Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Pearl-Poet's Use of Link-Rhyme

The linking word system of the verse groups of 14th century alliterative poem The Pearl is a striking example of textual accommodation to the simultaneous demands of predictability (for intelligibility and internal coherence) and novelty (a wholly familiar work would have no particularity and thus no real independent existence). Verse especially can hardly avoid taking an explicit position between these poles. The rhyme scheme within the stanzas of The Pearl indicates the clearly equivocal pattern ABABABABBCBC. The very fact that the simple pattern of alternating lines rhyming has become established after eight lines allows a variation to appear though the new C-rhyme is welded to the old structure by the re-use of the B-rhyme. The same sort of ambivalence is evident in the linking words: they act at once to pull the text together and to articulate its changes.

A simple glance at a list of the linking words will suffice to demonstrate their primary unifying functions: spot, dub, more, precios, pyece in perles pyʒt, juel, deme, blysse, quen of cortayse, date, more, grace inoghe, ryʒte, perle, Jerusalem, lesse, mote, John, sunne ne mone, delyt, paye. The most apparent fact about this list is that virtually all the linking words are positive, even hyperbolic, and the accumulation of their associations tends to ring the poem with an appropriate nimbus corresponding in purely linguistic terms to the poet’s removal from everyday life as described in the text. This aura of glory is of course particularly strong about the Pearl herself and indeed, the word “pearl” is twice the linking word, while the semantically similar “jewel” is used once. The only negative sounding words (lesse, mote) are used only for litotes. Thus they function in context as positive markers. “More” occurs twice, as though to point to the transcendent aim of the poem.

As a unifying device, the linking words tie groups of stanzas and individual stanzas and link the end of the poem to the beginning. They even tend to begin with the same sound (three-quarters of them begin with one of five letters — an improbable result in a random word-list).

The divisive, particularizing aspect of the linking words, though, is also operative in every case. They generally avoid exact duplication of meaning even in the different occurrences of a single word, preferring to trace a field of semantic variation within which the term can oscillate between meanings. For example the first linking word “spot” is used in two different senses alternately through its ten repetitions. In the second group, the word “dub” is used as a noun and as a verb, while “more” in the third modifies different parts of speech.

In the fourth group, the link formula is a phrase rather than a word and sometimes only one of its terms is repeated, sometimes all four. In the fifth group, the word “juel” refers to the man (as jeweler) in some lines and to the woman (as precious) in others. This variation in meaning is not necessitated by the conditions of composition: it would have been possible to retain much closer the original meaning for each word. I believe the poet is consciously manipulating the value of these key-words and thus reflecting on the instability of the rest of his verbal creation. The fact that this variation is part of the design of the poem is more obvious when one notices that it intensifies toward the end of each sequence. There is a greater likelihood of new “complicating” meanings appearing in the very last use of each word, the one that is in a “foreign” strophe group. (See stanzas 31 where “deme” means simply say for the first time, 36 where “bliss” is lengthened to “blissful,” 45 where “date” means simply time, etc.)

There are a few linking words missing where one would expect them to be; this disruption is clearly possible only within a context of order. For instance, the failure to provide an expected linking word at the opening of stanza 61 announces the critical looseness that transforms “perle” into “maskel” as key-word of group XIII.

The potential for transformation from the mundane to the priceless is indeed the poem's theme, but it is also the poem's style.

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