“How tame will his language sound, who would describe Niagara in language fitted for the falls at London bridge, or attempt the majesty of the Mississippi in that which was made for the Thames?” —North American Review (1815)
“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” —Edinburgh Review (1820)
Turning from an eastern dusk and towards a western dawn, Benjamin Franklin miraculously saw a rising sun on the horizon after having done some sober demographic calculations in 1751. Not quite yet the aged, paunchy, gouty, balding raconteur of the American Revolution, but rather only the slightly paunchy, slightly gouty, slightly balding raconteur of middle-age, Franklin examined the data concerning the births, immigration, and quality of life in the English colonies by contrast to Great Britain. In his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin noted that a century hence, and “the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side of the Water” (while also taking time to make a number of patently racist observations about a minority group in Pennsylvania—the Germans). For the scientist and statesman, such magnitude implied inevitable conclusions about empire.
Whereas London and Manchester were fetid, crowded, stinking, chaotic, and over-populated, Philadelphia and Boston were expansive, fresh, and had room to breathe. In Britain land was at a premium, but in America there was the seemingly limitless expanse stretching towards an unimaginable West (which was, of course, already populated by people). In the verdant fecundity of the New World, Franklin imagined (as many other colonists did) that a certain “Merry Old England” that had been supplanted in Europe could once again be resurrected, a land defined by leisure and plenty for the largest number of people. Such thoughts occurred, explains Henry Nash Smith in his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, because “the American West was nevertheless there, a physical fact of great if unknown magnitude.”
As Britain expanded into that West, Franklin argued that the empire’s ambitions should shift from the nautical to the agricultural, from the oceanic to the continental, from sea to land. Smith describes Franklin as a “far-seeing theorist who understood what a portentous role North America” might play in a future British Empire. Not yet an American, but still an Englishmen—and the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord still 24 years away—Franklin enthusiastically prophesizes in his pamphlet that “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land!”
A decade later, and he’d write in a 1760 missive to a one Lord Kames that “I have long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur and stability of the British empire lie in America.” And so, with some patriotism as a trueborn Englishmen, Benjamin Franklin could perhaps imagine the Court of St. James transplanted to the environs of the Boston Common, the Houses of Parliament south of Manhattan’s old Dutch Wall Street, the residence of George II of Great Britain moved from Westminster to Philadelphia’s Southwest Square. After all, it was the Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet George Berkeley, writing his lyric “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” in his Providence, Rhode Island manse, who could gush that “Westward the course of empire takes its way.”
But even if aristocrats could perhaps share Franklin’s ambitions for a British Empire that stretched from the white cliffs of Dover to San Francisco Bay (after all, christened “New Albion” by Francis Drake), the idea of moving the capital to Boston or Philadelphia seemed anathema. Smith explained that it was “asking too much of an Englishmen to look forward with pleasure to the time when London might become a provincial capital taking orders from an imperial metropolis somewhere in the interior of North America.” Besides, it was a moot point, since history would intervene. Maybe Franklin’s pamphlet was written a quarter century before, but the gun smoke of Lexington and Concord was wafting, and soon the idea of a British capital on American shores seemed an alternative history and a historical absurdity.
Something both evocative and informative, however, in this counterfactual; imagining a retinue of the Queen’s Guard processing down the neon skyscraper canyon of Broadway, or the dusk splintering off of the gold dome of the House of Lords at the crest of Beacon Hill overlooking Boston Common. Don’t mistake my enthusiasms for this line of speculation as evidence of a reactionary monarchism, I’m very happy that such a divorce happened, even if less than amicably. What does fascinate me is the way in which the cleaving of America from Britain affected how we understand each other, the ways in which we become “two nations divided by a common language,” as variously Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw have been reported as having waggishly once uttered.
Even more than the relatively uninteresting issue that the British spell their words with too many u’s, or say weird things like “lorry” when they mean truck, or “biscuit” when they mean cookie, is the more theoretical but crucial issue of definitions of national literature. Why are American and British literature two different things if they’re mostly written in English, and how exactly do we delineate those differences? It can seem arbitrary that the supreme Anglophiles Henry James and T.S. Eliot are (technically) Americans, and their British counterparts W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas can seem so fervently Yankee. Then there is what we do with the early folks; is the “tenth muse,” colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, British because she was born in Northampton, England, or was she American because she died in Ipswich, Mass.? Was Thomas More “American” because Utopia is in the Western Hemisphere, was Shakespeare a native because he dreamt of The Tempest? Such divisions make us question how language relates to literature, and how literature interacts with nationality, and what that says vis-à-vis the differences between Britain and America, the lion and the eagle.
