Are you dwelling on what you’re dwelling in?

These days we seldom tell of dwelling, unless in a compound such as city-dwelling. The word dwell with its related forms is dwindling; it seems almost to have gone astray somewhere. We talk of where we live, of our home, of our house, of our residence. We reside there. But dwell? It’s more of a special-use word.

It has a holy overtone to it, dwell, thanks to its frequent use in the King James Bible. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever,” the 23rd Psalm concludes. The 24th Psalm tells us “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” At the time of that translation, reside had not overtaken dwell, nor was live so commonly used for this narrower sense.

But as Tennyson wrote,

In me there dwells
No greatness, save it be some far-off touch
Of greatness to know well I am not great.

All is not holy with this word, and its past is not so blessed. Let us turn from psalms to a palindrome:

Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel.

You know that’s old, not just because it cheats with the & but because it spells dwel with one l, a form disused for a half a millennium now: our old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words ending in /l/ have all doubled it up, hell, well, bell, smell, fill, kill, fall, roll, dull, and so on, dwelling just a little longer with the benefit of more easily distinguishing lfrom any other slender grapheme.

But how does one dwell evilly, whether with one l or two? Is not a dwelling good, or at least neutral?

In fact, dwelling was, at one time, more evil than good. We would do well to dwell on this detail for a few minutes.

It is not that we were all nomads and did not want to be boxed in. It is that the word itself was in a bad neighbourhood. We get a clue to this in the fact that we can speak of dwelling on something, which is related to the fact that dwell also refers to the time a train (especially a subway train) spends stopped in a station. Dwell meant – and in some usages still means – ‘tarry’, ‘hang back’.

Which is not intrinsically evil, of course. But if you are not going forward, then you are not going forward on the right path, a fact many a subway rider will be sensitized to if their train dwells a minute too long. And the relation between “not going anywhere” and “not going on the right path” is the core of the early history of this word.

A millennium ago, to dwell someone was to lead them astray, and so to dwell yourself – or just to dwell – was to go astray. This sense of the word came from a Proto-Germanic word reconstructed as *dwaljaną meaning ‘delay’ or ‘hold up’ or ‘be confused’ or ‘perplex’ and a closely related word *dwelaną meaning ‘go astray’. And that is the ambivalence at the root of dwell: to go no rightly, or just not to go rightly.

The English use of dwell (or earlier spellings) meaning ‘abide’ or ‘continue in a state, place, or action’ was established by about 800 years ago, and there it has dwelt ever since. It gained the sense ‘reside’ by the 1300s, and dwelling meaning ‘residence’ was in use before 1400. The usage dwell on meaning ‘linger’ or ‘brood over’ or ‘sustain a musical note’ was in place by the 1400s. And no one has seen the ‘lead astray’ or ‘go astray’ sense since about the same time. You may recall being told, in your childhood, “If you don’t know where you are, stay there”; the history of these two senses supports that: the ‘stay’ one has been found, and the ‘go’ one has been lost.

And that is how a word can have meant both ‘go astray’ and ‘stay at home’. Words are full of possibilities, and poetic words even more so, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—
For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

For Paradise is not a fixed, complete, perfect place and state; just as infinity is always increasing at infinite speed, or it would not be infinity, creation must ever be creating, truth must be ever adapting and updating, and meaning must ever be multiplying to stay meaningful. And if this means that it encompasses movement and non-movement, good and bad, so be it.

It also encompasses you being in something and something being in you. As we are learning, there is incessant discovery and revision in our dwellings and dwelling in us. Denise Levertov brought us the truth in “Matins”:

Marvellous Truth, confront us
at every turn,
in every guise, iron ball,
egg, dark horse, shadow,
of breath on the air,
in our crowded hearts
our steaming bathroom, kitchens full of
things to be done, the
ordinary streets.

Thrust close your smile
that we know you, terrible joy.

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