Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus' Idyll V

The studies of rhetoric and poetics have closely interrelated histories. In antiquity the distinction between verse and prose was often far from rigid, and the early composition of rhetorical technai and their inclusion in the educational trivium led to their often assuming the role of real general theories of literature. [1] The process was continuous and cumulative throughout European history until a few centuries ago. Indeed, the chief medieval critical theorists (like Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendôme) write wholly about poetry but with an agenda, a vocabulary, and a conceptual foundation all borrowed directly from rhetorical thought. Even among the Greeks themselves, there is no clear line to distinguish the two fields: examples meant to serve the needs of orators are frequently drawn from Homer or other poets (the so-called “Gorgianic figures” have an explicitly poetic origin, for example) and, on the other hand, poets borrowed back from the exhaustive inventories of literary devices compiled by authors who were primarily concerned to meet the needs of speech-makers,

This interdependence of rhetoric and poetry is not the product only of the historical circumstance that rhetorical handbooks were written before poetry as such received much speculative attention: it is also the outgrowth of specifically Greek poetic practice. Beyond the fact that self-consciously cadenced prose was much admired, thus compromising the main criterion marking it off from verse, the ancient (and medieval) poets had a view of their art that caused it to be amenable to approaching rhetorical guidelines. The overriding concern for the reader (related to persuasion as a goal in properly rhetorical texts and to communication -- often of pathos -- for the poetic) [2] and the conviction that the job of the poet is to sway and instruct as well as to delight caused the two to coalesce more naturally in antiquity than they may seem to do for readers who are under the influence of romantic ideas that deny the importance of the artist's relation to his audience.

Beyond this, the ancients also held a highly conventionalized view of literature that stressed the importance of intertextuality and the significance of topoi and genre for the understanding of any single text. Inasmuch as rhetorical handbooks set down formal expectations and catalogued acceptable figures of speech and thought they tended to create their own anticipatory hermeneutic apparatus. Although their formulations were originally drawn from inductive examination of existing admired texts, they were then applied in new writing by authors bearing prior commentaries in mind in ways that would be unintelligible without the reader's being privy to the convention involved. It is this very heavy conventionality that makes much ancient and medieval poetry difficult to read and understand today, and it is specifically the task of rhetorical studies to illuminate that particularly troublesome blind spot. I regard Theocritus as one of those poets who wrote what might be called meta-rhetorical poetry, poetry in which --the devices and conventions of writing become more than ornamental or supportive of a theme; they become the theme itself.

This rhetorical rereading of a Theocritean idyll is today all the more necessary in light of the general revaluation of rhetoric which might be regarded as having begun with the work of Curtius and Zumthor in the 1940s and which has continued through Barthes’ rhetoric course at the College de France and other contemporaries who have perceived a deep affinity between the way that rhetoric has traditionally viewed linguistic artifacts and the newly evolving attitudes of today's critical avant-garde. A grand succession of theorists, the high-road really of European tradition, has consistently viewed literature as a self-contained object, primarily referring to other texts, highly artificial and only in ways that are either playfully trivial or highly conflicted and ambiguous attempting to “imitate” nature. Recovery of the implications of rhetoric for poetry will shed light on this theoretical question and on Theocritus’ position on the issue as it was posed in his day: in the Callimachus versus Apollonius controversy. [3]

I have selected Theocritus' Idyll V for examination with a certain arbitrariness -- any of his works or of those other poems associated with his name would do equally well. I believe that an analysis of the rhetorical code expressed in that poem will reveal that that code coexists with the semantic and acoustic codes, and, further, that the rhetorical code is the most significant of the three, [4] although it is the one most easily discounted or ignored completely. The choice of Theocritus is not, however, arbitrary. He is one of the Greek poets in need of resuscitation today. Though his name is secure thanks to the genre that he seems to have fathered, he is rarely read with pleasure and more rarely with understanding. As an Alexandrian poet he was highly self-conscious about his work and was probably familiar with much other poetry as well as literary theory and school-knowledge. His dramatic Idylls might very well be analyzed as little epideictic set-pieces, but in this paper I intend to concentrate on his tropes, figures of speech and thought. Though the whole procedure for planning discourse was adopted from rhetoric to poetry, it was the figures that are most relevant to this poetry. Rather than draw up a complete list of the rhetorical figures in Idyll V, I intend to isolate those few which seem to me most significant for defining the theme of the poem, for it is these which are most relevant to all poems which are similarly saturated with rhetorical learning.

Before turning to these figures, though, it is necessary to briefly sketch the general character of the poem. It describes an amoebaean competition between Comatas, a goatherd, and Lacon, a shepherd. As fictional speech put into the mouths of conventional characters it reminds one of the practice of writing epideictic showpieces in fictional personae. As a contest in language between two rivals complete with a judge and a decision, it places their use of words squarely in the agonistic atmosphere appropriate to the assembly or the courtroom in which rhetoric was so much at home. I will concentrate my attention on the words of this singing-match itself.

The very first pair of couplets Comatas and Lacon exchange constructs a conceptual pattern highly typical of rhetoric yet never analyzed by writers on poetry. Here it is clear that the argument does not proceed in either a logical or narrative straight line with a conclusion that follows from, and marks an advance over what had preceded. Rather, Theocritus is concerned only with the relationship between the parts — truly a case of a structuralist poem. It is purely formal, like the technopaignia so closely associated with pastoralism (poems in the shape of a wing, an egg, a pipe, altar, etc.). The purpose of these opening couplets is to build a pattern with an almost geometric sense of elaboration. The first few words set up the initial terms of an analogy: the Muses are said to stand in a certain relation to the author. But the reader feels as though the specific content is only secondarily significant. The fact that the sentence describes a love-relation is decorative, although it accumulates over the poem as a whole to the point that it constitutes an insistent recurrence which assumes importance by determining the limits of the whole rather like the border on a piece of fabric or pottery.

Just past the end of the first line the first full statement of relationship is established.

(ll. 80-81) Muses : Comatas :: Muses: Daphnis (Comatas claims superiority)

The poet reinforces this simple assertion with another relation that contributes the whole coercive force of sympathetic magic.

