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Etymological Dirge Analysis

Author: poem of Heather McHugh Type: poem Views: 11

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'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.

Tall comes from fast.

Comely doesn't come from come.

Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,

the root of charity is dear.

Incentive has its source in song

and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.

A coward and a coda share a word.

We get our ugliness from fear.

We get our danger from the lord.


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||| Analysis | Critique | Overview Below |||

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The title explains at least the superficial conceit of the poem. Every one of these end-stopped lines is an accurate description of their subject word origins, most of which are quite surprising.
The more difficult question is what the poem intends to convey beyond the (albeit interesting) trivia of these etymologies. It identifies itself as a "dirge", that is, a song of grieving, and this sense is bolstered by the epigraph (stanza 2, line 1 of "Amazing Grace"). Many of the lines draw unlikely and even uncomfortable connections that parallel the connection between grace and fear in the poem's epigraph.
If it is really grief being conveyed, perhaps McHugh is chastising language--and maybe its practitioner--for turning tail (the shared word of coward and coda) on its roots, bringing forth ("affording") only what it can stand to carry, leaving the rest to burn off like a puddle in the heat of the mid-day sun (Latin: "cauma"). The use of slant-rhyme in the even-numbered lines connotes the same lost-in-translation sense that cleaved "khoraz" and "carus" in a time before the written word.
On the other hand, we might not take McHugh at her word. After all, "'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, / And grace my heart reliev'd." The title could be a play on the root of "dirge", which is the Latin "dirige", the imperative form of "dirigere"--"to direct"--i.e, the direction in which these words have moved.
The Online Etymology Dictionary ( was an indispensible resource in this analysis.
-Scott Miller, 01/17/2014

| Posted on 2014-01-17 | by a guest

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