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There's a passage in George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (published 1885) which I can't really understand:

'Favour can't help coming by rotation, except in very extraordinary circumstances, and he was ahead of me with you, and takes my due, and 'twould be hard on me if I weren't thoroughly indemnified.' Mr. Sullivan Smith bowed. 'You gave them just the start over the frozen minute for conversation; they were total strangers, and he doesn't appear a bad sort of fellow for a temporary mate, though he's not perfectly sure of his legs. And that we'll excuse to any man leading out such a fresh young beauty of a Bright Eyes—like the stars of a winter's night in the frosty season over Columkill, or where you will, so that's in Ireland, to be sure of the likeness to her.'

Diana, the young beauty in question, is Irish.

My question is: why is there an article before "Bright Eyes"? Does it sound natural? I thought that the capital letters in "Bright Eyes" are there just because of Meredith's (or his epoch's) style, the author does use them quite a lot. But if it doesn't sound all right, it maybe means that "Bright Eyes" is a proper noun. On the other hand, the only person with this nickname I managed to find was born much later than the heroine of the book...

Thank you in advance!

  • Isn't this the 'a dream of a house', 'a whale of a time' ... snowclone (with very unusual noun phrases)? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 3 '16 at 10:53
  • On a related note, Dickens used the expression "a pair of bright eyes" in Great Expectations with the sense of an attractive (perhaps fanciable), young lady. If I recall, it was used by the convict Abel Magwitch when he was speaking to Pip. – BillJ Aug 3 '16 at 12:30
  • In case Columkill is confusing you as well, it is almost certainly a reference to the parish/town of Glencolmcille in southwest Donegal. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '16 at 21:26
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Bright Eyes is not a proper noun as we would understand it today, but it is creating a name by synecdoche — where a part of something is often used for the whole.

Here, he's creating an ideal person of beauty, characterised by her bright eyes, and giving her a name. The clue is in what follows, which refers to "the stars of a winter's night" — bright points of light shining in the dark sky.

The indefinite article simply chooses any Bright Eyes from however many there are in the world, just as one might choose an Andrew from all the Andrews there are.

  • This (and not the one about "poetic license") is the correct answer. – fdb Aug 3 '16 at 10:21
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It seems to me like a figure of speech. His style of writing may have invoked the capital letters to emphasize her being beautiful.

2

My first read is that "Bright Eyes" is the common name of a flower. Googling finds several modern flowers of that name but identification is difficult...

I did find an 1848 poem with perhaps similar usage, though it's ambiguous and may be a double entendre:

Mother! bright eyes make sunshine round thee still

I think the speaker is comparing Diana to a single flower of the species, "a fresh young beauty of a Bright Eyes", Irish flowers which are in imagery parallel to "the stars of a winter's night in the frosty season over Columkill". Mr Smith is quite the lyric poet.

1

My question is: why is there an article before "Bright Eyes"?

I don't know. I almost suspect a typo here. "of a Bright Eye" (singular) makes sense, as would "of Bright Eyes", and "of a Bright Eyed" would work as a modifier to an additional noun such as "countenance", but the omission of an entire word doesn't seem plausible as a typo.

Does it sound natural?

No. Not in modern English.

I thought that the capital letters in "Bright Eyes" are there just because of Meredith's (or his epoch's) style, the author does use them quite a lot.

This is my assumption. In previous eras the rules (of spelling, of capitalization, of... when you use singular articles?) were more ... fluid.

  • A young beauty of a Bright Eye would not make much sense, nor would a young beauty of Bright Eyes. It has to be plural, with an indefinite article, in order to make sense. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 3 '16 at 21:20
  • Let's agree to disagree @JanusBahsJacquet – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Aug 4 '16 at 11:15

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