I am new to this forum :-)
I have two questions about a poem I am reading, titled "Asphodel, that greeny flower" by W.C.Williams:
A thousand tropics
in an apple blossom.
The generous earth itself
gave us lief.
The whole world
became my garden!
1. I don't understanding the phrase: "gave us lief". I have looked up all the possible meanings of lief, but I am still not sure about the exact meaning in this phrase.
2. I have two different editions of the book - one of them has "tropics", while the other has "topics. Is there just an "r" missing in the second one?
Can anyone help me?
Thanks in advance,
Hang on there, Veronika. Our resident W. C. W. expert, Peter is waiting in the wings.
lief is a germanic word. In dutch still very commonly used: sweet, sweetheart, love.
related to love I think. "Mijn lief" is both middle english and modern dutch (some languages just never change) for "my love". So, maybe "the whole world gave us love" ? But I haven't checked dictionaries, so please find a second opinion.
[www.yourdictionary.com] /> from old english leof, dear.
[dictionary.reference.com] /> 1. Dear; beloved.
quotes Tennyson: As thou art lief and dear. --Tennyson.
AND: (found my second opinion):
\Lief\, n. A dear one; a sweetheart. [Obs.] --Chaucer.
unless, of course, Peter meant to say Life
uhm. Yeah. That would make sense I suppose.
Lucky you are around to keep us in line.
Personally, tropics seems more likely to me. The 'lief' as a noun meaning beloved doesn't sound right, in that context. Gave us love, yes, that is better. Sure, there could be a pun on 'leaf' (yet another misspelling). The earth gave us leave (permission) is there, too. Leaves one wondering about the words belief and relief also.
I'm not sure we have nailed it yet. Where is WCW when we need him?
It probably means "willing".
I agree with Hugh, it's got to be 'tropics' ('topics' would be too pedestrian). That's confirmed by Internet searches of the poem.
The lines quoted by Veronika are immediately preceded by the line 'Endless wealth I thought held out its arms to me'. It's part of a reminiscence about early childhood and the poet's overwhelming sense then of the earth's bounty. Though it's not a meaning of 'lief' recognized by the New Shorter OED, I believe WCW was using the word here in a believed sense (perhaps based on its sound) of 'permission granted' - in this case 'permission to enjoy'. A neologistic meaning.
A search of other instances of the word 'lief' in WCW's poetry brings up the poem 'The Sea-Elephant', in which there's a stanza calling upon the creature, earlier depicted as a mountain of flesh from the sea, to speak:
Flesh has lief of you
enormous sea ---
Again, there seems to be the meaning of permission granted [to the enormous creature by the enormous sea].
The only other WCW poem I can find where the word appears is 'Two Figures In Dense Violet Light', in which the opening stanza is:
I had as lief be embraced by the porter of the hotel
As to get no more from the moonlight
Than your moist hand
In that case, the word is used in one of its recognized, albeit archaic, senses of comparative willingness. So the line means 'I would as soon be willing to be embraced by' etc.
Here are many dictionary's versions:
The 1828 version of Webster's is particularly clear on the meaning.
Post Edited (11-27-04 05:39)
Yahbut that shows adjective or adverb, no noun.
Here you go Hugh:
Ah, 1913, gotcha. Thx.
Thanks to all, especially Ian. It is a bit clearer to me now :-)
As a way of thanking you, here is a poem by Milosz.
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.