Baxter on language

Three more cartoons from the Glen Baxter collection Almost Completely Baxter, all having to do with language in one way or another: the study of vowels as religious observance in the abbey of the fabled town of Brocklehampton; the tragedy of empty speech balloons; and smoke signals pressed into service to spread higher literary culture.

Background. Previously on this blog, my 4/11 posting “Smouldering”, on Glen Baxter and the collection Almost Completely Baxter, and specifically on this cartoon (from the book) playing with the verb smoulder ‘burn slowly’:

(#1) With a bow to another verb smoulder ‘(of a man) ‘display a facial expression conveying intense sexual interest’

Vowel Study. The cartoon:

(#2) In the abbey — Roman Catholic or (more likely) high Anglican — at Brocklehampton on St. Agnes’ Eve, a priest and a parishioner engage in reverential contemplation of vowel letters (not, alas, actual vowels; I was hoping for the veneration of, say, the vowels [ æ ʊ ʌ ])

In the larger scheme of things, this is an instance of the brand of humor that juxtaposes some high cultural content with low culture or silliness (Monty Python’s Flying Circus revels in such juxtapositions): in this case, Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” (Baxter’s cartoons are full of literary and artistic allusions) juxtaposed with the rustic, rather silly-sounding, placename Brocklehampton — both of these juxtaposed with the irrelevant and entirely preposterous religious ceremony of vowel study.

(#3) The opening lines of the Keats poem

(Personal note. When I was an undergraduate, I had these four lines memorized — taught to me by my roommate, an English major who was given to declaiming them as an announcement that it was bitter cold outside. Eventually it got reduced to a code between us: “St. Agnes’ Eve” meant “fuckin’ cold out there”.)

From Wikipedia:

The Eve of St. Agnes is a Romantic narrative poem of 42 Spenserian stanzas set in the Middle Ages. It was written by John Keats in 1819 and published in 1820. The poem was considered by many of Keats’s contemporaries and the succeeding Victorians to be one of his finest and was influential in 19th-century literature.

The title comes from the day (or evening) before the feast of Saint Agnes (or St. Agnes’ Eve). St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in 4th century Rome. The eve falls on 20 January; the feast day on the 21st.

Keats based his poem on the folk belief that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

From a crucial moment in the poem: “… Meantime, across the moors, / Had come young Porphyro, with heart on fire / For Madeline…”

Then the placename. Historically, there were various tiny English villages named Brocklehampton; meanwhile, in modern times, Brockhampton is a small village (population numbering in the hundreds) east of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. But Brocklehampton sounds both more rustic and more ridiculous.

Speech balloons. The cartoon:

(#4) You can tell because his speech balloon is empty: empty balloon, empty ideas

Stretching the conventions of speech balloons — there’s a Page on this blog with links to my postings on speech balloons — to convey that the guy on the right said something (there’s a balloon), but that its content was nugatory (‘of no value or importance’ (NOAD)).

Smoke signals. The cartoon:

(#5) A wonderful juxtaposition: Proust’s magnum opus from high culture, smoke signals as used by Native Americans (especially as imagined in popular culture)

And then there’s the absurdity of conveying something of such length through smoke signals, no matter whether the individual signals convey whole phrases (or “ideas”), or words (in what is technically a code), or letters in some alphabet (in what is technically a cipher).

Monty Python has visited this territory, in two different ways.

First, there’s coping with the immensity of Proust in general. From Monty Python’s episode 31, the sketch “The All-England Summarize Proust Competition”, in which contestants, absurdly, have 15 seconds to summarize all of Proust’s work.

Then, there’s the absurdity of conveying a text of some length via any signaling system whose elements vanish quickly in time, smoke signals being one type of these. From Monty Python’s episode 5, the sketches “The Semaphore Version of ‘Wuthering Heights'” and “‘Julius Caesar’ on an Aldis Lamp”. A semaphore system uses flags (usually two, one in each hand) as a visual means of signaling (conveying whole messages, words, or letters). Or, in a somewhat different visual mode, from Wikipedia:

A signal lamp (sometimes called an Aldis lamp or a Morse lamp) is a [semaphore-like] system using a visual signaling device for optical communication, typically using Morse code.


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