(ll. 82-83) Apollo: Lacon:: poetry: goat sacrifice (Lacon claims superiority)

Comatas’ response is to brag that he is rich in both goods and love.

(ll. 84-85) many goats: Comatas:: maiden’s love: Comatas (Comatas claims superiority)

Not to be outdone, Lacon claims equal ego-success.

(ll.86-87) much cheese: Lacon:: boy’s love: Lacon (Lacon claims superiority)

Line 88-89 expand on the previous claims of sexual attractiveness, the one to a woman, the other to a man. The two herdsmen then go on to compete mentioning particular objects, beasts, plants, and acts of love-making in an effort to bolster their cases. It is a lush texture of rhythms, images, and ideas.

What is the point of such a passage as this? It clearly has no real narrative or descriptive viability; the scene and the language are altogether artificial and convention-bound. The implication of contractual arrangements with the deities and the chain of equivalences “excellence=love=wealth=sex=divine favor=poetry” are established, but these were commonplaces in the poet’s culture. Here surely is the "incantatory" magic-like development of repetition for its own sake that led to both the fascination and the suspicion rhetoric attracted. Formal play leads the composition here as in a fugue. What is the status of the category of truth in this fragment of poetry? Is there any significance to Comatas’ eventual victory? Are their claims true? Might either exist apart from the other? This poetry seems to me imperiously indifferent to content and concerned primarily with the melodious possibilities of mental play itself.

It is my contention that these structural relationships are the poem's subject. The aesthetic appeal (for those to whom it appeals) is based on the symmetries and surprises of a system of formal play maintained through a complex series of metamorphoses through the entire poem. To refer to this sort of poetry as play, however, does not exhaust its potential. In poetry such play is often anathematized as decadent, but in the case of Theocritus it is subtle and coherent enough to support semiotic analysis as a series of codes open to bearing any number of messages though tinted with their own thematic coloration and quite demanding in their internal formal requirements. Besides, the thematic always lingers on: the preoccupations of pastoral — otium, the locus amoenus, the problematic sexuality of the livestock juxtaposed with the often conflicted relations among the shepherds – these concerns do not vanish altogether, even the difference between heterosexual and homosexual love. All these values and tensions are manifested in a well-designed pattern which itself affirms the “natural” values that correspond to the natural landscape.

Once such exacting symmetries are developed in the content of the poem, the prosodic form itself assumes a new significance. The nice antiphonal balance of concepts corresponds to the precisely predictable units of language allowed by the meter. For the remainder of the singing-match the momentum of these analogies in which the relations are almost too exact will be maintained and supported by the elegiac couplets. [10]

Another instance of form becoming content, of the rhetorical color itself emerging into the foreground through the play of its internal system of relationships, may be traced through the poem’s use of hyperbole. Now a certain provocative hyperbole is latent in the whole situation. The pretense of super-attractive, poeticizing rustics is the poem's ubiquitous invitation to “pretend” by idealizing, enhancing, formulating a pleasing reality that can be made only of words, but which as words possesses unlimited potential. The stanzas I have already considered clearly partake of hyperbole since, in the spirit of what the Occitanian writers would have called a gab (and which shares its basic antiphonal form with Bo Diddley’s “Say Man”), the speakers claim extraordinary relations with divinity, art, and lovers, as well as animal husbandry.

The device is exploited, in fact, throughout. For example, lines such as 124-127 are balanced as ostentatiously as those opening the singing-match, but they more obviously appeal to a taste for witty and extravagant exaggeration. Indeed, here there can be no question of hyperbole arising naturally from the exuberance of language under certain emotional occasions as it does in everyday experience — for Theocritus this systematic hyperbole is a major recurrent signifier of his whole system. The smooth texture of the verse, the obtrusively recondite character of his lexical choices, the blessedness of the pastoral hillside in so many ways correspond to the hyperbolic quality of the poetic assertions.

Another direct analogue for this hyperbole is the extraordinary plenitude of images. Whether one views this specifically as expolitio or simply as amplificatio with a vengeance, it is clearly an integral part of Theocritus' world. One may note, for instance, lines 92-97 in which ten different plants are named. Each has a role in fleshing out a series of ephemeral sign systems which arise and instantly recede under the pressure of new terms arriving in the following lines, leaving only the impression of perfect accord and a setting so fertile and full that its flora and fauna come to the lines teeming with tropical growth. [12] Here once again, a rhetorical figure has assumed such
prominence in the text that it has become the content. More important than the specific plants which are mentioned in these lines cited above is the fact that a great many are named and that each fills a pigeon-hole in the abstract scheme that provides the framework and the excuse for the passage.

Before commenting on what seems to me the raison d'etre for this poetic practice, I wish to indicate one further dimension of the penetration of the Theocritean poetic corpus with rhetorical devices. His language is “artificial,” a strange Dorian dialect that has occasioned much scholarly discussion. Further, the text foregrounds its own surface through an exceedingly free use of musical acoustic devices. One critic has described the poet's “very marked preference for alliteration and assonance” citing also the testimony of Hermogenes and Demetrius to the same effect. [13] The point is sufficiently obvious that a few examples will serve to illustrate what sort of effects Theocritus chooses. Homoeoptoton and homoeoteleuton are common [14] especially in certain locations: thus, for instance, they may reinforce the enjambment between lines (note the pattern of short and long o sounds at the end of line 82 and the beginning of 83). Like vowel sounds may also bind a couplet into a more tangible unit by reproducing at its end the same sound with which it began (as in lines 88-89, 128-129, and others), or they may simply accumulate within a line with a force approaching that of the Old English alliterative pattern (see, for instance, 1. 96 which is spoken by Comatas — the very same sound pattern is repeated for Lacon in 122).

There are many other rhetorical figures in Theocritus' poem, but my concern is less with their description and isolation than with their interpretation. What is the reader to make of these preferences already discernible in Idyll V for unreal symmetry in collatio comparison, a fantastic fondness for hyperbole, a tendency to uncontrolled amplificatio in the enumeration of parallel evidence, and at the same time a rich concentration of purely acoustic musical effects? To think one may dismiss this poetry with the label of “art for art's sake” is, I think, mistaken. What, then, do these habits of composition do other than the admittedly important end of amusement?

