“It used to be a piece of good advice to all young writers to avoid alliteration; and the advice was sound, in as much as it prevented daubing. None the less for that, was it abominable nonsense, and the mere raving of those blindest of the blind who will not see. The beauty of the contents of a phrase, or of a sentence, depends implicitly upon alliteration.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, “On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” (1905)
When the first English poetry was given by the gift and grace of God it was imparted to an illiterate shepherd named Cædmon and the register that it was received and was alliterative. In the seventh century, the English, as they had yet to be called, may have had Christianity, but they did not yet have poetry. Pope Gregory I, having seen a group of them sold as slaves in the markets of Rome, had said “They are not Angles, but angels,” and yet these seraphim did not sing (yet). There among his sheep at the Abbey of Whitby in the rolling Northumbrian countryside, Cædmon served a clergy whose prayers were in a vernacular not their own, among a people of no letters. A lay brother, Cædmon feasted and drank with his fellow monks one evening when they all took to reciting verse from memory (as one does), playing their harps as King David had in the manner of the bards of the Britons, the scops of the Saxons, the Makers of song–for long before poetry was written it should be plucked and sung.
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, St. Bede described how the monks were “sometimes at entertainments” and that it was “agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turn.” But in a scene whose face-burning embarrassment still resonates a millennium-and-a-half later, Bede explained that when Cædmon “saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from the table and returned home.” Pity the simple monk whom Alasdair Gray in The Book of Prefaces described as a “local herdsman [who] wanted to be a poet though he had not composed anything.” An original composition would wait for that night. Cædmon went to sleep among his mute animals, but in the morning he arose with the fiery tongue of an angel. Bede records that in those nocturnal reveries “someone” came to Cædmon asking the herdsman to sing of “the beginning of created things.” Like his older contemporary, the prophet Muhammad, some angelic visitor had brought to Cædmon the exquisite perfection of words, and with a commission most appropriate–to create English verse on the topic of creation itself. When Cædmon awoke, he was possessed with the consonantal bursts of a hot, orange iron bar being hammered against a glowing, sparkly anvil; the sounds in his head were the characteristic alliteration of his native English.
That bright night in a dark age, what was delivered unto the shepherd were the first words of English poetry: “Nū scylun hergan hefaenrīcaes Uard, / metudæs maecti end his mōdgidanc, /uerc Uuldurfadur, suē hē uundra gihwaes, / ēci dryctin ōr āstelidæ / hē ǣrist scōp aelda barnum / heben til hrōfe, hāleg scepen,” and so on and so forth. The other monks brought Cædmon to the wise abbess St. Hilda, who declared this delivery a miracle (preserved only in 19 extant manuscripts). Gray described this genesis of English literature: A herdsman sang in a “Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon” to an amanuensis “who got learning from the Irish Scots,” his narrative being a “Jewish creation story transmitted to him through at least three other languages by a Graeco-Roman-Celtic-Christian church” with verse forms “learned from pagan German warrior chants.” The migrations of peoples and stories would, as with all languages, contribute to the individual aural soul of English, so that the result was an Anglo-Saxon literature that sounded like wind blowing in over the whale-road of the North Sea, reminding us that “Alliteration is part of the sound stratum of poetry. It predates rhyme and takes us back to the oldest English and Celtic poetries,” as Edward Hirsch writes in A Poet’s Glossary.
Read that bit of quoted verse from Cædmon aloud and it might not sound much like English to you, the modern translation roughly reading as “Now [we] must honor the guardian of heaven, / the might of the architect, and his purpose, / the work of the father of glory / as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders,” (and so on and so forth). But if you sound out what philologists call “Anglo-Saxon,” you’ll start to hear the characteristic rhythms of English–staccato firing of short, consonant rich words, and most of all the alliteration. Anglo-Saxon, if heard without concentration, can sound like someone speaking English in another room just beyond your hearing; it can sound like an upside-down version of what we speak every day; it can sound like what our language would be if imitated by a non-fluent speaker. Cædmon’s verse may have been gifted from angels, but the ingredients were his tongue’s phonemes, and unlike the Romance language’s rhyme-ready vowels, he had hard Germanic edges.
