Lass n. (‘in northern and north midland dialects the ordinary word; in the southern counties it has little or no popular currency’ – OED)
This lass has been a little remiss these past few weeks, at least as far as the Word of the Month column is concerned. April 2015 went unmarked by a specially chosen word, and May is almost over as this month’s word makes its tardy appearance. Blame the unseasonably damp and cold weather which has made the lass feel dull and lazy. And my apologies to those readers who were rightly expecting a new word to be discussed each month.
But to my subject: the word ‘lass’, as the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges, is in contemporary English associated mainly with Northern and Northern Midland dialects. Scots too, of course, especially in the form of ‘lassie’, the diminutive. It is such a well-known word, in fact, that it hardly needs any explaining. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a closer look at how it functions in Nicholson’s poetry.
My focus on the word isn’t motivated by its frequency, however, but rather by the infrequency of its usage in Nicholson’s poetry. It has one single appearance in the Collected Poems, in the long poem ‘To the River Duddon’. And it very nearly didn’t appear at all. As Neil Curry, the editor of Nicholson’s Collected Poems (1994) points out in his editorial notes, ‘lass’ was omitted from Nicholson’s Selected Poems (1966). Curry has carefully restored ‘To the River Duddon’ to the version published in Five Rivers (1944). And thank goodness he did, because if the word ‘lass’ hadn’t been used in this affectionate and deeply personal address to the Duddon, a great deal of its impact would be lost.
The poem runs to 71 lines and in the winding and splashing of its long sentences seems to imitate the course of the river it both addresses and describes. It starts by asking the river if it remembers ‘An oldish man with a nose like a pony’s nose’ who ‘made a guide-book for you’. The clues in the poem, even before Wordsworth’s name is actually mentioned, tell the reader very swiftly who this ‘oldish man’ is. The poem isn’t only about a lovely river then, but is also about Nicholson’s relationship with a powerful and influential earlier poet – someone on whose territory Nicholson was encroaching by the simple act of writing poems set in Cumberland, but who also encroached on Nicholson’s ‘own’ patch of ground, the non-Lake District district, by writing about a river which flows along a lakeless valley and out to the sea on the estuary where Millom is situated.
Part of the aim of the poem is to put right what Nicholson believes that Wordsworth got wrong in his ‘guide-book’ (actually The River Duddon: A Series of Sonnets):
'Remote from every taint of sordid industry'.
But you and I know better, Duddon lass.
For I, who've lived for nearly thirty years
Upon your shore, have seen the slagbanks slant
Like screes sheer into the sand, and seen the tide
Purple with ore back up the muddy gullies
And wiped the sinter dust from the farmyard damsons.
A hundred years of floods and rain and wind
Have washed your rocks clear of his words again,
Many of them half-forgotten, brimming the Irish Sea,
But that which Wordsworth knew, even the old man
When poetry had failed like desire, was something
I have yet to learn, and you, Duddon,
Have learned and re-learned to forget and forget again.
A very good summary, by Andrew Ray, of the Duddon sonnets makes it clear that the Duddon was a familiar and ‘long-loved’ river for Wordsworth, even though it is not a river associated with the Central Lakes. Ray cites Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth to point out that the choice of river for Wordsworth’s sonnet sequence was obviously symbolic. Wordsworth could have chosen rivers more obviously a part of the Lake District, but since the Duddon rises near the point where the three counties of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire meet it encapsulated the relationship of the local and particular to a broader geography. So although Nicholson’s words initially seem to imply that he knows the Duddon and its environs far better than the older poet did, Wordsworth clearly did know the river very well. If he chose to ignore the industry already existent in his own era (take for example the Duddon Furnace, which already existed in Wordsworth’s time), that was because to notice it would have weakened his poetic message, as Nicholson must have known.
Where Wordsworth sets his vision of the river in the sweep of eternity and of the archetypal, Nicholson locates it very firmly in the intimacies of the human and natural world: instead of mountains, there are slagbanks; instead of sparkling purity there are muddy gullies; instead of lightning-blasted yews there are farmyard damson trees, whose fruit is covered with dust from the ironworks. Everything in Nicholson’s portrayal of the Duddon’s environs is intimately known and loved, in spite, or perhaps because of a lack of perfection.
He includes the Duddon itself, almost conspiratorially, in this familiar intimacy by addressing the river as ‘Duddon lass’, as if she were his wife and together they formed an old married couple. The word ‘lass’ in this context, when appended to a personal name, doesn’t necessarily connote a young girl, as can be seen in this entry from the Dictionary of the Scots Language:
6. A familiar term of address to a woman, e.g. one's wife, sweetheart, or to a female animal.
Gen.Sc. Ayr. 1796 Burns A red, red Rose ii.:
As fair art thou, my bonie lass, So deep in luve am I.
Abd. 1882 W. Forsyth Writings 58:
He called her [mare] “ane lass”, and never applied a less respectful epithet to her.
Abd. 1909 G. Greig Main's Wooin' 7:
Oh, come awa', Maggie, lass! I wis jist lookin' for ye.
Wordsworth is the Romantic interloper, but Nicholson and the Duddon apparently know better.
Only apparently though – the poem finishes with the acknowledgement that Wordsworth’s vision was utterly correct, ‘even when poetry had failed like desire’, and Nicholson humbly accepts that he still has to know with all Wordsworth’s utter certainty that:
eternity flows in a mountain beck…
He knew, beneath mutation of year and season,
Flood and drought, frost and fire and thunder,
The frothy blossom on the rowan and the reddening of the berries,
The silt, the sand, the slagbanks and the shingle,
And the wild catastrophes of the breaking mountains,
There stands the base and root of the living rock,
Thirty thousand feet of solid Cumberland.
Nicholson’s Duddon is more lovable, more workaday, more intimate than Wordsworth’s, but it is Wordsworth’s near-mystical vision of the river which wins out, and to which Nicholson pays tribute in this approachable poem. The word ‘lass’ as the signal of an intimate, almost domestic familiarity, can then be seen as the pivot which turns everyday perception into a deeper and more meditative vision in which the changeable froth and flow of nature is understood as being rooted in the eternal processes which have shaped the landscape.
‘To the River Duddon’ is ultimately both a loving portrayal of the familiar female presence of Nicholson’s local river – almost a portrait of his muse – and a deft tribute to the paternal presence of Wordsworth, the mountain looming above the poetic landscape to which Nicholson lays claim.