As I have suggested, this use of rhetorical devices in pastoral poetry renders the verse unusually open in a calculated way, polysemous by design as it is interested in depicting relationships, structure, and patterns rather than things. This receptivity to multiple interpretation is clear in the varied interpretive possibilities critics have advanced in discussing Theocritus. Many readings may be roughly classified by their tendency to use either form or content as primary data: content-based readings include those that think of the pastoral as Utopia (Marxist and Freudian readings are subvarieties here), and for form those that view the pastoral as the archliterary artificial set-piece. I believe a new possibility more in keeping with everything in Theocritus is available to the critic who can unite the two directions through a revaluation of the role of rhetorical figures which will also foreground the relevance of the pastoral to current critical debate. It would be a reading that takes semiotics into account in understanding Theocritus’ elevation of form to the level of content (cf. Eco's notion of the aesthetic text’s “semiotic redemption of its basic matter” [15]). The fact that the herdsmen are poets should be enough to justify this sort of view of pastoral as literary criticism, but the case is strengthened by the prominence of rhetorical figures I have been discussing. It is this striking density of figures in the text that has caused its pejorative characterization as derivative, effete, epigonistic scholarly dilettantism, but which in this new light allows these formal characteristics to become content. If the narrative line contains, not events or ideas, but relations and patterns of figures, then the meaning of the entire hypersign (to use Corti’s term) must refer to these figures as well. Although the text does develop thematic concerns which are altogether real (about love and work and death and nature, for instance) these are highly refracted, indirect, and problematized. They are not nearly so prominent as the essential implication of the poem which implies a claim for the possibilities of language for resolving or mediating contradictions in general, a possibility most nakedly apparent when the language is mercilessly self-focusing, when its powers are directed toward self-commentary and self-praise, at constructing what may be called a myth of literature, a myth of language. This poetry inclines decisively away from any sort of Platonic mimesis: thus the futility of polemicizing over whether the herdsmen are in any sense like real ones or whether they are Alexandrian snobs pretending. It tends rather toward a more Gorgianic concept of producing effective discourse which will attain its ends without claiming any correspondence between its data and lived experience.

The same opposition exists on the level of language. Again Theocritus is consistent with modern semiotics as well as with Gorgias in his implicit assumption that the association between signifier and signified is never wholly adequate, but rather is always arbitrary. In this self-reflexive reading of Theocritus, it becomes apparent at what end all the hyperbole is really aimed, and what cosmos possesses the incredible symmetries projected onto the verse. These apply primarily to language and to literature. It is there that all things are possible and the restrictions that so stubbornly adhere to the material creation no longer apply. Apart from the fact that this view of his poetry allows us to understand better, I think, what Theocritus was writing about, it also illuminates his position in the famous contention between Callimachus and Apollonius over the proper length of a “modern” poem. The fact that Theocritus is the most prominent of the exemplars of the school that advocated shorter poems has led many to take Idyll VII, line 45-47 as his poetic credo.

[Greek text omitted]

(For much I hate the builder who seeks to raise his house as high as the peak of mount Oromedon, and much those cocks of the Muse . . . )

One must question, however, on the basis of the foregoing discussion whether it is solely out of deference to the unrivalable example of Homer that Theocritus takes his position. [17] Rather his compass has shrunken precisely because the generous “realism” of epic in which everything is transparently meaningful is inappropriate to a language grown conscious of itself which tends to rely instead on internal interrelationships and self-reflexive meditation to generate meaning. The fact that Apollonius’ epic has come down to us with a reputation for learned over-refinement not so very different from Theocritus’ may itself suggest which of the two poets more accurately recognized the sort of discourse he was producing.

1. Often rhetorical concepts dominate even those treatises in which they do not have total hegemony, e.g. On the Sublime which claims (Ch. 17) that rhetorical devices are themselves inherently conducive to sublimity.

2. A mediating, transitional category is, of course, epideictic oratory.

3. In spite of his willfully obtuse comments about medieval literature in The Role of the Reader, Eco has a most illuminating discussion of the general rhetorical procedure in the European tradition in Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), p. 276-288.

4. The three codes with very little adjustment might be accommodated to those of Pound's ABC of Reading: melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia.

5. A search of the last twenty-five years in L'Annee Philologique reveals not a single article on the role of rhetoric in Theocritus.

6. Indeed, this particular idyll has not only a contest, but a judge and a decision, thus approximating a judicial setting quite closely, though the content fits more closely the epideictic “laudes — vituperations” as the participants praise themselves.

7. It is one of the special attributes of this idyll that those “golden age” pastoral assumptions are not only evoked but also questioned by the violence of the earlier sexual encounter between Lacon and Comatas which assumes the form of a prefiguration of the current sublimated contest.

8. In this it resembles those long series of almost identical poems in the Greek Anthology in which one poet after another tried to perfect the statement of certain popular topoi by altering only a few words of earlier versions.

9. The entire poem lends itself very tidily to analysis as Levi-Straussian antinomies.

10. Another example of the almost incredible Greek openness to an appreciation of symmetry for its own sake is the correspondences of strophe and antistrophe in the choruses of tragedy most of the effects of which are entirely lost on modern listeners no matter how fluent their Greek.

11. These three objects of their attention may be conflated by those readers who view the whole poem as a description of the process of sublimation of sexuality resulting in song.

12. I am reminded of the catalogues of the voice from the whirlwind in Job where the world of nature is emphatically not purely verbal, but rather is a second-hand representation of the grandeur of God.

13. Steven Walker, Theocritus (Boston: Twayne), p. 131.

14. Alliteration is quite common as well. One notable example is line 110 in which the t-sounds refer to each other and to the sound of cicadas.

