Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Burns and Language: Elf

Well, it’s December, classes have finished, and we’ve had some snow, which can only mean one thing: Christmas is coming. So, I thought this week’s Word of the Week should be a Christmassy one to help spread the holiday cheer. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done.

Burns doesn’t mention Christmas anywhere, as far as I can see. There are no Noels, no Santas, so Jingle Bells and no Nativity in the land of Burns Corpus Linguistics, I’m afraid. I will, therefore clutch at the only straw available and put forward the word Elf as the Word of the Week.

When we think of elves at Christmas we conjure up ideas of little workers, happily singing while they work away at getting all the presents ready for Christmas Eve, but, needless to say – as there is no Christmas in the corpus –  Burns’s elves are a little different!

It seems to me that Burns uses the word Elf six times, mainly to mean “a pitiable person” (OED). Whether it’s the “poor worthless elf” as Ceasar the dog describes the poor (‘The Twa Dogs’), or “An elf of mischief and of Mettle” as Burns’s speaker describes himself in ‘Prayer for Adam Armour’, there isn’t much in the way of good cheer to celebrate.

But, there is one little Elf that works hard to bring us some kind of happiness. The “elf” in ‘Epigram on Seeing Miss Fontenelle In a Favourite Character’:

Sweet naïveté of feature,

     Simple, wild, enchanting elf,

Not to thee, but thanks to Nature,

     Thou art acting but thyself.

Here Burns celebrates the natural charm of Miss Fontenelle, the popular actress. Burns’s attention seems to have been grabbed simply by Miss Fontenelle being herself (rather ironic, for an actress, I suppose), which implies a sense that others carry a certain pretence about them. In this stanza too, we have the “Sweet naïveté of feature”, but regrettably “naïveté” is not ‘nativity’, it is used simply to describe Miss Fontenelle as being innocent and without such a pretence, but, given the lack of a Christmassy linguistic harvest in the Burns corpus, it’s close enough for me!



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