The Pelfie

2013 was officially the year of the selfie – the Oxford English Dictionary declared it to be so. And now everybody knows this useful word for a photo one takes of oneself. And everybody’s doing it too – naked celebrities, Irish cattle farmers, even the leaders of the free world – at a funeral no less! Oh vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas indeed!

In the train of the selfie, came the belfie, a word I only learned a few weeks ago, and that had me slightly worried for a moment. But – somebody tell Anthony Weiner– the word has nothing to do with the photographing of bells, or anything bell-shaped, but the only slightly less depraved practice of photographing one’s own posterior.

What’s next? Hot off the press – the shelfie, a picture of one’s book shelf to show off what tasteful books you read – if you have any time left to read after taking all these photos of yourself. Isn’t this just another form of vanity, though? – Hey look at me and all my obscure European novellas and second hand penguin classics on my nice vintage wooden shelf. Could I be any more of a self-satisfied bourgeois bohemian?

Ahem. On a curmudgeonly side note (to an already curmudgeonly post), for how much longer are word blends  going to be considered clever and witty? News programmes this year perplexed readers this year with clever-clever talk of Grexits, Frexits and Brexits, while regurgitated gossip column jokes about Brangelina and Bennifer have been doing the rounds for years. If they were ever funny, they ain’t now.

But I digress. The main gripe here is vanity. It’s time we did something about it – which is why I am going to put aside my distaste for blend words and pitch an early contender for the new word of 2014, a welcome antidote to its narcissistic predecessor (I hope you’re reading this Oxford English Dictionary)… the pelfie.

What, you ask, is a pelfie? Well, the word is a blend of the word selfie, a neologism that seems to be here to stay, and the word pelf, which the dictionary brands archaic, but, considering its meaning, should be brought back into common use. Pelf, from Old French pelfre – spoils, means money, but especially money that has been gained in a dishonest or dishonourable (though – unlike spoils – not necessarily illegal) way. But a pelfie is not a picture of one’s ill-gotten gains – say a hedge fund manager posing next to his bank statement, or a sleazy estate agent fanning himself with cash. That would be crude – don’t forget what our aim is here (if you really need a name for that kind of thing, you can call it a wealfie, as long as you don’t pretend you invented that yourself.)

No. A pelfie is something else entirely. It is a poem one writes, addressed to oneself, or to God, first expressing disgust at your own moral failings, and second, your hope that you can rise above these failings and at last be a decent human being. It is named in honour of the opening lines of this poem by the American writer, nature lover and poet, Henry David Thoreau.

Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf

Than that I may not disappoint myself,

That in action that I may soar as high,

As I can now discern with this clear eye.


And next in value, which thy kindness lends,

That I may greatly disappoint my friends,

Howe’er they think or hope that it may be,

They may not dream how thou’st distinguished me.


That my weak hand may equal my firm faith,

And my life practice more than my tongue saith;

That my low conduct may not show,

Nor my relenting lines,

That I thy purpose did not know,

Or overrated thy designs.

Thoreau is certainly praying here. But what is he praying for? The first stanza is clear enough: he hopes for the strength to fulfil his potential, not to be a disappointment to himself. This, I suppose, is a common enough prayer. Religious or not, in prayer or in a moment of self-reflection, it is quite normal for us to express such hopes – at the beginning of a new job, for example, or – as now – in our resolutions at the beginning of the year. I’ve often hoped, and occasionally prayed, for such a thing myself. That first couplet of the final sestet expresses a familiar wish too – the desire to live up not just to our thoughts, but to our words too – is there anything quite as shameful as failing to live up to boasts that we have proudly made in the past?

Other parts of the poem are harder to understand. In the second stanza, Thoreau seems to be asking God that he should disappoint his friends. This is less and less familiar concept in our age: the idea that true value, true achievement is not to be judged by one’s peers, or even by any human authority, but by oneself, or by God. This is how the ancient Stoics thought – man’s judgement was ephemeral and worthless, if your actions did not measure up to the eternal idea of the Good – or God. And this explains too, the exact meaning of the first line, in which Thoreau asks for ‘no meaner pelf’. From the humility of the poem, it seems as if this line ought to be ‘no greater pelf’ – as in, I’m not asking for great fame and riches, but only that I don’t disappoint myself. In fact, this, to those of a stoical bent, is the greatest gift of all, and the most that could be asked for, hence, ‘no meaner pelf’.

I must admit to being a little stumped by a couple of phrases in that last stanza, however. The first is ‘my relenting lines’. This probably refers to the lines of his writing or poetry, but in what way are they ‘relenting’ – are they excuse-making lines, lines in which Thoreau shrinks back from the duties he has laid upon himself? Or is it that the lines themselves could be the disappointment, and thus that part of the inspiration of the poem is Thoreau’s fear that he will not achieve what he hopes in his literary ambitions? More perplexing still is ‘overrated thy designs’. This for all the world looks like it should read ‘underrated thy designs’, for Thoreau is worried that in his behaviour or art he will fail to please God or do justice to his creation. Perhaps some Sweettenorbull readers could help me out with this in the comments section…

But there, anyway, is the model example of a ‘pelfie’.

Of course, I know how this will play out. The OED will not take the blindest bit of notice of the pelfie – they have to follow the crowd. Why, the ‘wealfie’ is a much stronger contender, or even the twelfie (a picture of oneself on one’s twelfth birthday), the elfie (a picture of oneself with elf’s ears) or the delphie (a picture of oneself consulting an oracle). But, dear spiritual, stoical brethren, this should not bother you at all, for the perfect pelfie is best when unappreciated by the outside world.