15. Eco, p. 268.

16. This was the occasion for Callimachus' memorable comment “A big book is
a big evil.”

17. Feigned modesty, of course, is itself a topos. It appears, for example, in lines 39-41 of the same poem.

18. I am thinking of something close to the concept of epic realism in Lukacs, though I do not mean by this reference to imply that I subscribe to his methodology.

Dead Reckoning

I had meant to use this as the opening essay for a chapbook of poems. It was not until after I had put the collection together that I idly searched the phrase only to find not one but two poetry collections published during 2010 were titled Dead Reckoning. Am I swimming with the Zeitgeist? is it simply a commonplace idea? or the instant appeal of a more richly suggestive phrase than most?

In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds.
Thoreau, from Walden

Dead reckoning improves with experience, since the navigator must rely not on the revelation of instruments, but on a few precise calculations, based on an uncertain starting point, extrapolated with the rapid subconscious computation we call intuition. Without certainty but with dispatch, the sailor takes all the available data into account and moves on, always unsure whether the morrow will bring a new found Eden or a school of sea monsters or, more likely, something far more complicated between.

The territory between heaven and hell, between void and plenum is where the action is. History begins after Eden, when the plot thickens. With Hopkins I am greedy for that play of unpredictable patterns, glad for the pied beauty of dappled things, the irregularity of the calico cat’s colors, the chiaroscuro of the bright day forest floor. My heart, I confess, is an English garden far from M. Le Nôtre’s French style and always, for better or worse, neglected in spots, intensely cultivated in others, and overgrown in little-planned ways.

The reader or writer moves through a book as the traveler moves over the face of the globe, facing always the unknown. When I first arrived in Europe I had no itinerary at all, but simply set out, and in this I had the precedent of Byron’s Childe Harold who addressed his vessel at embarkation, saying he cared not “what land thou bear’st me to,/ So not again to mine.” But then one never returns to quite the same place after a journey, whether reader or writer or tourist.

I was once called a bricoleur, and I suppose I might plead guilty. My last book was divided into categories, but at bottom it, too, like the present collection is this and that, here and there, moving with the moment from one focus to another without architectural connections, rather as the eye does over the field of view. I admit that what results is a rag-bag, as Pound called his Cantos, a variety show in which a juggler or dog act may succeed a singer, as, indeed, once a hurdy-gurdy player preceded my poetry in what struck me as a most effective opening, and, if this collection is a hodge-podge, it is so only to the extent that the day just passing could be similarly described. I like to think my method has something in common with the young child whose arrangements of objects, using whatever is at hand, are quite often entirely arcane to some, but pregnant with intimate significance for the maker and for others who know how to play.

The fact is that, apart from the word’s adoption by Levi-Strauss and Derrida, the most common meaning of bricoler is “to fiddle or tinker” and thus “to make do with what is available.” Does this not parallel the catch-as-catch-can character of consciousness as one combines every new impression with the myriad that have come before to create an ever-changing model of the real? Everyone who has not received stone tablets from on high is, after all, fiddling and tinkering with the little that is known, making do.

My home’s kitchen runs at what I fancy to be a high standard, though with a methodless method. We buy utterly without plan and always privilege the cheap. This leads to fresh products, whatever is plentiful and in season, good in both quality and price. So what-it-may-be becomes the basis of the week’s menus. For cooks with catholic tastes and a bit of knowledge, this method cannot fail. For poetry, the reader may judge.

Just as every fruit has a particular grace in form and flavor, so has every place. I have lived in cities and countryside, in the West, the Midwest, the East, and abroad, moving not due to some grand career plan or life design, but because of slight or chance circumstances, and the appeal of a new scene, a series of “pavannes and divigations,” to use Pound’s lovely title. But who can do other than wander? Our very existence is dependent on countless unlikely conditions back through generations to the dawn of life, itself all but impossible – indeed, every fact is as improbable as a lightning strike or lottery win.

Not my writing alone, but my reading as well has always been altogether desultory, more dependent on what turns up in the Salvation Army or what catches my eye in a chance glance at a review than any scheme. I read works from every land and every age and admit that immense breadth cannot fail to compromise depth, but I doubt I shall reform.

Billiard players also use the verb bricoler, meaning in this context to play off the cushion, that is, to pursue one’s goal by indirection, just as literary texts use irony and metaphor rather than “straight” talk. These poems, then, may be seen as a sort of scrapbook, a collage, reminiscent of motley, tossed together in the backyard of the brain, art’s own atelier.

Starbuck, anxious about Ahab’s leadership, muses "...and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?" But which of us has access to one with fewer flaws?

Dead reckoning is good for to sail for the Deadman;
And Tom Deadlight he thinks it may reckon near right
Melville, from “Tom Deadlight”

Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century English Lyrics

Effects like those detailed here resemble most of our psychic activity in that they are ordinarily largely subconscious.

