by Michael Peverett

One of the things about reading poetry off the page instead of hearing it is that the reading eye soon learns to be aware of words that swim into its early-warning system, whose power of forecast extends two or three lines ahead of the one that the reader is presently reading. This trick is on the whole an annoying one and not conducive to the reader's happiness; you don't really want to know anything about what's upcoming on line 166 while you are still silently reciting line 164 - it means you never get any of your poetry really fresh, the impact is always muffled because you've half-seen it coming - but nevertheless you still catch yourself doing it. The reason for this spoiling habit is obvious if you remember being forced to take part in sight-readings in class - you were appointed to be some obscure personage in Marlowe or Shakespeare and because you didn't know the play or what your character was doing in it, you were afraid of saying the words in the wrong way... just so, when you read poetry to yourself instead of listening to it you are still a performer of a sort (that is, you put on a performance for yourself) and you scan anxiously ahead, you use the early-warning system to make sure you're keeping roughly on track. But since this is normally how poetry is now imbibed, many poets exploit the early-warning system - so that, for example, in Peter Riley's Excavations when you turn over the page and catch sight of some words in bold type, though they still lie far off from you in the block of text, you read your way towards them with a jauntier gait, refreshed by the promise of imminent song.

This is all a laborious way of leading up to saying (what is nearly the only fact in this essay) that when I'm reading some old poem I get dispirited when I see the word "athwart" come over my horizon. It isn't just that the word is obsolete in British (written) English, or even that it had a confusing variety of senses, but something else too: when it became a poeticism in the nineteenth century, the poets start to use it in a confusing way. As much as it means especially little to me, the signs are there to show it meant something important to them; something more important than precision.

Take Coleridge in Kubla Khan:

     But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
     Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

I can make myself see something clearly here. We have, say, the slope of a hill in our vision. Imagine it blanketed in trees, perhaps of a coniferous sort - "cedarn cover" might do as a way of referring to the forest canopy; though not a particularly good way,since it has misled some readers into thinking of coffin-lids. And then, as is not unusual on such hills, imagine the deep cut of a beck slanting diagonally down the hill-slope, clearly visible as a rift in the forest - I think I'm clear about this, it's like Burrington Combe or Cheddar Gorge on the slopes of the Mendips, and it's quite an erotic image. But now "athwart" is annoying me, because apart from its ropey, fibrous sort of sound, inapropriate to a rocky chasm, it seems to assert that the slanting line is laid across, i.e. on top of, the cedarn cover, not embedded into it - as it were, chalked rather than scored. I am obviously being too logical here, but it seems like the word "athwart" is muffling my image, not clarifying it. Of course, this only means that I'm missing something. Can I guess what it is?


History of the word

"Athwart" is made of solid old material (a+thwart), but the evidence for its distinct existence in Middle English is rather hazy. It becomes prominent in written, or printed, English in the 16th century, and you do half-wonder if there's an element of pseudo-medievalism being enjoyed already. On the other hand, when it arrives clearly before us it already possesses its distinct range of meanings, most of which can be illustrated from the poets of the time.

     Athwart his brest a bauldrick braue he ware

(Spenser, Faerie Queene I, 7, xxix) - lying across something, especially slantingly - a baldric = ornamental leather belt worn over one shoulder, therefore diagonally across the breast.

     With wanton yvie twyne entrayld athwart

(Spenser, Faerie Queene III, 6, xliv) - this also means lying diagonally, in this case referring to the ivy winding up a branch. This is from the description of the Garden of Adonis, specifically the sexy forest on the mount of Venus which was the primary influence on those Coleridge lines - but Spenser's use of the word is precise and graphic (though the winding habit is more characteristic of woodbine or wild clematis), Coleridge's by comparison implies some other motive.

     hauing whiskt His taile athwart his backe

(a lion in Marlowe's Lucan) - moving across something so as to impede its view.

     All athwart there came / A post from Wales loaden with heavy news.

(Shakespeare, Henry IV Pt 1) - to cross a path, impede someone's progress, stop someone in their tracks, often with connotation of thwarting, perplexing and unhap.

     The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart / Goes all decorum

(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure) - figurative; morally off-track, awry, perversely.

