Another Review of The Life of Words

In the July 2022 issue of Modern Language Review, a short review by Mia Gaudern. Gaudern is the author of the very good The Etymological Poetry of W. H. Auden, J. H. Prynne, and Paul Muldoon (OUP, 2020), published virtually at the same time by the same press, so she very much knows her stuff in this area. Nice, then to see judgements such as:

The book begins with a wide-ranging and much-needed history of thinking about etymology, providing context for a similarly broad survey of poetic etymologizing. Detailed analyses of chronologically and stylistically diverse poems lead Williams to argue that etymological ‘wordplay’ should in many cases be taken seriously as ‘word-work’ (or at least taken seriously as reflecting on whether we can take etymologies seriously: p. 69). He catalogues seven types of etymological ambiguity, the seventh encompassing ‘the most radical and ramifying etymological ambiguities, where etymological polysemies go beyond local figuration to become prime motivators of poetic language’ (p. 87).


Williams’s close readings are lexicographical and even statistical, making refreshingly purposeful use of dictionaries and corpora. One particularly successful tactic is the listing of suggestive etymological complexes surrounding a connection drawn out by a poet; [which] makes the significance of a poet’s choices more apparent, and loosens the restraints etymology can impose on a critical argument.

And this envoi, too:

Williams identifies ‘paradigm’ as a favourite word of Hill’s, but it certainly counts among his own, too. Fitting, then, that in The Life of Words he has produced a paradigm of etymological criticism that should prove instructive for the growing body of scholarship in this field.

Link to the MLR piece is here.

Cover detail of The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry, by David-Antoine Williams

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