The continuity of the alliterative tradition in English poetry between the Old English period and the time of the so-called revival in the fourteenth century has been ably documented, [1] and the presence of the same tradition in lyric genres has also been noted and studied. [2] The precise function of alliterating phrases, however, has received little attention, apart from critical discussion of individual poems. Alliteration, like rhyme, is an extremely common way of making language literary and of directing special attention to certain words of the text. The most general function -- that of identifying the aesthetic text -- may be regarded either as an example of a learned cultural sign or as a natural outgrowth of the cultivation of melody. [3] By creating a set pattern, the author sets the bounds of his aesthetic text, reinforces its unity and marks its difference from other discourse.
Examination of thirteenth century English lyrics suggests at least two sorts of functions beyond this primary one of marking off poetry from the non-literary. Once the pattern of recurrence is established, variations on it may appear, including its meaningful absence. Alliteration may also work as a sort of thematic pointer indicating which terms and phrases are particularly significant in the poem. I shall further specify and illustrate each of these uses with texts chosen from Brown's English Lyrics of the Xlllth Century. [4]
The poems “Ichot a burde in a bour ase beryl so bryht” (76) and “Ichot a burde in boure bryht” (83) are similar not only in their opening lines. Both use alliteration as a central structuring device and a primary sign of the poetic character of the language (though both use rhyme as well). In each the alliteration binds the whole into a verbal texture of enough homogeneity to make the text discernibly “poetic” and unified. In the inexorable economy of art, however, the alliteration serves, as do rhyme and image-patterns, as a flexible tool that may shape and direct the poem in many ways.
In “Ichot a burde in a bour ase beryl so bryht” the alliteration is quite regular. Every line exhibits an alliterative series. Only two sub-patterns are evident. For one thing, the alliteration is constantly varied such that no initial sound is repeated from one line to the next with the exception of the eighth and ninth lines of each stanza which are — in every instance through five stanzas -- bound to each other by the same alliterating sound. This trans-stanzaic alliteration obviously provides a bridge between the extraordinarily sustained rhyme ending of lines one through eight in each stanza and the concluding couplet in the pattern XAAAAAAABB. The second sub-pattern is the occurrence of lines with two different alliterating sounds. This phenomenon appears nine times in the poem and in seven of the nine cases it is in the center of the stanza, in lines two through six. In this poem the central lines of each stanza are catalogues of the objects to which the beloved may be compared and it seems reasonable to treat the “breaking” of some of these lines as increasing the sense of plenitude of the lists. The objects named virtually tumble over each other, and their very multiplicity heightens the praise of the lady since neither any single object nor their aggregation is capable of truly corresponding to the qualities of Annot. [5] Thus the alliteration lends unity and coherence to the poem as a whole while also programming a very particular effect that enacts the poet’s love and generates an answering warmth on the reader or listener.
The same sorts of uses of alliteration are observable in “Ichot a burde in Boure bryht.” The entire poem is bound regularly by alliteration. One notes, however, that an unusual number of stanzas either begin or end with alliteration in “1.” This happens in four beginning lines and four concluding lines in the ten-stanza poem. Though by no means as clearly intentional as the foregoing poem’s alliterative bridge, this proportion seems sufficiently high to indicate that some aural effect is possible with the letter “l” as a sort of leit-motif in sound. Indeed, Brown may have been guided by this effect (consciously or unconsciously) when he titled the piece “The Loveliest Lady in Land.” While the “1”s may well remind the reader of the focus of the poem's interest there is a further suggestive possibility. When one examines the total figures for alliterative uses for each letter of the alphabet, the distribution is as follows.

A 4
b 11
c 2
d 3
e 0
f 5
g 1
h 5
i 1
j 1
k 1
l 11
m 8
n 2
o 0
p 3
q 0
r 1
s 8
t 2
u 0
v 0
w 4
x 0
y 0
z 0

Though it does not appear at beginnings and endings of stanzas, “b” is as common as “1” in total occurrences. Together the two sounds account for 3l%, nearly a third of the alliterating sounds. In the poem’s non-alliterating refrain “Blow northerne wynd,” the word “blow” is repeated five times, indicating the urgency and passion of the lover's emotion. [6] The frequency with which “b” and “1” appear, far beyond what one would expect in a random distribution, is surely some sort of subtext pointing back toward the refrain. [7]
The regularity of the alliteration is interrupted in certain places in the poem. In some of these cases (such as the last two lines of stanza four or the fourth line of stanza seven) the non-alliterating line actually has a stressed word with an initial letter identical to that highlighted in the previous alliterating line. It is noteworthy that there is an unusual concentration of non-alliterating lines in stanza four where half the lines do not alliterate. Once the pattern has been established, its violation or absence is a device present to the same extent as the alliteration itself. Without categorically claiming that the fact is explained by this observation, I will merely note that the stanza in question is that portion of the blazon which describes the middle and lower portions of the lady's body. The peculiarity of the lines may be due to the fact that conventions had not instituted equally common phrases to use for this passage or that the lack of alliteration may constitute a sort of negative subtle halo about this stanza suggesting either a self-conscious interruption of the rhetorical flow or a placid calm about which the rest of the description bubbles in turbulence.
In poem 52 editorially titled “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” alliteration is not structural in the sense of dominating the formal composition, nor is it aesthetic in the sense of being the primary indicator of the poetic quality of the text. It occurs frequently but irregularly through the poem, in very nearly exactly one-third of the lines. The poem is strongly influenced by other alliterative verse, [8] but it is basically organized around patterns of stress and rhyme. Thus in this poem, where the author is at liberty to include and exclude alliteration from any particular line, its uses should be especially revealing.
A catalogue of the location of the alliterating phrases shows quite convincingly that they occur randomly in different parts of the stanza.

first line 12_
second line 12
third line 10
fourth line 10
fifth line 13
sixth line 11

