I thought I was finished with congeries, at least for a while, but then some late-breaking news came in. First, I got a very interesting email from Paul, who asked if The Twelve Days of Christmas counts as a congeries. Wow!!! I would say Yes, definitely, it’s a heap of stuff, without any grammatical connection, and it also has an extra feature, which is the gradual accumulation of the items in successive verses. Here’s the last verse, with the whole congeries:
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping,
Ten lords a leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking,
Seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five gold rings,
Four calling birds, three French hens,
Two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Please keep these comments coming.
Second, I happened to start reading A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul, and I came across a great congeries—actually, a congeries inside a congeries, I think.
The hero of the story, Mr. Biswas, is looking for a job. He walks around just looking at what various people are doing, and that’s the first congeries. “He passed a tailor…. He passed a barber…. For a moment he was perversely tempted by an undertaker’s…. He passed dry goods shops…. Grocer’s shops…. Vegetable stalls….” And so on. (I’m reminded of the list of jobs in Little Dorrit that I quoted in my earlier post.) This list is a little different from the classic form of congeries, because Naipaul gives little descriptions of these various possible jobs, and those descriptions break up the sense of a heap. But I still think it’s in the same ballpark, anyway.
Then there’s a really classic congeries inside this congeries, when Mr. Biswas gets to the dry goods store:
He passed dry goods shops—strange name: dry goods—and the rickety little rooms bulged with dry goods, things like pans and plates and bolts of cloth and cards of bright pins and boxes of thread and shirts on hangers and brand-new oil lamps and hammers and saws and clothes-pegs and everything else, the wreckage of a turbulent flood which appeared to have forced the doors of the shops open and left deposits of dry goods on tables and on the ground outside.
That’s a really fine congeries; note that the effect is enhanced by the polysyndeton (and…and…and) and the image of the flood.
I never really thought much about congeries until I started to look for them, and then I started to find them all over. Well, not all over. As I said before, there are writers who like them and writers who don’t, and there are topics which lend themselves to the figure and topics which don’t. But it’s a resource that’s there if you want to use it. And it’s fun to find examples and think about how and why they work.
This was just a post-script to my earlier post on congeries. I’m also preparing a regular post about the editing of texts, which is the part of philology that I haven’t talked about yet. That should come later today or tomorrow.