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This article is taken from PN Review 162, Volume 31 Number 4, March - April 2005.

'The scop's twang': Adventures of the Monosyllable (2) Graham Pechey

In the first part of this essay a general linguistic argument about the homonymic potentialities of the monosyllable was applied first to English in general, considered as the European language with the highest degree of monosyllabism, and then to English poetry in particular. Belonging mostly to the Germanic branch of our tongue's wordstock, our short words boast a freedom of function which springs from a history of rupture and hybridisation as an Anglo-Danish pidgin modulates into an Anglo-Norman creole and then into the modern 'standard' we now write. English poetry is the place where the short word's shape-shifting skills are best exploited and sculptural effects of contrast with the (mostly Latinate) polysyllable achieved. An early-modern welcome to the monosyllable in verse gives way to a neo-classical embarrassment at such 'low words' and their supposed cacophony: the transition from a state in which the polysyllable appears by the monosyllable's permission begins to be reversed as early as the verse of Milton. What follows takes the story on from this point.

If the monosyllable fell on bad times in the eighteenth century, there was nevertheless one genre, predictably low down in the hierarchy of kinds, in which it proved an indispensable resource: the so-called 'Lilliputian ode'. Pope inaugurates the genre in his Miscellanies (1727) co-written with Jonathan Swift, imagining how a poet of Lilliput might apostrophise Lemuel Gulliver.1 The typical line being a monometer, the most usual word is therefore a monosyllable, and the difficulty of packing independent ...

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