A difficulty emerges in separating two national literatures that share a common tongue, and that’s because traditionally literary historians equated “nation with a tongue,” as critic William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature, explaining how what gave French literature or German literature a semblance of “identity, coherence, and historical continuity” was that they were defined by language and not by nationality. By such logic, if Dante was an Italian writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau a French one, and Franz Kafka a German author, then it was because those were the languages in which they wrote, despite them respectively being Swiss, Czech, and Florentine.
Americans, however, largely speak in the tongue of the country that once held dominion over the thin sliver of land that stretched from Maine to Georgia, and as far west as the Alleghenies. Thus, an unsettling conclusion has to be drawn; perhaps the nationality of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson was American, but the literature they produced would be English, so that with horror we realize that Walt Whitman’s transcendent “barbaric yawp” would be growled in the Queen’s tongue. Before he brilliantly complicates that logic, Spengemann sheepishly concludes, “writings in English by Americans belong, by definition, to English literature.”
Sometimes misattributed to linguist Noam Chomsky, it was actually the scholar of Yiddish Max Weinreich who quipped that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” If that’s the case, then a national literature is the bit of territory that that army and navy police. But what happens when that language is shared by two separate armies and navies? To what nation does the resultant literature then belong? No doubt there are other countries where English is the lingua franca; all of this anxiety over the difference between British and American literature doesn’t seem so quite involved as regards British literature and its relationship to poetry and prose from Canada, Australia, or New Zealand for that matter.
Sometimes those national literatures, and especially English writing from former colonies like India and South Africa, are still folded into “British Literature.” So Alice Munro, Les Murray, Clive James, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie could conceivably be included in anthologies or survey courses focused on “British Literature”—though they’re Canadian, Australian, South African, and Indian—where it would seem absurd to similarly include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison in the same course. Some anthologizers who are seemingly unaware that Ireland isn’t Great Britain will even include James Joyce and W.B. Yeats alongside Gerard Manley Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence as somehow transcendentally “English,” but the similar (and honestly less offensive) audacity of including Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath as “English” writers is unthinkable.
Perhaps it’s simply a matter of shared pronunciation, the superficial similarity of accent that makes us lump Commonwealth countries (and Ireland) together as “English” literature, but something about that strict division between American and British literature seems more deliberate to me, especially since they ostensibly do share a language. An irony in that though, for as a sad and newly independent American said in 1787, “a national language answers the purpose of distinction: but we have the misfortune of speaking the same language with a nation, who, of all people in Europe, have given, and continue to give us thefewest proofs of love.”
Before embracing English, or pretending that “American” was something different than English, both the Federal Congress and several state legislatures considered making variously French, German, Greek, and Hebrew our national tongue, before wisely rejecting the idea of one preferred language. So unprecedented and so violent was the breaking of America with Britain, it did after all signal the end of the first British Empire, and so conscious was the construction of a new national identity in the following century, that it seems inevitable that these new Federalists would also declare an independence for American literature.
One way this was done, shortly after the independence of the Republic, is exemplified by the fantastically named New York Philological Society, whose 1788 charter exclaimed their founding “for the purpose of ascertaining and improving the American Tongue.” If national literatures were defined by language, and America’s language was already the inheritance of the English, well then, these brave philologists would just have to transform English into American. Historian Jill Lepore writes in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States that the society was created in the “aftermath of the bloody War for Independence” in the hope that “peacetime America would embrace language and literature and adopt…a federal, national language.”
Lepore explains the arbitrariness of national borders; their contingency in the time period that the United States was born; and the manner in which, though language is tied to nationality, such an axiom is thrust through with ambiguity, for countries are diverse of speech and the majority of a major language’s speakers historically don’t reside in the birthplace of that tongue. For the New York Philological Society, it was imperative to come up with the solution of an American tongue, to “spell and speak the same as one another, but differently from people in England.” So variable were (and are) the dialects of the United States, from the non-rhotic dropped “r” of Boston and Charleston, which in the 18th century was just developing in imitation of English merchants to the guttural, piratical swagger of Western accents in the Appalachians, that this lexicographer hoped to systematize such diversity into an unique American language. As one of those assembled scholars wrote, “Language, as well as government should be national…America should have her own distinct from all the world.” His name was Noah Webster and he intended his American Dictionary to birth an entirely new language.
