Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A banner with the strange device

A hotel in New York. A city in Minnesota. A poem by Longfellow. And what came before styrofoam peanuts? Those little curly wood shavings used as packing material were known as excelsior.

A Latin term, comparative of excelsus, excelsior is the "strange device" printed on the banner carried by the youth in the Longfellow poem. What kind of fool runs straight up the side of an Alp on a dark and stormy night while carrying a banner featuring a word no one understands? The youth offers no clear rationale for his foolhardy errand: is he in training for the Olympic Uphill Alp-Running Event, or does he have promises to keep and miles to go before his sleep? He's not saying anything except "Excelsior." Old man and maiden try to warn him, but they don't even get the satisfaction of saying "I told you so" when the youth ends up dead. It's a beautiful and noble death, or so Longfellow would have us believe, but the only evidence we receive is a message from the sky: "Excelsior." Apparently the sky speaks Latin, but since no one else in the world of the poem understands the term, the message seems a tad futile.

"Excelsior" is the sort of sentimental poem third-grade teachers used to require students to memorize and recite before an audience of their beaming parents, but if Dad had put some thought into the meaning of the words coming out of little Timmy's mouth, he would have dashed to the stage and hauled Timmy off for a good talking-to before filing a complaint with the school board, and Mom would have said something soothing like, "You know, honey, it's really not a good idea to go running up an Alp in the middle of the night, especially without your scarf and boots on. Now let's bundle up and we'll go have some nice hot cocoa and forget all about that silly poem, okay?" Timmy, meanwhile, keeps thinking about how neat it would be to get rescued by a St. Bernard.

Well, if excelsior was good enough for Timmy and Longfellow, then it's good enough for me. Here the curly little shavings from the wood block of my mind will venture ever onward and upward until the St. Bernards come to save us.



Joy said...

Okay - you are SUCH an English professor (and I mean that in a good way!).

Anonymous said...

It's been over twenty years since I was last treated to a daily dose of the curly little shavings of your mind, Dr. Hogue. I am pleased to know I again have regular access. You are so right about those computer stores. We now have a monitor in the top of Blake's closet for the same reason. :( Anyway, congrats on tenure! That's wonderful news!!! B

Joy said...

Tenure!!?? Tenure??!!

Sylvia said...

if you've a mind. (as with all these things, start at the bottom. (Sucking Eggs 101, as I believe they may say in your country))

About halfway through, a contributor mentions a 'strange device', the memory-jogging googling of which brought us here, about a year late.

Sucking Eggs 102 - have you come across Lynne Truss's 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves'? Balm to the Comma Fairy's troubled soul, this is.

Word Ver - kbllmh. Plural, people who were sure they had a red string around their wrists a minute ago, it just seems to have got a bit lost . . .