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Wasp Wasps in literature are mainly what they are in life, unpleasant stinging

insects that swarm and attack as bees do but, unlike bees, produce nothing


‘‘The Myrmidons came streaming out like wasps at the wayside,’’ says

Homer, ‘‘when little boys have got into the habit of making them angry / by

always teasing them as they live in their house by the roadside’’ (Iliad 16.259--

61, trans. Lattimore). The waspish behavior of the Athenian jurors who make

up the chorus of Aristophanes Wasps shows itself in their furious punishment

of those who anger them; a character remarks, ‘‘What stings they have!’’


A character in Sidneys Third Eclogues compares a wife to a wasp. He would

choose one if it had no sting; ‘‘The Waspe seemes gay, but is a combrous

[troublesome] thing’’ (67.21). Spensers ‘‘Displeasure’’ and ‘‘Pleasance’’ are

symbolized by an ‘‘angry Waspe’’ and a ‘‘hony-laden Bee’’ (FQ 3.12.18). In a

similar contrast, Tennysons Ida dismisses barbarian invaders as ‘‘wasps in our

good hive’’ (Princess 4.514).

See Bee.

Watery star (moon) see Moon, Star

Wave see Sea

Wax see Bee

Weather see Cloud, Comet, Dew, Rain, Rainbow, Seasons, Wind

Weaving and


In classical literature, weaving and spinning are the chief female occupations,

as they no doubt were in life. The most prominent women in Homer, both

mortal and divine, are engaged in one or the other. Helen weaves a great

purple web with scenes of the war fought for her sake (Iliad 3.125--28),

Andromache is weaving when she learns of Hectors death (22.440--47), the

goddesses Calypso and Circe weave (Odyssey 5.61--62 and 10.220--23), and, most

famously, Penelope weaves (and unweaves) her shroud for Odysseus father as a

ruse to fend off the suitors (2.93--110, 19.137--56, 24.128--46). That trick has a

folk-tale quality like so many of Odysseus adventures and may be very old; the

name Penelope may be derived from pene ‘‘thread’’ and the root of lope ‘‘robe.’’

When Helen is back home in Sparta with Menelaus, she is seen spinning,

not weaving (Odyssey 4.121--35); Queen Arete of ideal Phaeacia spins (6.52--53);

and Penelope takes up spinning when Telemachus returns ready to take

matters in hand and when Odysseus comes to the palace in disguise (17.96--97,

18.315--16). Homer may be suggesting that weaving expresses insecurity,

particularly the absence of a husband or fear for him, or fear of losing a

mortal consort in the case of the goddesses, while spinning expresses security

and the renewal of the thread or continuity of life.

A more clearly metaphorical use of weaving is the use of the Greek verb

hyphainein (‘‘to weave’’) to govern ‘‘words,’’ ‘‘counsel,’’ ‘‘stratagem,’’ or ‘‘wile.’’

Menelaus and Odysseus weave their speech and counsels (Iliad 3.212), Odysseus

wonders which of the mortals is weaving deception against him (Odyssey

5.356), and so on. It is almost as if Penelopes wile with real weaving is a

literal embodiment of the common metaphor. Most modern European

languages use ‘‘weave’’ or ‘‘spin’’ to govern ‘‘plot’’ or ‘‘deception.’’ Old English

webbian could mean ‘‘contrive.’’ Two lines of Scotts Marmion are often quoted:

‘‘O what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!’’ (6.17).

When Penelope tells the disguised stranger that she ‘‘carries out wiles’’

(19.137), the verb she uses (tolupeuo) is everywhere else in Homer used to

govern ‘‘war,’’ as if to say she is conducting her own domestic war on behalf of

her husband, but an older sense of the verb may be ‘‘spin carded wool into a

ball of thread’’; hence when the men fight they ‘‘spin out the thread of war.’’

Consonant with this usage is the Old Norse kenning (riddling formula) vef

darrathar, ‘‘web of the dart,’’ which means ‘‘battle,’’ and perhaps the Old

English phrase wig-speda gewiofu, ‘‘webs of battle-speed’’ (Beowulf 697).

Circe and Calypso each sing while weaving, and the connection between

singing and weaving, though not made explicit by Homer, was noted by later

poets, perhaps first by Sappho, who calls Eros mythoplokos, ‘‘weaver of stories’’

(frag. 188) (she also calls Aphrodite doloploke, ‘‘weaver of wiles,’’ in the ‘‘Ode to

Aphrodite’’), and then by Pindar, who tells his lyre to ‘‘weave out (exuphaine)

this song’’ (Nem. 4.44) and who ‘‘weaves a many-colored song for fighting men’’

(Olymp. 6.86--87). A description of a statue of Sappho, from the Greek Anthology,

imagines her ‘‘weaving a lovely melody’’ (2.70). Greek looms even looked like

lyres, and the shuttles looked like the spoon-shaped plectra or picks. The root

of hyphainein was felt to be related to hymnos, ‘‘hymn’’ or ‘‘song,’’ as Bacchylides

suggests when he refers to his work as a ‘‘woven hymn’’ (hyphanas hymnon)

(Victory Odes 5.8--14).

The Old English poet Cynewulf ends his poem Elene on a proud personal

note: ‘‘Thus I, wise and willing, . . . / Wordcraft wove (wordcraeft waef) and

wondrously gathered’’ (1236--37). There are a number of examples of weaving

song in the modern languages. Spenser asks one of his patrons to accept his

‘‘Rude rymes, the which a rustick Muse did weave / In savadge soyle, far from

Parnasso Mount, / And roughly wrought in an unlearned Loome’’ (Dedicatory

Sonnets to Faerie Queene). Shelleys ‘‘To Wordsworth’’ is a well-known case: ‘‘In

honoured poverty thy voice did weave / Songs consecrate to truth and liberty’’

(11--12); and in Laon and Cythna Shelley has ‘‘Hymns which my soul had woven

to Freedom’’ (915) (weaving imagery pervades this epic poem). Campbell has

‘‘Then weave in rapid verse the deeds they tell’’ (The Pleasures of Hope 1.165).

Heine writes: ‘‘the poet / sat on the weaving stool of thought, / day and night,

and busily wove / the giant tapestry of his song’’ (‘‘The Poet Firdusi’’ 1.21--24).

Edna St. Vincent Millay imagines a harp on which a mother weaves clothing

for her child in ‘‘The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.’’ Close in meaning is the

metaphor of weaving or spinning a story. Shakespeares Holofernes remarks of

Nathaniel, ‘‘He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple

[fibre] of his argument’’ (LLL 5.1.16--17). Cowper complains that ‘‘sedentary

weavers of long tales / Give me the fidgets, and my patience fails’’ (Conversation

207--08). We speak of losing the thread of a story or strand of an argument, or

spinning a tale out at too great length. ‘‘To spin a yarn’’ is nautical slang, first

recorded about 1800.

In his Poetics, which set terms for drama criticism still in use, Aristotle uses

desis for the ‘‘complication’’ of a plot; desis might be translated as a ‘‘tying’’ or

‘‘knotting,’’ and once he uses ploke (‘‘weaving’’ or ‘‘web’’) as a synonym. For his

word lusis, the ‘‘solution’’ or ‘‘untying’’ of the plot, we use ‘‘denouement’’

today, borrowed from French, from nouer, ‘‘to tie a knot.’’

