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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 41

What is there in a Name?

What is there in a Name?

Much, every way. Shakspeare but hinted at a truth, which, like all truths, has many sides, when he permitted one of his favourites to say that there is nothing in a name. Indeed, it was because the lovesick maiden felt the very opposite—that the name had something more in it than she then chose to confess—that the idea or wish became father to the thought. Juliet's first bitter experience taught her quite another lesson. And to most of us it is the same; a name means a character, a property, or a thing. Give a dog a bad name, and the result is so generally acknowledged as to have become proverbial. Observe, how a name sometimes supplies a whole narrative. Here is "Bye-ends,"—you know at once what a smooth-spoken, tortuous, log-rolling hypocrite he is. The one word is enough to tell you clearly that he has nothing of Cowper's Englishman about him, either in the texture of broad-cloth without or the possession of an honest heart within. Does not "Fum the Fourth," as Lord Byron designated George the Fourth, bring before you that bloated sensualist, with just enough of veneer to hide from the casual observer the utter heartlessness beneath? "First gentleman in Europe." Forsooth!

Let us therefore pause for a brief space over my opening question. If names are of importance, how, one may reasonably ask, is a man to make a figure in the world who is only known as plain Smith or Brown, Jones or Robinson? I have the utmost respect for these names myself, but my opinion is woefully antiquated and therefore of small account. I rather like Smith, and all the more, if he has not changed the i into a y or added an e at the end, and come out as the would-be aristocratic Smythe. The Smiths, long before Adam, of Kirkcaldy—the spare, absent-mannered servant of posterity—whose Wealth of Nations is a work sufficient of itself to immortalise a whole generation of his kith and kin down to and beyond Alexander, the poet,—including Med way Sidney and Albert, James and Horace; may not Joseph, of Mormon celebrity, also obtain a place?—have done a great deal both of the useful and ornamental work of the world. And the Browns are not a whit behind the Smiths. "For centuries, in their quiet, dogged, home-spun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English counties, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands." Nay, more, to the ecclesiastical annals of Scotland, the Browns, or, in the vernacular, the Broons, have contributed a larger measure than any other class in the country. Of the Joneses and Robinsons I know less, although Miss Jones and Paul Jones are names not unknown to fame. But what of all this? The world often fails to appreciate its great men, and, if it did not judge so meanly, a need of honour would assuredly be accorded to those undistinguished ones, who, with no peculiar talent, standing on no public pedestal, have yet striven, as, here and everywhere by the thousand, they do strive, to execute the work that comes to their hands, patiently and fairly, waiting the award in all simplicity of faith. To me, speaking seriously, earth has few finer and in a sense more touching sights, than that of a worthy couple, unknown probably beyond their immediate neighbourhood, who have borne the burden and heat of the day together—sharers of each other's joys and sorrows—going contentedly down hill in company. They rest in the soft twilight, recalling to failing memory the incidents in which long ago they took a part—relating escapades of the children they dandled on their knees, now men and women in various parts of the world, and not always so mindful of the old folks as they ought to be—whispering perhaps of the coming sunset, when they hope to sleep side by side, in supreme and dreamless rest, until the dawn of the eternal morn awake them to a brighter day.

But this is not the vein in which I started, and it will probably be considered as beside the question. Many people dislike to hear of modest worth or of the self-satisfying sense of duty done. Virtue is its own reward no doubt, but most people would care more for it if, like that of Job, it showed at the close of the venture twice as many camels and sheep and oxen, as at the beginning. There is a low cynicism abroad, which sneers at those pure motives and honest aims which are the very breath of a nation's nobler life, so that the multitude of Smiths and Browns, Joneses and Robinsons, are likely to have a poor time of it. Little chance, indeed, for plain men and women, with plain names, who only care to be honest and true, inasmuch as these characteristics, although good enough in their way, do not suit communities where nothing succeeds like success. To "get on," you must call yourself Fitzblether or Fitzself—say you are the cousin or the nephew of a lord or baronet at least—affect Government House—and blow your own trumpet with sufficient shrillness, if you would make headway A proof that there is much in a name, although it may be no more than a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

