Jul 262003

Dear Aaron,

I am hoping you can answer a quick poetry question for me. In the following poem by John Updike, what do you think “blither” means?

(Upon reading of the genetic closeness of mice and men.)

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
Braw science says that at the leastie
We share full ninety-nine per cent
O’ genes, where’ere the odd ane went.

O nibblin’, pink-tail’d, bright-ee’d sir,
We hail frae ane sma’ fearful blur
‘Neath dinorsaur feet, lang syne-
Na mair be pestie, cousin mine.

Stay oot my larder, oot my traps
An’ they’ll snap softer doon, p’rhaps,
For theft and murther blither go
When a’s i’ th’ family, bro’ and bro’.

Thank you,
Amy Greenwood

Dear Amy,

Updike is imitating Robert Burns here, so first I go to the Scots dictionary to find that “braw” is Scots for “fine.” This helps me understand the poem but does not answer your question. “Blither” is not a Scots word, but it is an English word, with two meanings. Usually it is a verb, but as a verb it makes no sense in the poem. It is also a comparative adjective, meaning “more blithe,” and this second sense clears the matter up. The last two lines mean: “theft (by the mouse) and murder (by the poet) are cheerier affairs when they’re kept in the family.” Unfortunately “blither,” following “murther” directly, sounds far more natural with a short than a long i, which compounds the difficulty.

There is a similar problem in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Farther in summer than the birds,” which has a line beginning “Antiquest felt at noon.” She means “more antique,” but many, many readers have read the word as “anti-quest.”

Pedantically yours,

  2 Responses to “The Doctor Is In”

  1. Aaron is correct, of course. Aye yrs, Tim

  2. The crickets are just beginning so it’s a perfect time for a reference to one of my all-time favorite poems, "Farther in summer than the birds".

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