It didn’t of course, even if “u” fell out of “favour.” Such was what Lepore describes as an orthographic declaration of independence, for “there iz no alternativ” as Webster would write in his reformed spelling. But if Webster’s goal was the creation of a genuine new language, he inevitably fell short, for the fiction that English and “American” are two separate tongues is as political as is the claim that Bosnian and Serbian, or Swedish and Norwegian, are different languages (or that English and Scots are the same, for that matter). British linguist David Crystal writes in The Stories of English that “The English language bird was not freed by the American manoeuvre,” his Anglophilic spelling a direct rebuke to Webster, concluding that the American speech “hopped out of one cage into another.”
Rather, the intellectual class turned towards literature itself to distinguish America from Britain, seeing in the establishment of writers who surpassed Geoffrey Chaucer or Shakespeare a national salvation. Melville, in his consideration of Hawthorne and American literature more generally, predicted in 1850 that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day born on the banks of the Ohio.” Three decades before that, and the critic Sydney Smith had a different evaluation of the former colonies and their literary merit, snarking interrogatively in the Edinburgh Review that “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” In the estimation of the Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who defined the parameters of the tongue, Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, Charles Brockden Brown, and James Fenimore Cooper couldn’t compete with the sublimity of British literature.
Yet, by 2018, British critics weren’t quite as smug as Smith had been, as more than 30 authors protested the decision four years earlier to allow Americans to be considered for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. In response to the winning of the prize by George Saunders and Paul Beatty, English author Tessa Hadley told The New York Times “it’s as though we’re perceived…as only a subset of U.S. fiction, lost in its margins and eventually, this dilution of the community of writers plays out in the writing.” Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American novel? Apparently, the Man Booker committee. But Hadley wasn’t, in a manner, wrong in her appraisal. By the 21st century, British literature is just a branch of American literature. The question is how did we get here?
Only a few decades after Smith wrote his dismissal, and writers would start to prove Melville’s contention, including of course the author of Benito Cereno and Billy Bud himself. In the decade before the Civil War there was a Cambrian Explosion of American letters, as suddenly Romanticism had its last and most glorious flowering in the form of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Emily Dickinson, and of course Walt Whitman. Such was the movement whose parameters were defined by the seminal scholar F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 classic American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, who included studies of all of those figures saving (unfortunately) Dickinson.
The Pasadena-born-but-Harvard-trained Matthiessen remains one of the greatest professors to ever ask his students to close-read a passage of Emerson. American Renaissance was crucial in discovering American literature as something distinct and great in its own right from British literature. Strange to think now, but for most of the 20th century the teaching of American literature was left for either history classes, or the nascent (State Department funded) discipline of American Studies. English departments, true to the very name of the field, tended to see American poetry and novels as beneath consideration in the study of “serious” literature. The general attitude of American literary scholars about their own national literature can be summed up by Victorian critic Charles F. Richardson, who, in his 1886 American Literature, opined that “If we think of Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, the seventeenth-century choir of lyrists, Sir. Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Addison, Swift, Dryden, Gray, Goldsmith, and the eighteenth-century novelists…what shall we say of the intrinsic worth of most of the book written on American soil?” And that was a book by an American about American literature!
On the eve of the World War II and Matthiessen approached his subject in a markedly different way, and while scholars had granted the field a respectability, American Renaissance was chief in radically altering the manner in which we thought about writing in English (or “American”). Matthiessen surveyed the diversity of the 1850s from the repressed Puritanism of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to the Pagan-Calvinist cosmopolitan nihilism of Moby-Dick and the pantheistic manual that is Thoreau’s Walden in light of the exuberant homoerotic mysticism of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite such diversity, Matthiessen concluded that the “one common denominator of my five writers…was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.” Matthiessen was thanked for his discovery of American literature by being hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his left-wing politics, until the scholar jumped from the 12th floor of Boston’s Hotel Manger in 1950. The critic’s commitment to democracy was all the more poignant in light of his death, for Matthiessen understood that it’s in negotiation, diversity, and collaboration that American literature truly distinguished itself. Here was an important truth, what Spengemann explains when he argues that American literature is defined not by the language in which it is written (as with British literature), but rather “American literature had to be defined politically.”
