Entry 117: Wish You Could Be– A definition of the noun velleity, according to Webster’s College Dictionary is, a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it or volition in its weakest form. But what is the word if your wish is volition in its strongest form, that you wish for it with all your heart and soul- but that any effort to obtain it would be in vain because what you wish for is impossible? My curiosity about this led me, via the admirable site, Wordnik, to St Francis de Sales, who lived between 1567 and 1622.
He was declared the patron saint of writers and journalists in 1923 by Pope Pius XI because of his use of broadsheets and books to influence opinion. A bit of a mystic, he wrote, in his Treatise on the Love of God, we may well say: I would desire to be young; but we do not say: I desire to be young; seeing that this is not possible; and this motion is called a wishing, or as the Scholastics term it a velleity, which is nothing else but a commencement of willing, not followed out, because the will, by reason of impossibility or extreme difficulty, stops her motion, and ends it in this simple affection of a wish.
So, that’s the answer to my question- but it leaves me feeling a little let down and so I continued to explore the issue. The Indonesians have a saying, Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan, which translates as, like an owl craving for the moon meaning, to wish for something impossible. Porcine aviation is an indicator of impossibility in English- and also, incidentally, in German- Schweine können fliegen. The Greeks, Wikipedia informs me, have a word for it: Adynaton, which is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.
Andrew Marvell, in his best-known poem, To His Coy Mistress, supplies a great example of the usage, Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, lady, were no crime./We would sit down, and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love’s day./Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide/Of Humber would complain. I would/Love you ten years before the flood/And you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.
Falstaff, in Henry IV, Part 2, exclaims, about Prince Hal, I will sooner have a beard grow in
the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek, a remark he will have cause to reflect on ruefully when the prince morphs into the ruthless Henry V.
Meanwhile, folk wisdom offers the following quatrain to explicate the matter, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride./If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side./If “if’s” and “and’s” were pots and pans,/There’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.
The form has a vigorous life in song, too, When apples still grow in November,/When blossoms still bloom from each tree,/When leaves are still green in December,/It’s then that our land will be free, as in this example from Only Our Rivers Run Free, written by Mickey MacConnell, about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
My first encounter with the word, velleity, was in 1969 when I was studying T.S. Eliot as part of my English course. I felt, unlike the lecturer, a sympathy for the older woman in Portrait of a Lady We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole/Transmit the Preludes through his hair and fingertips./ Here speaks the younger man of an older woman and we listen to his mocking imitation of her reaction to the concert, “So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul/Should be resurrected only among friends/Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom/That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”/A dash indicates his irritation as he sighs, —And so the conversation slips/Among velleities and carefully caught regrets/Through attenuated tones of violins/Mingled with remote cornets/And begins.
Again, through his exasperated remembrance we hear her continue, “You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,/And how, how rare and strange it is, to find…a friend who has these qualities,/Who has, and gives/Those qualities upon which friendship lives. We, as readers are aware of the underlying desperation of the woman but all the younger member of this drawing room drama is aware of is, inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins/Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own.
It is clear that the liaison is foundering and will not last long. Youth and vitality are, as the poets have always told us in so many ways, fleeting and unconcerned by the travails of age. Perhaps dreams and wishes are separated by something not prey to pity and condescension, for, as Langston Hughes says in a lovely short poem,
Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.//Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.