The Power of Language

Buechner is remembering his Lawrenceville school years:

AT THE SAME TIME I happened to have for an English teacher an entirely different sort of man. He had nothing of the draughtsman about him, no inclination to drill us in anything, but instead a tremendous, Irishman's zest for the blarney and wizardry of words. I had always been a reader and loved words for the tales they can tell and the knowledge they can impart and the worlds they can conjure up like the Scarecrow's Oz and Claudius' Rome; but this teacher, Mr. Martin, was the first to give me a feeling for what words are, and can do, in themselves. Through him I started to sense that words not only convey something, but are something; that words have color, depth, texture of their own, and the power to evoke vastly more than they mean; that words can be used not merely to make things clear, make things vivid, make things interesting and whatever else, but to make things happen inside the one who reads them or hears them. When Gerard Manley Hopkins writes a poem about a blacksmith and addresses him as one who "didst fettle for the great gray drayhorse his bright and battering sandal," he is not merely bringing the blacksmith to life, but in a way is bringing us to life as well. Through the sound, rhythm, passion of his words, he is bringing to life in us, as might otherwise never have been brought to life at all, a sense of the uniqueness and mystery and holiness not just of the blacksmith and his great gray drayhorse, but of reality itself, including the reality of ourselves. Mr. Martin had us read wonderful things—it was he who gave me my love for The Tempest, for instance—but it was a course less in literature than in language and the great power that language has to move and in some measure even to transform the human heart.

-Originally published in The Sacred Journey

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