Filed under humour, Long Form, Poetry

12 responses to “The Pelfie

  1. ridiculous, buy witty. I like. Up with neologisms! (but only those with merrit.)

  2. Thoreau, who was part of the Transcendentalist movement in New England, was not a devotee of the Abrahamic God, but more of a pantheist whose “God” might have been closer to the Tao. His prayer seems more desiderata than petition. Bringing the Stoics into it seems spot on. That. he refers to his lines as “relenting” is a puzzle, but could relate to the fact that he was called a “poetaster” by critics of his time, his poetry being considered not very elegant. And “overrated thy design” could be another piece of humble pie, as in “I who am designed by you may not be intended for these things I desire to be…” Anybody’s guess. I believe one of the synonyms for “pelf” is “booty”. Maybe you’d have a better chance of getting “pelfie” noticed by the OED if you were to include in your definition not only that it is a certain kind of poem, but one written all the while shaking one’s booty.

  3. But don’t you think the image of shaking booty (wait for it) spoils the otherwise restrained tone of the poem? There’s something about a shaking behind that doesn’t sit (thank you) well with the Pelfie… the Belfie maybe, or the Twerkie…
    You sound about right on ‘overrated’, however. Your point about ‘relenting’ is interesting too. Actually, it seems a bit mean to say so, but some of Thoreau’s lines are a little inelegant, aren’t they? ‘Than that I may not’, ‘That in action that I may’…

  4. The latest encouraging word on your “pelfie” coinage came this morning in the form of a quotation on my little Zen desk calendar, straight from the horse’s…..mouth:
    “I know that the enterprise is worthy. I know that things work well. I have heard no bad news.”
    —Henry David Thoreau

  5. Thanks for that. Maybe 2014 really will be the year of the pelfie…

  6. I was (indeed still am) trying to undestand Thoreau’s poem “Prayer” when I stumbled upon this blog entry. Not only has your text helped confirm my initial understanding and cleared up some of my doubts, it has also brought your lovely blog to my attention; I will certainly be visiting it again in the future.

    About the poem, I’m also rather puzzled by “relenting lines” and by “overrated thy designs”. At first I had no idea at all what on earth “lines” could possibly be referring to, but your explanation put an end to the mystery. Although the adjective “relenting” is not yet crystal clear, I can put up with this partial opacity.

    As for “overrated thy designs”, my brain is still having enormous trouble deciphering Thoreau’s intended meaning. Even after reading Cynthia Jobin’s comment, I remain pretty much in the dark.

    I’m trying to translate this poem into Portuguese, and I guess I’ll have to keep ruminating on the verses and hoping for a sudden insight. I’ll also be sharing my doubt on an excellent English Language site I currently found out about, and if I discover anything, I’ll let you know.

    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your views on the subject and for keeping such a great blog!

  7. Thanks for the kind comments, Gisele. I’m glad to have found a new reader. It is interesting that you are translating this into Portuguese – and, though I don’t speak the language, I’d be interested to see the result
    Looking back over the post, and the poem, I think Cynthia grasped the meaning of ‘overrated thy designs’. The last four lines seem to mean something like ‘(I hope) that my conduct, or my written works, don’t show me to have misunderstood you, or to have (arrogantly – i.e. this is a misunderstanding born of the sin of pride) overestimated my own talent’. ‘Relenting’ is, you’re right, not crystal clear. It seems to mean something like failing, or yielding to weakness – i.e. lack of talent…As you said, if others have any ideas on this, let me know.

  8. Thank you, sweettenorbull! Last night after re-reading the poem & Cynthia’s comment a couple of times and thinking about what Thoreau probably meant, it suddenly made sense. And your reply, which I’ve just seen, has cast more light as well!

  9. My interpretation of Thoreau’s prayer:

    Great God, I ask thee for a gift of no lesser value than that I may not disappoint myself, that in my action I may soar as high as I can now discern with this clear eye [i.e., I’m asking you for nothing less than the very valuable gift of living up to the lofty vision I have of life].
    [And that, while my friends have thoughts and hopes that I will fit in with their way of life, that you will give me strength to disappoint them by staying true to my relationship with you, which they do not understand even in their dreams.]
    [That you may strengthen my writing until it is as strong as my faith, and that my life will demonstrate even loftier vision than my words describe.]
    [That actions I take that fall short of my vision, or lines I write that slacken or abate that vision, will not in the end show that I did not know your purpose or that I overrated your designs.]

  10. Thoreau knew that he was outside the norms in his thinking and values, that he was attuned to what he believed was a higher reality and truth. And he set as his life work to demonstrate and verbally describe that reality and truth. Because he was making a strong commitment, he prayed that he had not gotten it wrong, that he was not misunderstanding God’s purpose or overrating God’s designs.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Gordon, and sorry for the delay in replying – I have been away from my blog for a few days.
    I liked your interpretation, and in particular found your comments about Thoreau’s thinking illuminating. As you may have guessed, my knowledge of Thoreau is quite shallow – I was really going from the poem alone (which I read in an anthology), and I haven’t read a lot of his work. But after what you’ve said, the thinking behind the poem is clearer: this is the prayer of a visionary, not a someone with regular aspirations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s