Tag Archives: English poetry

The Language of TELKA

TelkaThere are some people who think that Pearl Curran wrote, if not from her conscious mind, then from her subconscious mind.  That is, information about the language, locations and history she wrote about must have been gathered somehow by her conscious mind and stored in her subconscious to be pieced together, bit by bit,  to produce authentic-sounding historical stories about Medieval England, England during the 1600s, Victorian England or Palestine and its surrounds of 2000 years ago.

However you want to look at it, whether Pearl Curran wrote the poems, plays and novels or Patience Worth dictated them, the trick was amazing.  Just how could someone like Pearl Curran or Patience Worth with a very limited formal education and not very worldly by any definition, do that!  Is it possible that a woman with a grade-school education; one who had not traveled farther than Missouri, Texas or Illinois; who had no dreams to become a writer; who had only read one or two childhood novels, who had little or no interest in poetry and who reported discombobulated knowledge of history and geography could write material acclaimed by numerous  experts of literature to be outstanding if not superior to the writing of recognized authors?

The evidence of Patience Worth perhaps is not of the type that most people want to hear or read about.  It is not what one would expect in the grocery store tabloid.  Patience Worth does not predict the future; there is no finding of lost jewelry or persons, there are no messages from the dearly departed relatives, there are no apports, disembodied voices or apparitions of any sort.  In lieu of those phantasms, Pearl Curran left behind a tangible collection of materials that anyone may consider first-hand. Her evidence is not hearsay or second or third-hand information.   No— it exists in the language of her poems, plays, novels and ‘table-talk’ during sittings with Patience Worth.

Casper Yost who participated in sittings with Patience Worth and who subsequently wrote the first book about her apparently agrees!  He wrote one of the best, if not the only serious discussion of the language used by Patience Worth in her medieval poem ‘Telka’ and I highly recommend that those who are interested in language as evidence read his article.  It can be found at the end of Telka or  in Walter Franklin Prince’s book The Case of Patience Worth.  Casper Yost, when discussing the evidence for Patience Worth writes that, “It is the locutions of Telka, and in particular the vocabulary and the uses of that vocabulary, that are, I believe, miraculous.” Yost continues by saying:

The Story of Telka contains about sixty thousand words, and about nine-tenths of it is in dialogue.  From beginning to end it is rhythmical; not a hidden rhythm such as may be found in the works of many great writers of prose, but a regularly recurring accent in the iambic measure that dominates the entire work.  That is not to say that it is metrically precise.  It is far from that; but the ruling cadence never wholly disappears, and at times it flows from many lines with hardly a break in the rhythm.

Epics of this length are not numerous.  Love stories of ten thousand lines which Telka approximates, are rare in poetic form.  And love stories in metre, with plots that are carried forward with the ease and steady progression of a modern novel, without a diversion from the central theme, are, to say the least, unusual.  So it would seem to be justifiable to assert that a story of this extent and character, put in rhythmical speech, without monotony of cadence; a story that while it has high poetic qualities yet arouses and holds the active interest of the reader in the narrative to the end, is in itself a remarkable achievement..  .  .  it is the locutions of Telka, and in particular the vocabulary and the uses of that vocabulary, that are, I believe, miraculous.  I have said that practically every word in it is of Anglo-Saxon origin or usage.  By that I mean about ninety per cent. of it is of that derivation, as I shall show later.  The remaining ten per cent. is composed of old French, with an occasional Scandinavian word, and, rarely one of Celtic, or direct Latin origin.  .  .  .  it is the southern dialect (of England) that the language of Telka, as well as the language customarily used by Patience Worth subsequent to the beginning of Telka, is most closely allied.  There is in it more of the words and idioms peculiar to, or most prevalent in, that region, at the present time as well as in the past, and she has given reason to believe that if she could communicate vocally her pronunciation would be southern.  Yet the dialect of Telka is not wholly southern.  If it were its sources might be definitely fixed.  But it contains word and phrase forms peculiar to the north, others that are of the colloquial usage of the east or the west or the middle shires, either at present or in the past.  It seems not to be the language of any period of England nor of any locality of England.  I am unable to find that, in the form she gives it, it was ever written or ever spoken.  It has words of various periods as well as of various localities.

One looks in vain through the recorded speech of England, from Ælfric to Chaucer, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to the present, for anything with which to compare it.  Far exceeding Chaucer in the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon words, it bears not the slightest resemblance to Chaucer.  Retaining some of the forms of middle English, it shows no general likeness to the works of any writer of the middle English period.  Having much in common with what is technically termed modern English, from 1500 to the present, it differs in many particulars from every writer and every century of this chronological division.  Nor does it seem possible, dialectical as it is, to identify it with the dialect of any time or of any section.