It is impossible to posit any manipulation of expectations here. It is true that alliteration tends to cluster at certain points in the text, with nine and ten line passages free from alliteration being succeeded by four or five lines each of which has it, but I have no explanation for this fact. They do not seem especially to collect about climactic passages or thoroughly conventional ones.
It is true that certain letters, as in “Ichot a burde in boure bryht,” have far more than a random share of alliterative phrases. In this poem the most commonly alliterating letters each account for about one fifth of the total. These are “n” (with 14 occurrences which amounts to 21%), “s” (13 lines or 19%), and “w” (12 lines or 18%). The next most common letter is “m” with 7 occurrences (almost half the figure for the top three) and after it “f” with 5. In this case there is no ingenious subtext like that I claim for the previous poem. However, the concentration of sounds is not arbitrary either.
The most easily analyzed letter of the three is “n.” Virtually all the lines alliterating in “n” do so simply because of multiple negatives. The repeated use of “nis,” “ne,” “nohut,” etc. is a formula of alliterative poetry. Such a line tends toward an insistent no-no-no, echoing perhaps the heat of the poem’s debate.
The second most frequently occurring sound is “s.” The collocations with this sound constitute a continuous pattern within the poem, what one might call a micro-convention. From the first “s”-line, number 14 “þat wol shilden hem from shome,” which defines the crux of the argument as the sense of shame in women, the theme is repeatedly restated and developed as the “s” sound recurs as an alliterating word at distant intervals. In line 56, for instance, the very same words carry the alliteration as the nightingale maintains that women “hem-self” “from shome shilde” just as the bird had demonstrated his similar virtue by shielding them. The same theme is restated in lines 132, 175, and 188.
This last example “ne shal I neuere suggen shame” connects this thematic series to another, also in “s,” which exemplifies a virtuous use of language in the telling of the story itself or with that fictive projection of the same act, the singing of birds. This theme appears in lines 15, 99, 122, 134, and 168. Thus the reader or listener accumulates a collection of instances in his mind in which the connections between parts of the work and the continuity of the whole are rendered more obvious by aural means.
A similar rationale underlies the repetition of “w” in the text. From its first appearance in line 8 “þat on of wele, þat oþer of wo” the choice available to the reader is clear. The entire poem is the working out of a dialectic in which not only two ideas of the nature of women compete, but also two eschatological possibilities. The danger of being one who “werche wo” (line 23) even if one be rich in “worldes wele” (line 47) becomes by the end of the poem an absolute one as the religious theme concludes the poem. Other lines beginning with “w” which develop the woe-wealth dichotomy state a problem which is solved by the mention in line 170 of Mary and Christ.
Looking at the list of all words in the text which alliterate (see list on page 8) one finds several distinct types. There are those in which the two words are similar or identical in meaning. These are very commonly those which are traditional — some indeed, like the “might and main” of line 89 have remained for centuries part of everyday speech. Others are different or opposite in meaning such as the “wele” and “wo” already discussed. This type is especially appropriate for figuring the basic conflict of a poem or situation. In many of the phrases, the two or three words that alliterate are simply items in a series such as noun and verb of a single thought. These are less likely than either pairs of likes or of contraries to be traditional or to be significant topoi which define set themes or values in a crystallized, immediately recognizable way.
One finds then, two sorts of alliterating lyrics. Those in which alliteration is used as a generative principle illustrate regularly recurring patterns which constitute the Gestalt of the poem, though even here the systematic repetition through most of the body of a poem does not preclude the development of specific patterns as well. In poetry which is not regularly alliterative, alliteration defines the central themes of the poem (in some instances, at any rate) and links specific passages in the individual text, through the repetition of lines or phrases common to other texts as well, with the tradition out of which it arises. The individual alliterating word pairs or triplets are often either norm-validating (when both are of like meaning and that meaning is culturally significant, such as "meek and mild") or norm-violating or problematic (when they contend in meaning and pose a sort of riddle which the poem seeks to investigate).

1. In J. P. Oakden, Alliterative Poetry in Middle English (Cambridge, 1935).

2. See Merle Fifield, "Thirteenth Century lyrics and the Alliterative Tradition," JEGP LXII (1962), 111-118.

3. Of course, alliteration is often used in non-literary contexts, but always with an “aesthetic aim” in view. Even vulgarisms like “He don't know shit from Shinola” convey attitude as well as information.

4. Carleton Brown, English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century (Oxford, 1932). I shall subsequently use Brown's numbers in referring to poems.

5. The implication is that she embodies nature while transcending it, a very widespread and ancient theme. See the excursus on “Flos florum” in Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric (Oxford, 1968).

6. Does the fact that the northern wind is to bring the beloved suggest something of the paradoxe amoureuse (to use Spitzer's phrase)? Surely much more normal would be the Zephyr as in the “Westron winde, when will thou blow.”

7. In terms of fancy, these suggestions hardly compare to the subtexts read by Saussure in Latin poetry.

8. Note Brown number 81 where alliteration is structural. The opening line declares the likeness and the difference by being the same except for the first word alliterating “Lenten ys come wip loue to toune.”

9. One recalls the conclusion's crescendo in the cuckoo song “Ne swik þu naver nu!”

Alliterating Words in “The Thrush and the Nightingale”

2 blostme brides
4 dewes darkneþ dale
8 wele wo
10 here hoe hende
13 nightingale none
14 shulden shome
15 skaþe skere
18 fendes I-fere
22 fikele fals find
23 werche wo
33 gome grete
34 nere nout nere
35 maked mones
36 nis no
37 ne nohut
44 nes non
45 ne non
47 weren worldes wele
53 nis non
55 meke milde
56 shame shild
62 boure I-be
65 derne dede
66 soule spille
77 counnen curteisie
78 nis nothing
79 mest murþe mon
88 witness wawain
89 might main
92 nevere non
99 songes singe
100 nevere no
103 muchele murþe
105 livie longinge
108 word wide
109 wide wel wot
111 nout newe
114 kepest I-knowe
115 constantines quene
116 foul fow
120 war wimmen
122 sugge songe
123 wite wide
124 be briʒttere
125 day daw
129 þer þou
130 þat þou
131 þer þou
132 shome shal
134 seist spille
135 wo wolde
137 moni mon
139 saunsum stronge
148 laste longe
151 nis non
155 ne nohut
156 ne nammore
163 werche wo
166 sitten striven
168 so seist
170 wam wes I-wend
171 maide milde meke
173 boren bedlehem
178 fowel for false
180 fare filde
181 wes woed
188 suggen shame
191 ne nevere

A Waterfall Near Marrakech

We left the market at Ourika, driving on with Hassan and Abdan bi into the mountains along the route of a lucid oued whose rock-filled bed is much larger than its present stream, passing a few small settlements, a pottery shop, terraced gardens, too small to be called fields. Above, the snowy heights passed in and out of view as the road twisted. The driver of our broken-down Mercedes played Bob Marley tapes and sang along in English with great cheer, innocent of any knowledge of the language. At one point we noticed a number of houses by the stream severely damaged, with exposed iron reinforcements protruding from their concrete walls and floors. Hassan said that at times the river swells immensely and pushes through the valley with a force that is titanic, if short-lived. Patricia asked if the builders didn’t know their work would be undone. “Oh, sure,” he answered, “but they sell it to some foreigner who wants a house by the river.”

