O Scarves, O Fringe, O Sparkling Things: Musings on the Vocative O

Today I went out for a nice wander in my neighborhood. It was a lovely fall day, though still a little warm for my preference. I’m fortunate that I live in a neighborhood with great shops in easy walking distance. I went to a used bookstore first,IMG_0356 then to an antique mall, and then to one of my favorite consignment boutiques. I had meant to buy some groceries as well, but I decided to just go home at that point. Looking at my purchases when I got home, I noticed that there was a real temporal spectrum represented: a flowing multicolored dress/caftan from the seventies, a fringed scarf from the (maybe) sixties,FullSizeRender (19) a shirt made from repurposed vintage fabric from the (maybe) fifties. There was a tag on the dress that told me when it was from, but I’m just guessing at the provenance of the other items.

That led me to think about how easily we decide the time period that something is from—that something might be a piece of clothing, jewelry, a chair, a piece of writing, etc. Even if we can’t put into words quite what makes us feel this way, most things have temporal indicators. Even today’s clothing that is meant to evoke the twenties or the sixties clearly provides those visual cues.

After writing my last post, which focused (in part) on Elizabeth Gaskell’s wonderful novel Wives and Daughters, I found that I was thinking quite a bit about what elements of a text—novel, poem, what have you—most clearly tells a reader that it is written in another time. I had also been thinking about the vocative O (after having read this wonderful article in The Paris Review) and asking myself what it meant when a writer today used that somewhat archaic convention.

If you’re not too familiar with the vocative O, here are a couple of examples where it is a prominent feature. The above-mentioned article references the poem “The Sick Rose” by William Blake: this is a short poem, and you’ll pick out the vocative O right away.

Another example is Tennyson’s “Oenone,” which is written from the perspective of the mountain nymph Oenone, the first wife of Paris (prior to his liaison with Helen of Troy). In the poem, Oenone calls on her mother (and many other entities) in supplication as she recounts the story of Paris’ betrayal. Rereading this poem today, I was amazed at how many instances of the vocative O there were! I love reading the Victorians out loud, and I paused in writing this post to do just that. In the fourth stanza alone, woeful Oenone uses the vocative O many times: “O mother Ida, many-fountain’d Ida, / Dear mother Ida, harken ere I die. / Hear me, O Earth, hear me, O Hills, O Caves.” And in the twenty-third stanza—this is a longish poem—there is a very (melo)dramatic “O death, death, death, thou ever-floating cloud.” So entertaining to read!

Essentially, the difference between “O” and “Oh” is seen in where and how the writer/speaker positions themself. Think of what it means to say “Oh, heavens!” versus “O Heavens!” In the latter, you’re essentially calling on the heavens directly. There is also a slight pause in the former (which the above article gives more explanation to). But what does it mean for a modern or contemporary writer to use the vocative O? I actually think that it could mean many things. Sylvia Plath does it in “Lady Lazarus” when she writes “O my enemy.” I decided to try it out myself, and last week, I wrote a poem using this somewhat archaic convention. I mainly tried it out as a point of interest. When I set out to write the poem, I knew that the vocative O would come in at some point, but I had no idea who or what I would be addressing. I can definitely tell you that doing this was a lot of fun, and I hope to share the poem with you at some point.
I want to leave you with a picture of the multicolored piece of seventies gloriousness that I added to my wardrobe today. I have no idea what sort of an outfit I’ll make with it, but with the whole history of fashion to draw from, I’m sure I’ll come up with something!

4 thoughts on “O Scarves, O Fringe, O Sparkling Things: Musings on the Vocative O

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