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Leaving names of persons, you shall find abundant illustration of my theory in the names i things. I might almost venture to affirm of the English language, as Lord Macaulay affirmed of the strings of proper names in Paradise Lost, that its words are charmed words. This language bristle with anomalies,—the schoolboy, in his first attempts at grammar, thinks them something more are worse,—but most of these anomalies are centres of suggestion, and possess a certain hirsute and shaggy strength which prove how much there may be in even common words or names. A distinguished people has acknowledged that in his search for a rhyme he sometimes alighted on a sentiment; and ever scholar knows that a plain, pure word will not unfrequently suggest something to help out his speculation. No one has ever had occasion to express his conceptions without being sensible that the men act of clothing them in words—giving them names—invests them with an additional clearness. Word-enable us to determine, to fix, to weigh, and, in a sense, to handle our own and other people's sentiments. A confusion of language, from Babel times to now, leads to the worse confusion of ideas. At inaccurate use of words brings with it, therefore, the greater evil of inaccurate thinking. Coleridge declares that "to express a sophism and to detect the equivocal meaning of a word, is, in a majority of cases, one and the same thing." That is probably too strong an assertion, but, with reference to accuracy of language, he says, with more than usual solemnity: "When we consider that the greater part of our success and comfort in life depends on distinguishing the similar from the same, that which is peculiar in each thing from that which it has in common with others, so as still to select the most probable instead of the merely possible or positively unfit, we shall learn to value earnestly and with a practical seriousness, a mean already prepared for us, by nature and society, of teaching the young mind to think well and wisely by the same unremembered process and with the same never-forgotten results, as those by which it is taught to speak and converse." So, far, therefore, from it? being wise or expedient to diminish verbal force, argument tends in the opposite direction. It is ever found advisable and sometimes necessary in authorship, although rarely in the case of a good writer, to employ typographical expedients—capital letters or italics—for the purpose of imparting to certain expressions the requisite precision and emphasis.

Every literary student must have noticed how the true poet, by a selection of pretty words, [unclear: often] hits off the surroundings of a fact or paints a bit of landscape in a single stanza, sometimes in a single line. When Spenser speaks of "October, full of merry glee, for yet his noule was totly of the must," one sees at a glance, notwithstanding the quaint words having fallen into disuetude, the rollicking mirth and plenty of the close of a favorable autumn. How readily Shakspeare's "sweet south" can be appreciated:

That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.

Sir Walter Scott writes, in words not likely to be forgotten by those born north of the Tweed:

When Summer smiled on sweet Bowhil
And July's eve, with balmy breath,
Waved the blue bells on Newark heath,
When throstles sung in Harehoad shaw,
And corn was green in Caterhaugh,

There is the whole scene in its pastoral beauty and quiet opulence—fragrant as its own blue-bells and caller as the wind that sweeps over it. The earth has many brighter and fairer places, but none more pleasant. The sky hangs lovingly over those Yarrow braes and Ettrick shaws; even the very storms among the hills have a kind pity gleaming through their noble wrath.

Perhaps nothing in this way can well be more suggestive of English rural life and scenery than the simple words and exquisitely natural imagery of Gray's Elegy—verses which, I venture to think, are nearly perfect as a poem. Their familiarity renders quotation unnecessary. In the same author's Art of Poesy, which is now but little read, a line occurs—

Far in the sun and summer gale—

which seems to me a word-photograph of some lone spot; not lone, as in this country, where, in solitary places, Nature yet reigns undisturbed, and the silence is at times so solemn as to become positively awful but lone as being unfrequented—some isolated nook shimmering and sleeping in the noon-tide haze. Wordsworth, although one of the greatest of our poets, and a lover of nature above most men, so that meadows, woods, and mountains haunted him like a passion, is too contemplative or philsosophic for ordinary mortals. He sees "with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony," but he makes scenery subservient to moral teaching, as in that finest of sonnets:

Down to the vale this water steers—
How merrily it goes!
'Twll murmur on a thousand years
And flow as now as now it flows.

Byron and Shelly are too busy with themselves, too retrospective and impassioned to [unclear: bestow] great care or take much real delight in the beauty or sublimity of natural objects; although there are few finer passages than that in which the former speaks of inanimate nature mourning for the fallen heroes of Waterloo:

And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves
Dewy with Nature's tear-drops as they pass,
Grieving—if aught inanimate e'er grieves—
O'er the unreturning brave—alas!
Ere evening to be trodden like the grass—
Which now beneath them, but above shali grow
In its next verdure; when this fiery mass
Of living valour, rolling on the foe
And burning with high hope, shall moulder cold and low.

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Shelley's Ode. to a Skylark is full of beauty and pathos, but, as a piece of word-painting, I prefer to it that of Hogg, the unlettered Ettrick Shepherd, on the same theme. Nothing could well be more serene, or more brimful of the "vision and faculty divine," than the following:

Bird of the wilderness,
Blithesome and cumberless,
Sweet be thy matin o'er moorland lea!
Emblem of happiness,
Blest is thy dwelling-place—
O to abide in the desert with thee!
Wild is thy lay and loud,
Far in the downy cloud
Love gives it energy, love gave it birth;
Where, on thy dewy wing,
Where art thou journeying?
Thy lay is in heaven, thy love is on earth.

