Tag Archives: wan


Cold-hearted orb that rules the night,
Removes the colours from our sight,
Red is grey and yellow white,
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.

Thus runs the poem that bookends “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. The moon: that cold light that, like a magic wand, makes everything wan: its victory won, all is one, through the achromatopsia of dim light to the featurelessness of utter darkness. An object might, like a chameleon, change from colour to colour to colour, the shift passing imperceptibly.

But wait: the moon is wan, but the dark landscape is not, is it? Well, it depends on when that dark landscape is. Is it now… or is it half a millennium or more ago?

Pick up your copy of Beowulf and turn to line 702:

Com on wanre niht
scriðan sceadugenga.

‘Came in dark night to glide shadowgoer [or darkness-walker]’ – that’s a calque; a real translation is ‘He came gliding in dark night, shadowgoer.’ Well, never mind the syntactic weirdness of Old English. It’s that wanre – an inflected form of wan – that should not escape our vision. Grendel (that’s who) was not coming in pale or ashen or even leaden night. The Old English poets liked redundancy, repetition with variation, reinforcement of images (along with alliteration). The author was not saying that it was an uncharacteristically pale night. Ah-nope. The old definition of wan was, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it (in a definition that has a light taste of Old English alliterative reiterative verse), “lacking light or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark.”

How, then, did this shadowgoer glide from oscuro to chiaro? How did it manage, under many moons, to shift its shade, its shape retaining?

It is not just that Beowulf was written in the Dark Ages and we have since passed through the Enlightenment. Nor, although wan may be related to wane, need we say the moon had waned and now has waxed. No: when we plumb the depths, we find a common element. We are led to lead. Plumbum. That dull grey element.

A wan thing is wanting in colour. It has the aspect of lead. If a thing is drained of colour, it takes on a leaden aspect. If a face is drained of colour by disease or death, it may be said to be of a leaden hue, perhaps: as observes Oxford, “Of an unhealthy, unwholesome colour; livid, leaden-hued.” That definition, which existed as an extension of the ‘dark colourless’ sense, is also obsolete – these dark and medium senses existed from the beginning of English to the 1600s. But by the 1300s, the ‘unhealthily pale’ sense had come into use. So we had a cross-fade of some two or three hundred years. Now wan is ‘pale’, or perhaps etiolated, bleached, lacking in colour or character: a wan smile.

By its brevity wan gains a myriad of associations. The most common collocation in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is wan na. Chinese? No, it’s just how they parse a colloquial compound – you wanna guess which one? But wan certainly shows in Mandarin: wàn, ‘ten thousand’, or wān, ‘crooked’, or wán, ‘whole’, or wăn, ‘gracious’, or wán, ‘stupid’, or wăn, ‘evening’.

In ten thousand evenings, with or without white satin, could you go from crooked to whole, from stupid to gracious? Oh, be wan – can no be? Come over to the dark side, the black’s wan. You will wander under moon-waxing welkin, beauty bleached by sky-swan burgeoning, greyed gules and white gold, illumination intending, deciding illusion.


Herewith, to mark the ten thousandth view of Sesquiotica, I present an epistolary correspondence between Ion Orzabal and Muriel Wan.

Muriel, I wan to woo you.

There are wan ways to do that. Wan, my name, one of the old hundred Chinese surnames, means “ten thousand.” So it is one hundred times the hundred. Square me away with some poetry.

You, Wan, are Han (Chinese); I am Basque. May I bask in your glory? Muriel, for you I will make merry with a myriad of means – myriad being “ten thousand” but rooting in the Greek murios, “countless.” Any Tennyson? Let’s try this:

Sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
and murmuring of innumerable bees.

You have connected! You speak of innumerable bees and moaning birds, surely the source of the countless many things – in Chinese, wan wu: the “ten thousand things.” Everything. As often mentioned in the Tao Te Ching – let me quote the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English:

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.


The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.

I do like the water images. After all, Muriel comes from Scots Gaelic Muireall, “bright sea.”