Two Latin word-families for weaving have developed in interesting ways,

somewhat parallel to what we have already seen. The verb texere meant

‘‘weave’’ or ‘‘form by plaiting,’’ and then ‘‘construct with elaborate care’’ or

‘‘compose.’’ Thus Cicero claims that his familiar letters are ‘‘woven/composed

in everyday words’’ (quotidianis verbis texere) (Epistulae ad Familiares 9.21.1). From

the past participle comes textum, ‘‘cloth’’ or ‘‘fabric,’’ whence English ‘‘textile’’

and ‘‘texture’’; and also textus, a ‘‘weave’’ or ‘‘pattern of weaving’’ or ‘‘method

of constructing,’’ and hence occasionally the ‘‘body’’ of a passage of words

joined together (Quintilian, Institutio 9.4.13). From the latter sense we get our

word ‘‘text’’: a text is originally something woven. Milton, a good Latinist,

writes ‘‘A book was writ . . . / And wovn close, both matter, form and style’’


(Sonnet 11). It may also be relevant that papyrus was described by Pliny the

Elder as woven out of strips (Natural History 13.23.77).

The oldest sense of Latin ordo is ‘‘thread on a loom,’’ hence ‘‘line of things,’’

‘‘row,’’ ‘‘rank,’’ ‘‘sequence’’ or ‘‘order of succession or priority,’’ ‘‘pattern,’’ and

‘‘regularity’’; it is of course the source of English ‘‘order.’’ The verb ordior

means ‘‘to lay the warp of a web’’ and then ‘‘to begin,’’ especially ‘‘to begin

speaking’’; it is the source of French ourdir, ‘‘to weave.’’ More common was

exordior, with virtually the same meanings, from which comes the noun

exordium, ‘‘warp set on a loom before weaving begins,’’ and hence any

‘‘beginning’’ or ‘‘introduction.’’ The English word ‘‘exordium’’ preserves this

latter sense as the entrance or prologue of a speech or essay. To a friend who

has begun a philosophical discourse, Cicero says, Pertexe . . . quod exorsus es,

‘‘Weave out the warp you have begun’’ (De Oratore 2.145). As Virgil begins the

second half of the Aeneid he promises ‘‘I will recall the prelude (exordia) of the

first strife’’ (7.40). The phrase exordia fati, perhaps ‘‘the undertakings of fate,’’

appears twice in Statius Thebaid (1.503, 3.636).

As for fate, the greatest spinners in classical literature, of course, are the

Fates. Alcinous says of Odysseus, ‘‘there in the future / he shall endure all that

his destiny and the heavy Spinners / spun for him with the thread at his

birth, when his mother bore him’’ (Odyssey 7.196--98; trans. Lattimore). The

word for ‘‘Spinners’’ is Klothes (klotho is one of the Homeric verbs for ‘‘spin’’)

but they are not named individually in Homer. Once in the Iliad the Fates

(Moirai) appear in the plural (24.49); sometimes it is ‘‘the gods’’ who spin an

event (e.g., Odyssey 1.17) and sometimes a single Fate: ‘‘Let us weep for Hector,

and the way at the first strong Destiny (Moira) spun with his life line when he

was born’’ (Iliad 24.209--10). Moira is from a root meaning ‘‘lot, portion,

division.’’ It is Hesiod who first names them in the Theogony (218, 905): Klotho

(spinner), Lachesis (disposer of lots), and Atropos (one who cannot be averted).

They have been variously imagined, sometimes all three as spinners,

sometimes with a division of labor: Klotho at the spinning wheel or distaff,

Lachesis measuring out the ‘‘span’’ (related to ‘‘spin’’) of ones life, and Atropos

with the shears cutting off the thread or lifeline -- in Miltons lines, ‘‘Comes

the blind Fury with thabhorred shears, / And slits the thin-spun life’’

(‘‘Lycidas’’ 75--76). See Plato, Republic 10.617c. Byron writes of ‘‘lifes thin thread’’

(Don Juan 13.319). The English word ‘‘stamina’’ reflects this concept: it is the

plural of Latin stamen, ‘‘thread of a warp.’’

In Latin they are called the Parcae, perhaps from the root in pario, ‘‘bring

forth, bear’’; before they were assimilated into the Greek Moirai they may have

been goddesses of childbirth; their names, obscure in meaning, are Nona,

Decuma, and Morta (the last certainly sounds like ‘‘Death’’). Virgils lines in

the ‘‘Fourth Eclogue’’, ‘‘ ‘Speed on those centuries, said the Parcae to their

spindles, / Concordant with the steadfast nod of Destiny’’’ (46--47, trans. Lee),

suggests that the Fates bow to a higher Fate, but elsewhere the Fates seem to

be Fate, which even the gods must obey. Horace calls them ‘‘the three sisters’’

(2.3.15), Ovid ‘‘the ancient sisters’’ (Met. 15.781). Chaucer calls them the ‘‘fatal

sisters’’: ‘‘O fatal sustren, which, er any cloth / Me shapen was, my destine me

sponne,’’ alluding to the idea that a childs fate is spun before any clothing is

made for it (Troilus 3.733--34), an idea that combines metaphorical spinning

with literal weaving. A visitor to ‘‘the three fatall sisters’’ in Spensers Faerie

Queene finds them ‘‘all sitting round about, / The direfull distaffe standing in

the mid, / And with unwearied fingers drawing out / The lines of life, from

living knowledge hid. / Sad Clotho held the rocke [distaff], the whiles the

thrid / By griesly Lachesis was spun with paine, / That cruel Atropos eftsoones

undid, / With cursed knife cutting the twist in twaine’’ (4.2.48). Herrick

imagines a more cheering possibility: ‘‘Let bounteous Fate your spindles full /

Fill, and wind up with whitest wool’’ (‘‘Epithalamie’’). But usually fate is grim,

‘‘fateful’’ and ‘‘fatal’’ are near synonyms, and their web is a net. ‘‘For in the

time we know not of,’’ Swinburne writes, ‘‘Did fate begin / Weaving the web of

days that wove / Your doom, Faustine’’ (‘‘Faustine’’ 93--96). For Hardy, Fate is

‘‘the Spinner of the Years’’ (‘‘Convergence of the Twain’’ 31).

The thirteenth-century Icelandic Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson describes

three sister Fates called Norns; their names are Urthr, Verthandi, and Skuld,

which seem to mean ‘‘past,’’ ‘‘present,’’ and ‘‘future.’’ Classical influence is

possible here, but it seems less likely in a few phrases of Old English poetry.

Guthlac, who lived around 700, uses the phrase wefen wyrdstafun, ‘‘weave the

decree of fate’’ (Guthlac B 1351 in The Exeter Book); wyrd is related to Icelandic

Urthr and is the source of our word ‘‘weird’’: the three witches in Macbeth, who

play a role much like the Fates (though they are not spinners), are called ‘‘the

Weird Sisters.’’ The ‘‘Riming Poem’’ in The Exeter Book has Me thaet wyrd gewaef,

‘‘that fate wove (for) me’’ (70). The Old Norse kenning quoted above is elaborated

in a battle scene in the thirteenth-century Njals Saga, which Thomas

Gray rendered in ‘‘The Fatal Sisters.’’ Twelve gigantic women are gathered

around a loom, singing as they work: ‘‘Glittering lances are the loom, /

Where the dusky warp we strain, / Weaving many a soldiers doom, / Orkneys

woe, and Randvers bane. / See the grisly texture grow, / (Tis of human entrails

made,) / And the weights that play below, / Each a gasping warriers head’’


See Sewing and quilting, Spider.

