Sunday, December 11, 2011

English Interlude - in Partial Defense of Jewel

In her song "Kiss the Flame," the singer Jewel took some liberties with a particular word, "casualty," in the phrase "with such casualty." This malapropism led Kurt Loder to respond, curtly, "'Casualty' doesn't mean that." He suggested that Jewel might have meant "casualness," which, though it is a word, is about as poetic as "propriety" or "associative" or "malapropism."



I found some slight vindication for the lovely Jewel yesterday morning. Who will sa-a-ave your literary reputation, Jewel? Surprisingly, Thomas Hardy will. In his poem, "Hap," he writes about his anger at the force he sees controlling the universe. Why can't that force just be straight with him? Why can't life be purely rough instead of pock-marked by what he sees as distorting joys?:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: 'Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!'

Then would I beat it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

These last two lines could mean "Would that these purblind had. . ." Then the message would be I wish chance/fate/God/"These-purblind-doomsters" had doled out joy in as many parts as pain. But I think he's really lamenting joy itself because joy continues to fool him into something--comfort--that is illusory.

Meanwhile, my hands are small, I know, but they're large enough to type the never-before-realized Hardy-Kilcher connection. So, "casualty" almost always refers to the dead or wounded of war, but both poets use it differently here, Hardy to refer to chance and Jewel to refer to a casual nature.

Before we get carried away, I should say that Hardy has history on his side while Jewel only has her yodelly voice. Around 1500, the writer J.O. Halliwell (related to Geri Halliwell?--the late-90s music connections continue) wrote, "I have seyn men bothe ryse and falle, hyt ys but caswelte!"

Thinking about it this way, I see that "casualty" as it's commonly used is a strangely archaic , Ecclesiastean euphemism. Shakespeare used it as a pun to mean both chance and injury--"Augward casualties, bound me in seruitude"--but when we say There were four casualities, are we still saying there were four victims of circumstance? And isn't that an odd way to think about war deaths, especially, considering that those circumstances have been imposed?

Is Jewel similarly anti-war? Unsure. She does sing for the troops with such casualty, as pictured below.



And she would be glad to know that, though she has much less history on her side, there is a reference in the Oxford English Dictionary that would have helped her in her Loder-skirmish. In 1886, a magazine referred to a place as "Casualty corner," and it's possible that they intended that to mean both Bad-Fortune Corner and Congregating/Hanging-Out Corner: "A Cas'alty Corner is a feature of every district of outcast London, is to be found wherever the poor of the great city most do congregate."


Casualty Corner also refers to a spot in France, within The Sausage Valley, during World War I. The Sausage Valley was so-called because Germans flew sausage-resembling zeppelins near the valley in order to survey, probably not with casualty.


As we ultimately evaluate Jewel in the context of "Hap," I say she should get some criticism; but I also defend the poetic license, even for someone who probably deserves to have hers suspended. She could, after all, very well be equating casualness with leaving it up to fate:

There are nightmares on the sidewalk
There are jokes on TV
There are people selling thoughtlessness
With such casualty.

Well, maybe that's a stretch. But my real problem is with the next line:

Oh where for art thou, Romeo?
Where've all the brave men gone?
Show me one man who knows his own heart
With him I shall belong.

Where for? I think it's wherefore, your Jewelness. And that means "Why are you Romeo?" not "Where are you Romeo?" Loder focused on the wrong literary mishap. Wherefore, Kurt? (Also, where are you, Kurt?)

But Jewel is pretty great anyway. At least Thomas Hardy thought so:

"Love is long-suffering, brave,
Sweet, prompt, precious as a jewel."

_____________________________

UPDATE:

Incredible coincidence, as Bobby Moynihan plays an English Professor with a very specific interest in last night's SNL (which I missed):

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