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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

'The scop's twang': Adventures of the Monosyllable in English Verse (3) Graham Pechey

This study began with some general observations on the history and theory of the English monosyllable and with some early-modern examples of its work in poetry. The instalment in the last issue examined first of all Blake's transformation of the 'mono-syllable-friendly' Lilliputian ode in the Songs, hypothesising that the Romantic poetic monosyllable aspires to the condition of the affect-laden apostrophic 'O'. Short words also benefit from the revival of the popular verse tradition; Coleridge's and Keats's exercises in ballad-pastiche are read as linguistically self-conscious (even polemical) uses of a core-vocabulary Englishness. Hopkins's experiments override the opposition of archaism and neologism in a verse style which renounces a regular syntax articulated by particles for a montage of fused or self-standing monosyllables thronging together and chiming on several levels at once. Finally, Owen's pararhyme is seen as gravitating naturally towards the rich homophonic potential of the little word; its work of aural disappointment at once parodies the Romantic 'O' and evokes the word imperfectly heard across the noise of gunfire. What follows takes the story up to the generation of Hughes, Hill and Heaney.

How fares the monosyllable under conditions of high anglo-phone modernism? The Formalist poetic that accompanied its Russian counterpart provides the terms for a bald technical description of these conditions - in particular, the diachronic principle known as the 'canonisation of the junior line'. This historical passage of devices from marginal to central roles might explain two major features: first, ...


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