In Setti Fatma (“sixty women,” says Abdan bi) the road gives out, turning to a rocky track shortly before the map says it will. We scampered around the river bed, taking pictures and goofing, together under the sun in sharp clear air. We walked on a bit further and then set out to climb toward the cascades. (Hassan asked the next passerby heading back toward town to tell the driver we will not return for some time.) Following the river up the mountain, we passed little homesteads with tiny lush green terraces. Small goats hopped manically around cattle with deep and empty eyes, but the homes soon gave out as we ascended, keeping close to the river bed. There had been a path at the start, but now we simply spied out the most likely route, making decisions moment by moment, passing from one side of the water to the other. Hassan explored ahead and waited, intentionally choosing the more difficult climbs for his own amusement. Abdan bi, in spite of his crippled leg, leapt and landed and leapt again. After Hassan told him “You are a monkey,” there was no stopping his scratching and vocalizing. We made our way over boulders, across slippery rocks as the temperature drops and new vistas appeared with every twist of the trail.

Once or twice we hauled over a rock to construct a better crossing. Rock to rock. I’m reminded of Dharma Bums, rock to rock. Back in time, the rip-rap of things, and here. And we’re holding hands and hoisting each other and making it higher and higher into the wet and shadowy crevice of the mountain. When we came to a handsome if modest little waterfall, Abdan bi merrily shouted a word he knows in English: “Higher! Higher!” And we climbed and climbed for hours until it seems almost too much and then – of course – Hassan pointed around the next rock and up – the cascades we were seeking!

Unaccountably, there’s a little wooden booth there, one man’s franchise. Who buys this man’s Coca-cola? His bread? Does he climb up here daily? His cell adjoined his business. We sat for coffee and gazed contentedly at each other. More pictures. Talk turned to racism. Abdan bi said, “People who feel that way should remove the pupils of their eyes since those are black.” Hassan found he has lost the pin he had been wearing for days picturing himself with Miles Davis. “He’s returned to Africa,” I told him. He said he wouldn’t care but had wanted to give the pin to Abdan bi.
There was ice there where the water trickled down the rocks. The falls were high, but afforded no sight at their foot of the massive white peaks. Suddenly, it was cold – time to go.

“We must leave here before 5:30,” Hassan said, “The water will come all at once and very big. I wouldn’t want to live here like this guy. Also, the big – er, monkeys, you know, they come down to find women who are virgins and they want to do some thing with her.”

Starting back, we discovered a better path, high above the stream, some passages even cut into the rock, much swifter going though still blocked here and there by boulders. Eventually the town below came into view, but we were a distance from the stream now, entering the terraced gardens. Making our way down into the village, we were on the wrong side of the river, but found another little rough bridge of untrimmed wood. “One at a time,” said Hassan. (Earlier, as we had crossed a similar structure, Abdan bi had launched his simian hijinks, jumping up and down to shake the flexible but makeshift little crossing.)

After a brief outburst of haggling over our prolonged absence we started back for Marrakech. Hassan recovered Miles Davis, not lost really, but waiting in the back seat of the beat-up Mercedes.

My Most Politically Active Year

As a young child, I fancied I might become a naturalist or a museum curator; perhaps I would train for the law like my father. By the summer after eighth grade, as I contemplated high school, thinking of right vocation, my interests had grown in other directions, though the reader may justifiably doubt whether I was developing toward greater maturity or toward some more unexpected and perhaps more perilous end. The most attractive professions, it seemed to me, were those of the revolutionary, the mystic, and the poet.

My reading was certainly to blame for these predilections. Apart from poetry of all eras and climates, I had been devouring Elizabeth Underhill’s books, with their generous quotations from the Christian mystics, their stories of events magnified with the lens of the marvelous, their demonstrations apart from authority and tradition of an ongoing experiential relationship between the individual and the cosmos. To go into trance and emerge enlightened! Here Vedanta, Buddhism, and the Dao could agree, and I could survey realms of Christian tradition that had no place in the tiresome Protestant church my family attended.

If one shortened the focus from Ultimate Reality to the social network, the hero was the organizer. I had long memorized the songs on Almanac Singers Talking Union; I loved the story of Debs in Dos Passos’ USA and that of Big Bill Haywood in his autobiography. The great moral struggles of the period, the civil rights and anti-war movements, were well in the future. (People speak loosely of “the sixties.” At the time I received my B.A. in 1967, SDS was small, demonstrators were still more likely to be mocked than cheered by fellow students, and every time I donned my NLF button and sat at the anti-war table in the Student Union, I enjoyed a day arguing with young supporters of the war. By the spring of 1970, of course, things had changed.)

In the spring of 1960 I was avidly following the presidential campaign. Probably because of his party’s name – the Minnesota the Farmer-Labor-Democratic Party -- a remnant of the brief surge of the progressive movement in the 1920s -- I fancied I supported Hubert Humphrey, though he had been a major actor in the purge of leftists from the party that allowed its coalescence with Democrats in 1944. Even in junior high school I should have pegged him for a frozen cold warrior, yet I lay in front of the Miss America model television set my parents had acquired not so long before, totaling the delegate votes on a form the Chicago Tribune had provided for its readers, and disappointed to see Kennedy chosen.

In my town, where the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were active, the Republican Party considered itself moderate. (It was in fact more broad in those days.) So, though I had decided I was a socialist several years earlier, campaigning for Kennedy remained satisfyingly adversarial. Upon volunteering, I found that the paucity of progressives opened many fascinating opportunities. I not only telephoned and stuffed envelopes, I gave speeches in bleak suburban strip malls in a van equipped with a marvelous loudspeaker. I was delighted to be among those threatened with arrest for trespassing into the precincts of private profit to distribute leaflets. Named precinct committeeman for a couple of the many areas that had no Democratic presence, I knocked on doors to introduce myself (just turning fourteen that summer) and more than once was told that I was the first Democrat the householder had ever seen in town.

The Party’s organization in DuPage County was indeed struggling. On higher levels bureaucrats saw no reason to waste resources in territory so clearly controlled by their adversaries, so, apart from a lack of popular support, the local group received virtually nothing from the state or national party.

