Etymology Grammar Poetry Usage

Till the cows come home

Q: Your posting about the grammar in Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” reminds me of a similar singular/plural issue in the opening of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” I’ve seen both “wind” and “winds” in the second line, which makes me wonder if Gray himself might have written it both ways.

A: Let’s begin with the opening lines of the elegy, as they appear in our dusty copy of the Palgrave Golden Treasury:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

As you’ve noticed, however, the verb in the second line is “wind” in some published versions of the poem and “winds” in others.

Did Gray use both verbs at different times? No, the poet himself used only the plural verb “wind,” according to the Thomas Gray Archive, a digital collection supported by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

Although the verb appears as “winds” in the first printed edition of the poem (published in 1751), it’s “wind” in Gray’s manuscripts and in all reprints of the “Elegy” approved by him.

Why “wind,” not “winds”?

The commentary on the poem in the Gray archive cites this analysis by William Lyon Phelps, editor of a late 19th-century collection of Gray’s works:

“ ‘Wind’ is better for two reasons: it is more melodious, as it avoids the hiss of a double s; it has more poetical connotation, for it suggests a long, slowly-moving line of cattle rather than a closely packed herd.”

Gray began working on the poem around 1745, according to the archive, and finished it early in June 1750.

But years earlier, Alexander Pope used a similar bovine image in his 1726 translation of the Odyssey: “As from fresh pastures and the dewy fields … The lowing herds return.”

We could go on about the elegy (the Gray archive is fascinating), but we’d be writing “till the cows come home,” an expression that first showed up in the early 1600s, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

So let’s end with this cow-minded quip by Groucho Marx (a k a Rufus T. Firefly) in Duck Soup (1933): “I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you came home.”

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