012.

And continuing to compare myself to the speaker in Collins’ “The Lanyard” so that I might perhaps stop the word ricochet from ricocheting around in my head, I, too, am moving from my professorial computer to my writerly tablet, from stacks of papers on the former to stacks of books and two envelopes on the latter.

And it is on the two envelopes that my eyes fall even as I type this post. It is on the two envelopes that my eyes have been falling for several years. And it is on the two envelopes that my eyes will forever fall until I muster courage to open them.

My blog followers will perhaps remember those two envelopes, first mentioned in my December 31, 2014, post:

I have in my possession copies of critical Alexander Gordon manuscripts obtained from libraries in Scotland and England. Although I have had the packages for several months, I have not opened them yet because I know that the contents will take my Humourist research to new heights, and I have had neither time nor nerve to make the journey.

However, January 2015 will place me exactly where I need to be in terms of time and nerve to open the packages, review the manuscripts, and share my findings with you, right here in this blog.

So, there! Now you know! Those two envelopes are still on my desk waiting to be opened. I cannot claim that I have not had time, for I have had time aplenty. And I cannot claim that I have not had nerve to open the envelopes because I remain confident that the contents will take my Humourist research to new heights and higher ground.

In reality, I have no more time now than before, and I have no more nerve now than before. But what I do have now is the knowledge that now is the right time to write. Simply put, I have created the space, and I have allowed myself to enter. (Thank you, Natalie Goldberg, for reminding me:

…we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within).

So I am ricocheting slowly off the walls of my library for three reasons and three reasons only.

Ricochet Reason One. I have been away from my blog for so long that the resulting space is galatic, a perfect home for the word ricochet. And as I type, I cannot help but wonder: Is it really the word ricochet that is bouncing off vacuum space? Or is it really guilt? Perhaps both, but, now—on this momentary reflection—I suspect the latter. And that’s perfectly fine because my guilt makes me perfectly American, or, as Ezra Pound said about Robert Frost, “vurry Amur’k’n” (Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters, edited by Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young).

Just by writing what I have written here, I have given rest to reason one. What a blessed relief.

Ricochet Reason Two. I cannot help but wonder about my followers—my blog followers. At one point, they numbered well over 100, and the blog had more than 5,000 visits from people in exactly 100 countries. Not bad for a blog dedicated to the challenges of research, specifically—for now, at least—to the challenge of identifying the author of a group of noteworthy and heretofore pseudonymous Colonial American essays.

Are any of the faithful still with me? I wonder.

And if I post, will they read what I have to say? Will anyone? And if no one reads, will I have written anything at all, really?

It is very much the same as the proverbial old question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

Philosophers have long argued that sound, colour, taste, smell and touch are all secondary qualities which exist only in our minds. We have no basis for our common-sense assumption that these secondary qualities reflect or represent reality as it really is. So, if we interpret the word ‘sound’ to mean a human experience rather than a physical phenomenon, then when there is nobody around there is a sense in which the falling tree makes no sound at all. […] Without a measuring device to record it, there is a sense in which the recognisable properties of quantum particles such as electrons do not exist, just as the falling tree makes no sound at all. (Jim Baggett, Quantum Theory: If a Tree Falls in the Forest …).

Followers, be my measure. If you are out there, measure me with comment.

And if you are not yet following, follow. (I am reminded of the Iowa corn farmer in Field of Dreams and the voice that he heard telling him to build a baseball diamond, “If you build it, he will come.” The farmer built it, and they came. Perhaps in my rebuilding, my followers will come. If you do, measure me with your comments, too.)

Just by writing what I have written here, I have given rest to reason two as well. Again, what a blessed relief.

Ricochet Reason Three. Of the two envelopes waiting to be opened—those two parcels that will take my Humourist research to new heights—which shall I open first? The one from Scotland measuring 14 x 10/16 inches and weighing a hefty 17.21 ounces? (Is bigger better?) Or the one from England, measuring 6 x 3/4 inches and weighing a nearly weightless 1.16 ounce? (Do good things really come in small packages?)

To give rest to reason three—and be thrice blessed—I must open both envelopes. 

Perhaps what I face is like picking petals off a daisy: “I love him. I love him not.” However, in this instance, both envelopes are equally good and the last petal will be an affirmation.

Or, maybe, a more apt comparison would be to Frank Stockton’s famous American short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” published in The Century magazine in November 1882. In the story, a young man must choose between two doors. Behind one, a beautiful lady. Behind the other, an awful, relentless tiger.

Stockton leaves his readers with an open ending:

And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door,—the lady, or the tiger?

For me, both doors—both envelopes, if you will—are equally good and both will be auspicious and bodacious.