Not even candidates. Our congressman was a feckless former sheriff Elmer Hoffman, but no Democrat cared to meet certain defeat by opposing him. Our candidate, Hayes Beall, was a New Deal progressive if not a revolutionary and a lawyer for the Cooperative League of the USA. Recognizing the difficulty of recruiting volunteers in the suburbs, he brought with him a team of agitators from Chicago including a folksinger who sang such catchy songs as

Where’s Elmer?
Where’s Elmer?
He should be down in Washington,
but he’s in Springfield,
makin’ a lobby
for the Sheriff’s Asso-cia-tion.


What’re we going to do with Stratton, [the sitting Republican governor]
What’re we going to do with Stratton,
What’re we going to do with Stratton,
Ear-lie in the morning?

He had other songs, for instance about civil rights, that he never sang in public. One recounted Martin Luther King’s recent arrest in Atlanta: “If Jesus came to Atlanta, they’d throw him in the jailhouse, too.” He surprised me by saying he usually voted Socialist. When I asked him his address, thinking I could visit him in Chicago, he claimed not to have one. When I asked where he slept, he said “in doorways.” He was doubtless just putting me off, but I was impressed.

My heart, though, was already with the non-parliamentary left. I attended rallies in Chicago for Kennedy but also for Fair Play for Cuba and the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). I can remember joining very small demonstrations at which the Chicago Police Red Squad photographed every participant individually and exchanged pleasantries with the regulars. I wrote to the Bay Area Students’ Committee Against HUAC and received a heap of literature, including a lengthy and detailed expose of the lies in Operation Abolition, a propaganda film made by the Committee itself and narrated by Congressman Francis Walter which at that time was being shown in American Legions, church halls, and school auditoriums.

The movie, of course, was meant to demonstrate the threat posed to Americanism by left-wing activists and motivate local citizens to join as active community anti-Communists. Many venues in the right-wing suburban enclave where I lived exhibited the film, and I attended most of the showings, armed with my data from Berkeley. I was stirred by the footage of passionate demonstrators shouting “What are you afraid of? Open the doors!” as they tried to penetrate the hearings, then sit down and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Then, after the showing, the real fun began. The host for the evening would invite questions, expecting a few inquiries about the best techniques for ferreting out subversives. I would raise my hand and ask about the deceptive editing and the patently false statements of the voiceover. The presenter would invariably be someone who knew nothing about such details and had never heard the accusations against the film. How could I lose? I sometimes annoyed the presenters to such an extent that they refused to call on me. Though part of no organization – I did recruit a friend or two to join me at times – I delighted in the role of a righteous mischief-maker. It was one I and others were to elaborate for the decade to come.

That fall I began high school in a lovely castellated structure on a hill over a charming lake. In my era the stereotype of the old-maid school-teacher had still a bit of reality. virtually all elementary school teachers were women, and many were indeed unmarried (though my mother, too, was a lifelong teacher). In junior high men appeared teaching science and math (as well as shop and physical education), and, by the time I reached high school, there was a group of young men, many of them fresh from graduate school, teaching a variety of subjects. Among them was a marvelous cultivated English teacher (whom I now realize was surely gay), a man who created a Latin American History class (and set his students to marveling at all the American interventions – we really had had no idea), and a fellow named Thamm.

Mr. Thamm sported a little chin beard, itself astonishing enough, but additionally significant in that it led to rumors that he was Jewish (in a town where Jews could not buy houses). Beyond that, he was sufficiently dedicated to education (and heedless of his career) that he hosted periodic gatherings at this house to discuss topics of social or cultural importance. Once, though I heard about it only at second-hand, they had even talked about homosexuality.

The superintendent of the district, who had long been principal of the high school, was a fanatical right-winger who, word had it, had refused to lower the flag at the death of FDR, considering the president a socialist menace. When we heard that Mr. Thamm was not to return the next year, we had no doubt that this was a case of political repression. (As far as we really knew, though, the cause of his departure may just as well have been instead his wish to return to graduate school.) I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and typed petitions protesting his unjust dismissal. Doing a few versions and using carbon paper, I managed to make eight or ten pages to bring to school.

People loved to sign the petition. Within a few days I and a few cohorts had collected over five hundred signatures, a good quarter of the student population. After stopping in at the DuPage Press to guarantee publicity, we made an appointment with the assistant principal who was sensible enough to accept the petitions graciously, though he might have discarded them once we exited. Had university administrators been as wise, many of the campus struggles of the latter part of the decade never would have happened.

Eager to be active in the miniscule left movement of the day, I sent in a membership by mail to the Student Peace Union; I located the I.W.W. office in Chicago, and the offices of other Old Left groups, and made the rounds visiting them, to discuss events of the day and of the past. A friend whose father was vice-president of a major American corporation invited a speaker from the Socialist Party to speak in a private gathering of sympathetic students at his house. Unless my memory deceives me, they sent Michael Harrington to speak to a half-dozen suburbanites in the wealthiest county in the Midwest. We were very serious and even taped the session on a reel-to-reel machine and later, for a few weeks at least, went over it like scripture. One of the participants let word of the gathering leak to his parents, and they proceeded to try to denounce the father to his employers, while remaining anonymous themselves. Harrington, of course, was hardly a revolutionary. Having come up in the right-tending Schachtmanite Independent Socialist League, he was to become prominent in Kennedy’s White House before his anti-communism hardened into views no one would consider progressive.

Thousands of other Americans could retail similar anecdotes. In retrospect, these straightforward vignettes may provide some depth to the voice of the 1962 Port Huron Statement which opens with the words “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” In some passages the statement is closer in language to some Dada and Surrealist manifestos, condemning, as it does, not the material sufferings of the protesters, but their alienation, denouncing the “apathy” and “emptiness of life” fostered by American capitalism.

Astonishingly, the New Left the document calls for actually materialized for a few years. SDS and other groups flourished, as long, at any rate, as the Selective Service System threatened young men with forced participation in a vicious colonial war. The ideals that millions had espoused when history forced them to choose evaporated for the most part when the pressure was off. The visions and ideals of the sixties gave way to unapologetic greed in the mainstream, while punk nihilism made sixties intoxication seem wholesome by contrast at least in retrospect. Dwight Eisenhower came to seem positively benevolent in contrast to the corporatist extremes of Reagan and George Bush fils.