Entry 92: I’m Not a Merry Ploughboy– What you’ve just heard is an example of an incipit– not to be confused with insipid which is an adjective meaning weak or tasteless. This sonic confusion may be the reason that many choose to pronounce it in- kip – it. An incipit is the first few words of a text that serves instead of a title and they are found on some of the earliest examples of writing.
In ancient Sumeria, clay tablets containing incipits were maintained by the official scribes so that they might more easily locate tablets relating, for instance, to the number of livestock. Eight hundred years ago Pope Honorius III issued a papal bull, Religiosam Vitam -its first words in Latin translated as the religious life– establishing the Dominican Order. In modern times incipits are still used to identify untitled poems, songs and prayers. Emily Dickinson, in particular, comes to mind.
A literary game to pass an idle afternoon involves selecting a number of first lines to create a “new” Dickinson poem, a feather from the whippoorwill/a face devoid of love or grace/a faded boy in sallow clothes/ a doubt if it be us. One doubts that such games would have been played in the literary salons of 18th Century Paris or London given their more serious aims of educating and enlightening but I like to think that the following anecdote (possibly apocryphal) concerning Samuel Johnson might have occurred as he was seeking entrée to one of the London salon evenings of that severely moral bluestocking, Lady Elizabeth Montagu,
Dr Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century lexicographer, once showed up at a social event hosted by an aristocratic lady with his clothes in disarray. Here’s what allegedly followed: Aristocratic lady: “Dr Johnson, your penis is sticking out!” Dr Johnson: Madame, you flatter yourself. “It’s HANGING out.”
You have to admire the learned doctor’s insistence on lexical exactitude, whatever you might think of this lapse in decorum. Not that appearances ever particularly worried Sam Johnson who, upon walking to the top of a hill on one occasion decided that he wanted to roll to the bottom declaring that it had been some time since he had indulged in the pastime.
Unlike the learned doctor, we are unlikely to gain admittance to a literary salon, if for no other reason than we lack a functioning time machine. However, most of us have indulged in parlour games of one sort or another. Some, such as blind man’s buff go back millennia, others merely centuries such as charades. But I am happy to report that ingenious games continue into modern times.
One I learned about only recently, was created by an American member of Mensa, Jan Carnell. It’s called Carnelli, and is a title association game where players must link to a previously uttered title of a book, film, play or song. For example, A Tale of Two Cities can elicit the response Great Expectations (the link being Charles Dickens, author of both novels). The response, Tea for Two, a song from the film, No No Nanette, is permissible because of the link work two. Links employing puns, the more groan-worthy the better, are allowable also. For example, the Eagles’ song Tequila Sunrise, can prompt the response To Kill a Mockingbird, provided it’s pronounced Tequila Mockingbird!
Famous first lines from novels, plays, and songs are a fertile source of harmless parlour activity. Can you identify the novel and author of the following? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or what about, It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. The next example is a bit longer, but I’m sure you’ll nail it, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you the answers… but will test you now with a riddle poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s known by its incipit, Some Things That Fly There Be, It’s also known by one of two numbers, 89, if you follow the numbering system used by Thomas H. Johnson in his variorum edition of 1955 or 68 if you prefer the number assigned by R. W. Franklin in his variorum edition of 1998. So, here’s the poem.
Some things that fly there be –/Birds — Hours — the Bumblebee –/Of these no Elegy./Some things that stay there be –/Grief — Hills — Eternity –/Nor this behooveth me./There are that resting, rise./Can I expound the skies?/How still the Riddle lies!
Perhaps only time and eschatology will solve this one.