Accès direct au contenu


Accueil  >  Abstracts and bibliographies


Ideologies of English: Anglo-Saxon, stress-clash, and twentieth-century conceptions of rhythm

Andrew Eastman, University of Strasbourg

I propose to study the way in which, for several twentieth-century British poets, conceptions of rhythm are defined in relation with conceptions of English.  Saying what English is implies distinguishing an essence or core, from the inessential; essence is a matter of historical origin, when English is defined in reference to the Anglo-Saxon, a matter of culture, when it is defined in relation to dialect.  In Ted Hughes's poem Thistles, these plants are identified at once with Vikings and with the gutturals of dialects, thus conflating the archaic with the vernacular.  Seamus Heaney, in the introduction to his translation of Beowulf, associates the Anglo-Saxon metrics which he finds in his early poems with Ulster speech patterns; he quotes W. R. Rodgers's assertion that Ulster people like the spiky consonants of speech/ and think the soft ones cissy. The idea that poems are to be made of concrete, monosyllabic words of Germanic origin is now a commonplace of a certain strand of discourse on twentieth-century British poetry.  Recent metrical theory, as exemplified by the work of Derek Attridge, also defines rhythm in terms of the nature of English, affirming that English verse forms derive from the natural rhythms of the language, that good poetry is that which makes use of these natural properties.  What underlies these approaches is the idea that a work of art is an aesthetic object, such that a linguistic sequence has a definable, describable nature which then can be linked to the emotional qualities it is thought to express.
Yet what the nature of English is from a rhythmic point of view remains fundamentally questionable.  For Attridge, nature, rhythm, and regularity are conjointly and interchangeably defined as the alternation of stresses and non-stresses; his scansions, invoking the metrical concepts of demotion and the implied off-beat, do their best to eliminate successive stresses and thus to discover alternating patterns.  Yet stress-clash, it appears, is a central defining characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon as refracted through Hopkins and sprung rhythm; describing his early attempts at writing poetry, which he calls as much pastiche Anglo-Saxon as pastiche Hopkins, Heaney gives the example:  Starling thatch-watches and sudden swallow/ Straight breaks to mud-nest, home-rest after. It remains that the identification of consonant clusters, monosyllabism, and stress clash with Anglo-Saxon is problematic; these phenomena derive principally, as Otto Jespersen shows, from the disappearance of case and tense endings in English words, characteristic of the development of modern English.
For these writers, talking about rhythm means assigning an essence to English, or discovering an essential English beyond its denatured forms.  Writing poetry then involves using the essentially English modes of organizing syllables.  Yet such descriptions of English are highly problematic, highly ideological constructions, caught up in myths of national identity, as the reference to cissy sounds above suggests; perhaps even more problematic is the implication that the language writes the poem, rather than the other way around.  In this sense rhythm appears, as Gérard Dessons points out, not as an object to be defined but as an epistemological problem.  The proposed paper will focus on the theory and practice of stress clash as a way of studying the ideologies of English active in twentieth-century British accounts of rhythm, centering on Hughes and Heaney.

Attridge, Derek.  The rhythms of English poetry.  London:  Longman, 1995 (1982).
Benveniste, Emile.  "La notion de «rythme» dans son expression linguistique."  Problèmes de linguistique générale.  Vol. 1.  Paris:  Gallimard, 1966.  English translation in  Problems of General Linguistics.  Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek.  Coral Gables, FL:  University of Miami Press, 1971.
Bolinger, Dwight. "Accent is Predictable (If You're a Mind-Reader)."  Language 48 (1972) 633-44.
Bolinger, Dwight.  Two Kinds of Vowels, Two Kinds of Rhythm. Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Linguistics Club, 1981.
Cruttenden, Alan.  Intonation.  Second edition.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997 (first edition 1989).
Golston, Michael. "Weathered measures and measured weathers:  W. C. Williams and the allegorical ends of rhythm."  Textual Practice 18(2) 2004, 251-264.
Holder, Alan. Rethinking Meter.  A New Approach to the Verse Line.  Lewisburg:  Bucknell Univ. Press, 1995.
Jespersen, Otto.  Growth and Structure of the English Language.  Ninth edition.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1958 (first edition 1912).
Jespersen, Otto.  "Notes on Meter."  Selected Writings of Otto Jespersen.  London:  George Allen & Unwin, [1962].
Meschonnic, Henri.  Critique du rythme.  Lagrasse:  Verdier, 1982.
Pyle, Fitzroy.  "Pyrrhic and Spondee:  Speech Stress and Metrical Accent in English Five-Foot Iambic Verse Structure."  Hermathena 107 (1968) 49-74.
Last update 16 Nov. 2009 - Archived 20 Oct. 2015
Site Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Bristish Poetry
15, parvis René Descartes BP 7000 69342 Lyon cedex 07 FRANCE