If you’ve been paying attention to this sort of trivia, you might have noticed that a few weeks ago I wrote a couple of pieces on palindromes. I learned that there’s a lot more interest in palindromes than I would have predicted. I was sent several old standards I’d failed to mention in my pieces (e.g. “Lewd did I live & evil I did dwel,” which depends on an ampersand for an and , and the strange spelling dwel as well as enough originals to cause severe eyestrain and threaten complete dyslexia. I was told, too, of “Shakespeare’s Lost Palindrome,” a phenomenon I confess I’d never known existed.
Sarah Montoya, who writes a column called Word Watching for The Secretary magazine, wrote to tell me of “an entertaining little magazine” called Word Ways where she said she’d read about the lost palindrome, and she asked if I’d like a copy of the article. I told her I would. She sent me copies not only of the palindrome article, but of one of her own columns, which was erudite and amusing.
The palindrome piece, by James Fanning of Mount Kisco, N.Y., tells the story of “Miss O. P. Helier, a Yorkshire antiquarian,” who, in the summer of 1973, bought an antique metal box that was said to contain ashes from the London fire of 1666. She took it home, leaving it unopened for several months. When at last she opened it to examine the more-than-300-year-old ashes, she found “a heap of charred paper, evidently pages from a book.” Some of the writing on the paper looked legible, and, after examining it carefully, Helier realized, with, we must assume, at least quiet ecstasy, that these pages had been written by Shakespeare and were part of a play--"Hamlet,” Helier guessed. She very carefully returned the charred pages to the box and “sent the whole thing to the Bodleian Library, where it was examined by noted Shakespearean scholar Prof. Rosencrantz.”
The Bodleian laboratory ascertained that the paper was almost certainly the type used by the Crudworthy Press in London in the 17th Century and that these sheets were remnants of a Crudworthy Shakespeare edition that had burned.
Fanning tells us that Sir Claudius Crudworthy, the proprietor of the press, having found a palindrome in one of Shakespeare’s lines, had written to a friend, “Will was the onlie man that ever writ a line to read the same from one end as t’other.” Rosencrantz found this palindromic line on the charred paper. It was obviously a part of Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “The three contiguous lines beginning with No. 60 should read: ‘Nor any unproportioned thought his act. ‘Emit no evil; live on time ; ‘Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar;’ ”
I had been reading this article with some interest, registering an occasional splash of incredulity at names like Crudworthy and Rosencrantz. It wasn’t until I came to the palindrome itself--Emit no evil; live on time--that I realized that Montoya was putting me on. She very nearly got away with it. But to accuse the Bard with having perpetrated such a line is vilest sacrilege.
I paid second heed to my uncomfortable twinges over Crudworthy and Rosencrantz, and when I reconsidered our antiquarian, Helier--Miss O. P. Helier--clearly a pointed rendition of Hamlet’s main squeeze, Ophelia, I realized I’d been had.
Fanning’s hoax is clever and, to my mind, very funny. But it does say something about palindromes in general: They are not literature. They may be pithy: “A man; a plan; a canal; Panama.” They may be fun: “Madam, I’m Adam.” “Eve.” From Dr. Mina M. Ashley: “Straw? No, too stupid! I put soot on warts.” And from R. Becker: “No evil Shahs live on.” Perhaps a few dozen others.
But as a rule, palindromes of more than one word don’t settle comfortably into the language. That’s why they’re interesting: They’re weird.