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wine that tastes of margarine

May 7, 2012

Reading Don Paterson’s excellent commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets, I note that the line ‘Than in the breath that sometimes from her reeks’ in Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’),  was originally not quite as bad as it now sounds. I do agree with Don Paterson’s verdict that the sonnet does not quite come off – the turn is too little, too late, and does not compensate for the deliberate dispraise of the first 12 lines – but reeks makes it seem worse than it was. The word did not mean ‘stinks’ as it does today. It simply meant ’emanates’.

It’s annoying when words change their meaning in such a way as to spoil poetry. The most egregious example I know is from Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘Oh for a draft of vintage that hath been/ Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth/ Tasting of Flora and the country green/ Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth…’ Once it meant that the wine tasted of flowers. Now it means that it tastes of margarine. The marketing person who named that marge should be shot.

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