Such was the template set by Cædmon, for though “Old English meter is not fully understood,” as Derik Attridge explained in Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, it does appear to “have been written according to complex rules.” Details of prosody are beyond my purview, but as a crackerjack explanation, what defines Anglo-Saxon meter is a heavy reliance on alliteration, whereby what connects the two halves of a line, separated by a caesura (the gap you see between words in the bit of Cædmon quoted above), is an alliterated meter stress. In Cædmon’s first line we have the alliteration of “hergan/hefaenrīcaes,” in the second line the alliterative triumvirate of “metudæs/maecti/mōdgidanc,” a pattern that continues throughout the rest of the hymn. A meter that David Crystal in The Stories of English described as “the most structurally distinctive verse form to have emerged in the history of English.”
The vast majority of Anglo-Saxon’s “structurally distinctive verse,” as with all literatures, is lost to us. By necessity, oral literature disappears, as ephemeral as breath in the cold. Words are subject to decay; poetry to entropy. Only about 400 manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon survive, less than the average number of books in a professor’s office in Cambridge, or Berkeley, or Ann Arbor. Of those, slightly fewer than 200 are considered “major,” and there are but four major manuscripts of specifically poetry. The earliest of these, the Junius manuscript, is that which contains Cædmon’s hymn; the latest of these, the Nowell Codex, contains among other things the only extant Anglo-Saxon epic, that which we call Beowulf. Such is undoubtedly an insignificant percentage of what was once written, of what was once sung to the accompaniment of a lute. Much was lost in the 16th century when Henry VIII decided to dissolve the monasteries, so that most alliterative verse was either turned to ash, or stripped into the bindings of other books, occasionally discovered by judicious bibliographers. Almost all Anglo-Saxon literature, from poetry to prose, hagiography to history, bible translation to travelogue, could be consumed by the committed reader in a few months as they’re squirreled away in a Northumbrian farm house.
Anglo-Saxon has a distinctive literary register that revels in riddles, in ironic understatement, in the creative metaphorical neologisms called “kennings,” and of course in alliteration. This is the literature of the anonymous poem “The Seafarer,” a fatalistic elegy of a mere 124 lines about the life of a sailor, whose opening was rendered by the 20th-century modernist poet Ezra Pound as “May I for my own self song’s truth reckon, /Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days / Hardship endured oft.” Pound was not only bewitched by alliteration’s alluring galumph, but the meter of “The Seafarer” propels the action of the poem forward, the cadence of natural English speech tamed by the defamiliarization of enjambment and stress, rendering it simultaneously ordinary and odd (as the best poetry must). Anglo-Saxon is a verse, for which the Irish poet and translator of Beowulf Seamus Heaney remarks, where even when the language is elevated it’s also “always, paradoxically, buoyantly down to earth.” Read aloud “The Wanderer,” which sits alongside “The Seafarer” in the compendium known as the Exeter Book, where the anonymous scop sings of “The thriving of the treeland, the town’s briskness, / a lightness over the leas, life gathering, / everything urges the eagerly mooded / man to venture on the voyage he thinks of, / the faring over flood, the far bourn.” Prosody is an art of physical feeling before it ever is one of semantic comprehension–poems exist in the mouth, not in the mind. Note the mouth-feel of “The Wanderer’s” aural sense, the way in which reading it aloud literally feels good. Poetry is a science of placing tongue against teeth and pallet, it is not philosophy. This is what Heaney described as “the element of sensation while the mind’s lookout sways metrically and farsightedly,” and as English is an alliterative tongue it’s that alliteration which gives us sensation. A natural way of speaking, for as Heaney wrote “Part of me… had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”
The cumulative effect of this meter is as if a type of sonic galloping, the clip-clop of horses across the frozen winter ground of a Northumbrian countryside. Such was the sound imparted to Cædmon by his unseen angel, and these were the rules drawn from the natural ferment and rich, black soil of the English language itself, where alliteration grows from our consonant top-heavy tongue. Other Germanic languages based their prosody on alliteration for the simple reason that, in the Icelandic of the Poetic Eddas or the German of Muspilli, the sounds of the words themselves make it far easier to alliterate than to rhyme, as in Italian or French. The Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman-edited Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms explains that among the “four most significant devices of phonic echo in poetry”—rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration—it was the last which most fully defined Anglo-Saxon prosody, grown from the raw sonic materials of the language itself. To adopt a line from Charles Churchill’s 1763 The Prophecy of Famine, Cædmon may have “prayed / For apt alliteration’s artful aid,” but the angel only got his attention–the sounds were already in the monk’s speech.