Wellspring see Fountain

West see East and west

West wind In literature the west wind is usually the wind of springtime, Zephyrus or

Favonius. In spring, says Virgil, ‘‘warmed by breezes / Of Zephyrus the fields

unloose their bosoms’’ (Georgics 2.330--31); the plants do not fear a southern

gale or northern rainstorm; and in the springtime of the world there were no

wintry blasts from the east (2.334--39). ‘‘Sharp winter thaws for spring and

Favonius,’’ writes Horace (1.4.1); ‘‘frosts melt for Zephyrus’’ (4.7.9). Wind and

breath were more than metaphorically linked, as the words pneuema, psyche,

and spiritus all suggest (see Wind), and the west wind in particular was

personified and given lungs. Virgil refers to the sound of Zephyrus breathing

(spirare) (Aeneid 4.562). In Chaucers famous description of April, ‘‘Zephirus eek

with his sweete breeth / Inspired hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre

croppes’’ (CT Gen. Pro. 5--7), ‘‘inspired’’ probably meaning ‘‘breathed in/on.’’

Spenser has ‘‘sweete breathing Zephyrus’’ (Prothalamion 2); Milton considers

ways to pass the winter ‘‘till Favonius re-inspire / The frozen earth’’ (Sonnet

20), and describes Zephyr as ‘‘The frolic Wind that breathes the Spring’’

(‘‘LAllegro’’ 18). This breath seems to echo the ‘‘breath of life’’ that God

breathed into the nostrils of Adam (Gen. 2.7).

The Greek word zephyros is related to zophos, ‘‘gloom’’ or ‘‘darkness,’’ hence

the ‘‘dark region’’ or west. Latin favonius may be kin to faveo, ‘‘favor’’ or ‘‘be

favorable to.’’ ‘‘Zephyr’’ in English is often in the plural: Pope has ‘‘the tepid

Zephyrs of the spring’’ (Dunciad 4.422), in Shelley ‘‘vernal zephyrs breathe in

evenings ear’’ (Queen Mab 4.2).

The evocative Middle English lyric ‘‘Westron wind, when will thou blow?’’

may be pleading for spring to come, when his love will be in his arms, but the

speaker might be out at sea with no favorable wind toward land.

The west wind also blows in the fall. ‘‘And nowe the Westerne wind bloweth

sore,’’ Hobbinol tells us in ‘‘September’’ of Spensers Shepheardes Calender (49),

while elsewhere Spenser calls the wind ‘‘wroth’’ (FQ 2.11.19). Shelleys ‘‘Ode to

the West Wind’’ addresses the ‘‘breath of Autumns being,’’ a wild and powerful

spirit, as opposed to ‘‘Thine azure sister of the Spring’’ (1, 9); he asks it to lift

him from his fallen state and give his words the power usually attributed to

the spring wind, ‘‘to quicken a new birth’’ in ‘‘unawakened earth’’ (64, 68).

Whale A convenient list of literary references to whales may be found at the opening

of Melvilles Moby-Dick, or The Whale. The first five extracts on the list, all from

the Old Testament, illustrate the difficulty of establishing the whales ancient

symbolic associations. ‘‘And God created great whales’’ (Gen. 1.21 AV) is a

mistranslation, or at best too narrow a translation, for the Hebrew word

(tannin) can mean ‘‘sea-monster.’’ That is more or less the meaning of

‘‘leviathan’’ in three of Melvilles passages (Job 41.32, Ps. 104.26, Isa. 27.1). The

third is plausibly a whale -- ‘‘Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to

swallow up Jonah’’ (Jonah 1.17) -- but is not called a whale. The word in Greek

(ketos) and Latin (cetus) that came to mean ‘‘whale,’’ and is used in modern

scientific nomenclature, originally was vague: in Homers Odyssey it means

‘‘sea-monster’’ and in one context (4.443ff.) it refers to the seal.

‘‘Leviathan’’ has come to mean ‘‘whale’’ in modern languages, including

modern Hebrew, but in the Old Testament it is serpentine and connected with

rivers; it symbolizes the enemies of Israel. ‘‘In that day the Lord with his sore

and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even

leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea’’

(Isa. 27.1); it may refer to Babylon (land of two rivers, one of them crooked) or

Egypt (land of the Nile with its crocodiles). Ezekiel calls the Pharaoh ‘‘the

great dragon [leviathan] that lieth in the midst of his rivers’’ (29.3); but, saith

the Lord, ‘‘I will put hooks in thy jaws, . . . and I will bring thee up out of the

midst of thy rivers . . . / And I will leave thee thrown into the wilderness’’ (4--5).

Until that day, however, the Israelites will have lived mainly in Egyptian or

Babylonian captivity, as if inside the monster. That idea is seconded by the

tale of Jonah, who spends three days and nights in the great fish before his


According to Jesus, Jonah is a type of Jesus himself: ‘‘For as Jonas was three

days and three nights in the whales belly [Greek ketos]; so shall the Son of

man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’’ (Matt. 12.40).

‘‘In the belly of the whale’’ has come to mean ‘‘inside the land of oppression’’:

Orwell warns in Inside the Whale that ‘‘The autonomous individual is going to

be stamped out of existence’’ and literature ‘‘must suffer at least a temporary


Milton names the Leviathan twice. At the creation ‘‘leviathan / Hugest of

creatures, on the deep / Stretched like a promontory sleeps or swims, / And

seems a moving land’’ (PL 7.412--15); Satan, afloat on the fiery sea of hell,

resembles ‘‘that sea-beast / Leviathan’’ (1.200--01) which sailors mistake for an

island. This simile has older Christian sources: the whale stands for Satan in

his deceptiveness; do not cast your anchor near him. As the swallower of Jonah

(and, typologically, Jesus) the whale is hell (which Christ harrows during his

time in the tomb); the ‘‘jaws of hell’’ are sometimes thought of as a whales.

As for Moby-Dick, Melville lists the many things whiteness may represent

(see White) and concludes, ‘‘Of all these things the Albino whale was the

symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?’’ (chap. 42). But that may make the

whale too vague to be a symbol at all. Lawrence writes, ‘‘Of course he is a

symbol. Of what? I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. Thats the best of it’’

(Studies in Classic American Literature chap. 11); but he cannot resist offering his

own theory: ‘‘He is the deepest blood-being of the white race’’ -- no worse than

many other claims, such as God, Satan, innocence, nature, death, the id, the

super-ego, America, the ideal, or nothingness.

White One could hardly do better than read the tenth chapter of book 1 of Rabelaiss

Gargantua, called ‘‘Concerning the significance of the colors white and blue.’’

There he asserts that white stands for joy, solace, and gladness, because its

opposite, black, stands for grief, and because white dazzles the sight as

exceeding joy dazzles the heart. Rabelais points out that the ancients used

white stones to mark fortunate days and that when the Romans celebrated a

triumph the victor rode in a chariot drawn by white horses; sunlight and the

light of Christian revelations are also white.

To these examples we may add Platos claim that in picturing the gods

white is the most appropriate color (Laws 956a), and that Roman ‘‘candidates’’

for office wore white -- as a sign, presumably, of ‘‘candor’’ or sincerity. (Latin

candidus meant ‘‘bright white,’’ in contrast to albus, ‘‘pale white’’; it also meant

meant ‘‘sincere’’ and even ‘‘spotless’’ or ‘‘faithful,’’ as in Ovids candida Penelope

in Amores 2.18.29.)

