In my previous post (which had an unusual concentration of Youtube comedy clips) I reported on a psychological study of word aversion. The word ‘moist’ arouses strong reactions in a significant number of people, and the scientific conclusion was that this is due to semantic connections rather than to the word’s phonetics. I sketched a response to this with passages from Paradise Lost as my evidence. Even before the word gained its sexual associations, I argued, it seemed to have the capacity to generate sensory, sensuous, and even sensual qualities that, in Milton’s poem, were part of the problem of representing Paradise in fallen language.
I liked the idea that some phonetic combinations make us think about the fact that words are things that are made with mouths, things which pass through intimate solid and liquid and air before they then mean something. I also liked the concrete way in which literary criticism could contribute: the effects I was arguing for in Milton were quite subtle and even abstruse, but if I was making a persuasive case, then I was adding a dimension to the whole question of word aversion.
So what about Shakespeare? Well, most of his uses of ‘moist’ and ‘moisture’ relate to tearful eyes and rainy weather, but a few take a telling turn towards sensory-sensuous-sensual territory. In Othello, the hero observes that Desdemona’s hand is ‘moist’, and later he elaborates:
This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart:
Hot, hot, and moist: this hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer,
Much castigation, exercise devout;
For here’s a young and sweating devil here,
That commonly rebels. ‘Tis a good hand,
A frank one.
We don’t know whether her hand is sweaty, or just has no dryness, or whether this is all entirely in Othello’s mind. In this mouth several words change their meanings: ‘good’ is said sardonically, ‘frank’ is loaded with suspicion, but ‘moist’ causes a significant pause. Its strength is not just in describing an over-interpretable physical quality; it also comes from the combination of phonemes, which make it linger in the mouth. It is hard to imagine an actor not savouring the word with relish and disgust.
Shakespeare does most work with moisture in Venus and Adonis. The goddess is definitely inclining towards the sexual when she calls Adonis’ breath ‘heavenly moisture’, and later in the poem the narrator uses the same phrase. It’s not clear, though, that the ‘moist’ root is supplying any additional edge, given that the context is already so intimate.
I think a clearer case can be made that Shakespeare is exploiting the word’s aversive potential when Venus outlines her alluring qualities to Adonis (who, in the poem, isn’t tempted):
Thou canst not see one wrinkle in my brow;
Mine eyes are gray and bright and quick in turning:
My beauty as the spring doth yearly grow,
My flesh is soft and plump, my marrow burning;
My smooth moist hand, were it with thy hand felt,
Would in thy palm dissolve, or seem to melt.
It has to be said that the concept of an aversive word is self-fulfilling to some extent. The article discussed in the previous post made this point. So I have to be careful about not over-investing in the word when it arises. Nevertheless, the word ‘moist’ comes at an interesting point, when the description is about to become tactile — and the rich ideas of dissolving and melting soon follow.
It comes in a pair of adjectives that, unlike any other in the stanza, is not separated by ‘and’. It requires a stressed syllable but the dominant rhythm of the poem would generally require an unstressed syllable at this point. And it invites our attention to a physical quality that seems comically counter-productive: Venus’s dignity diminishes a bit as the word lingers. I think Shakespeare exploits something like an aversive quality in ‘moist’, probably in its sound as well as its sensory quality.
This is only a sketch. In the first post, the experimenters used the word ‘paradise’, and that led me to Milton. In this post, I tried Shakespeare, because I always try Shakespeare. It’s likely that there are many places where the aversive potential of ‘moist’ is exploited by writers who are themselves interested in whether it is a question of sound or sense. Might be worth a bit more searching.