Lately I’ve been thinking (very slowly) about the word choir and, in particular, its appearance in two familiar poems. The first is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘, and the relevant passage (ll.5–8) runs as follows:
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
I like the reversal of expectations; one assumes that the choir will be composed of boys singing dirges, but instead – with the emphasis of repetition – the choir is composed of the shells hissing over no-man’s land. Owen relegates the expected boys to silence in the next stanza (ll. 10–11). Equally silent, but in a different context, are the choirs in Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet (ll. 1–4):
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In this metaphorical application to the empty branches of a tree in winter, choir is used in the (quite common) sense of the place in a church where the choristers stand. Again, as in the Owen poem, one senses the failure (or emptiness) of organized religious expression to capture the emotions the author wishes to communicate. But that is not what I want to talk about. Rather, I’m interested in homonymy – in particular, the word quire. In addition to being an alternate (and archaizing) spelling ‘choir’, a quire is:
1. A set of four sheets of parchment or paper doubled so as to form eight leaves, a common unit in mediæval manuscripts; hence, any collection or gathering of leaves, one within the other, in a manuscript or printed book.
2. A small pamphlet or book, consisting of a single quire; a short poem, treatise, etc., which is or might be contained in a quire. Obs.1
In a bound book, the text-block is composed of quires.2 In the case the ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it adds to the tone of the shells a second quire, a second voice of mourning: the poet’s own; but I do not think this formal parallel was conscious for Owen. For Shakespeare, though, it’s almost impossible to deny the pun. The yellow leaves lingering on the branches might just as well be the leaves of a book – pages which must be unwritten, of course, when the poet dies (just as the branches ‘where late the sweet birds sang’ become ‘bare ruin’d choirs’).3 The full quires containing the sonnets, however, will continue their serenade (dare I say, ‘twittering’?) despite the changing seasons, despite death, in a typical declaration of immortality. I could go on. But I won’t. It is enough that in the printed editions of these poems the words within the quires sing tunefully, recited through the passing years in many voices, despite the silent or demented choirs mentioned.
- This usage is attested after 1450.
- Now generally called signatures; the perplexed should consult a bookbinder’s glossary or have recourse to a bibliography.
- Someone must have thought of this already; I, however, have contented myself with reading the sonnets rather than reading about them. If you’ve seen this notion elsewhere, I’d be happy to hear of it.