The best literary source after Rabelais is chapter 42 of Melvilles Moby-Dick,

‘‘The Whiteness of the Whale.’’ There Ishmael tells us ‘‘It was the whiteness of

the whale that above all thing appalled me,’’ nicely bringing out the buried

meaning of ‘‘appalled’’ as ‘‘made pale.’’ He concedes, however, that ‘‘various

nations have in some way recognized a certain royal pre-eminence in this

hue’’; that it is the emblem of ‘‘the innocence of brides, the benignity of age’’;

that priests wear a tunic called an alb (from alba); and that in ‘‘the Romish

faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our

Lord.’’ But he goes on to mention ghastlier associations, as in the polar bear,

the white shark, albino men, the pallor of death, or leprosy, and then

speculates that ‘‘by its indefiniteness [white] shadows forth the heartless

voids and immensities of the universe’’ or it is ‘‘the visible absence of

color’’ -- ‘‘a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink.’’ Something

of this heartlessness appears in Frosts ‘‘Design,’’ where the white spider

holding a white moth on a white flower seems the ‘‘design of darkness to


See Black, Light.

Willow The willow tree, commonly found near rivers, as Virgil reminds us in Georgics

2.110--111, seems by its very shape to suggest mournfulness. Its appearance in

the well-known Psalm 137 may be due simply to its presence by rivers, but the

theme of the psalm lent it mournful associations: ‘‘By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our

harps upon the willows in the midst thereof’’ (1--2).

The willow has long had a more specific connotation, however, in the

classical tradition. Homer describes a grove that includes ‘‘fruit-destroying

willows’’ (itea olesikarpoi) at the entrance to Hades (Odyssey 10.510). This

mysterious epithet may be based on the fact that willows cast their blossoms

early, before the fruit grows; the blossoms were mistaken for the fruit itself,

and the idea arose that willows were sterile. They came to symbolize chastity

and the fate of a maiden dying without a lover or children. Goethe repeats

the Homeric phrase (‘‘unfruchtbaren Weiden’’) in Faust II 9977. Spenser names

‘‘The Willow, worne of forlorne Paramours’’ (FQ 1.1.9). So the report of

Ophelias drowning in Shakespeares Hamlet 4.7.165--82 begins with a willow,

and Desdemona sings of a willow before she is murdered by Othello

(4.3.40--56); see also MV 5.1.10, 12N 2.1.268, and 3H6 3.3.227--28. Robert Herricks

‘‘To the Willow-Tree’’ describes its role as a crown for ‘‘young men and maids

distressed’’: ‘‘When once the lovers rose is dead, / Or laid aside forlorn; / Then

willow-garlands, bout the head, / Bedewed with tears, are worn.’’ A traditional

Irish ballad, ‘‘The Willow Tree,’’ has these lines: ‘‘She hears me not, she cares

not, nor will she list to me, / While here I lie, alone to die, beneath the willow


A phrase recorded in 1825, ‘‘she is in her willows,’’ means ‘‘she is mourning

her husband (or betrothed).’’ The Gilbert and Sullivan song ‘‘Willow, Titwillow’’

is about ‘‘blighted affection.’’ In eighteenth-century British literature,

however, the association with forlorn lovers begins to yield to the idea of

mourning for anyone dead. It may not be a coincidence that the ‘‘weeping’’

willow was imported from China in the eighteenth century, and its more

dramatically mournful shape may have replaced the casting of blossoms as its

most distinctive feature.

The osier and the sallow are both kinds of willow. The long willow twig is

called a withe or withy, and is noted for its strength: Virgil speaks of the

‘‘tough willow’’ (Eclogues 3.83, 5.16).

Wind The phrase ‘‘four winds’’ occurs in both testaments of the Bible (e.g., Ezek.

37.9, Matt. 24.31) to refer to every quarter of the sky or earth, but they are not

named or described. Only the east wind is distinguished; it is generally a

baleful force sent by God to ‘‘blast’’ the corn (Gen. 41.6) or bring locusts (Exod.

10.13) or wither the vine (Ezek. 17.10).

Homer names the four winds as Poseidon sets them loose upon Odysseus:

‘‘Eurus and Notus clashed together, and Zephyrus the hard-blown / and Boreas

the begetter of clear sky’’ (Odyssey 5.295--96). Hesiod names three of them as

the offspring of Astraeus and Eos (Dawn): ‘‘bright Zephyrus, Boreas swift in its

path, / and Notus’’ (Theogony 379--80); he names them again (870) as godsent

blessings, as opposed to ‘‘other’’ unnamed winds, dangerous ones sent by


Eurus (also Eurus in Latin) is the east wind, Notos (Latin Auster) the south

wind, Zephyrus (Favonius) the west wind, usually seen as gentle or favorable,

and Boreas (Aquilo) the north wind, also called ‘‘bright’’ (clarus) by Virgil

(Georgics 1.460) but usually seen as bringing storms and winter. In Ovids tale

of Boreas and Orithyia the wind boasts, ‘‘By force I drive / The weeping clouds,

by force I whip the sea, / Send gnarled oaks crashing, pack the drifts of snow, /

And hurl the hailstones down upon the lands’’ (Met. 6.680--83, trans. Melville),

while Lucan mentions ‘‘ships wrecked by Aquilo’’ (4.457). Zephyrus/Favonius is

most often the spring wind that revives the land. (See West wind.) Virgil says,

however, that Boreas, Zephyrus, and Eurus can all bring thunderstorms

(Georgics 1.370--71).

Milton gives a more elaborate catalog, mixing classical names with English

and Italian: Boreas, Caecias, Argestes, Thrascias, Notus, Afer, Levant, Eurus,

Zephir, Sirocco, and Libecchio (PL 10.699--706).

The similarity between wind and breath is inscribed deep in both the

symbolism and the common vocabulary of Hebrew and western literature. The

first wind of the Bible, in the second verse of Genesis, is the ‘‘Spirit of God’’

that ‘‘moved upon the face of the waters.’’ The Hebrew word is ruach, which

can mean ‘‘breath’’ and ‘‘wind’’ as well as, more abstractly, ‘‘spirit.’’ ‘‘Spirit,’’ in

fact, comes from Latin spiritus, which means ‘‘breath’’ and ‘‘breeze’’ as well as

what we mean by ‘‘spirit’’; spiro, ‘‘I breathe,’’ is the basis of ‘‘respiration,’’

‘‘expire,’’ ‘‘conspire,’’ ‘‘inspire,’’ and so on: when a poet is inspired he breathes

in the spirit. Latin anima had a similar range, from ‘‘wind’’ (like the cognate

Greek anemos) and ‘‘breath’’ to ‘‘life’’ and ‘‘soul’’; animus meant ‘‘soul,’’ ‘‘heart,’’

and ‘‘mind.’’ Greek psyche is from a root meaning ‘‘breath’’; pneuma meant

‘‘breath,’’ ‘‘wind,’’ and ‘‘spirit,’’ including the ‘‘Holy Spirit’’ of the New


This interconnection of meanings underlies the association of winds,

whirlwinds, and storms with the highest gods or God: Zeus the Cloudgatherer,

who throws a thunderbolt, Jupiter Pluvius, and Jehovah who sends winds,

breathes life, speaks to Job out of the whirlwind (38.1), and is seen ‘‘upon the

wings of the wind’’ (2 Sam. 22.11, Ps. 18.10). So the ‘‘ungodly’’ are ‘‘like the

chaff which the wind driveth away’’ (Ps. 1.4), ‘‘as stubble before the wind, and

as chaff that the storm carrieth away’’ (Job 21.18).

