Putting My Shoulder to the Wheel

Have you ever allowed your curiosity to lead you far, far afield of where it started? I do that quite a lot.  Recently, I heard someone say “I need to put my shoulder to the wheel and get this done.” There’s something about language, especially phrases like that, that I find deeply interesting.   I’d heard the phrase about putting one’s shoulder to the wheel before, of course, but I didn’t know its origin. My curiosity piqued, I went looking.

It didn’t take much to get to Aesop’s fable about Hercules and the Wagoner.

A CARTER was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”

The moral of the story: self-help is the best help.

From there, I decided to explore the meaning of fable.  That led immediately to allegory and then to apologue, which then led to aphorism which led to apothegm which led to adage which led to maxim which led to proverb. And between those, I occasionally got sidetracked.

Somewhere along the line I realized what was happening; I was following language clues through a labyrinth that led me not just to answers, but to more questions and more clues. That, of course, led me to consider the word labyrinth and its meaning.  It didn’t take much to get me to question the word warren, then wonder about a rabbit-warren, then to start thinking about the use of warren to describe over-crowded residential buildings.  And when I pictured overcrowded residential buildings in my mind, I saw what are commonly called tenements. But then, for just a moment, I thought back to the rabbit-warren, and that caused me to remember a birthday card I’d sent to someone recently, you know one of those funny animated electronic birthday cards; this one included the phrase “vampire lesbian bunny rabbit.”

During this process, it occurred to me that I was learning or re-learning quite a bit about words, but some of the meat and potatoes of the context in which I found them was being left in the dust.  For example, at some point in this rather pointless exercise I came across references to Euripides and Aeschylus and Sophocles. Though I have heard the names and may once (long, long, long ago) have known a shred about them, I realized I know almost nothing about them today, other than they wrote tragedies.  I thought to myself, “I really should learn more about them…it’s embarrassing that I don’t know what they wrote and how they influence modern culture.”

My embarrassment led back to this: if I am going to become knowledgeable about the words I just explored and learn about three writers of Greek tragedies, I’d better put my shoulder to the wheel.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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6 Responses to Putting My Shoulder to the Wheel

  1. juan says:

    Trish I love the youtube video you present. I think it says what’s implied in the movie — and even more! Leave it to you to find some deeper meaning.

    I agree on your point, John. One of the things I explain to my students is the increased meaning in words and phrases from stories when one is “well read.” Often one finds Biblical phrases (especially with Steinbeck) in novels that increases meaning. As an example, only two days ago I was reading H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and came across the title of one of his chapters. It was entitled “The Thing in the Forest,” which is a title of one of A.S. Byatt’s short stories.

    That freaked me out — and so Byatt’s piece said so much more to me then!

  2. Trish says:

    Yes, a great blog note here by John!

    Juan, I’ve seen this practice of opening (the bible only) and dropping a finger on a line, though I’m not exactly sure who I saw do this. It wasn’t anyone in my family, so I’m going to have to say that it was my first husband, Eugenio, his sinister mother whom keep it at hands reach, or the famous ghostly like spirit (y amable), Padre Chavito that presided over our unorthodox marriage ceremony. One of the three…for I can’t imagine it coming from anywhere but there.

    Big bummer. Your video will not play in my country. Went directly to YouTube, and there are many clips, trailers, related to this movie. None are available here, with this one exception. Not a total loss, for this is a song that I’m unfamiliar with, but I ended up liking straight away! Bummer gone good!


  3. Juan, I recognize that line from the Old Testament, despite the fact that I’m sure I’ve not read it…at least not in its entirety. But literature relies heavily on a few key sources, doesn’t i? I’m thinking of works like the bible, the works of Shakespeare, and a few handsfull of other resources that spring forth like wells in our language. The clip from Remains of the Day is awash in meaning; maybe even more meaning than the words could conceivably convey alone…context is an amazing storyteller, isn’t it?!

  4. Juan says:

    I thought of that, too, Robin. Great poem, John….and if I remember it, the poem begins with

    “America, I’ve given you all and now I am nothing….America, 2 dollars and 27 cents, 1956….I can’t stand my own mind!…..
    Go fuck yourself with your Atom bomb; don’t bother; I don’t feel feel good….I won’t write my poem until I’m in my right mind!”

    If you remember “America,” then you probably remember these lines from another of his:

    “Hadda be CIA and the Mafia and the FBI, one mind, brute force, world wide and full of money!”

    What a great line!

    The greatest thing about language is its fluidity and the range from which interpretations can be worked. When we involved ourselves in the interpretation of text, then we are being interactive. So, sometimes when I am feeling lost or listless, I’ll drop open a book — usually the Bible or a collection of Shakespeare’s plays — and from blind randomization, then drop my finger on a line to see what interpretation I work from that line my finger has landed on.

    For example, I just now opened the Old Testament and dropped my finger at random on a line. It reads: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels” (Psalms 22:14).

    What does that line mean? More importantly, what and how and does it apply to me and my context? I suppose it’s something like soothsaying, but I think it’s a good exercise in creative input. It keeps me thinking……like your blog notes, John! 😉

    Today, I spent some time re-watching an old favorite movie of mine — “Remains of the Day” — possibly looking for something. This one still holds my attention for some kind of interpret-ability….such is the way of movies, plays, psalms, phrases, language and words:


  5. Thanks, Robin! I’m sure I must have read America before, but I don’t recall it. After reading your comment, I found and read the entire poem; lots of energy there!

  6. robin andrea says:

    I love when one word or phrase leads to such an epiphany! Or maybe not an epiphany, but a striking realization. Whenever I think about putting one’s shoulder to the wheel, I think of Allen Ginsberg’s poem AMERICA. Here are the last few lines:
    America this is quite serious.
    America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
    America is this correct?
    I’d better get right down to the job.
    It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
    factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
    America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

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