The language of Telka is, it would seem, a composite of dialects, a tongue that is in a sense artificial, although it contains few words that have not the authority of usage, and it is by no means certain that the exceptions are lacking in authority, for all sources have not been examined.  .  .  .  I believe it is safe to say that no book since the days of Layamond, with the exception of Wickliffe’s Bible, is as exclusively Anglo-Saxon as this work of Patience Worth’s ..  .  .  I have found that an average of about ninty per cent. of them are of Anglo-Saxon origin, accepting Webster as a sufficient authority for such derivations, and including the pre-Norman Scandinavian words.  .  .  .  I am inclined to believe that not fifty words in the entire book are of direct Latin or Greek origin, and I venture the assertion that, with a single exception, there is not one word of later entry into the language than the year sixteen hundred.  .  .  .  It is true that Anglo-Saxon is the essential framework of our language, and it is difficult to write a single sentence of length without using Anglo-Saxon words, but it is also somewhat difficult to write a single sentence wholly in words of Anglo-Saxon origin that would not be commonplace, and I do not believe that any one could write and speak rapidly, fluently and beautifully, as Patience does, so restricted. .  .  . at no time since the beginning of English, as we now know it, in the fourteenth century has there been any writing having more than seventy percent. Anglo-Saxon with the single exception of the Bible, which Weisse gives seventy-seven percent.  Weise does not include Wickliffe’s Bible in his calculations, although he analyzes a single paragraph.  This, although written late in the fourteenth century, is almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon in its verbal origins, and the relatively pure Anglo-Saxon of our King James Version of the Bible is in many cases due to the influence exerted upon its translators by Wickliffe’s remarkable work.  When the figures here given are compared with the ninety per cent. of Telka, it is to be seen that this product of the present has but a single precedent in this particular (Wickliffe) until we get back to the thirteenth century when Anglo-Saxon was still unmixed with French, at least in the speech of the common people.

But the Anglo-Saxon of Telka bears little resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon of Layamon, or even of Wickliffe.  It is modern in the form of most of its words.  It retains few or none of the old Anglo-Saxon inflexions.  There are not a dozen words in it that are obsolete as a whole.  There are many words that are obsolete in the forms she gives them, but their stems are in constant use today.

And it is her construction, more even than her vocabulary, that is peculiar and individual.  She has no reverence for the parts of speech, and little respect for the holiest rules of syntax.  “I be dame,” she says, and therefore not amenable to rule.  If it suits her to make a noun, an adjective, or even a preposition do service as a verb, it is done.  If she wishes to make a noun of an adjective, so be it. .  .  .  But not all the words and locutions that are contrary to accepted standards of the present are without authority of usage in other times.  Patience has said that she is not attached to precedent.  “I be a builder ‘pon word,” she says,“for doth it to stand at low I then do fetch a-high and set at up and make o’ that that be not that that be.”  And one can imagine a twinkle in her eye when she adds, “Thee’dst merry at the word awaked that knoweth not itself.”

It is an interesting and pertinent fact in this connection that the Elizabethan age, with which Patience Worth seems to be most closely associated, was one in which grammatical forms had least stability.  There was in all the leading writers of the period a striking disregard of the precise functions of the parts of speech, and this was especially characteristic of Shakespeare.  “Almost any part of speech can be used as any other part of speech,” says Professor Abbot in his “A  Shakesperian Grammar,” referring to Elizabethan English in general.  “An adverb can be used as a verb, as a noun or as an adjective.  Any noun, adjective, or neuter verb can be used as an active verb.  An adjective can be used as an adverb or as a noun.  Every variety of grammatical inaccuracy meets us.”  The reason for all of this is found in the transitional state of the language, but the fact is a further proof that even in her grammatical anomalies, Patience is in accord with her time.

