Tuesday, 17 May 2011


   I came across the following line of poetry recently, “songs of reft joy upon another planet”, it's from “In Memoriam: Aleksander Wat” by Geoffrey Hill. It was on Patrick Kurp's excellent blog, “Anecdotal Evidence”.

   What had particular resonance for me was the word 'reft', past participle of 'reave'. I've heard the word 'reave' spoken only once, it was by an enraged man who intended to 'reave' someone. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are two strands to the etymology of 'reave';

   The first, “archaic or poetical”, has various nuances all referring to committing spoilation or robbery, plundering, pillaging and so on. This is presumably the sense in which Hill used it; a reft/stolen joy.
   The second strand, “dialectical or archaic”, means to break in pieces, to burst, to tear, to split, to cleave. This is the sense in which the angry man was using it, though, given the context, the connotation of the other meaning, that of spoilage and plunder, made his use of the word exemplary.

   Perhaps I should explain this context. It was many years ago in Dublin. I was working with a friend as a carpenter and we had heard of the demolition of a monastery and the second-hand pitch pine floorboards that were up for grabs as a consequence. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) grows only on the eastern seaboard of the United States, it's a highly resinous softwood, harder than most hardwoods and when of good quality much sought after. So, having given money for the floorboards to someone whose claims of ownership we chose to believe, we were in the monastic car park loading our van with unseemly haste.
   It was late Friday afternoon and around us amassed a dozen or more men who had been demolishing the building. They were waiting for the owner of the demolition firm to arrive to pay them. It seemed most were to have been paid cash as they were working on the black. Eventually a big black car swung into view and parked next to the assembly. A couple of full-time employees climbed into the back seat while their employer emerged from the front to announce that unfortunately he couldn't pay anyone right now, cash-flow-you-know-how-it-is, and that he would be arranging to have the money sent to the casual workers. There were expressions of disappointment and shufflings of feet and that seemed to be the end of it until one man, incredulous as to the naivety of his workmates, pointed out that they were being duped. There was much talk of “but what can we do” until he showed them what could be done by picking up a sledgehammer and announcing that he was going to “reave” the man who was duping them. He started marching toward his rapidly blanching target. With great difficulty fellow workers restrained the would-be reaver who said that all he was going to do was batter the big car if payment wasn't organised immediately. While the struggle was going on the said car sped away, sadly unreft.

Erratum!  My friend Declan, who was raised in Dublin, tells me what I heard used was the word 'reef'. I think he's right. That said, I think the etymology holds true and that 'reef' is a dialectical variant of 'reave'. The similarity of the verb 'to reef', meaning 'to furl a sail', is coincidental (The reason marijuana cigarettes are sometimes called 'reefers' is due to their resemblance to a furled sail).