Webster’s definition for the word “something”—which it labels a pronoun, an adverb, and an adjective—is, “Some indeterminate and unspecified thing.” The OED adds, “material or immaterial.” That seems often to be what the word signifies in a poem. Shakespeare loves the word for its full range of possibilities, banal to sublime. Hamlet in particular cherishes it: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” he declares and also speaks of the “dread of something after death.” I like best the moment when the witches hail Macbeth in act 4, scene 1, of the Scottish Play. They’ve been mixing up quite a gruesome brew. One of them, sensing Macbeth’s presence, cackles, “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.” And certainly Macbeth has become a kind of inhuman creature by the time he seeks out these weird sisters for a final prophecy. His own wickedness has dehumanized him. He’s a monster recognizable only to other monsters. And if you consider the stew in the witches’ cauldron, with its ghastly range of animal and human parts, Macbeth may be seen as an ingredient, nothing more than a part (tongue of dog, eye of newt), and yet perhaps the thing that completes the recipe and binds the spell. He is the wicked “something” that is coming, the unnameable magic power he contains in his own fate. “Something,” then, is not only a pronoun for Shakespeare, but in the case of Macbeth, it is an engine of the tragic plot.
Consider next the use of the word “something” in George Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer (I)”:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
The final epithet or metaphorical name for prayer, “something understood,” may be the opposite of what the witches imply by “Something wicked.” And yet “Prayer” is constructed as a kind of charm, too—as saying the rosary might be—as various in its parts as the witches’ cauldron; like “the rest” at the bottom of the “glass of blessings” in Herbert’s “The Pulley,” that “something” dwells below the other ingredients, like a precipitate or distillation of them, or a support undergirding prayer itself. For Herbert, prayer is an act of faith. It may bring us closer to understanding that mysterious “something” that is God. But more crucially it reveals that God understands that mysterious “something” which is ourselves.
In both cases—Shakespeare’s and Herbert’s—the pronoun “something” becomes as meaningful, as charged, as any noun. It is a word with such ambiguous power that it continues to haunt poetry both as a placekeeper for a better word and as the perfect word, especially when there is no adequate word for the inexpressible thing, terrifying or transcendent, sublime or ultimately consoling. I want to talk about uses of this word and the practical and at times philosophical work it does in a poem.
Love is for poets just as ineffable as it is for any of us. We may be at a loss to describe the attraction of a lover and the aura of desire, but anyone would understand if we said the person we loved had “something” that drew us or compelled us. George Harrison shows as much in his famous song, “Something.”