The long, languorous days of summer are here. Depending on your disposition – and your reserves – you may move at a lush, delicious languid pace, or you may languish in torpid inactivity. Lolling about in otiose inaction is a luxury for those who have the means to thrive in spite of it; for those without all-access passes to the pleasure boat, a lack of activity is the anguish of languishing. It all comes down to who is peeling the grapes for whom.
And to the languid sense-shifts of our language.
It starts with classical Latin languere, which the Oxford English Dictionary translates as “to be faint, feeble, to be unwell, sick, to be languid, drowsy, to droop, wilt, to be dim or faint, to be weak or feeble, to be idle or inert.” It may be related, way back, to lax and slack. In our language, it gave us languish, which meant to enter or exist in a state of weakness and ill health. It has, over the centuries, gained figurative senses, such as wasting away out of love and longing. It is now often used to refer to resting neglected; the Corpus of Contemporary American English tells us that words it is often seen with include left, let, while, jail, continue, children, allowed, foster, and prison. It is a word of long anguish.
With that verb languish also came the noun languor, a word so slothful it can’t even be bothered to get the u to go after the o where you expect it. Languor first – back in the 1300s – referred to “pining, longing, sorrow, grief,” as Oxford says. Three centuries later it had come to mean physical or mental weariness, tiredness, or lethargy. It persists in a sense of summery torpor, but it also connects to languorous, which is now “characterized by pleasurable relaxation,” to quote Oxford one more time. When we look at what words are near languor, we find such as delicious, summer, loose-limbed, dreamy, exquisite, and tropical. It has become an Eva Longoria of the language.
But then there is that other adjective, languid, which partakes of the idiom of the id. Although it first – when we gained it, in the 1500s – spoke of weakness, fatigue, and inertia, it soon enough shifted to a sense of laconic slowness, the sin of sloth (itself such a word of economy of effort that it dropped the w from slowth). But by the 1700s, and increasingly in the 1800s, idleness and leisure ad libitum became supportable and sustainable enough to be desirable. And now, near languid, we see words such as long, lady, pace, hand, grace, slow, air, days, body, pose, summer, ease, movement, and voice.
But in times of inactivity we also fantasize about activity. Andrew Lang wrote this poem in the later 1800s:
As one that for a weary space has lain
Lull’d by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Æean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine—
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,—
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours
They hear like Ocean on the western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.
A century earlier, William Blake wrote this stanza in “Song: My silks and fine array”:
My silks and fine array,
My smiles and languished air,
By love are driven away;
And mournful lean Despair
Brings me yew to deck my grave:
Such end true lovers have.
“Smiles and languished air.” There is a sun-bleached something about it, isn’t there? And really, that’s the heart of it. As delightful as languors may seem, as much as it may be fun to lie on the beach and sun ourselves, to drink wine and take water in wafting warmth, there is no great energy to it. At the first breath of coolth, the first free shrill wind, our vigour is reignited. Algernon Charles Swinburne captured it in “Dolores”:
Could you hurt me, sweet lips, though I hurt you?
Men touch them, and change in a trice
The lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice;
Those lie where thy foot on the floor is,
These crown and caress thee and chain,
O splendid and sterile Dolores,
Our Lady of Pain.
Many a moment in hammock-hung days, on white sofas in shady verandahs and around the corner from patio lunch prosciutto and mimosas, and draped on lawn or beach, have taught us all that there may be vice in languour. But rapture? We’ll get to that… in a few months. Relax.
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