It seems I’m not alone in placing the Northern Lights at or near the top of my (fairly small) bucket list. Some of my strongest, and most content, memories are of nights spent looking upwards at the indescribable grandeur and beauty of the universe (I highly recommend this corner of Reddit you need a regular fix of infinity, by the way).
Imagine how travellers in earlier ages would have tried to express seeing the Northern Lights when they returned home. That’s where I’m headed today … considering how we describe the indescribable …
It’s one of the things Shakespeare, and all great writers, do. They describe things – events, situations, thoughts and emotions – in ways that are vivid enough for us to fully understand and recreate them in our mind’s eye. The rest of us mere mortals are reduced to crass hyperbole, repetition, or simply ‘you shoulda’ been there‘ … or, you could be HP Lovecraft, who routinely describes things as beyond description or beyond our understanding …
It’s not just vocabulary choice. There are tools writers can use to communicate with verve: allusions, similes, metaphors, carefully crafted, appealing to a common experience and belief system, are amongst the most effective and evocative resources at a writer’s disposal. This is one of the things I despair of, working in education – that common experience. There seems to be no such thing as general knowledge in the majority of the young (he says, sounding positively Jurassic), but it is one of the difficulties in enjoying, in ‘getting’ Shakespeare. If you have to explain the story of say, Cain and Abel, to people then it follows that Claudius’ line in Hamlet:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murther! [a]
has little real savour or richness until you have done so.
Anyway, I’ll dismount from the hobby horse, and let’s see how a character describes the indescribable …
The usual rules apply. I’m going to do a close-reading of a tiny extract, to OCR A Level spec, in just 250 words, and I have emphasised my use of the author’s name, subject terminology, and quotations as demonstrated in this sentence. The question is always the following:
How does Shakespeare use language for dramatic effect?
Background to the extract. Prince Hal (later King Henry V) has a widespread reputation for living a very un-majestic life of drinking, keeping bad company and sailing close to the law. What the world doesn’t know was that this is an act; now that the kingdom is threatened by rebellion, he shrugs the disguise off, determined to be a worthy son, prince, and heir to the throne. In this extract, Lord Vernon reports his first view of the ‘new’ prince to the chief rebel, the noble but rash Harry Hotspur.
In Vernon’s speech, Shakespeare creates an awestruck character, almost lost for words, groping to describe his encounter with Prince Hal, betraying a newfound respect for him which irritates Hotspur.
The seven-line complex sentence suggests how much Vernon wants to convey his impressions. Shakespeare has disrupted the iambic metre just once, creating a dactyl on ‘gallantly’ to stress the spectacle of the prince mounting his steed; we can pair this with the respect implied by the adjective, ‘noble‘, at the end of the sentence. Clearly, Vernon believes the incident extraordinary, as Shakespeare gives him two similes in the sentence, intimating that he is struggling to adequately describe it. The first, juxtaposed against the implied weight of his armour (itself signifying military might and preparedness) deifies Hal as winged Mercury. The classical allusion has a threatening undertone, since Mercury was a psychopomp, who escorted souls to the underworld. It reinforces Hal’s warlike appearance. The second simile turns on the athletic-sounding verb, ‘vaults’ – comparing the prince to an angel as part of a semantic field of flight including the adjective, ‘feather’d’, and Pegasus, whose classical connotations signify not simply purity, but a weapon of the gods. To us, the mix of classical and christian allusion may be oxymoronic, but the Early Modern audience will have readily accepted the general intention to hyperbolise Hal’s majesty and divine authority as heir apparent.
Ultimately, Vernon’s report whets the audience’s appetite for our next meeting with Hal, so we can judge his transformation for ourselves. [250 words]
[a] all play quotations taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org