On the other hand, wind is empty and evanescent. Words and speeches are

wind (Job 6.26), and ones life is wind (7.7); Isaiah says, ‘‘Behold, they are all

vanity; their works are nothing: their molten images are wind and confusion’’

(41.29). ‘‘For he their words as wind esteemed light,’’ Spenser says (FQ 4.5.27).

Preachers who display idle learning to the faithful leave them empty, says

Dante, ‘‘so that the wretched sheep, in ignorance, / return from pasture,

having fed on wind’’ (Paradiso 29.106--07, trans. Mandelbaum). Milton uses the

same image for the false shepherds who sing their ‘‘lean and flashy songs’’:

‘‘The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed, / But swoln with wind, and the

rank mist they draw, / Rot inwardly’’ (‘‘Lycidas’’ 123--27).

Winds are fickle, they snatch things away, they clear the air or darken it,

they change the weather. Homers Euryalus makes amends to Odysseus for his

insult and asks that any improper word be carried off by the stormwinds

(Odyssey 8.408--09). When Turnus chases a phantom Aeneas, he does not see

that ‘‘the winds carry away his victory’’ (Virgil, Aeneid 10.652). Catullus has the

abandoned Ariadne complain to Theseus that all his promises and all her

expectations ‘‘the airy winds have tattered into nothing’’ (64.142, trans. Lee).

This commonplace might be said to culminate in the title of Margaret

Mitchells novel Gone with the Wind.

Strong winds or storms have long been a metaphor for passionate or

tumultuous emotion. ‘‘For love is yet the mooste stormy life,’’ Chaucer

writes (Troilus 2.778). When Spensers cruel mistress summons him, heaven

sends superfluous tempests: ‘‘Enough it is for one man to sustaine / the

stormes, which she alone on me doth raine’’ (Amoretti 46). Racines Hermione

laments, ‘‘He thinks hell see this storm dissolve in tears’’ (Andromaque


Though it is first a plot device, it is tempting to take the fateful storm that

drives Aeneas and Dido into the same cave as also symbolic of the passion

they yield to (4.160--68); that lightnings and Sky ‘‘witness the wedlock’’

certainly gives it cosmic significance. The storm over Lear on the heath (3.2)

seems matched by Lears ventings of his fury at his daughters. The literature

of sensibility and romanticism often assumes a sympathetic connection

between nature and subjective feelings, so that all weather may be symbolic.

The storm in Chateaubriands Atala accompanies the stormy emotions of the

lovers; storms propel the plot in Emily Brontes Wuthering Heights and are

especially connected with Heathcliff; and it is a storm that finally brings

Dorothea and Will to embrace in Eliots Middlemarch (chap. 83).

Poets in the Romantic era have a particular affinity for winds, for the

inspiration of the spirit of nature. In Goethes ‘‘Wanderers Storm-Song’’ the

poet defies Jupiter Pluvius because his ‘‘Genius’’ is with him; he defies Apollo

the sun god, too, with his inner, creative warmth. Wordsworths epic

autobiography The Prelude opens with a ‘‘gentle breeze’’ that brings joy -- ‘‘I

breathe again’’ -- ‘‘For I, methought, while the sweet breath of heaven / Was

blowing on my body, felt within / A corresponding mild creative breeze’’ (1805

version, 1.1.19, 41--43). Coleridge wishes ‘‘that even now the gust were

swelling, / And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast! / Those sounds

which oft have raised me, whilst they awed, / And sent my soul abroad’’

(‘‘Dejection’’ 15--18). Byrons Childe Harold finds an Alpine storm an expression

of nights ‘‘delight’’ and the hills’ ‘‘glee,’’ but it also brings ‘‘desolation’’; he

asks the tempests, ‘‘Are ye like those within the human breast?’’ (3.871, 875,

903). The most passionate Romantic identification with a wind is Shelleys

‘‘Ode to the West Wind.’’

See Aeolian harp, West wind.

Wine Wine is ‘‘heart-gladdening,’’ according to Homer (Iliad 3.246), and the Book of

Proverbs tells us to ‘‘Give . . . wine unto those that be of heavy hearts’’ (31.6).

‘‘Now drive away cares with wine,’’ advises Horace (Odes 1.7.31); ‘‘Bacchus

dissipates gnawing cares’’ (2.11.17). Too much wine, of course, is a danger and

a curse, as the Cyclops found out in the Odyssey, and the Centaurs at Pirithous

wedding (Ovid, Met. 12.189--535); Horace, though a wine-drinker, devotes an

ode to moderation (1.18).

It is one of the two gifts of God: He gives ‘‘plenty of corn and wine’’ (Gen.

27.28). ‘‘Bread and wine’’ is the standard biblical fare (e.g., Judges 19.19, Neh.

5.15), no doubt often literally as well as metonymically. Tiresias lectures

Pentheus on the two blessings of humankind, that of Demeter (grain) and

that of Dionysus (wine); the latter brings sleep, oblivion, and medicine for

grief (Euripides, Bacchae 274--85).

In the same play we are told that wine brings love: ‘‘without wine there is

no Cypris [Aphrodite]’’ (773). Ovid puns, ‘‘Venus in wine [Venus in vinis] was fire

in fire!’’ (Art of Love 1.244). Chaucers much-married Wife of Bath confesses,

‘‘after wyn on Venus most I thynke’’ (‘‘Wife of Baths Prologue’’ 464).

The famous saying, In vino veritas, ‘‘In wine is truth,’’ has two senses,

depending on whether one is drinking it or watching someone else do so. For

Theognis, ‘‘Wine is the test to show the mind of man; / Even a wise man,

clever up to now, / When he gets drunk, brings shame upon himself’’ (500--02,

trans. Wender). Plato quotes the proverb ‘‘Drunkards and children tell the

truth’’ (Symposium 217e). Theocritus begins a frank poem by quoting the saying

‘‘Truth in our cups’’ (29.1). Rabelaiss Panurge is made to sing an old Greek

drinking song: ‘‘Bacchus . . . / Holds all truth, for truths in wine. / And in wine

no deceit or wrong / Can live, no fraud and no prevarication’’ (5.45, trans.

Cohen). Dickens sums up: ‘‘Wine in truth out’’ (Nicholas Nickleby chap. 27).

Addressing his glass of wine, Baratynsky says, ‘‘fertile, noble, spring eternal, /

you have power to bring to birth / visions straight from realms infernal, / or

send dreams from heavn to earth’’ (‘‘The Wineglass’’ 37--40, trans. Myers).

Emerson imagines a higher wine, a ‘‘wine of wine,’’ drinking which he will

know what birds and roses say; ‘‘I thank the joyful juice / For all I know’’


Emersons transcendent wine culminates a long association of poets with

wine, at least as old as Horaces frequent praise of it. ‘‘For Bacchus fruite is

frend to Phoebus wise [Apollo, god of poetry], / And when with Wine the

braine begins to sweate, / The nombers flowe as fast as spring doth ryse’’

(Spenser, Shepheardes Calendar, ‘‘October’’ 106--08). Poets, says Holderlin, are

‘‘like the holy priests of the wine god, / who went from country to country in

holy night’’ (‘‘Bread and Wine’’ sec. 7).