Every language has a certain aural spirit to it, a type of auditory fingerprint which is related to those phonemes, those sounds, which constitute the melody and rhythm of any tongue. Romance languages with their languid syllables, words ending with the open-mouthed expression of the sprawled vowel; the spittle-flecked plosives of the Slavic tongues, or the phlegmy gutturals of the Germanic, and despite their consonants the gentle lilt of the Gaelic languages. Sound can be separate from meaning as something that can be felt in the body without the need to comprehend it in the mind.
In his masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the logician Douglas Hofstadter provides examples of individual languages’ aural spirit. Hofstadter examines several different “translations” of the Victorian author Lewis Carrol’s celebrated nonsense lyric “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. That strange and delightful poem, as you will probably recall, encapsulates the aural spirit of English rather well. Carrol famously declared “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Other than some articles and conjunctions, the poem is almost entirely nonsense. Yet in its hodge-podge of invented nouns, verbs, and adjectives, most readers can imagine a fairly visceral scene, but this picture is generated not from actual semantic meaning, but rather from the strange wisdom of English’s particular aural soul. From “Jabberwocky” we get a sense of its preponderance of consonants and its relatively short words, a language that sounds like chewing a tough slab of air-dried meat. As Hofstadter explains, this poses a difficulty in “translating,” because the aural sense of English has to be converted into that of another language. Despite that difficulty, there have been several successful attempts, each of which enact the auditory anatomy of a particular tongue.
In his memoir Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter, the performer observes that “Every language has its own song and rhythm.” If you’re fluent in fake French or suspect Spanish, you may naturally inquire as to what fake English sounds like. When I lived in Scotland I had a French room-mate whom I posed that query too, and after much needling (and a few drinks) he recited a sentence of perfect counterfeit English. Guttural as German, but with far shorter words; it was a type of rapid-fire clanging-and-clinking with words shooting out with a “ping” as if lug-nuts from a malfunctioning robot. If you want a more charitable interpretation of what American English sounds like, listen to Italian pop star Adriano Celentano’s magnificently funky fake-English song “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” where with all the guttural urgency THAT our language requires, he sings out “Uis de seim cius nau op de seim/Ol uoit men in de colobos dai/Not s de seim laikiu de promisdin/Iu nau in trabol lovgiai ciu gen.”
If every language has this sonic sense, then poetry is the ultimate manifestation of a tongue’s unique genius; a language’s consciousness made manifest and self-aware, bottled and preserved into the artifact of verse. Language lives not in the mind, but rather in the larynx, the soft pallet, the mouth, and the tongue, and its progeny are the soft serpentine sibilant, the moist plosive, the chest gutturals’ heart-burn. A language’s poetry will reflect the natural sounds that have developed for its speakers, as can be witnessed in the meandering inter-locking softness of Italian ottava rima or the percussive trochaic tetrameter of Finland’s The Kalevala. For Romance languages, rhyme is relatively easy–all of those vowels at the ends of words. That Anglo-Saxon meter should be so heavily alliterative, along with its consonant-heavy West Germanic cousins like Frisian, also makes sense. Why then is rhyme historically the currency of English language poetry after the Anglo-Saxon era? After all, one couldn’t imagine a philistine’s declaration of “This can’t be poetry; it doesn’t alliterate.”