I have no unpleasant frisson when I read "athwart" in these older writers, I understand what they want to say and the word seems to say it. It is in later poetry that I'm out of my depth.

But let's finish with the history first. What isn't represented here is two other things.

First, the very oldest uses of "athwart" are Scottish (though still not much earlier than 1500) - and in Scots "athwart" carries an extra meaning (possibly still current in some local speech, but Google is useless as testimony to spoken English) - the extra meaning is hither and thither, in all directions, all over the place. So far as I know this local meaning has no influence on literary usage, and perhaps it will live on tenaciously when all our canonical English literature is steaming in the dustbin of history, and actually this idea makes me feel happy, for some reason.

Secondly, at some point around 1700 "athwart" emerges as an active ingredient in nautical jargon - perhaps originally because boats are always moving athwart each other's course and courses themselves move athwart the tides, and then "athwart" begins to be used to imply an imaginary line from bow to bow of a boat (as opposed to an imaginary line from fore to aft), and gets into aggregate combinations like "athwartships" and "athwart-hawse". Possibly some of these uses too are still current.

Finally, I claimed that "athwart" is obsolete in British written English, but (and here Google is a help) it isn't obsolete in US written English; evidently there is a group of educated Americans who still use the word, on occasion:

Marlowe meaningfully cuts athwart the expected pattern (Charles R. Forker, 1995)

He has placed his pontificate firmly athwart this conflict (of Pope John Paul II, re Iraq - National Catholic Reporter, 2003)

Indeed, the Sadrist insurrection which has followed Maliki's assault now controls many towns athwart the main route of supply for US forces, up from Saudi Arabia - and insurgent troops can take potshots at supply trucks all day every day if needed. (Newshoggers blog, 2008)

Its most-quoted use in recent-ish times was by William J. Buckley, Jr., when announcing his new conservative weekly on Nov 19, 1955:

if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

Buckley chiefly meant "standing in the path of, impeding the progress of" - as per the Sadrist towns - but he also cunningly drew on the heritage of Romantic ambiguity; he cloaked the idea of the conservative as a mere reactionary blocker by managing to imply, rather, that the conservative stood at an oblique angle to history, not so much stopping it in its tracks - which readers of the National Review patently had no hope of doing though they probably would have liked to - as responsibly controlling it, standing a little to one side like a sober guardian or like a gardener correcting the injudicious vigour of modern tendencies with a pruning-knife.


Two other things about those sixteenth-century usages and why I feel comfortable with them; first, I talked about a ropey, fibrous connotation and I was probably taking a flyer when I said this but it so happens that lion's tails and ivy stems satisfactorily confirm my connotation. The other thing is that "athwart" in these usages is held down to a human scale. The possibility, however, of a gigantic extension was always there. If one of the things that "athwart" talks about is lying or moving across a backcloth then some of nature's backcloths are very large, and principally in this part of the world I'm talking about the sky and the sea. Bacon in his Essays takes "athwart" into this larger dimension:

     To break his bridge athwart the Hellespont

(We'll see more of this narrow strip of sea between Europe and Asia when we get to Browning.)

As for the sky - well, that leads me to these two quotations, in which the new poetic use of "athwart" that begins at the end of the eighteenth century is, I like to think, neatly encapsulated.

First, here we have Pope in an influential passage from The Rape of the Lock:

     Some guide the course of wand'ring orbs on high,
     Or roll the planets thro' the boundless sky:
     Some, less refin'd, beneath the moon's pale light
     Pursue the stars that shoot athwart the night,
     Or suck the mists in grosser air below,
     Or dip their pinions in the painted bow,

And, in contrast, this is Wordsworth in his early poem Salisbury Plain [note 1]:

     'Twas dark and waste as ocean's shipless flood
     Roaring with storms beneath night's starless gloom.
     [                              ]
     Where the wet gypsey in her straw-built home
     Warmed her wet limbs by fire of fern and broom.
     No transient meteor burst upon his sight
     Nor taper glimmered dim from sick man's room.
     Along the moor no line of mournful light
     From lamp of lonely toll-gate streamed athwart the night.

