Words: Virtuosity

There is variety and depth," said Raymond Seitz last week, "and always a virtuosity of words". Our former American ambassador was talking about the poetry of Ted Hughes, posthumous winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year award; Mr Seitz, who is quite a wordsmith himself, had chaired the judges' panel.

By "virtuosity" he must surely have meant Hughes's well-known gift for verbal fireworks - that Hughes was to poetry what Liszt was to music when he wowed his audiences with cascades of sound. But it's possible that he was simply thinking of Hughes's craftsmanship, in a general sense.

My American Oxford Dictionary defines virtuoso as "someone who excels in the technique of doing something." It used to have an even broader meaning. In the 17th century a virtuoso was "a learned or ingenious person," perhaps a scientist, perhaps just an expert. John Evelyn was called a virtuoso in his day because he knew about fruit trees.

Then somehow or other its meaning got narrowed down. A virtuoso became a connoisseur of the arts. Virtuosi of this sort did not, on the whole, get a good press. The OED says "frequently one who carries on such pursuits in a dilettante or trifling manner" and quotes an octogenarian Thomas Hobbes as saying crustily that "there be many men called critiques, and wits, and vertuosi [sic], that are accustomed to censure the poets, and most of them of divers judgements".

Already we begin to detect, too, that peculiarly English distrust of aesthetes that was to achieve its full flowering in the late Victorian pages of Punch, with its popular cartoons by du Maurier showing long-haired, chinless, flat-chested young men contemplating a rose or holding a lily; one of them is seen asking the waiter for a glass of water. "Would there be anything else sir?" asks the waiter. "That will be all thank you," says the exquisite youth, putting a rose in the glass. You couldn't find anyone less like our Ted, whose physique was rugged and whose jaw was firm.

But Ted was a different sort of animal anyway. The old virtuosi weren't usually practitioners as he was. They were mostly the onlookers, what Shaw later called "those who can't". The idea of virtuosi as performers doesn't seem to have taken proper hold till the 19th century.

Even then they were often thought to be, well, not quite British. Virtuosity - Mr Seitz's word - was lowly regarded; it was not a virtue. ("Excessive attention to technique," says the OED.) Virtue came from the Latin virtus, which meant valour or manliness, having itself come from vir, the Latin for a man. But those who spoke of virtuosity had forgotten its masculine pedigree; if anything, they thought of it as effeminate.

Why virtue should have started by being something that men, rather than women, were expected to show is a shameful question that has already been fully answered by feminists. A virtuous man was brave, but even as late as the middle of the last century a virtuous woman was required only to be chaste. If we don't hear virtuous used much now, perhaps it's only because it has the wrong echoes.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test