Word Choice in “The Curse” by Arthur C. Clarke Essay
Updated: Aug 24th, 2020
Line by line the epitaph upon which so many millions had gazed slipped beneath the conquering waters. For a little while, the letters could still be faintly seen; then they were gone forever.
Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,To digg the dvst enclosed heare
Blest be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.
Undisturbed through all eternity the poet could sleep in safety now: in the silence and darkness above his head, Avon was seeking its new outlet to the sea. (Clarke 2)
The very ending of Clarke’s short story, this fragment is, in my opinion, its climax. When I read the story for the first time, it hardly drew my attention to the words chosen by the author to depict this scene. It was practically impossible for me to get down to the author’s general idea as the whole picture seemed to be a complete mess. However, every successive reading stirred interest and made me think about the author’s decisions and helped finally bring together everything Clarke wanted to say.
Formulating questions under consideration
To begin with, I would like to introduce the questions that stirred my interest while reading. Have you ever tried to guess what Arthur C. Clarke meant by using ‘conquering’ when speaking about waters? And why earlier in the text the author used the word ‘timidly’ to describe the same scene? Or why has he chosen ‘outlet’ to speak of Avon making its way to the sea? Finally, what, in your opinion, motivated Clarke to use the word ‘safety’ to describe the poet’s path to eternity? The primary question is: why these words? What did the author want to say by choosing them? This paper will present my ideas regarding the puzzling word choice in Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Curse.
A summary of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Curse
Inspired by Shakespeare, Clarke created an astonishing post-apocalyptic story that depicts the city long after the nuclear bombs attack. As it turns out later, the described location is Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare and the place where his grave is located. It is understood that all people died because of the attack, and “a hundred years might pass before life would safely come this way again” (Clarke 2). The vanished altar, hardly any signs of other building – it all makes clear that no life has left in this place. The only thing that reminds of the past in the field of gravestones, rather symbolic, as the focus of the story is made on the devastation. The author points out that many gravestones still carry the messages, even though there is nobody left to read them. What compels attention is a tombstone understood to be Shakespeare’s by the famous epitaph.
At the very ending of the story, Arthur C. Clarke chooses to describe the waters covering the poet’s gravestone as ‘conquering’. Was the decision random or maybe there is some hidden sense represented with it? If we look up the meaning of this word in the dictionary of the English language, we will find that it refers to gaining control over the country or territory or defeating in a race or competition, etc. Another definition of this word is becoming popular (Wehmeier 260). The choice seems evident. However, bearing in mind the context of the story, I thought that the author might have wanted to draw an analogy between the way the city was defeated and all its citizens were killed and the way the waters cover the gravestone.
Clarke underlines that too many bombs were used in the attack even though it was calculated that three would be enough to destroy the place of such sizes. Instead, the army has chosen to throw down twenty. For me, it seemed the same as the initial description of timid waters. Slightly touching the gravestone in the very beginning of depicting the situation, nature then decides to switch to the conquering moods when covering the tombstone. Nature and the army are similar in being overzealous. What can also be said about the decision to use this word in the story is that it can describe the popularity of nuclear weapons, even though it is hardly related to waters. Balancing between ‘timidly’ and ‘conquering’, in my opinion, can as well portray the ways of conducting war. What is calm at the very beginning can have the most devastating outcomes. So, I think there is an analogy between the waters touching and then covering the gravestone and destroying the whole city with the atomic bomb.
What also caught my attention and stirred my interest is the choice of ‘outlet’ for the flow of Avon. Looking for the definition of this word in the dictionary, I found out that it has another meaning that, in general, refers to the expression of strong feelings (Wehmeier 900). It made me think that this word is used ambiguously in this passage of the story and the story as the whole. In my opinion, it was chosen not only for the description of the river finding its way to the sea. Have you ever paid attention to the mood of Shakespeare’s epitaph? It is as well some kind of an outlet, as, to me, it is the way of expressing the author’s thoughts and feelings and sharing them with eternity. The same can be drawn upon the mood of the story. There are the messages on the gravestone that nobody will ever read again because it will take hundreds of years to bring life back to this city. This word expresses the general mood of pain and devastation drawn in the short story and highlights that there is a terrible burden of silence and nothingness that is too have to bear.
Referring to the Oxford English Dictionary
Finally, Arthur C. Clarke decides to choose the word ‘safety’ to describe Shakespeare’s path to eternity. The dictionary of the English language describes ‘safety’ as the place or the state (Wehmeier 1128). What is it that the author wanted to say? Is it the place because the poet’s bones are safely hidden under the soils and the gravestone? Or, maybe, it is the state because nobody is left to gaze at the tombstone and disturb the poet in eternity?
Another question is could it refer to the fact that even though everything in the city was destroyed by the bombs, the gravestones including that of Shakespeare were not damaged? To me, this word describes both the state and the place. What is even more significant, I believe there is a connection between the epitaph and the fact that the gravestone is still undamaged, and the message can be read. It states very clearly, “And cvrst be he yt moves my bones” (Clarke 2) which means that anyone or anything that disturbs the poet’s peace and safety would be cursed by him so that the forces of nature have not done significant damage to it. Using these lines as the epitaph is, in my opinion, some kind of a guarantee that the poet is safe in eternity.
Seeking answers in Shakespeare’s works
Further in my reflection on The Curse, I would like to try and find an explanation of Clarke’s word choice in Shakespeare’s works. The word ‘conquering’ is used in both its meanings as gaining control over somebody or territory and gaining popularity (“OpenSourceShakespeare: Conquering” par.1, 2, 7). For this reason, it does not seem to me that there was a hidden reference to the poet’s work when choosing the word. However, when it comes to ‘safety’, there are numerous instances when Shakespeare uses this word to describe the state of being safe about being in the sea or returning from the sea. For example, it is mentioned by Dominitius Enobarus in Anthony and Cleopatra and Aegeon in Comedy of Errors (“OpenSourceShakespeare: Conquering” 2, 6). I believe that there might be an analogy between the Shakespeare’s works and the word choice in this short story because like the poet said that his characters were safe in the sea, Arthur C. Clarke points that the poet’s gravestone would be safely covered by the waters of Avon guaranteeing that no one else gazes at it when the life is back to the city.
Speaking of the time in this story, it is complicated to feel it. Even though the authors point out that three hundred years passed since the attack, the mood that he has created prompts that the depicted situation occurred somewhere between never and forever. It may be provoked by the awareness that there is no one left alive and that everything that was once created by people was destroyed. Moreover, it is strengthened by the detailed depiction of the gravestones that are the signs of starting the journey into eternity and highlighting that it would take centuries for the life to come back to this city.
What I wanted to stress on in my reflection on the word choice is that the intentions are not always evident, and Arthur C. Clarke proved it with his short story. What at first seemed to be describing one tiny detail of the picture can be related to the whole pattern, and change its perception. At least, it is just the way it was for me. Reading the short story with the dictionary of the English language helped me realize that there is something more behind the words. Moreover, the feelings about the story were different when I read it for the first time and found out the meaning of all the words that drew my attention. The author could have chosen any other words that would as well fit into the context of the story but I believe that any other decisions would not be that effective in creating the needed mood of nothingness and pain and highlighting the idea that only art (poetry, in this specific case) is what lasts eternally no matter what happens to the mankind.
Clarke, Arthur C. The Curse. n.d. PDF File. Web.
OpenSourceShakespeare: Conquering. n.d. Web.
OpenSourceShakespeare: Safety. n.d. Web.
Wehmeier, Sally Ed. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 6th ed. 2000. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
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