Wine may represent the blood of Dionysus/Bacchus, and it was poured in

honor of many other gods as well. In Genesis wine is called ‘‘the blood of

grapes’’ (49.11), and in Christian symbolism it stands for the blood of Christ. At

the Last Supper Jesus takes bread and says, ‘‘this is my body,’’ and takes the

cup of wine and says, ‘‘this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed

for many for the remission of sins’’ (Matt. 26.26--28). Bread and wine are served

at the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist or Communion; they are sometimes

called the Eucharist themselves. Holderlin conjures a new testament

himself in his poem ‘‘Bread and Wine,’’ as does Silone in his novel with the

same title; both ponder the roots of the Christian symbols.

Wine in a cup is sometimes a symbol of Gods wrath. So the Lord tells

Jeremiah: ‘‘Take the wine cup of this fury at my hand, and cause all the

nations, to whom I send thee, to drink it’’ (25.15). (See Cup.) In one of Isaiahs

parables Israel is a vineyard that brings forth wild grapes [the unrighteous],

unsuitable for wine, so the Lord promises to lay it waste (5.1--7). Later Isaiah

prophesies a conqueror from Edom, red from the wine vat, who announces,

 ‘‘I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with

me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury’’

(63.1--3). These passages underlie the vintage imagery of Revelation, where the

angel harvests grapes (people) and casts them into ‘‘the great winepress of the

wrath of God. / And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood

came out of the winepress’’ (14.19--20). As blood was flowing in the American

civil war, Howe wrote ‘‘He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of

wrath are stored’’ (‘‘Battle-Hymn of the Republic’’). Blakes ‘‘Wine-press of Los’’

is ‘‘War on Earth’’ where the ‘‘Human grapes’’ suffer, but it is also spiritual

war, conducted by the ‘‘Printing-Press / of Los’’ (Milton 27.1--30).

See Bread.

Winter In classical as in Old English poetry there were conventions for describing

winter: winter, ice, or snow binds or locks the earth, ice makes bridges across

rivers, darkness prevails, the north wind blows, and so on. The earliest description

is Hesiods, where he dwells on the effects of cruel Boreas (Works and Days

504--63). There are brief descriptions in Virgil: dont try to plant ‘‘when Boreas

is blowing; / then winter (hiems) locks the land with frost’’ (Georgics 2.316--17);

he has a fuller account of a Scythian winter where rivers now bear heavy

wagons (3.356--71). Old English poetry is poor in descriptions of spring or

summer but has several grimly vivid pictures of winter, e.g., ‘‘The Wanderer’’

and ‘‘The Seafarer.’’ In Beowulf, ‘‘the sea boiled with storms, / warred against

the wind, winter locked up the wave / with ice-bond’’ (1132--33). Descriptions

of the seasons were popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and

reached a kind of culmination in Thomsons The Seasons, the ‘‘Winter’’ section

of which gives hundreds of lines to describing winters gloom, rain, winds,

snow, ice, and their deadly consequences.

When Winter is personified he is often an old man. Tasso describes him as

‘‘cold and white-haired, / His face wrinkled, his hair filled with snow’’ (La

mutabilitа del tempo 12--13). ‘‘Lastly, came Winter cloathed all in frize [rough

cloth],’’ writes Spenser, ‘‘Chattering his teeth for cold that did him chill; / . . . /

For he was faint with cold, and weak with eld [age]’’ (FQ 7.7.31); Shakespeare

calls him ‘‘limping’’ (Romeo 1.2.28); Milton calls him ‘‘decrepit’’ (PL 10.655). But

he is also strong, even violent. Chaucer refers to ‘‘the swerd of wynter, keene

and coold’’ (Squire’s Tale 57); Blake thinks of him as a king in a chariot, as well

as a ‘‘direful monster’’ who ‘‘withers all in silence, and his hand / Unclothes

the earth, and freezes up frail life’’ (‘‘To Winter’’). Wordsworth notes that

‘‘Humanity, delighting to behold / A fond reflection of her own decay, / Hath

painted Winter like a traveller old, / Propped on a staff,’’ but it was ‘‘mighty

Winter,’’ ‘‘dread Winter!’’ who destroyed Napoleons grand army (‘‘French Army

in Russia’’). Standard epithets for winter in Spenser and Shakespeare are

‘‘stern,’’ ‘‘sad,’’ ‘‘breme’’ (‘‘cold’’ or ‘‘harsh’’ in Spenser), ‘‘angry,’’ ‘‘churlish,’’

‘‘furious,’’ and ‘‘barren.’’

‘‘Winter’’ is occasionally used in Latin poetry for ‘‘year’’ (cf. Horace 1.11.4,

1.15.35), but it is quite frequent in Old English poetry; it is as if it is only

winters that age one. In the translation of Genesis, Methuselah lives 969

winters. The dragon of Beowulf held his hoard variously three hundred or a

thousand winters (2278, 3050). And so in later English literature: ‘‘I trowe a

thritty wynter he was oold’’ (Chaucer, Shipman’s Tale 26); ‘‘I have followed thee

in faith this five and forty winters’’ (Langland, Piers Plowman b 12.3; spelling

modernized); ‘‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’’ (Shakespeare,

Sonnets 2); ‘‘I number three-score winters past’’ (Cowper, ‘‘Yardley Oak’’ 3); ‘‘that

shape / With sixty or more winters on its head’’ (Yeats, ‘‘Among School

Children’’ 37--38).

If winter is portrayed as old, old age is described as wintry; it is the last of

the four seasons of human life. (See Seasons.) ‘‘Age and Winter accord full

nie,’’ according to Spenser (Shepheardes Calendar, ‘‘February’’ 27); ‘‘wintry age’’ is

found in Spenser, Cowper, Wordsworth, and other poets. Old Egeons face is

‘‘hid / In sap-consuming winters drizzled snow’’ (CE 5.1.312--13). ‘‘Lifes autumn

past, I stand on winters verge’’ (Wordsworth, Excursion 4.611). Sir Bedivere is

‘‘no more than a voice / In the white winter of his age’’ (Tennyson, ‘‘Passing of

Arthur’’ 3--4).

Thomson thinks the clouds and storms of winter ‘‘exalt the soul to solemn

thought / And heavenly musing,’’ when one sees through the ‘‘lying vanities of

life’’ while sitting by a fire to ‘‘hold high converse with the mighty dead’’

(‘‘Winter’’ 3--4, 209, 432). Pushkin celebrates the short days, the long nights by

the fire when ‘‘I forget the world’’ and ‘‘poetry wakes in me’’ (‘‘Autumn’’ 73--75).

Mallarme on the other hand thinks ‘‘Winter belongs to prose. With the burst

of autumn verse ceases’’ (Crayonnй au Thйˆatre, ‘‘Notes’’ 4). Stevens seems to agree

with Mallarme when he describes ‘‘the antipodes of poetry, dark winter,’’ but

he goes on to say that in winter ‘‘The first word’’ might arrive, ‘‘The immaculate

disclosure of the secret no more obscured’’ (‘‘A Discovery of Thought’’);

winter sweeps away romantic clutter and returns us to ‘‘The vivid thing in the

air’’: ‘‘Only this evening I saw it again, / At the beginning of winter’’ (‘‘Martial


See Autumn, Spring, Summer.

