We blossom and flourish

We blossom and flourish
As leaves on a tree
And wither and perish
But naught changeth Thee.

What is it about this (half-)verse that so resonates? It won’t be the religion, I don’t do religion and it only comes in at the end. It will be in part that it’s been there in my awareness since schooldays, and all those gruesome assemblies where we stood up while masters came in, sat down, stood up, prayed, sat down, were talked at, stood up, sang, (or muttered, in my case), sat down, were lectured at, stood up, prayed, sat down, stood up, masters went out. Fifteen minutes a day, every schoolday for five years. But you wouldn’t think that would engender much affection, though there is something about this hymn being musically so simple, even I could sing it. (I was never a singer: quietly removed from school choir at age seven.) I sing it occasionally now, early in the morning on the beach, when I’m sure nobody is in earshot.

No, it must be the language. The words are all basic, old words of English. No prefixes, suffixes, long words, imports. The four verbs: blossom, flourish, wither, perish: four ancient words of English for four fundamental processes of life. The sentence structure: subject and intransitive verb, four times over: as basic as it gets, connected by and, the simplest conjunction. One simile, again, of unanswerable directness.   The plain, pure rhythm; the plain, pure rhyme.

Thank you, Walter Smith. For when I use language, this is a model for how I want to use it.

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Adam Kilgarriff

I'm a scientist who has set up and runs a small company. I'm married (to Gill Lamden) with three children, Boris (22), Maddie (18) and Raffie (9) (as at today, 28 January 2015, in case I forget to update!) We live in Brighton, UK. Last November (2014) I found I had bowel cancer (stage 5; not curable; only 'manageable'). We've been adjusting to that since (and it is what provoked me to start the blog) My scientific area is linguistics, with my specialisms being corpus linguistics, computational linguistics, and lexicography - or, best of all, the intersection of all three. Since 2004, my company, Lexical Computing Ltd., has been providing a web service, the Sketch Engine, to linguists and lexicographers wanting to find out about words, using corpus-driven methods. Customers include Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Collins, Macmillan, Le Robert, Dictionary.com and around a hundred universities worldwide.

14 thoughts on “We blossom and flourish”

  1. Beautiful, so beautiful, yet again Adam.

    I’ve just returned from a cognitive science event at SFU, where we celebrated our CogSci Manager whose loss in a restructuring we concurrently morned. The passion that was expressed for the manager (Shamina Senaratne) and our cognitive science program verged on religious experience, so touched were we by Shamina’s work and personhood and by what cognitive science stands for (e.g., its pluralism). But it wasn’t religious either. This all goes to show that religion doesn’t own spirituality. Humanity does. For humanists like myself anyway. And humanists can be spiritual. We can discover, kindle, and nourish spirituality. Spirituality, to me, is a kind of awe. And you’ve illustrated here, Adam, that we can turn our gaze on spiritual experience itself and be in awe of the awe we feel when our friend, our brother in humanity, shares pictures such as you shared this morning, shared words that you shared above –words of wisdom, and wise words about words of wisdom–, and share the journey we are all on, which we are sharing remotely, separately, but together, on this blog.

    For others who are reading I will note that I met Adam at “COGS” (the school of cognitive science) of Sussex University. I have in my hands a paper Adam wrote for the 1991 COGS students conference (“The Fourth White House Papers”) . The paper is “When can we predict the senses a word has from its semantic Class?” (A proposal for an empirical study). Adam, you wrote in the summary of that paper “For much of the vocabulary of English, the norm is for words and their meanings to defy neat classification”. And so does our affect , our awe, and that hymn, I think.

  2. within seconds, i was singing the hymn in my head as well… yes, musical and linguistic simplicity is part of its memorableness…
    there is also a magical power in many human voices singing the same song… weaving, fieldworking, around campfires, at parties, in concerts (pop or proms), etc etc? :)

  3. It would appear that the Thee at the end of this verse is the Christian god. Which I (as a devout agnostic) would say diminishes it. However, even we agnostics believe in some kind of eternal verity. It is just that we see it as human, not divine. On the beach at crack of dawn I might be tempted to sing this (from The Incredible String band) on Adam’s behalf:
    May the long time sun shine on you
    All love surround you
    And the pure light within you
    Guide your way on

  4. Hi,
    John picked one of my all-time favourite songs but I think the last line is ‘Guide you all the way on’ – a great wish for anyone. Thanks Adam for the link to the original lyrics which made me realise that the hymn from my childhood had been changed with the last two verses chopped and put together. As far as I remember the hymn ended ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee.’ I wonder why certain lines were edited out? Perhaps the lines referring to the heart were too personal? It’s a shame as I quite like the balancing of ‘veil’ and ‘vile’. I came back to faith later in life (very unfashionably) and so the reference to ‘fountains of goodness and love’ is precious to me. Charles Wesley has to be my favourite hymn writer.