The reasons are both complex and contested, though the hypothesis is that following the Norman invasion (1066 and all that) Romance poetic styles were imposed on the Germanic speaking peoples (as indeed they’d once imposed their language on the Celts). In A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie, she writes that “In the history of English poetry, rhyme takes over when alliteration leaves off.” A century-and-a-half of free verse, and almost five centuries of blank verse, and so enshrined is rhyme that your average reader still assumes that it’s definitional to what poetry is. But alliteration, despite its integral role in the birth of our prosody, and its continual presence (often accidental) in our everyday speech, is relegated to the role of adult child from a first marriage whose invitation to Thanksgiving dinner has been lost in the mail. There is an important historical exception to this, during the High Middle Ages, when the Germanic throatiness of old English was rounded out by the softness of Norman French and some poets chose to once again write their verse in the characteristic alliterative meter of their ancestors. Or maybe that’s what happened, it’s entirely possible that English poets never chose to abandon alliteration, and the so-called alliterative revival with poems like the anonymous Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and William Langland’s Piers Plowman are just that which survives, giving the illusion that something has returned which never actually left.
In All the Fun’s in How you Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification, Timothy Steele writes that some regard the alliterative revival as a “conscious protest against the emerging accentual-syllabic tradition and as a nationalistic effort to turn English verse back to its German origins.” Whether that’s the case is an issue for medievalists to debate. What is true is that the Middle English poetry of this period represents a vernacular renaissance of the 13th and 14th centuries when much English poetry read as, well, English. Again, with a sense of mouth feel, read aloud Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when the titular emerald man picks up his just severed head and says, “you must solemnly swear/that you’ll seek me yourself; that you’ll search me out/to the ends of the earth to earn the same blow/as you’ll dole out today in this decorous hall.” That “s,” and “e,” and “d” – there’s a pleasure in reading alliteration that can avoid the artifice of rhyme, with its straitjacket alterity. Armitage explains that “alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads” (that line itself replicating Anglo-Saxon meter, albeit in prose). For the translator, alliteration exists as “percussive patterning” which is there to “reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory,” what Crystal calls “phonological mnemonics.”
But if the alliterative poetry of the High Middle Ages signaled not a rupture but an occluded continuity, then it is true that by the arrival of the Renaissance, rhyme would permanently supplant it as the prosodic element du jour. Adoption of continental models of verse are in large part due to the coming influence of Renaissance humanism, yet the 14th-century also saw the political turmoil of the Peasant’s Rebellion, when an English-speaking rabble organized against the French-speaking aristocracy, motivated by a proto-Protestant religious movement called Lollardy and celebrated in a flowering of vernacular spiritual writing, which contributed to the Church’s eventual fear of bible translation. As the rebellion would be violently put down in 1381, there was a general distrust among the ruling classes of scripture rendered into an English tongue–could a similar distrust of alliteration, too common and simple, have shifted poetry away from it for good? Melvyn Bragg writes in The Adventures of English: The Biography of a Language that poets like Langland (himself possibly a Lollard) rendered their verse “more believable for being so plainly painted,” a poetry “meant to sound like the language of the people.” This was precisely what was to be avoided, and so perhaps alliteration migrated from the rarefied realms of poetry back to simple speech, eventually reserved mostly for instances in which, as Bragg writes, there is a need to “Grab the listener’s or reader’s attention…such as in news headlines and advertising slogans.”
Madison Avenue understands alliteration’s deep wisdom, such that “Guinness is good for you” (possibly true) and “Greyhound going great” (undoubtedly not true).” While at home in advertising, Attridge explained that alliteration is a “rare visitor to the literary realm,” with Hirsch adding that it now exists as a “subterranean stream in English-language poetry.” Subterranean streams can still have a mighty roar however, as alliteration’s preponderance in the popular realm of slogans and lyrics can attest to. Alliteration exists because alliteration works, and while it’s been largely supplanted by rhyme for several hundred years it remains in the wheelhouse of some of our most canonical poets. The 19th-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins largely derived his “sprung rhythm” from Anglo-Saxon meter, where he lets the Sybil’s leaves declare “let them be left, wildness and wet; Love live the weeds and the wilderness yet,” calling forth all the forward momentum of “The Wanderer.”