Wolf The wolf seems to be the most feared and despised mammal in literature; a

good wolf is extremely rare until recent times. As early as Homer wolves are

ferocious and warlike: the Myrmidons, for example, swarm ‘‘as wolves / who

tear flesh raw, in whose hearts the battle fury is tireless, / who have brought

down a great horned stag in the mountains, and then feed / on him, till the

jowls of every wolf run blood’’ (Iliad 16.156--59, trans. Lattimore). In fact one of

Homers terms for ‘‘battle fury’’ (lussa) is derived from the root of ‘‘wolf’’ (lukos);

it is a rabid, wolfish rage, like that of the Norse berserkr; it later came to mean

‘‘madness’’ and then ‘‘rabies.’’

Aeschylus calls wolves ‘‘hollow-bellied’’ (Seven 1036--37), and they have been

hungry ever since. Spenser and Shakespeare, for instance, routinely give them

the epithets ‘‘greedy’’ and ‘‘ravenous’’; Shakespeare also calls them ‘‘hungerstarved’’

(3H6 1.4.5). In Ulysses great ‘‘degree’’ speech, ‘‘appetite’’ is called ‘‘an

universal wolf’’ (TC 1.3.121). As an emblem of famine it lingers in our phrase

‘‘to keep the wolf from the door,’’ and when we devour our food we ‘‘wolf it


Aesop has thirty-seven fables in which the wolf is the chief actor, such as

‘‘The Shepherd and the Wolf,’’ where a naıve shepherd trusts a wolf, which

then devours the flock. Not surprisingly indeed in the literature of pastoral

societies, the characteristic prey of wolves are sheep, especially lambs. In the

Iliad wolves attack sheep when they are not attacking stags (16.352--55). ‘‘As

wolf to lamb’’ was a proverb when Plato used it (Phaedrus 241d), as was ‘‘To

trust the wolf with the sheep’’ when Terence used it (The Eunuch 832).

Shakespeares Menenius asks, ‘‘who does the wolf love?’’ Sicinius replies,

‘‘The lamb.’’ Menenius: ‘‘Ay, to devour him’’ (Cor 2.1.8--10).

It was inevitable that Jewish and especially Christian writers, for whom the

symbolism of sheep, shepherds, and sacrificial lambs was central, would

extend it to wolves. As the Christian faithful are the ‘‘flock,’’ Paul warns that

‘‘after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the

flock’’ (Acts 20.29). These seem to be the same surreptitious wolves as those in

the more famous passage from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘‘Beware of false

prophets, which come to you in sheeps clothing, but inwardly they are

ravening wolves’’ (Matt. 7.15). Dante changes ‘‘sheep’’ to ‘‘shepherd’’ in order to

denounce the false leaders of the church. Florences money perverts the sheep

and the lamb, ‘‘and turns the shepherd into a wolf’’; through all the pastures

‘‘rapacious wolves are seen in shepherds clothing’’ (Paradiso 9.132, 27.55).

Milton decries those who ‘‘for their bellies sake, / Creep and intrude and

climb into the fold’’ (Lycidas 114--15); Michael foretells that after the Apostles

‘‘Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves’’ (PL 12.508). (See Sheep.)

The wolf is one of three beasts of battle that frequently appear together in

Old English poetry (see Raven); it is the companion of the Germanic battle-god

Odin/Wotan as it is of Roman Mars. The giant wolf Fenrir looms large in Norse


The she-wolf (Latin lupa) is a symbol of Rome because of the legend that

she suckled Romulus and Remus. But lupa also came to mean ‘‘prostitute’’

(Plautus, Epidicus 403, Martial 1.34.8). (Chaucer makes a she-wolf an exemplar

of lust in Manciple’s Tale 183--86.) Both these associations may lie behind

Dantes choice of the lupa as the third and most dismaying of the beasts he

encounters at the opening of the Inferno (1.49--60). As the emblem of voracity

it may stand for the category of ‘‘incontinent’’ sins (such as lust, greed, and

wrath), those that Dante may have committed. (See Leopard, Lion.)

As an emblem of noble suffering, Byron asserts that ‘‘the wolf dies in

silence’’ (Childe Harold 4.185). That line inspired Alfred de Vignys poem ‘‘The

Death of the Wolf.’’

Wood see Forest

Woodpecker Though some of its Greek names are as descriptive as its name in English

(drykolaptes, ‘‘oak-chisel’’; pelekas, ‘‘ax’’), the woodpecker has little symbolic

meaning in Greek literature. In Latin, however, the picus is the bird of Mars

and an actor in the founding of Rome: Ovid tells that the Martia picus helped

defend the infants Romulus and Remus and brought food to them (Fasti 3.37,

3.54). Ovid also tells at length the story of King Picus, son of Saturn; happily

married to Canens (‘‘Singing’’), he refuses Circes amorous advances and is

transformed into a woodpecker who furiously attacks oaks (Met. 14.320--96).

Virgil alludes to the story in the Aeneid (7.189--91).

Worm From the Bible onward the worm is the lowest of creatures, as far removed as

possible from God. Compared to God, however, man is also a worm. If even

the stars are not pure in Gods sight, Bildad tells Job, ‘‘How much less man,

that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm?’’ (25.6). The Psalm

that begins, ‘‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’’ which Christ

repeats on the cross, goes on, ‘‘But I am a worm, and no man’’ (22.6). Sidneys

version of Psalm 6 begins ‘‘Lord, let not me a worme by thee be shent

[disgraced].’’ ‘‘Worm’’ has long been a term of abuse among humans, of

course; Shakespeares Pistol tells Falstaff, ‘‘Vile worm, thou wast oerlooked

[bewitched] even in thy birth’’ (MWW 5.5.83). Coleridge calls man ‘‘Vain sister

of the worm’’ who should ‘‘Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!’’ (‘‘Self-

Knowledge’’). The Earth Spirit, whom Goethes Faust conjures up, disdainfully

asks him, ‘‘Is this you? . . . / A fearful shrinking worm?’’ (496--98). A similar

spirit calls Byrons Manfred ‘‘Thou worm! whom I obey and scorn’’ (1.125). In

a mood like Coleridges, a character of Tennysons calls God ‘‘The guess of a

worm in the dust and the shadow of its desire -- / Of a worm as it writhes in a

world of the weak trodden down by the strong, / Of a dying worm in a world,

all massacre, murder, and wrong’’ (‘‘Despair’’ 30--32).

Yet God cares for worms, even real worms. Blakes Thel expresses wonder at

this discovery: ‘‘That God would love a Worm I knew, and punish the evil

foot / That wilful, bruisd its helpless form: but that he cherishd it / With

milk and oil. I never knew’’ (Book of Thel 5.9--11). After all, Blake says elsewhere,

God ‘‘is become a worm that he may nourish the weak’’ (Annotations to

Lavater), and man may become either one, depending on his mental power:

‘‘Let the Human Organs be kept in their perfect Integrity / At will Contracting

into Worms, or Expanding into Gods’’ (Jerusalem 55.36--37). In much the same

spirit Shelley writes, ‘‘I know / That Love makes all things equal: I have heard /

By mine own heart this joyous truth averred: / The spirit of the worm beneath

the sod / In love and worship, blends itself with God’’ (Epipsychidion 125--29).

Wondering if God has anything at all to do with the world, Tennyson tries to

believe that ‘‘somehow good / Will be the final goal of ill’’ and ‘‘That not a

worm is cloven in vain’’ (In Memoriam 54.1--2, 9).

Humble though it may be, the worm may resent an injury and strike back:

as the proverb puts it, ‘‘the worm will turn.’’ Greene, in A Groatsworth of Wit,

has ‘‘Tread on a worm and it will turne’’ (sec 12); Shakespeare: ‘‘The smallest

worm will turn, being trodden upon’’ (3H6 2.2.17). The madman in Shelleys

Julian and Maddalo claims, ‘‘Even the instinctive worm on which we tread /

Turns, though it wound not’’ (412--13).