“Telka, then, is unique in its Anglo-Saxon purity, in its combination of dialectal forms of various localities and various periods, in some of its grammatical peculiarities, and in its diversions or extensions of verbal meanings.  Is it conceivable that anyone would attempt to create such a speech for literary purposes?  What purpose could be accomplished that would not be attained with greater ease and greater certainty by simpler methods? But conceding this attempt, how should it be done?  Setting aside the difficulty of acquiring a vocabulary of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin and skill in their idiomatic use, to the total exclusion of the vastly greater number of modern words with which our minds are saturated, let us assume that the one attempting this thing is already steeped in philological lore, has a thorough knowledge of English etymology, and the ability to separate almost intuitively the Anglo-Saxon words in his vocabulary from those derived from other sources.  I doubt if any philologist has that faculty, but let us admit that he has, and is able to think and express his thoughts in that restricted speech.  Could he make it the vehicle for a literary work of poetic character, intensely emotional, dramatical and spiritual?  I have said that in the dark period between the Norman Conquest and the days of Chaucer the Anglo-Saxon tongue lost many of its words, and the greatest loss was in those of a literary character, for the reason that literature in the vernacular was dead, and it was only the terms of colloquial speech that survived.  .  .  .  And Dr. Murray says: “When the educated generation that saw the arrival of the Norman died out, the language, ceasing to be read and written, lost all its literary words.  The words of ordinary life, whose preservation is independent of books, lived on as vigorously as ever, but the literary terms, those that related to science, art and higher culture, the bold, artistic compounds, the figurative terms of poetry, were speedily forgotten.  The poetical vocabulary shrank to a fraction of it former extent.”

Casper Yost concludes by saying that anyone,

.  .  .  who attempted this thing would require much more than a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon derivatives, and their middle and modern English forms and meanings.  He would have to know Norman- French words in order to make even a small use of them, and to know many English dialects.  A working knowledge of dialects is hardly to be acquired from books.  One who attempts to write a contemporaneous dialect story without having an auricular acquaintance with the dialect he presents is undertaking a difficult and somewhat dangerous task.  How much more difficult is it to make use of an archaic dialect for which there is no written guide except the fragmentary utterances of provincial characters in old stories and plays or the comparatively rare dialectal ballads and folk songs.

Yet, conceding that the one who is attempting this feat has acquired all the general and special knowledge of words and idioms required for the purpose, he has still to weave a composite of dialects in with a restricted literary language, and make of the mixture a harmonious and beautiful fabric; he has still to put it to use as a vehicle for poetry, for fiction, for the expression of emotion, of a warring of the material with the spiritual and a triumph of the spirit; for the making of pictures as delicate and ethereal as the cobwebs that sometimes drift across the vision on a summer’s day.  Where is the man, or the woman, who can do this, consciously or subconsciously?

Here is a representative example, chosen at random, of the language in Telka taken from the opening paragraphs of Chapter XI, Page 120.  For the full text of Telka see this link.

      The heaven’s eye a-closed at sink o’ moon.  Night’s cool and sweets put silence, a-musiced with winged scrape and notes o’ birds, who wait at eager for the morn and spill o’ note unto the night.  The sun’s robe a-crimsoned, floateth like to a veil up and o’er the gray, till questioning he riseth for to look where night hath hid her loves.  Paths a-show be-glistened, and flower’s- cup waketh for to ope and drink.  Sleep a-hangs e’en ‘pon the morn, and night holdeth sway within the walls a-high.
     Rich silken-covered couch a-standeth it ‘mid gray, where thredding o’ its strand a-showeth not.  RICARDO, bowed deep in dark, a-stopped o’ sleep, a-claspeth blade and shield, a-rest ‘pon him a-stilled.
Soft-whirred the wing o’bird by lattice where dew doth bead.  A rose-light creepeth it athin.  Morn’s breeze, a-born with sun, seeketh it a-through and sootheth it ‘bout the twain a-clasped in sleep.
      Curls, a-loosed from tuck, shower ‘bout the face a-bent.  A-start, wide-eyed, she looketh as a dream.  Sigh, born from out the heart, slippeth ‘pon the air.  The cradled form stirreth, and sway, the TELKA putteth soft hum and sway.

For those not familiar with the archaic language of Patience Worth, with great forbearance allow me to attempt a translation of the above.  I cringe at doing this as any translation is a desecration of a piece of literary art but perhaps by comparison one can see how extraordinary and creative the words of Patience Worth really are.  I find I am not satisfied with any translation I could make, but if you can stand it, read this macerated attempt and then go back and read and reread the beautiful descriptions and metaphors of Patience Worth in this opening to Chapter IX.

It was early morning and the moon had slipped below the horizon.  The birds and crickets, silent during the night, begin to waken as the sun slowly rises.  The roads are wet with water and the flowers are covered with dew.  The world is slowly awakening, except within the castle walls where it is still dark. Ricardo is seen upon a couch, sound asleep holding his sword and shield on his chest as he dozes.  The birds begin to flutter and the rosy light of dawn highlights two people asleep in each other’s arms.  Telka, with her hair hanging about her face is seen as beautiful as she sighs, and then hums to her baby as she rocks its cradle.