  5. On John’s point, it is certainly a hymn (first line is Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise), but there is nothing distinctively Christian in it – at least, not in the versions that turn up in the hymn books now. Rather the sentiment is pantheistic (“To all life Thou givest, to both great and small/ In all life Thou livest, the true life of all”), and the characteristics that it attributes to God are ones that would be recognised by Jews and Moslems just as much as Christians (and quite possibly by Buddhists and Hindus too). It’s a favourite at religious occasions that are trying not to embarrass anyone (and none the worse for that).

    But Adam, I wonder if you underrate the importance of the tune in keeping the words lodged in your memory. I find it almost impossible to recite the words without singing them; the words and tune are simply inseparable. The characteristics you identify in the language – simple, basic, pure – are just as true of the tune, and they reinforce each other. Would you remember the words if you had not sung them?

    1. That inseparability (did I just coin that word ?) of the lyric and the music certainly applies to the song from The Incredible String Band. I can hear the music in my head as I type this. The title of the song is A Very Cellular Song and I have it on an LP compilation that seems not to have resurfaced on CD. I don’t know about digital sources of music, I could barely cope with how small a CD is compared to an LP. My first source of music I have not heard but may not want to buy is YouTube.

      1. I am not at all familiar with this song but I am with the thoughts. But your blog reminds me of my own story. It took me years to throw off the shackles of the Catholic indoctrination I grew up with. I went through a crisis of realisation that the spirit world is everywhere. I found Jung’s psychology something of my new home as it gave me a structure to understand my experience. The experience of my own unconscious, partly through my dreams (during sleep), was enlightening. I believe the divine is within each one of us. Jesus was a person who had a strong realisation of that. Probably Mohammed, Buddha etc also had that realisation. That brings a certain surreal-ness (is there such a word?), awe, wonder and ……… Communion?

        1. Did you see the clip on YouTube of Stephen Fry’s recent (1 February) interview by Gay Byrne on Irish television, where Stephen articulates his reasons for atheism? And Russell Brand’s response? Two articulations of serious philosophies. Never thought I would identify more with Russell than with Stephen, but I did!!

  6. Hi Adam – your poem resonated with me, especially the points about the simplicity of the language and the staunch Anglo-Saxonness of the vocab. Just last week I was teaching stylistics analysis to students through the hymn Morning Has Broken, written in 1931 by the children’s author Eleanor Farjeon (not Cat Stevens). Very beautiful hymn, in spite of the religiosity. My students were worried about having to write 2500 words about a poem in their next assignment. I managed to write 2500 just about the first 4 lines of the Morning Has Broken, and I hadn’t even got started. It’s very complex actually, and yet very simple, and very Anglo-Saxon (though a few foreign words creep in).
    Best, James

  7. Hi Adam. I’m enjoying all your posts but this one spoke to me particularly strongly.
    Those assemblies (and in my case, long sessions at church every Sunday as well) were tedious, true, but one thing they left us with was a store of wonderful language.
    All the very best
    Liz

  8. Ladies and Gentlemen, I crave your indulgence
    Verse has become a presence on Adam’s blog
    Through songs rather than poems

    Numerous references to the approach of summer and Adam’s own reference to his semi-retired lifestyle called to mind this, from Shakespeare, doubtless set to music by many but memorably for me by Donovan :

    Who doth ambition shun
    And loves to live i’ the sun,
    Seeking the food he eats
    And pleased with what he gets—
    Come hither, come hither, come hither!
    Here shall he see
    No enemy
    But winter and rough weather.

    In the play another character sings another verse to negate the above sentiments, but I won’t go there

    Even throwaway pop can carry the message :

    Don’t it make you feel good to be alive
    When the sun’s beating down and there’s no more nine-to-five

    This is from Jacki Whitren, in farewell to her mother when she went to Australia to live with Jaki’s brother :

    Lord please give her a day
    When she can wake up and feel the sun shining on her
    Oh Lord please give her a day
    When she can wake up and feel the breeze blowing her bad dreams away

    It’s rather poignant because it paraphrases a song their mother used to sing to them when she thought they were asleep

    There’s no fool like an old fool, and I’m certainly old, but not ashamed to admit that a telling lyric sensitively set to music can reduce me to tears. On a recent Private Passions our first woman high court judge selected the final scene from The Marriage of Figaro. Luckily the ‘phone rang before I had time to start blubbering.

    Sometimes the perfect performance can take a fine song up where we belong :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z_IHQRVahM

    Sometimes you don’t need words :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6yuR8efotI

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2ZHjSA8mkY

  9. Alfred Schnittke said in 1988 “I have no sense of the fatal inevitability of evil, even in the most terrible situation. There is no such thing, because in a human being there is always manifest an essence that is good and never changes.”

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