Pope's fantasy of the sylphs takes place under the large hemispherical dome of the night sky. At first he is looking overhead at the immensities of the ecliptic where the planets roll (they are really the same thing as the wandering orbs), but then the gaze lowers to near the horizon ("beneath the moon's pale light"); here the sky stands upright, and against it he shows us the stubby traces of shooting stars, like lion's tails or chalk-marks on a blackboard. What is described by the word "athwart" is a planar, two-dimensional effect, like a baldric across the chest. Though the night sky is immense, Pope makes the shooting stars seem small, the proper preserve of the delicate, miniaturized sylphs.

Wordsworth's poem specifically remembers Pope's in denying the presence of "transient meteors", his night, overcast and dense with rain, obscures all distance; and the petty light-source of the toll-gate (if only it were not also absent) is imagined as projecting an elongated beam visible in the reflections of a thousand raindrops. We've lost the planar effect still present in Pope's poem and "athwart" (combining the earlier meanings of "impeding the view of something" and of "diagonally slanting") now suggests the indefinably slanting angle of a beam that is not directly parallel to either an imagined backcloth nor to the viewer's line of sight; it suggests three-dimensionality and the experience of perception in a three-dimensional world, which is full of angles that are not precisely 90 degrees or 45 degrees but are seen at one kind of irregular slant and instantly understood as being really at some other kind of angle, could we but see them straight-on. (My friend who works in adaptive optics suggested I use the word "non-meridional" round about here.)

This was about the first Wordsworth poem that Coleridge encountered; happily for him, he had it read to him (by its author). It was 1795 - Wordsworth was 25, Coleridge a couple of years younger. Twenty years later, Coleridge remembered a "union of deep feeling with profound thought; [a] fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all [an] original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops."

I don't know how much of this description I understand, but it was true that Wordsworth was using language to express the depth and height and forms of the real world. "Athwart", like his much-admired use of "along" (as seen in the previous line of the quotation), was one of his tools for conveying the inflected spaces of landscape. And I think this is brilliant. But language being so poor at (among many other things) expressing three-dimensionality, the stretching of the word is done at the cost of introducing a significant vagueness; the possibility existed (perhaps it is already glimpsed in Coleridge's praise) of beginning not so much to choose the word for a pregnant suggestibility as to purchase with it a general suggestibility. Take this pot-pourri from Keats -

     Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry;
     For while I muse, the lance points slantingly
     Athwart the morning air: (Specimen of an Induction)

     Where the dark-leav’d laburnum’s drooping clusters
     Reflect athwart the stream their yellow lustres,
      (To George Felton Mathew)

     some, clear in youthful bloom,
     Go glad and smilingly athwart the gloom; (Chaucer)

     Those two on winged steeds, with all the stress
     Of vision search’d for him, as one would look
     Athwart the sallows of a river nook
     To catch a glance at silver throated eels,—
      (Endymion Bk IV)

                    Silent sails
     This shadowy queen athwart, and faints away
     In another gloomy arch. (Endymion Bk IV)

I'm not going to trace "athwart" through its crowded nineteenth-century history, if such a thing were possible. In one sentence: from Keats it inevitably carries through to the early Tennyson -

           She drew her casement-curtain by,
     And glanced athwart the glooming flats.


     but most she loathed the hour
           When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
           Athwart the chambers, and the day
     Was sloping toward his western bower. (Mariana)

- and after that it's no surprise that almost every pre-Modernist poet uses it as a general marker of elevated language. It happens that while thinking about this I've been reading a volume from 1929, A Selection of Modern Swedish Poetry trans. C.D. Locock, so let's give Locock an outing:

     Ended the long November night, and like a sick man waking
     From slumber the drear Dawn unclosed her melancholy eyes,
     And low athwart the piny brow again came breaking
     In grey-blue silent harmonies the music of the skies. (F. Vetterlund)

               Heaven's air is breathless: there is cast
     A spell on us, who view the sight amazing
     Of the great windmill, ceasing its dull sound,
     A moveless cross athwart the sunset splendour. (Anders Österling)


