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This article is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

More on Memes Chris McCully

'...To take a new acquaintance of thy mind'

William Shakespeare


In the last essay I tried to show how English metres might function as memes, and how the set of memes might contain the sub-set of metres. Metrical patterns would seem to be a priori candidates for memehood. Memes, whose existence was first postulated by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, are cultural replicators whose purpose is to survive: so, on this view, are metres. Memes must be memorable; so must metres be. Memes are transmissible; so must metres be. Successful memes must have high copying-fidelity; so - at an abstract level - must metres.

Tantalising though this is, the easy identification, 'metrical patterns are memes', has to be resisted. In particular, one might ask 'if a metre is a line, is a line then a meme?' Clearly, metrical lines are analytical primes - the formal objects within which constructional constraints hold - and they will be among the least startling candidates for memes. But then again, are stanzas memes? Are the halflines of Old English poetry themselves memes, or is the long-line of alliterative verse a meme?

I suggest that there's an interesting opposition between a metrical meme and a metrical scheme. The relevant opposition is summarised below:

Memes opposed to schemes

  • A meme is a metrical constituent within which constraints obtain. (Alternatively, and more carefully, 'A metrical constituent within ...


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