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cynosure

October 18, 2020

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I object to over-scholarised notes in contemporary editions of classic literary texts (see my post https://brandonrobshawtheenglishlanguage.com/2012/02/07/who-will-edit-the-editors/ ). Nevertheless, there are times when the notes do tell you something interesting that you didn’t know. I am currently reading Trollope’s The Way We Live Now – which has only 11 pages of notes for a 760-page novel, an acceptable ratio, I’d say – and was pleased to come upon a gloss on the phrase the cynosure of her eyes. Now, this is quite a well-known phrase and I didn’t need a note to tell me what it meant; however, I was interested to learn that the word cynosure literally means the Pole Star. I don’t need to know that to appreciate Trollope’s novel, but I am glad to learn it all the same. 

Subsequent investigations tell me that the (North) Pole Star is a bright star in Ursa Minor and was known to the Ancient Greeks as kynosaura, meaning ‘dog’s tail’. (The Greek word for dog was kyon, from which we get the word cynic and, through a different route, the word canine.) Kynosaura eventually metamorphosed into cynosure, via Latin and French. 

So thanks to the editor, Frank Kermode. And now, back to the novel…

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5 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Not an expression I remember seeing in the singular? It’s usually the cynosure of all eyes. Intriguing etymology though.

  2. Sarah Parnell permalink

    I remember trying to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer when I was at school (many years ago) and getting completely bogged down with the endless footnotes and end notes, with the result that I only got to about page 40 and have never completed the book. No idea if it was actually worth reading…

    • Hi Sarah – yes, that is the trouble with over-zealous editorial notes. They distract you from the actual text and so have the opposite effect of what was intended.

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    Thanks for this Brandon. I must admit that I have never come across this phrase before, so thank you for introducing me to it, and also for the fascinating etymology.

    I read The Way We Live Now a few years ago, being my introduction to Trollope, and at the moment I am just finishing Barchester Towers. I must say that I really admire and enjoy Trollope as a writer. It is very easy to fall into the trap of defining him in relation to Dickens, but it is also hard to avoid.

    Much as I admire Dickens, I think I prefer Trollope at every point. His characters are completely credible human beings with acutely observed inner lives, making so many of Dickens’s characters seem cardboard cut-outs by comparison. In Barchester Towers the exchanges between Arabin and Signora Neroni look directly forward to the psychological perceptions of Henry James. Trollope’s women are mature individuals and he can depict the realities of marriage as well as romance, a fatal blind spot in Dickens. The style, too, is so clear and transparent compared to Dickens overly clotted language, and, last but not least, I actually laugh out loud at Trollope’s comedy which, compared to Dickens, seems genuinely funny. There is a scene early on in Barchester Towers where Archdeacon Grantly takes his hat off, and he is so angry that steam comes off his head. It is a good joke – and all the better because Trollope only uses it once. Dickens would have taken the same idea and flogged it to death (as, for example, James Carker’s teeth, relentlessly over-worked in Dombey and Son).

    Recently I read A N Wilson’s excellent study ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’ in which he quotes Philip Larkin saying the same thing, but much better …’the whole Dickens method …strikes me as being …panic-stricken. If he were a person I should say ‘you don’t have to entertain me, you know’ …This jerking of your attention with queer names, queer characters, aggressive rhythms, piling on adjectives – seems to me to betray basic insecurity in his relation with the reader. How serenely Trollope, for instance, compares’.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love both and, happily, we don’t have to choose. I would not want to use Trollope as a stick to beat Dickens with. I could not live without, in particular, Bleak House and Great Expectations, and by the same token, Trollope clearly wrote far too much and the reader must choose with discernment. But I am so glad I have finally discovered Trollope, and I hope you are enjoying him too.

  4. Hi Mark. Yes, like you I am a Trollope fan. I have read all of the Barchester Chronicles. I haven’t, however, read the Palliser novels and I think I’ll do those next. I agree that Trollope is better than Dickens at certain things. The language is clearer and more readable and I think has aged better. Trollope also writes well abut women which Dickens cannot do at all. On the other hand, I think Trollope sometimes over-explains, which Dickens does not often do. Trollope is a more even writer than Dickens: the best bits of Dickens are brilliant and the worst bits are cringemaking, whereas Trollope is consistently good. Anyway, like you I am glad we have both!

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