Academic journal article Western Folklore

Seeing through Colored Glassess

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Seeing through Colored Glassess

Article excerpt

In the most literal sense, of course, glasses serve to correct distortions of physical eyesight. On the other hand, badly made or wrongly prescribed glasses will cause their own distortions. The notion that metaphorical glasses can affect an individual's perception or outlook in ways beyond the ocular is quite old in the English language. For example, the crone in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" (c1390) utters this paraphrase of the proverb "A friend in need is a friend indeed": "Poverte [poverty] a spectacle is, as thynketh me, / Thurgh which he may his verray [true] freendes se" (Chaucer 1957:88).

As for colored spectacles, in an age when the wearing of tinted sunglasses has become commonplace, most people acknowledge that the hue of the lenses does not much affect the perceived color of objects viewed (after a few moments of adjustment, at least). Yet in our speech, in our folklore, and sometimes in our literature, the notion persists: the visible world assumes the coloration of the glasses. It is an accepted (and largely unconscious) cultural convention-like the cinematic convention of representing a character's view through binoculars as two slightly overlapping circles on the screen, even though "reality" as we actually see it through binoculars is not framed that way at all. In traditional and proverbial use, not only do tinted lenses color the visible world but figurative lenses result in-and represent-changes in the way abstractions are regarded or interpreted. Thus, in 1833 Elizabeth Barrett Browning adopted the metaphor of colored glasses to differentiate among ways of translating from Greek into English:

All men, since AEsop's time and before it, have worn various-Coloured spectacles. They cannot part with their colour, which is their individuality; but they may correct the effects of that individuality by itself. If Potter show us AEschylus through green spectacles, and another translator, though in a very inferior manner, show us AEschylus through yellow ones, it will become clear to the English reader, that green and yellow are not inherent properties of the Greek poet: and in this respect, both the English reader and the Greek poet are benefited. (Browning 1900:6:82) In 1861 Charles Nordhoff quoted a polyglot explaining how he avoids confusion among the several languages that he speaks fluently:

Have you ever tried on a pair of green spectacles? While you wore those every thing looked green to you. Even so, while I am speaking, for instance, Russian, I put on my Russian spectacles, and they color every thing Russian for me: I see all my ideas in that language alone. Passing to another language is merely to change the spectacles. (Nordoff 1861:204)

The genesis of my interest in the proverbial phrases "to see through green glasses," "to see through rose-colored glasses," "to see through blue glasses," and related figurative expressions was the chance discovery of an early analog of such a saying. In the course of some research in seventeenth-century literature, I was examining a document from the religious and ecclesiastical controversies that followed the English Civil War. A 1659 tract by the cleric and orientalist Brian Walton is titled (in part) The Considerator Considered: Or, A Brief View of Certain Considerations upon the Biblia Polyglotta, the Prolegomena, and Appendix Thereof. Wherein, Amongst Other Things, the Certainty, Integrity, and Divine Authority of the Original Texts, Is Defended, against the Consequences of Athiests [sic], Papists, Antiscripturists, &c, Inferred from the Various Readings, and Novelty of the Hebrew Points, by the Author of the Said Considerations. The author attacks a treatise published earlier the same year, John Owen's Vindication of the Purity and Integrity of the Hebrew and Greek Texts of the Old and New Testaments. The argument concerns the punctuation, orthography, translation, and interpretation of Scripture. Walton scolds Owen for his arrogance: "It might have been fit for him . …

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