If water is music to your ears, I can Handel it. But then let me Aeschylate matters. Who stole the fire from the gods and put them in your eyes? Why, Prometheus, of course, and he is bound to be relevant. He is quoted speaking of the “Myriad laughter of the ocean waves.” A cheat, though, I declare: the original Greek is pontion te kumaton anérithmon gelasma, no murios in sight until lines later (where it is murieté)… Here is David Grene’s translation of the lines:

Bright lights, swift-winged winds, springs of the rivers, numberless
laughter of the sea’s waves, earth, mother of all, and the all-seeing
circle of the sun: I call upon you to see what I, a God, suffer
at the hands of Gods –
see with what kind of torture
worn down I shall wrestle ten thousand
years of time –

And indeed, Muriel, I wrestle a myriad of yearning tortures for you. Let me, IO, quote Io from Prometheus Bound, stung by the gadfly, goaded by Argos, the ten-thousand-eyed (muriópon) herdsman. In Greek, “Io, io, popoi! Poi de m’agousi téleplagtoi planai.” In English, “O, O, O, Where are you bringing me, my far-wandering wanderings?” Do my wanderings take me back? Do I strive pointlessly?

Ah, earth, the mother of all, again. You have named it! But there it is: you begin from the myth and you take it to the myriad in the moment, an instance of hierophany – Mircea Eliade’s “eternal return.” We create the sacred space when we connect with the myth, and the time now becomes the time of the myth for the moment. In every countless moment we may return. But again I am jonesing for the tao:

Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things are born of being.
Being is born of not being.

Ah, all is wan and wan is one. I know another eternal return: the idea that, given an infinite amount of time, all arrangements of matter in the universe will recur. But I eternally return to you, Ion after eons. Will you yield?

And the universe, too, returns, from big bang to big crunch, every breath a myriad of eons. But is this yield you desire the yield of a cookie recipe? I hope it is not a mere yield of a myriad. Myriad matches miscellaneously: ways, problems, forms, details, issues. Do you make merry or do you make as to marry? I do not marry ad hoc; Muriel does not marry all who ask. Wan will have but one.

Well, when all is Wan, Wan is all. I will be a rock and will not roll. If you wish a stairway to heaven, let us physically manifest the sacred. But let me speak of what I believe; I will shout and let it all out, my tears and fears. You speak of Mircea Eliade, and I hope my words are not Greek to you; I seek no Iliad, and I wish theodicy, not the Odyssey. Have mercy. Let my hierophany be Coleridge’s “Hymn to the Earth”:

Say, mysterious Earth! O say, great mother and goddess,
Was it not well with thee then, when first thy lap was ungirdled,
Thy lap to the genial Heaven, the day that he woo’d thee and won thee!
Fair was thy blush, the fairest and first of the blushes of morning!
Deep was the shudder, O Earth! the throe of thy self-retention:
Inly thou strovest to flee, and didst seek thyself at thy centre!
Mightier far was the joy of thy sudden resilience; and forthwith
Myriad myriads of lives teem’d forth from the mighty embracement.
Thousand-fold tribes of dwellers, impell’d by thousand-fold instincts,
Fill’d, as a dream, the wide waters; the rivers sang on their channels;
Laugh’d on their shores the hoarse seas; the yearning ocean swell’d upward;
Young life low’d through the meadows, the woods, and the echoing mountains,
Wander’d bleating in valleys, and warbled on blossoming branches.

The myriad myriads – noun and adjective, the universe in verse – will teem forth from our embracement. Let me be the genial Heaven that woo’d and won Wan! The rivers will sing in their channels, and the hoarse seas will laugh – countlessly; the yearning ocean will swell upward.

Oh, let me Marvell at your beauty! To be exact, Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime

An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Ah, thirty thousand – san man. Mister San Man, you bring me a dream. The wingèd chariot may be your father’s, for you are Ion, son of Apollo, who drives the sun. I hope you will not run. You are myriad-minded, to borrow a word Coleridge applied to Shakespeare: Greek murionous. I am in mind of Bronson Alcott, from “Ion: A Monody”:

Early through field and wood each Spring we sped,
Young Ion leading o’er the reedy pass;

For endless Being’s myriad-minded race
Had in his thought their registry and place

But for your harbinger, let me end with a line from Edmund Charles Blunden’s Harbingers:

And wed me with the myriad-minded man.

Then let us be happily myriad!