If mortals are like worms in their mortality, worms are symbols of

mortality itself. Homers only mention of an earthworm (Greek skolex) comes

in a simile for a fallen warrior extended on the ground (Iliad 13.654). Mainly,

however, worms devour the dead. Shakespeares Rosalind recites the commonplace,

‘‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them,’’

though she adds, ‘‘but not for love’’ (AYLI 4.1.106--08). We go to a ‘‘wormy

grave’’ (Shelley, Laon and Cythna 3751) where we meet the ‘‘coffin-worm’’ (Keats,

Eve of St. Agnes 374). Blake makes the most of this inevitable fate. Thel

complains that she will only have lived ‘‘to be at death the food of worms,’’

but one of her comforters replies, ‘‘Then if thou art the food of worms . . . /

How great thy use. how great thy blessing; every thing that lives / Lives not

alone, nor for itself’’ (3.23--27). A more frequent way to cope is through gallows

humor. So Hamlet tells the king that Polonius is at supper, ‘‘Not where he

eats, but where a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are een at

him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat

us, and we fat ourselves for maggots’’ (4.3.19--23). This is in a way Blakes point,

though it stresses that the worm occupies the top link of the food chain. So in

the graveyard Hamlet says that a dead courtier is ‘‘now my Lady Worms’’

(5.1.87). Byrons Sardanapalus dismisses the notion that some men are gods:

‘‘the worms are gods; / At least they banqueted upon your gods, / And died for

lack of further nutriment’’ (1.2.269--71). As death is the great leveller (see

Death), worms are revolutionaries; Byron says every monarch is called Your

Highness ‘‘till they are consignd / To those sad hungry Jacobins the worms, /

Who on the very loftiest kings have dined’’ (Don Juan 6.99--101). Stevens

imagines ‘‘The Worms at Heavens Gate,’’ who sing ‘‘Out of the tomb, we bring

Badroulbadour, / Within our bellies,’’ piece by piece.

Sometimes ‘‘worm’’ is used for ‘‘caterpillar.’’ Jonson can exploit two senses

of ‘‘worm’’ in his ‘‘Epigram 15: On Court-Worm’’: ‘‘All men are worms: but this

no man. In silk / Twas brought to court first wrapped, and white as milk; /

Where, afterwards, it grew a butterfly; / Which was a caterpillar. So twill die.’’

(See Butterfly, Caterpillar.)

‘‘Worm’’ can also mean ‘‘canker-worm,’’ the worm that kills the rose (Milton,

Lycidas 45). Blakes ‘‘Sick Rose’’ is destroyed by ‘‘The invisible worm, / That flies

in the night / In the howling storm.’’

In Beowulf a ‘‘worm’’ (Old English wyrm) is a dragon (886, 891, etc.): ‘‘Then

the worm woke; cause of strife was renewed: for then he moved over the

stones, hard-hearted beheld his foes footprints -- with secret stealth he had

stepped forth too near the dragons head’’ (2287--90, trans. Donaldson). In

biblical translations it was used for the serpent, or Satan, and it survived into

modern poetry. Adam laments, ‘‘O Eve, in evil hour thou didst give ear / To

that false worm’’ (Milton, PL 9.1067--68). Pope refers to ‘‘That ancient Worm,

the Devil’’ (‘‘To Moore’’ 12). Something of this sense lingers in Blakes ‘‘invisible

worm’’ that destroys the virgin rose.

The book of Isaiah ends with Gods foretelling the grim end of ‘‘the men

that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall

their fire be quenched’’ (66.24). Christ echoes the phrase three times in his

description of hell (Mark 9.44--48). Miltons Messiah promises to drive the rebel

angels down ‘‘To chains of darkness, and the undying worm’’ (6.739).

Another important worm is the worm of conscience. No one knows,

Chaucer writes, how ‘‘The worm of conscience may agryse [shudder] / Of

wikked lyf’’ (Physician’s Tale 280--81). Shakespeares Queen Margaret cries at

Richard, ‘‘The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!’’ (R3 1.3.221). More

cheerfully, Benedick announces ‘‘it is most expedient for the wise, if Don

Worm (his conscience) find no impediment to the contrary, to be the

trumpet of his own virtues’’ (MAAN 5.2.83--86). Some writers combine this

worm with the undying worm of the Bible; so Byron: ‘‘The worm that will not

sleep -- and never dies’’ torments ones mind with remorse (Abydos 2.646).

Indeed our word ‘‘remorse’’ comes from Latin remordere, from mordere, ‘‘bite’’;

we say our conscience gnaws or eats away at our life or peace of mind. It is a

frequent image in Baudelaire: ‘‘How can we kill the old, the long Remorse, /

Who lives, wriggles, and twists itself / And feeds off us as the worm off the

dead’’ (‘‘LIrreparable’’); see ‘‘Remords posthume’’ and ‘‘Spleen (II).’’ (See


Akin to a worm in the mind is a maggot in the brain, but its meaning is

closer to a bee in the bonnet. In seventeenth- to eighteenth-century British

usage such a maggot usually meant a mad or perverse desire or ‘‘craze.’’ ‘‘Are

you not mad, my friend? . . .Have you not maggots in your braines?’’ (Fletcher,

Women Pleased 3.4). The latest fashion might be called a maggot. Pope, with an

implicit pun on the ‘‘grub’’ of Grub Street, where hack writers lived, notes

how ‘‘Maggots half-formd in rhyme exactly meet, / And learned to crawl upon

poetic feet’’ (Dunciad 1.61--62). Samuel Wesley chose a self-disparaging title for a

volume of his verse: Maggots; or Poems on Several Subjects.

Wormwood Wormwood, or absinthe, is a plant of the Artemisia family, known for its bitter

taste, especially Artemisia Absinthium.

In the Old Testament, wormwood (Hebrew laana) is only used metaphorically

as a source of bitterness, often paired with the term (rosh) that the

Authorized Version renders ‘‘gall’’ (Deut. 29.18). God will feed those who follow

the false Baalim ‘‘with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink’’ (Jer.

9.15; cf. 23.15, Deut. 29.18). In the New Testament it appears once, as the name

of the star (Greek apsinthos) that falls when the third angel blows his trumpet;

it turns a third of the water to wormwood and many men die of poisoning

(Rev. 8.11).

A soul in Dantes Purgatorio says he has been guided ‘‘to drink the sweet

wormwood [assenzo] of the torments’’ (23.86). After a particularly apt line in the

play he demanded, Hamlet comments, ‘‘Thats wormwood’’ (3.2.176). Jonson

fears that a book called Epigrams will be taken to be ‘‘bold, licentious, full of

gall, / Wormwood, and sulphur, sharp, and toothed withal’’ (2.3--4). Byrons

Childe Harold quaffed lifes enchanted cup too quickly, ‘‘and he found / The

dregs were wormwood’’ (Childe Harold 3.73--74). Hugo enjoins his daughter to

pray for her mother, who ‘‘always drank the wormwood [l’absinthe] and left you

the honey’’ (‘‘La priere pour tous,’’ part 2).

Hugo is not referring here to the alcoholic drink called absinthe, which

indeed became popular in his day. The word ‘‘vermouth’’ is also derived from

the source of ‘‘wormwood.’’