Something Like That: A Pronoun’s Life in Poetry

Mark Jarman

Summer 2017

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;

Mark Jarman’s latest collection of poetry is "The Heronry" (Sarabande Books, 2017). He is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

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