Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Monday, August 1, 2011

Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics

It is a fundamental paradox of language that, as the Muses told Hesiod, it both lies and speaks the truth, expresses and conceals, represents and obscures. This antinomy is a constant subject for poetic language in particular which is, in Eco's terms, “ambiguous and self-focusing.” Two of the most frequently used devices in aesthetic texts — metaphor and rhyme — mirror this simultaneous likeness and difference. As such they may in their least significant uses merely mark off a text as poetic, but they are more likely to bear considerably more information.

Irregular uses such as “distant rhyme” in which the sound similarities occur separated by many lines of verse present an intriguing special case. Eva Guggenheimer’s Rhyme Effects and Rhyming Figures which finds meaning in inexact correspondences separated by twenty lines of epic verse suggests the attractiveness of the territory, to say nothing of Saussure's fanciful anagrams.) Without attempting any general theory on the specific properties of the phenomenon, I would like to offer a few observations on the use of distant rhyme in two Middle English poems. I have selected one example in which the relevant rhymes occur as part of a regular stanzaic pattern and one in which they do not, and regarding each I comment first on formal properties and second on thematics.

In the well-known “Bitwene Mersh and Averil” the rhyme scheme is ABABBBBC (stanza) DDDC (burden). The C lines here have an obvious structural utility. As the most consistently recurring end-sound of the piece, they bind it together. More specifically, they link each stanza with the burden and relieve the monotony of the series of B rhymes (which have created a situation in which even a non-rhyming line would be acceptable, perhaps even a relief). As a formal element, too, these rhymes raise the historical question of the relation of this sort of lyric stanza to the carol or other dance forms on the one hand and to the processional hymn on the other. Further, and more problematically, this pattern could be treated as an elaboration on the BBBA CCCA AA identified with Moorish poetry in which the A rhymes bind the whole.

Thematically, the rhyme has the definitive effect of returning the subject with an appropriately obsessive chime always to Alisoun. Just as her name concludes each refrain, it is partially contained and thus evoked in each stanza’s end. The specific rhyme words of these A lines explicate as well as buttress the poem’s theme: her “bandoun” is the problem of the poem; “adoun” emphasizes the gravity of the lover's distress; while “toun” strikes me as a throwaway conventionalized choice without specific weight in this instance. “Roun,” the last rhyme, directs attention to the poem as a poem, as though in the completion of the form Alisoun herself has been transcended by the power of language. The tension thus relieved, the piece can end.

In “Worldes blisse, have good day” the rhyme pattern is AABBAABA, CCCCDDC, CCEEEAA. This melodious and complex pattern, while not altogether predictable includes a return at the end of each of the first two stanzas to the rhyme of that stanza’s beginning, and at the end of the third a return to the rhyme of the opening of stanza one. This knits the structure neatly, reproducing the smaller in the larger and defining a pleasant circularity for the whole.

The rhyme words here indeed trace the poem’s development in miniature. The first two A rhymes are imbedded in an apotropaic formula increasing in vehemence from the ironically dismissive “good day” to the command “away.” One might say the day must “away” to clear the ground for the speaker’s meditation.

It is noteworthy that these opening rhymes are spelled (and pronounced?) differently from all the other A rhymes as though the disappearance of the –ay marks the success of the command of lines 1-2. “Me,” the next A rhyme, places the poet's project internally, while “tree” and “three” (evoking the Trinity) announce the subject and means of access. These images are themselves insufficient for his purposes, however, and the second stanza proceeds to the devotional exercise of visualizing the Passion. Its very lack of A rhymes sets it apart as a separate contemplative act. Finally, the likeness in difference between the “thee” which is Christ and the “me” as worshiper encapsulates much of the mystery of Christian myth.

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