Now tell me how, in God’s green acres, did Pearl Curran write this out of her subconscious mind, one letter at a time on the Ouija board?  Remember, this story came quickly as a stream of letters, unparsed and unpunctuated.  Well, of course according to some critics, Pearl Curran must have read old English literature at some time in her life or heard philologists speaking it and stored it in her subconscious to be brought forward word by word to be arranged as beautiful and meaningful poetry.

Occasionally someone criticizes the  language of Patience Worth by saying that it has more of a Scottish dialect in it than a southern English dialect especially when Patience speaks in her 16th century tongue.  Irving Litvag points out in his book Singer in The Shadows that Patience Worth had said that her father was English and that her mother was Scottish.  Perhaps that could account for the amount of Scottish words in the default language of Patience Worth.



In the poems of Patience Worth one can find her most creative and imaginative work.  She called her poems “songs” and writing them her “singing”.  Of course, Pearl Curran knew all about songs and singing as she had spent many years of her young life studying piano and singing.  Patience Worth uses the language of her poems as an artist uses paint on canvas. She smoothes and blends words of archaic and modern origin to produce images and feelings that pull the reader into a dimension outside of time and space.  The following  poems are, in my opinion, some of her best.


(July 1919)Woods_Moon

I have heard the moon’s beams
Sweeping the waters, making a sound
Like threads of silver, wept upon.
I have heard the scratch of the
Pulsing stars, and the purring sound
Of the slow moon as she rolled across
The night.  I have heard the shadows
Slapping the waters, and the licking
Sound of the wave’s edge as it sinks
Into the sand  upon the shore.

I have heard the sunlight as it pierced
The gloom with a golden bar, which
Whirred in a voice of myriad colors.
I have heard the sound which lay
Between the atoms which danced in the
Golden bar.  I have heard the sound
Of the leaves reclining upon their cushions
Of air, and the swish of the willow
Tassels as the wind whistled upon them,
And the sharp sound which the crawling
Mites proclaim upon the grasses blades,
And the multitude of sounds which lie
At the root of things.  Oh, I have heard
The song of resurrection which each seed
Makes as it spurts.  I have heard the sound
Of the night’s first shadow, when it 
Intermingles with the day, and the
Rushing sound of Morning’s wings as she
Flies o’er the Eastern gateway.

All of these have I heard, yet man
Hath not an ear for them.  Behold,
The miracle He hath writ within me;
Letting the chord of imagination strum!


         (July 1919)Rivera_Cour2

I have heard the music men make
Which is discord, proclaimed through
Egotry.   I have heard the churning
Of water by man’s cunning, and the
Shrieking of throttles which man addeth
Unto the day’s symphony.  I have heard
The pound of implements, and the clatter
Of blades.  I have heard the crushing blasts
Of Destruction.  I have heard men laugh
And their laughs were rusted as old vessels
In which brine wert kept.  I have heard
Women chatter like crows o’er carrion
And laugh as a magpie o’er a worm.
I have beheld all of these
And heard them.  Men have ears
For such; and the mystery of man is
That he should present them, and cry:
“Sing! Sing, Poet! Sing!”



(November 1916)


‘Twas morning, when my footsteps led me down the winding way.
The heavy smoke still hung the damp grey airs.
Mine eyes looked for the coming sun, but it did fail,
And weak stars fearful, trembled ‘mid the heaven’s deep.
The Earth beneath my very footfall shook.
The sod’s breast opened in gashes wide.
The field’s bloom drooped, or flamed red,
E’en as some dull fire.

And ah, mine eyes sought, sought, sought!
I looked on every way and ever saw some livid lip,
Some grinning death-oped mouth, some glaze-dimmed eye that saw
No morning’s coming, some man-stopped hand
That reached in suppliance for a brother’s grasp,
Some beast felled ‘mid his master’s blood,
Some cheek still stained of youth-fear tears,
Some empty bowl, that belched
To wipe Him from out His own, some blade,
Deep-dyed, the drops still thick’ning on its edge.

Ah, ’twas dark!  But sudden from the East,
E’en through the thick of smokes and mists,
Slipped a golden shaft that fell
E’en at my feet, to light—ah! another of the host!
A youthed son of some waiting one, his faith cut down
E’en ‘mid his faith-flashed smile; his locks crisp-young;
His cheek still stained of youth’s kiss on its curve;
His weak-sunk head at rest upon his bended arm,
And stiffened lips had failed to reach
The ebon cross that shewed within his fingers grasp.

