Not Without Purpose: The Double Negative from Chaucer to Present

Though often considered a grammatical faux pas, double negatives are not unexampled in literature. For instance, defending their use in what he calls “the American language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Chaucer “used them with utmost freedom” in The Canterbury Tales, citing these lines:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight

 

[He never yet no vileness didn’t say

In all his life to no manner of man]

Google tells me that Shakespeare uses double negatives often, for instance in “As You Like It,” where Celia says “I cannot go no further.” And Paradise Lost abounds in double negatives, including this one, coming out of the mouth of the Almighty Himself, instructing Michael on how to boot the “sinful pair” out of paradise:

Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair,

From hallowd ground th’ unholie, and denounce

To them and to thir Progenie from thence

Perpetual banishment. Yet least they faint

At the sad Sentence rigorously urg’d,

For I behold them softn’d and with tears

Bewailing thir excess, all terror hide.

If patiently thy bidding they obey,

Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale

To Adam what shall come in future dayes,

As I shall thee enlighten, intermix

My Cov’nant in the womans seed renewd;

So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace… (my emphasis)

Allow me to justify God’s grammatical ways to humankind: it’s clear in this context that the double negative is not inappropriate. God is telling Michael to go easy—but not too easy—on the pair; He wants them to be neither “consoled” nor “disconsoled,” but somewhere in between: “not disconsolate.”

Then there’s this symphony of negatives from the opening four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

The negatives here culminate in the striking phrase that the speaker can “not choose not to be.” Hamlet seems decisive by comparison. This strikes me as a completely appropriate way to represent spiritual affliction—”pitched past grief,” as Hopkins puts in another of the “Terrible” sonnets—a loss of agency wherein the most one can do is not not exist. Extremity of situation calls for extremity of language.

Bringing things to the present: I recently read Cheryl Merrill’s essay “Wild Life,” included in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Merrill is interested in how we see “the nonhuman” other; her essay attempts to nudge us away from our all-too-human-centered ways of understanding “wild life.” In a brief, prose-poem-like section of the essay, Merrill looks into the face of an elephant.

I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.

Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears.  Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.

The face that is like mine looks back at me.

Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks.  She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.

Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 6 months.  Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?

I could. I could stand here forever, peering into an iris that has sun flecks and shadows in it.

The face that is not unlike mine looks back at me.   (my emphasis)

I love the modulation from “unlike mine” to “like mine” to “not unlike mine.” “Unlike mine” makes elephant purely other, unrelated to her human viewer. “Like mine” completely eliminates otherness, reducing the elephant to a human analogue.  “Not unlike mine” masterfully occupies the uneasy but essential space between—neither exoticism nor anthropomorphism, but acknowledgement. 

 

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