February 15, 2008KR BlogWriting

On Color

Suppose you want to paint a room orange. Suppose you are Chaucer and limited by the relative poverty of Middle English words for color. You walk down to the hardware store and ask if they have anything “betwixt yelwe and reed.” The worker, because she is a helpful worker, would suggest you look at some of the following options:


laughing orange

forceful orange



kid’s stuff


(All of which you can find here.)

If you were Chaucer and you wanted to paint your room a specific shade of blue, you might have more luck. According to Dr. George R. Stewart’s 1930 essay from Scientific Monthly, titled “Color in Science and Poetry,” the poet “once us[ed] azure abstractly to mean blue instead of concretely to mean, as everyone knew it did, lapis lazuli.” And so language marched forward.

Stewart’s article is wonderfully useful in providing a history of color in the English language. He recounts Sir Isaac Newton’s incredible contribution:

…he invented for the spectrum the seven so-called primary colors. Even for these, however, terms were not readily available. ‘Red, yellow, green, blue,’ he noted first; then came, as the wording seems to indicate, a striving for a term, and the great brain so apt at voyaging through strange seas of thought alone was hard put to it to produce ‘and a violet-purple.’ Followed, one imagines, a rumpling of the divine forehead until there came forth–‘together with orange and indico.’

This all occurred in the month of February, 1671/2. Just think! Today could be the common spectrum’s birthday. Happy birthday, common spectrum.

It is Stewart’s belief that “in one way or another, it is to…scientific research, beginning in the seventeenth century, that we owe much of the color richness of English poetry.” (This reverses the influence, or at least the chronology, that the recent book Proust Was a Neuroscientist suggests.)

Natural history gets credit for hugely broadening the poetic palette–Stewart admires the gorgeous specificity of John Latham’s “General Synopsis of Birds,” quoting for us his description of the blue-headed parrot:

The upper mandible is yellow, with a pale ash-coloured tip; the lower of a plain ash-colour; eyes in a naked yellowish skin: above, the plumage is green; beneath yellow green: the forehead inclining to red: the head itself is blue: throat violet, inclining to ash: sides of the neck luteous: hind part of the neck, back, and scapulars, green: the lower part of the back, rump, and upper tail coverts, of a shining green: fore part of the neck, yellow green, lightening into yellow at the sides: from the breast to the tail greenish yellow: wing coverts green, quills green above, the inner webs and tips deep ash: beneath cinerous; shafts black, except that of the first feather, which is whitish: the two middle tail feathers are greenish, verging to blue at the ends: the next the same, but yellow within: and the four outer ones on each side green on the outer webs, luteous on the inner; the webs above black, beneath white; all but the two middle ones tipped with yellow, and the whole tail yellowish ash-colour beneath: the two middle feathers exceed the outer ones by near four inches: legs blueish: claws grey.

This enormous narrowing in on hues eventually trickled (or burst, perhaps) into the works of the Romantic poets, especially in their penchant for gluing two colors together–Stewart notes Wordsworth’s “red-brown, olive-green and black-blue.”

Stewart does not fail to include (his) contemporary poets. Amy Lowell inspires him to list “seventeen varieties of redness:”

‘crimson butterflies,’ ‘peach-bloom silk,’ ‘dawn-red wine-cups,’ ‘vermilion fishes,’ ‘cocks with rose-pink legs,’ ‘ochre-red sails, ‘a ‘scarlet dress,’ ‘pink water reflected from the carmine tinted mountain summits,’ ‘rose-red light,’ ‘blood-orchid tips of mountains,’ ‘copper,’ ‘maroon,’ ‘ruby,’ ‘salmon,’ ‘carnation,’ ‘magenta.’

Something in me, though, balks at all this elegance. There is, in the crudeness of Chaucer’s palette, a pleasing, brute understanding. Perhaps because I am so saturated in commercial color-names, a refusal to recognize the difference between custard and cheesecake (so well illustrated in Juno), feels like an act of rebellion.

Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the commercialization of color. Maybe the appeal of “primitive” color lies simply in the desire to see differently than one already does, without regard for whether the change in understanding comes about through growth or loss.

I’m reminded of another scientific work, Oliver Saks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In the title piece, a man suffering from aphasia loses the ability to produce the proper names for items, and often mistakes inanimate objects for animate ones (and vice versa). It’s awful, but at the same time one can’t help but admire the curious descriptions the patient creates to make up for his loss. A rose becomes “a convoluted red form with a linear green attachment.” A glove is “a continuous surface…infolded on itself. It appears to have…five outpouchings, if this is the word.”

Reading these lines, and Chaucer, I cannot help but think that regardless of how words may disappear or have not yet developed, I could never call language “inadequate.” Language may be grotesque, crude, clumsy, unable to behave elegantly or perform efficiently, but isn’t that rather charming? Don’t you want to let it go play in the mud?

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.