Unlike Stockton, however, I will be straightforward and honest. I will let you know what I find not only in the first envelope but also in the second. In fact, I will chronicle each and every detail as I open the envelopes and as I discover the joys that await me.

This I promise: in next week’s post, I will write all, right here.

Literary Mysteries: Solved and Unsolved

“A lot of the fun lies in trying to penetrate the mystery; and this is best done by saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.” —Anthony Hecht

Dare I confess how gratified I have been with my blog’s traffic since it began a week ago today?  Well, I am!

  • 446 views (including 1 from the United Kingdom!)

Not bad stats for my first week.  Now bad at all for a first-time blogger.  Thank you!

And since I am confessing, let me confess something else:  I’ve shared my joy—and my amazement—with a handful of folks in my close circle, and, over and over again, they have replied enthusiastically with the likes of:

“WOW!  Doesn’t surprise me a BIT!!!!!  Everybody wants to know who wrote those essays!”

Some of your comments affirm:

“Ahhh…everyone loves a good mystery!” 

“Oooh, I love a good mystery! … I look forward to watching you unravel this centuries old mystery.”

To be certain, I’m hooked on the mystery, too:  who was The Humourist?  Preparing a critical edition of his essays will be straightforward—well, to the extent that scholarly research is ever straightforward.  On the other hand, identifying the author will require keen analysis and extensive research in order to make a conclusive (and, if not conclusive, then convincing) case that will stand up to scrutiny and review.

Solving the mystery hinges to a large degree on internal clues to be extracted from the essays.  Looking at the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay, we find three clues already.

Clue One: One of my followers—soyfig, in fact—picked up on this one by writing:  “I had to read the Humourist’s first essay three times before I began to understand it!  They certainly wrote on a higher plane then than now!”

Indeed.  Whoever he is, the Humourist is erudite.  In one short essay, he provides a sweeping overview of literary tastes, going all the way back to “Days of monkish Ignorance” and continuing on up to novel writing that reigned in his own time.  

Clue Two Whoever he is, the Humourist seems fascinated by the past.  He opens his first essay with a quote from Horace, and he refers to the past several times in that essay:  “If we make a Retrospect into past Times” and “various Tastes of Mankind in the former ages.”

Clue ThreeWhoever he is, the Humourist seems to have an intense interest in painting:  “as an inducement to the World to read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture.”  However, as we shall discover next week in his December 10, 1753, essay, “as it is impossible to procure it [the painting] in any reasonable time, if the painter be allowed to shew his skill or do justice to my person, I shall therefore beg my readers patience, and present them with a true sketch of my figure in print.”

What a mystery!  What a puzzle!

As I move ahead with my efforts to solve the mystery, I have another confession to make:  I love the task of transcribing the Humourist essays—of sitting at my computer, typing away on the keyboard.

Typing.  I love it:  typing!  It’s not nearly as poetic as the suggestion that Anthony Hecht offers up for penetrating a mystery:  “saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.”  

Typing.  It’s probably more akin to what Carl Jung says about mysteries:

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”

In that sense, then, as I transcribe the Humourist’s essays—as I type them—my hands are helping me become familiar with the essence of his literary outpourings, character by character, letter by letter, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, essay by essay.  My hands are helping me become familiar with his style.  My hands are helping me see what he put in—and what he left out!

After I have typed one of his essays once or twice—actually, I typed his November 26, 1753, essay three times—I can say with some degree of certainty:  I know that essay well.

I know that essay even better because I have done what I always do with documents:  I checked the Readability Statistics.  So, here’s Clue Four.  Whoever he is, the readability statistics for the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay are as follows:


  • Words:  444
  • Characters:  2181
  • Paragraphs:  20
  • Sentences:  13


  • Sentences per Paragraph:  1.3
  • Words per Sentence:  24.6
  • Characters per Word:  4.6


  • Passive Sentences:  15%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 56.7
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level:  10.3

Admittedly, these readability statistics are skewed because the Humourist quotes other writers rather extensively in his first essay.  Nonetheless, it is a beginning.

As we move to future essays—and as I continue doing what I have begun doing—all the clues will converge, and I am certain that the Humourist himself will lead me to discovering who he is.

But I digress.  My scheme for sharing Humourist essays with you will be in the same fashion that he shared them with the world:  weekly.  This week, however, he did not publish an essay.  (His next one will appear on December 10.)

Therefore, as I contemplated my post for this week, I was intrigued by how intrigued my readers were by the mystery—by my efforts to solve this literary whodunit—and I was particularly smitten by “soyfig’s” comment:

“A different mystery has been solved.”

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