So why do I experience a feeling of depression, of effort, when I glimpse the word "athwart"? Have I sufficiently accounted for it when I speak of a mannerism, a lazy poeticism? - no, it isn't enough. Casting about, I developed grand (yet somewhat obvious) theories about e.g. our loss of belief in realistic description and non-anthropic points of view, an analogy with the disappearance of photographic perspective from modern painting, the walled-in experience of urban horizons, dislike of elevated diction, etc. But if I am honest it comes down to something simpler than that; the word "athwart" becomes like a grey blot on the page because, mimicking one of its meanings, the word itself impedes the view - it bulks too large, it behaves more like a noun than an adverb. Take that last quote from Locock's Österling - I want in my mind's eye only the sunset and the black sails of the windmill, and I have to push "athwart" over to one side to see it clearly. For after all the sails are slim and bony, you wouldn't notice them against the sunset if they were a kind of obscuring mass that allowed no idea of what lay behind them.

It isn't that British poetry's interest in the inflections of three-dimensionality is over, far from it; J. H. Prynne, Peter Larkin, Frances Presley, Allen Fisher, Richard Makin, to name only a few obvious names... Riley's Excavations is a massive investigation of three-dimensional (and four-dimensional) space, but it dispenses entirely with the direct description of landscape - with the directness of description but also, as the word "athwart" epitomizes in miniature, the cluttered obfuscation of description. Instead, it is a realization of landscape. Riley seeds his vision with Victorian descriptions of grave remains where all the dimensions spring from an unperceiving body: "head to East, upper torso lying on its back but crouched at a right-angle and knees turned sharply to left, and the head also turned to face South.." Reading this, our own bodies feel the posture, we are sensitized to dimensionality. Around these quotations, the bending and torquing of Riley's own sentences, full of anything but grassy knolls, continuously assert the immanence of landform but without even naming it. The landscape is there but there's no need to move anything out of the way. At least, that's how it works for me.


I couldn't pass through the nineteenth-century territory of this essay without bringing in Browning. The opening of the second book of Paracelsus goes like this:

     Over the waters in the vaporous west
     The sun goes down as in a sphere of gold,
     Behind the outstretched city, which between,
     With all that length of domes and minarets,
     Athwart the splendour, black and crooked runs
     Like a Turk verse along a scimetar.

If you look at pictures of the famous view of Istanbul from the Galata tower, the City laid out like a line with the Golden Horn before it and the Sea of Marmara behind, you would swear the person who wrote this must have been there; in fact, the closest he had been to sixteenth-century Constantinople was the Greenwich shoreline. "Athwart" works here because what we are talking about isn't slim and bony but, then as now, one of the world's most populous cities; compared to a whole verse of writing, this vision easily accommodates the bulky "athwart"; indeed the word is perfect because it impresses the mind with the real breadth of the city as well as its perceived narrowness.

More trivia: if you want to hear what the word "athwart" sounds like when it's in a pop song, you need to get hold of This is Charing Cross (Idyllic Records, 2006) by Bristol duo The Wraiths, who take all their lyrics from mostly Victorian or Georgian verse anthologies. In a different mood I might say something catty about the recurrent Laura Ashley strand in British indie music, but instead I'll admit that I'm constantly fascinated by the radical disengagement between the meaning of the source-poem (Tennyson's In Memoriam XV, in this case) and the meaning of the song that's made from it ("The Rooks") - a disengagement symbolized by each song having a different title from it source-poem. You can sort of tell that Mog Fry isn't too sure what "all thy motions gently pass / athwart a pane of molten glass" means - and nor am I - but the song is absolutely and eloquently her song.

There is also a rather scary thrash-metal band called A T H W A R T (from Friuli). Some of their own lyrics, oddly, are taken from Walt Whitman, though not the line about "How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me". (The incubus of neo-Conservative prog-rockers Rush and their rendering of Kubla Khan squats athwart this essay...)

I wish I had read: Rachel Blau Duplessis, Draft 27: Athwart.


1. Salisbury Plain - Begun 1791-92, completed 1793-94; Wordsworth made various versions and extracts; it's most commonly seen (though quite substantially revised) in the version published by Wordsworth in 1842 titled "Guilt and Sorrow"; most of the stanza I've quoted is re-rendered, except for the "transient meteor" and the last two lines.

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