For exhibition of alliteration’s sheer magnificent potential, examine W.H. Auden’s under-read 1947 masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, which demonstrates our indigenous trope’s full power, especially in a contemporary context, and not just as a fantasy novel affectation for when an author needs characters to sound like stock Saxons. Across six subsections spread amongst 138 pages, four war-time characters in a Manhattan bar reflect on modernity’s traumas in a series of individual inner alliterative monologues. Alliteration is perfectly attuned to this setting, which Auden later described as “an unprejudiced space where nothing particular ever happens,” because alliteration simultaneously announced itself as common (i.e. “This is what English speakers sound like”) while also clearly poetic (“But we don’t normally alliterate as regularly as that”). Take the passage in which one of the characters, now drunk in a stream of consciousness reverie (for that’s what good Guinness does for you…), examines his own face across from himself in the barroom mirror (as one does). Auden writes:
How glad and good when you go to bed,
Do you feel, my friend? What flavor has
That liquor you lift with your left hand;
Is it cold by contrast, cool as this
For a soiled soul; does yourself like mine
Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you
Hiding in your heart, some angel face,
Some shadowy she who shares in my absence,
Enjoys my jokes? I’m jealous, surely,
Nicer myself (though not as honest),
The marked man of romantic thrillers
Whose brow bears the brand of winter
No priest can explain, the poet disguised,
Thinking over things in thieves’ kitchens.
That thrum supplied by alliterative meter, so much sharper and more angular than rhyme’s pleasing congruencies or assonance’s soft rounding, feels like nothing so much as the rushing blood in the temples of that drunk staring at his own disheveled reflection. Savor the slink of that “shadowy she who shares” or the pagan totemism of the “marked man” and the colloquialism of that which is “Hiding in your heart.” The Age of Anxiety perfectly synthesizes a type of vernacular bar-room speech that nonetheless is clearly poetry in the circumscribed constrictions of its language. In choosing our rhetorical tropes certain metaphysical implications necessarily announce themselves. Were The Age of Anxiety rhymed or in free verse it would be a very different poem, in this case a less successful one (despite our collective ignorance about Auden’s elegy). At one point, one of the characters imagines the future, imagines us, and she predicts that the future will be “Odourless ages, an ordered world/Of planned pleasures and passport-control, /Sentry-go sedatives, soft drinks and/Managed money, a moral planet/Tamed by terror.” This is, first of all, an obviously accurate prediction of life in 2019. It’s also one all the more terrifying in the familiar wax and wane of alliteration, for it calls forth the beating heart of English itself, and while not sounding like that stock medieval herdsman it still harkens back towards the primordial hymns of our tongue, of Cædmon strumming his lute while he pops antidepressants and checks Facebook for the 500th time that day.
Such experiments as The Age of Anxiety have been at best understood as literary affectations, or at worst declarations of nativist Anglophilia (as with Pound). Kinzie complains that alliteration draws “attention away from what words mean to hint at what are often the…irrational similarities in their sounds,” though I’d argue that that describes all rhetorical devices, from metaphor to metonymy, catachresis to chiasmus. She writes that alliteration appears “towards the self-conscious end of the continuum of diction,” but it’s precisely self-awareness of medium that makes language poetry. Hirsch writes that “Alliteration can reinforce preexisting meanings…and establish effective new ones,” which Kinzie interprets as mere “fondness for gnomic utterance.” But that’s the prodigious brilliance of alliteration–its uniquely English oracular quality. As with all verse, it’s these “gnomic utterances” that are birthed from the pregnant potential of our particular words, and alliteration’s naturalism is what makes it so apt for this purpose in our language. Prosody at its most affecting incongruously marries the realism of speech with the defamiliarization that announces poetry as being artifice, and that’s why alliteration is among the most haunting of our aural ghosts. Poetry is of the throat before it is of the brain, and alliteration is the common well-spring of English, sounding neither as contrived nor as straight-jacketed as rhyme. As such, why not embrace alliterative meter as more than just gimmick; why not draw attention to that aural quality of our language that is our common ownership? Our tongues already talk in alliteration, so let us once again proclaim our poems in alliteration, let us declare our dreams in it.
“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)
At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.
Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”
An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.
It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.
If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.
For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.
But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.
This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.
What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.
Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”
Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.
Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.
Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.
Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”
We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.
Image: Wikimedia Commons