Friday, May 15, 2009


I've talked before about the way the names of certain landscapes have particular resonance for poets and artists (e.g. Edward Thomas). In his poem 'Anahorish', Seamus Heaney says that this place name evokes the past - 'after-image of lamps / swung through the yards / on winter evenings'. In describing its physical characteristics, he refers to the meaning of Anahorish in Irish, a "place of clear water". But interestingly he goes further still, likening the structure of the word itself to the landscape it describes: 'Anahorish, soft gradient / of consonant, vowel-meadow...' There's an interesting post by Thomas O'Grady which discusses Heaney's use of place names. He mentions 'Anahorish' and highlights the poem 'Broagh' (riverbank), in which 'the shower / gathering in your heelmark / was the black O / in Broagh.'

The writer I most associate with place names is Proust. In Swanns Way his narrator remembers that 'I did not then represent to myself towns, landscapes, historic buildings, as pictures more or less attractive, cut out here and there of a substance that was common to them all, but looked on each of them as on an unknown thing, different from all the rest, a thing for which my soul was athirst, by the knowledge of which it would benefit. How much more individual still was the character that they assumed from being designated by names, names that were only for themselves, proper names such as people have... The name of Parma, one of the towns that I most longed to visit, after reading the Chartreuse, seeming to me compact and glossy, violet-tinted, soft, if anyone were to speak of such or such a house in Parma, in which I should be lodged, he would give me the pleasure of thinking that I was to inhabit a dwelling that was compact and glossy, violet-tinted, soft, and that bore no relation to the houses in any other town in Italy, since I could imagine it only by the aid of that heavy syllable of the name of Parma, in which no breath of air stirred, and of all that I had made it assume of Stendhalian sweetness and the reflected hue of violets.'

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