And lo, the sun did kiss his bended head and gleam an halo ’bout.
And I did stoop to touch, and at the touching, lo,
I sunk there ‘pon the sod and wept;
And looked on high unto the weak sun climbing slow,
And oped my prayer in anguished word; for on the host that lay
God’s sun-smile shewed, and on the cross
There gleamed one word that spake me shame.

And I did raise mine eyes
And look afar unto the fields that lay,
And lo, there, cross on cross did stand,
Rude-wrought of such an stuff as His
Was builded up.  No word that, read
Might tell who lay within Earth’s breast.

And I did shut away the sight;
For His bright sun did light the hosts,
And on them showed the mocking, searing scripts,
And each one bore his shaming word:
“Brother!”  “Brother!”  “Brother!”



Oh ye mighty walls and towering spires astride the cowled gabled ways!
Thy emblazoned scripts depicting fanciful reaction of ancient times;
Smoking altars upon which yellow candles flare, burning the sacred air,
To send aloft a pungent scent of mouldering decay,
Blackening with slow sure touch the placid faces of the saints,
Who with stony visages gaze adown the aisles, unseeing man’s exultant
     joy or his despair.
Vault-like, in cold aloofness, proudly do ye stand, reechoing the chants
That flow from out cold tombs, the unlit hearts of priesthood and of
     saintly nuns.
For this did saints ope up their veins?  Did martyrs writhe?  And did
     holy writs
By their tedious array enslave the humble sanctity of men?
Or did men, to do their will, write with unalterable tracery
Law, that ran new within the fluid pressed in fervid troth to God?
While blood in lapping waves washed thy very doors, did Mary stand
Dumb, hearkening to some litany mumbled in a limped tongue,
And priest send incense up, or light a taper in thy pit-like dark?
Oh, everlasting God!  I am dismayed, that thy very stones did not gape
And fall apart; that every scarlet line within thy illumined records
Did not spurt in anguish and, bleeding, wipe the “law” from off the page.

Oh, holy structure, revered by man, upheld through ages through thy
     claim of part with Him!
Already is that morning come, and quaking earth upheaving!
Already doth thy mellow chime whisper its eerie knell.  Already doth
That King whom thou acclaimest sit in regal glory upon the mighty seat!
Oh, crumbling vestment of the ego,  Man—make way!  His host proceeds!
No altar yet upraised but shall give way to that his Sire hath flung
     from His prolific hand.
He, the High-priest, lights the taper Day, each morning with the sun,
And incense flings across the valley way in silver mists;
Filling the night with litanies, lighting each star in memory of some
     holy soul,
Defying mould and ravages of time, the festival of worm upon the
     festering flesh.
Exultant doth this God erect anew each coming day and night
An altar upon which to burn our hearts, while thou dost re-echo dead prayers;
Burning incense yet before the embered fire of Hope.

While thy dimming tapers die, and the carved saints stand mute before
     thy suppliants
What, should His holy step be heard naked upon the stones, with the
     pattering of sheep beside?


(February 1926)young_man_drinking_a_glass_of_wine_400

Behold, behold, the roadways lying stretched in grey dust-patterns
     about the field, curving the hillocks like necklets of ash;
And the creeping pageantry of man, sweeping out in gentle lines upon
     the pathways of the earth;
Yea, men who sweat, men who ache, men who anguish;
Men who torture from crude stuffs, stones and clay, wondrous imagery
     which speaks their souls;
Men who dip within their hearts and write scripts which the ages yet shall read;
And men who dip within a fluid, writing that which is not thick enough to
     cast a shadow;
Men who press their breasts upon implements of labor, striking the
     pregnant soil that it belch forth its teeming utterance;
Men who idly dream dreams that shall stir the hearts of empires;
Men who labor with blind eyes, never seeing, ever striving, with
     confusion as companion;
Men who live!  live to the last bitter dreg within the cup, quaffing with
     delight the potion of death—in defiance lifting the goblet;
Men who sit within the shadow of their doubt, beholding the cup of
     death in fearing,
Waiting for Tomorrow who already hath laid her hand upon the cup’s brim—
     Tomorrow whose finger pointeth to Eternity!

So this is the pageantry of labor; these are the vitals of Day.
     Behold, when they stop the Day is finished.
This is Day’s labor, this intricate pattern of laboring;
     What pattern doth it weave?
Oh, some morrow shall I stand beside the Loom
      with the shuttles empty—
All these little crawling puppets of the day, each unwound
     of its strand of existence;
Beholding the Plan, the Pattern God wove!