In Greek Religion, Walter Burkhart writes that to the Greeks the names of the Greek gods—even Zeus’s name—are without etymologies, that the names are, in a sense, empty.
—Gjertrud Schnackenberg, “High Talk and Reeling Thoughts”
They migrated, the Pennsylvania place-names, from the hamlets and shires and counties of England and Wales to their doppelgängers in the New World: Gwynedd and Bala Cynwyd and Bryn Mawr and Tredyfrin. Southampton and Warminster. Buckingham and Hatboro and Darby and Yardley and Bristol. If you were brought up among these English names, with the same four seasons and temperate climate and flora and fauna thereof, you might have thought yourself naturalized to the poetry of Hardy or Wordsworth. Or Shakespeare (“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows”). Or Wyatt (“Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind.”)
If the towns were British namesakes, the waterways retained their Native American designations. From the Lenni Lenape: Neshaminy. Manayunk. Pennypack. Skippack. Tohickon. Wissahickon. Susquehanna. Magical syllabaries, glamorous glosses. Welsh, with its Celtic provenance, seemed to chime well with Lenape: the Anglo-Saxon names had a straightforwardness that seemed almost cloddish. Nevertheless, these were all productive contrasts to my child’s ear.
And so, a kind of mundane poetry. On two levels.
First: sheer sound. Those names, English Horsham as much as Lenape Conshohocken, strike the ear with extra resonance because, like an instrument, they are both open and chambered. They are music in their own right. Sound may conjure: Abracadabra. Or give rise to reverie: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves. . . . ” Edward Thomas’s poem, “Adlestrop,” revolves around the mystery of the place-name:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
“Only the name,” the poet insists—
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Thomas’s identification of place-names with birdsong speaks to both the emptiness of these words and their ability to kindle our fantasies of the indecipherable. If a large part of poetry is that sheer musicality—sheer materiality—is foregrounded, then “Adlestrop” becomes a metonym for the arresting sense of possibility that attends the first hearings of poems as well as the first inklings of unexplored places.
The second way that place-names gesture toward poetry is in tension with the first. Because, obviously, the names are not just musical syllables. They actually do come from somewhere; they have a history. As in Pennsylvania, the peaceful coexistence of place-names from different peoples—migrants, invaders, colonists, refugees, and the long-standing native tribes they disrupted—belies a more difficult, and often violent, history. They are proof of an uncomfortable truth: from the perspective of eternity, even our bloodiest skirmishes are blips, and what traces remain remain in the language, which itself is devoid of tears.
In Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations, one of the British officers of the Ordnance Survey, who has come to map the country and anglicize the names of their towns, falls in love with the sheer sound of the Gaelic language. “Something is being eroded,” he protests.