When considering the American Renaissance, an observer might be tempted to whisper “Westward the course of empire,” indeed. Franklin’s literal dream of an American capital to the British Empire never happened. Yet by the decade when the United States would wrench itself apart in an apocalyptic civil war, ironically America would become figurative capital of the English language. From London the energy, vitality, and creativity of the English language would move westward to Massachusetts in the twilight of Romanticism, and after a short sojourn in Harvard and Copley Squares, Concord and Amherst, it would migrate towards New York City with Whitman, which if not the capital of the English became the capital of the English language. From the 1850s onward, British literature became a regional variation of American literature, a branch on the latter’s tree, a mere phylum in its kingdom.
English literary critics of the middle part of the 19th century didn’t note this transition; arguable if British reviewers in the mid part of the 20th century did either, but if they didn’t, it’s an act of critical malpractice. For who would trade the epiphanies in ballad-meter that are the lyrics of Dickinson in favor of the arid flatulence of Alfred Lord Tennyson? Who would reject the maximalist experimentations of Melville for the reactionary nostalgia of chivalry in Walter Scott? Something ineffable crossed the Atlantic during the American Renaissance, and the old problem of how we could call American literature distinct from British since both are written in English was solved—the later is just a subset of the former.
Thus, Hadley’s fear is a reality, and has been for a while. Decades before Smith would mock the pretensions of American genius, and the English gothic novelist (and son of the first prime minister) Horace Walpole would write, in a 1774 letter to Horace Mann, that the “next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and an Isaac Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveler from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul’s.” Or maybe Walpole’s curious traveler was from California, as our language’s literature has ever moved west, with Spengemann observing that if by the American Renaissance the “English-speaking world had removed from London to the eastern seaboard of the United States, carrying the stylistic capital of the language along with it…[then] Today, that center of linguistic fashion appears to reside in the vicinity of Los Angeles.” Franklin would seem to have gotten his capital, staring out onto a burnt ochre dusk over the Pacific Palisades, as westward the course of empire has deposited history in that final location of Hollywood.
John Leland writes in Hip: The History that “Three generations after Whitman and Thoreau had called for a unique national language, that language communicated through jazz, the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance…American cool was being reproduced, identically, in living rooms from Paducah to Paris.” Leland concludes it was “With this voice, [that] America began to produce the popular culture that would stamp the 20th century as profoundly as the great wars.” What’s been offered by the American vernacular, by American literature as broadly constituted and including not just our letters but popular music and film as well, is a rapacious, energetic, endlessly regenerative tongue whose power is drawn not by circumscription but in its porous and absorbent ability to draw from a variety of languages that have been spoken in this land. Not just English, but languages from Algonquin to Zuni.
No one less than the great grey poet Whitman himself wrote, “We American have yet to really learn our own antecedents, and sort them, to unify them. They will be found ampler than has been supposed, and in widely different sources.” Addressed to an assembly gathered to celebrate the 333th anniversary of Santa Fe, Whitman surmised that “we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashion’d from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only—which is a very great mistake.” He of the multitudinous crowd, the expansive one, the incarnation of America itself, understood better than most that the English tongue alone can never define American literature. Our literature is Huck and Jim heading out into the territories, and James Baldwin drinking coffee by the Seine; Dickinson scribbling on the backs of envelopes and Miguel Piñero at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Do I contradict myself? Very well then. Large?—of course. Contain multitudes?—absolutely.
Spengemann glories in the fact that “if American literature is literature written by Americans, then it can presumably appear in whatever language an American writer happens to use,” be it English or Choctaw, Ibo or Spanish. Rather than debating what the capital of the English language is, I advocate that there shall be no capitals. Rather than making borders between national literatures we must rip down those arbitrary and unnecessary walls. There is a national speech unique to everyone who puts pen to paper; millions of literatures for millions of speakers. How do you speak American? By speaking English. And Dutch. And French. And Yiddish. And Italian. And Hebrew. And Arabic. And Ibo. And Wolof. And Iroquois. And Navajo. And Mandarin. And Japanese. And of course, Spanish. Everything can be American literature because nothing is American literature. Its promise is not just a language, but a covenant.
Image credit: Freestock/Joanna Malinowska.
“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.