O'er fell and fountain sheen,
O'er moor and mountain green,
O'er the red streamer that heralds the day,
O'er the cloudlet dim.
O'er the rainbow's rim,
Musical cherub, soar, singing, away!
Then, when the gloaming comes,
Low in the heather blooms
Sweet will thy welcome and bed of love be?
Emblem of happiness,
Blest is thy dwelling-place—
O to abide in the desert with thee!

The suggestiveness of Gray, touching rural sights and sounds, has been referred to, but he, and indeed the whole of the tuneful brethren, must yield the palm to the latest of our poets in this respect. Tennyson is specially descriptive by single words and sentences. It is not my good fortune to be familiar with English scenery, but those who are, I should think, can have no difficulty, in seeing with that mental eye, which Wordsworth considers the bliss of solitude, much that they have enjoyed long ago, in reading such graceful lines as the following:

When from the dry dark wold the summer airs blow cool
On the oat grass and the sword grass and the bulrush in the pool.

How much meaning there is in that word wold (Saxon wald or weald)—an expanse of wild reedy grass, a piece of morass, perhaps a few stunted trees—much the same as a tract of moorland in Scotland, or bog in Ireland, but marking both with a distinction and a difference. Take another illustration:

Summer on the steaming floods,
And Spring that swells the narrow brooks.
And Autumn with a noise of rooks
That gather in the waning woods.

Rooks, as they well may be, are a favourite of the poet-laureate. He recurs to them in another passage, which fairly adumbrates in briefest space the coming of Spring-tide in England:

The building rook 'ill caw from the windy tall elm tree,
And the tufted plover pipe along the fallow lea.

Examples might be multiplied indefinitely, but enough has been said in answer to the question. And if I have succeeded so far, it will be seen that there is some instruction as well as much interest in the study of words—words as meaning things, and certain words as possessing greatly more force than others. An ordinary English grammar, for example, tells us that the verb "go" is defective, that its preterite has disappeared, and that its deficiency is made up by the use of a synonymous verb, "wend "—(go, went, gone);—but to see that this is one of the things which the lap of time has dropped, and that in a very untidy fashion, we have only to compare it with the Scotch form of the same verb, "gae," where the complete inflection is found—(gae, gaed, gane)—as in the song of Burns:

I gaed a waefu' gate yestreen,
A gate I fear I'll dearly rue.

Again, the fact of how easily a little change in the form obscures the origin of a word, may be seen in the instance of "canny"—regarding which, in a good "glossary," you will meet with such a remark as this: "It is used in so many different senses, it becomes difficult to assign a satisfactory etymon." Yet all the senses of the word may be traced to the signification of what I take to be certainly its root—a word connected with "ken," to know. "Canny man" is just a vernacular translation of "gentleman,"—for gentleness springs as naturally from skill as rudeness from ignorance. A poor invalid will say to a skilful surgeon, "ye ken how to lift me." That we have found knowledge to be power, and that we have found it, or indeed that we have found both knowledge and power to be gentleness also, is established by the entymological identity of canny, can, and ken.

This essay, probably discursive at the outset, ought to close with something practical. If there is meaning in a name—much in its sound and more in its association—what an ill-chosen name has fallen to New Zealand? Ill-chosen! There could have been no choice of any kind, good or bad, in the matter, else the result would have been other and better than it is. The name ought to be changed. Every one who has ever bestowed a thought on the subject acknowlekges the meaness and meaningless-ness of the present name. If Tasman gave it to these islands, the pity is that their discovery had not been reserved for some other than the phlegmatic Dutchman. "New Zealand" is in suggestive and prosaic. Some people don't care—I do; and shall not cease to recalcitrate at the mistake which was made. And numbers will join me. The Rev. Richard Taylor, for many years a missionary of the page 4 English Church, in a work of his, which has gone through more than one edition, entitled, "New Zealand and its Inhabitants," expresses, like the rest of us, his dislike of the name "New Zealand and suggests "Austral-Britain," or" Austral-Albion." None of these big words are likely to acceptable, but the difficulty of selection is greater than one would at first sight suppose, and the case urgent. I incline to think that Southland is the best name that could be hit upon; it was appropriated at one time; but the provinces are no more, and the little province so-called, rich in name if it nothing else, might well pass on its title to the country at large. Seriously, colonists must get rid of such a name as New Zealand; neither they nor their children care for it; and the best substitute is—