Thursday, October 20, 2005

In stitches

"Similarly (according to) other physicians the spleen (is) the receptacle of melancholy as the gall bladder of gall; wherefore the spleen causes one to laugh"
William Harvey,
Lectures on the Whole of Anatomy(1653)
Have you ever wondered what a good belly laugh has to do with getting sewn up? Did you ever become aware while giggling really hard how your ribs hurt? That common cramping or stabbing feeling suggests the pain feels like getting stuck in the ribs by something sharp. Many people will say that something was so funny it left them "in stitches."

The answer lies in the etymology of stitches, which developed from a Germanic word stikiz meaning sting or prick, as in "to stick or jab with a sharp point." Old English picked it up from Old English stice from there it became the modern day word stitch. Add the preposition in and it creates the informal idiomatic phrase in stitches describing doubling over until you sides aches. Oxford English Dictionary explains that as early as the year 1000 stitch was used to indicate "an acute spasmodic pain in the side, as if stabbed." Most of today's experts say that stretching the ligaments that attach the liver to the diaphragm probably causes these side stitches and laughing uncontrollably may well be the reason for the sharp pain.

One interesting clue about the evolution of the phrase comes from William Shakespeare. Written in the middle of his career, most critics consider Twelfth Night to be one of his greatest comedies about illusion, deception and disguises. One article from The Bard on the Beach explains where Shakespeare may have developed his story lines:

As is the case with most of Shakespeare's plays, the story of Twelfth Night is derived from other sources. In particular, Shakespeare seems to have consulted an Italian play from the 1530s entitled Gl'Ingannati, which features twins who are mistaken for each other and contains a version of the Viola-Olivia-Orsino love triangle in Twelfth Night. He also seems to have made use of a 1581 English story entitled "Apollonius and Silla," by Barnabe Riche, which mirrors the plot of Twelfth Night up to a point, with a shipwreck, a pair of twins, and a woman disguised as a man. A number of sources have been suggested for the Malvolio subplot, but none of them is very convincing. Sir Toby, Maria, and the luckless steward seem to have sprung largely from Shakespeare's own imagination.
Over a 25-year period, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems, which are quoted and closly studied extending his influence into everyday language, as many of his phrases have become common sayings. The `twelfth night' is on January 6th or twelve days after Christmas. In the many Christian church calendars the celebration is known in as the Feast of The Epiphany. A number of sources say that the play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I to be performed on Twelfth Night, because she was expecting a visit by the young Don Virginio Orsino, Duke of Bracciano.

It's in Act 3 Scene 2 when the three characters which sprang from Shakespeare's imagination Malvolio, Sir Toby and Maria make up the scene. Olivia is the main character and most likely modeled on the character of Queen Elizabeth. Not only is a "Duke" pursuing her hand among many others Malvolio, Countess Olivia's snobbish steward is secretly in love with her. Knowing this, Olivia's maid Maria has written him a love letter disguised in her mistress' handwriting, telling him to beam smiles at Olivia frequently, wear yellow stockings, and dress cross-gartered - all of which Olivia detests. Malvolio calls on Olivia, dressed and performing in the manner suggested by the correspondence in great expectations of romantic success....

==Enter Maria
Sir Toby Belch
Look, where the youngest wren of nine comes.
If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself
into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is
turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no
Christian, that means to be saved by believing
rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages
of grossness. He's in yellow stockings.
Sir Toby Belch
And cross-gartered?
Most villanously; like a pedant that keeps a school
i' the church. I have dogged him, like his
murderer. He does obey every point of the letter
that I dropped to betray him: he does smile his
face into more lines than is in the new map with the
augmentation of the Indies: you have not seen such
a thing as 'tis. I can hardly forbear hurling things
at him. I know my lady will strike him: if she do,
he'll smile and take't for a great favour.
However, the entire group assumes he has gone mad and, at Maria's proposal, poor Malvolio is locked away in a dark room. Here are some interesting excerpts from that may give those who haven't seen the play an idea of what the play is about. They're from William Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespear's Plays published in 1818.
Twelfth Night is justly considered to be one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies....It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind, not despise them, and still less bear any ill will towards them.... the same house is big enough to hold Malvolio, the Countess, Maria, (and) Sir a word, the best turn is given to everything, instead of the worst. There is a constant infusion of the romantic and enthusiastic, in proportion as the characters are natural and sincere. ...We have a friendship for Sir Toby.... a sneaking kindness for Maria and her rogueries; we feel a regard for Malvolio, and sympathize with his gravity, his smiles, his cross garters, his yellow stockings, and imprisonment in the stocks.
Even though the idiom in stitches dates from around 1930, Shakespeare uses what is most likely the earliest form of the expression in his play when Maria says, "If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me." Historians say the play was probably written between 1599 and 1601. In Shakespeare's day the spleen was thought to be repository of the most noxious substance of the body black bile and its job was to prevent the onset of melancholia by containing the bodily fluid that produced this mental state. Hence the ability to laugh was a sign that the spleen was working well.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms, 1997.

Bard on the Beach
Accessed May 02 2003.

Garrison, Webb B., Why You Say It, Rutledge Hill Press; (November 1992)

Public domain text and some information taken from Sparknotes Online Study Guides
Accessed May 02 2003.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Upon Julia's Clothes

    WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
    Then, then, (methinks) how sweetly flows
    That liquefaction of her clothes.

    Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
    That brave vibration each way free;
    Oh, how that glittering taketh me!

    Robert Herrick

    "It's about SEX, class! If you don't understand SEX, you don't understand anything!"
    Prof. Gorman Beauchamp, -on Robert Herrick's poem "Upon Julia's Clothes" English 240: Introduction to Poetry
    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
To many the professor's exclamations are laugh out loud funny. One can make an educated guess that even though he's taught his "Introduction to Poetry" class for quite a while, most of the students are reading this poem for the first time and may feel as if they're intruding or perhaps stumbled into something they're not quite sure about. The use of extended metaphor in the last three lines is an especially elusive one, no? Some may be even asking themselves, "Are Robert and Julia going to do what I think they're going to do?" Indeed it is that moment of realization, as to why Robert and Julia are so interested in these clothes, which can make the poem so unintentionally entertaining.

Something happens in poetry that can be characterized in a twofold sort of way perhaps best described as a public-private verse. This is in effect a way of viewing the poetry of the "early" 17th century adjacent to the poetry of the 16th century. During the middle ages there was the establishment of the bourgeoisie concept. Not too surprisingly it occurred during the rise and growth of the middle class along with the entire movement of the Protestant Reformation. It becomes perceptible as a split, what T. S. Eliot would later call the "disassociation of sensibility." One is so used to the notion of not saying what one is thinking and that there is that possibly of a vast difference between what is being thought about, what is felt and how one is presenting one.s self to the world. This is very noticeable in Herrick's attitude toward Julia in "Upon Julia's Clothes"

One of the Tribe of Ben Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674) belonged to a group of writers who followed in Ben Jonson's footsteps by writing graceful, refined poetry that displays a classical influence of Greco-Roman style. In some of his poems, the point is merely to create something pretty, delicate, and charming while in others there is great depth of emotion.

The original text to this poem first appeared in his chief work and the only book he ever published titled Hesperides (London: for John Williams and F. Eglesfield, 1648).As one anthologist puts it, "He can be very playful, and even when his subject is serious, he does not take himself too seriously." The book contains about 1,400 poems which are typically brief with many short epigrams. This particular poem is composed with tercets and the aaa rhyming scheme and located in a section called His Noble Numbers: or, his Pious Pieces. In A Selection From The Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick (1876) English poet and anthologist Francis Turner Palgrave prefaces the collection with a biography that he has gathered by simply reading the poet's work.

    We know that he shone with Ben Jonson and the wits at the nights and suppers of those gods of our glorious early literature: we may fancy him at Beaumanor, or Houghton, with his uncle and cousins, keeping a Leicestershire Christmas in the Manor-house: or, again, in some sweet southern county with Julia and Anthea, Corinna and Dianeme by his side (familiar then by other names now never to be remembered), sitting merry, but with just the sadness of one who hears sweet music, in some meadow among his favourite flowers of spring-time;--there, or 'where the rose lingers latest.' .... But 'the dream, the fancy,' is all that Time has spared us. And if it be curious that his contemporaries should have left so little record of this delightful poet and (as we should infer from the book) genial- hearted man.

Herrick became well known as a poet from 1620 to 1630. Many manuscripts and commonplace books from that time contain his poems. He not only wrote epigrams but elegies, satires and love songs to imaginary mistresses. Ardent research so far has failed to reveal who Julia was in Herrick's life. He composed several poems to her and the other unknowables that went by names like Anthea, Corrina and Dianeme. Making rare pretenses to intellectual subjects his verse is often light, mature, and self-gratifying. The artistry of his words lays in Herrick's effortlessly sensuous design and detail combined with his execution of words and rhythms.

The poem Upon Julia's Cloths offers a good illustration of the complex extended metaphors commonly used by the 17th century Cavalier poets. Julia has caught Herrick's eye setting their mood as she goes streaming by and Herrick promises that surely she is a woman with a striking physical demeanor. The poet's hand paints the moment and predicts its likely outcome. Her clothing dissolves into liquid metaphor in the second line by means of the words "flows" and "liquefaction." The reader sees what Herrick sees; fluid movements of glossy clothes clinging almost as if they are wet. Garments take on the bold movement of a kinetic energy in a confident and daring shift in full sight of everyone's gaze. This vibration whether it is Julia, her clothes or both, is deliberately vague by design and entirely for the poet's entertainment; or so he implies. Quivering alliteration brings ideas into focus with the repetition of the b sound together with the v sound in the line, "That brave vibration each way free." . The phrase "each way" capitalizes on the novice reader's uncertainty, escalating a proposition of intent and adding the loose element of liberty to the image. The vibration is "free," Herrick points with a wink to the reader that Julia might lack her undergarments only to emphasize the movement of her body underneath.

The last line extends the metaphor into sensual excess which can give the reader pause. The palpable imagery of the middle four lines suddenly transforms the reader, as surprised voyeur, back into a visual description in one word, "glittering." It's there to remind the reader once more that her clothes are silken peaks of shimmering fabric as Robert writes from some universally shared peek-a-boo dimension of kinetics, one that can only be contained by Julia's silk.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Herrick, Robert" Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Public domain text taken from the Poetry Corner
Accessed October 18, 2005.

Professor Beauchamp's quote
Accessed Jan 01 2004

The Project Gutenberg Etext of Lyrical Poems Of Robert Herrick ...
Accessed Jan 01 2004

Session 29
Accessed Jan 01 2004