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Rhyme as Rhythm.


W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing (1955) begins with a musical sound:

Very gently struck
The quay night bell.

No rhyme, but a clear three-beat rhythm: but note how, gently, the lines strike another rhythm that crosses the line break, a rhythm generated by the e-repetition running from ‘Very’ through ‘gently’ through to ‘bell’: that triplet accompanies, as it were, the three-beat form of the individual lines: it strikes three, too. But it also adds musical echoic emphasis to ‘bell’, to my ear: the ‘e’ in ‘bell’ resonates because the same sound has already been twice struck: ‘very gently bell’ – the natural inclination slightly to prolong a sound that culminates the sentence or semantic unit is given gentle force by the reverberation.

Graham goes on after a pause:

Now within the dead
Of night and the dead
Of my life I hear
My name called from far out.
I’m come to this place
(Come to this place)
Which I’ll not pass
Though one shall pass
Wearing seemingly
This look I move as.

Straight repetitions, as Derek Attridge argued in a 1994 paper,1 are odd because they raise not only questions about what to do with the repetition – should one perform the repetition without inflection, with a crescendo or diminuendo, or with different tonality? Whatever one does, he argues, the bare fact of the overt repetition ‘represents a resistant moment in the text, a moment where the mobile forward-moving energy that animates almost every literary work is suddenly thwarted’ (on Hamlet’s thrice-repeated ‘except my life’). In this case, Graham’s straight repetitions, ‘the dead’, ‘come to this place’ and ‘pass’, play variations on that resistant thwarting. The repetition of ‘the dead’ enters difference into the equation through the line-break change: ‘the dead / Of Night’ turns to ‘the dead / Of my life’, striking semantic difference into being: the name is being called from far out within time (the dead of night as witching hour) and from an ancestral crowd beyond the grave.

The repetition plays up difference zeugmatically. The second variation plays an Eliotic game: ‘I’m come to this place / (Come to this place)’ recalls ‘There is shadow under this red rock / (Come in under the shadow of this red rock)’ the parenthesis miming a sinister whispering, of a figure resembling Death itself. Graham’s repetition, then, charges ‘this place’ with The Waste Land’s spookiness, making it a liminal zone of the dead.

Graham’s repetition, then, charges ‘this place’ with The Waste Land’s spookiness, making it a liminal zone of the dead.

The repetition also plays up difference, not only tonally with the whispering borrowed from Eliot by way of allusion, but also with the shift from past tense to the imperative. What seems to be an arbitrary choice turns out to be an answer to a hidden invitation. The echo is not neutral, therefore: it invites us to accept quite specific performance directions and determinations.

The third repetition is more mysterious, closer to the thwarting effects Attridge outlined: Which I’ll not pass / Though one shall pass’ sets up a distinction between the poet’s determination not to cross the border between life and death like Odysseus in Hades, and some future actor, some second self, it seems, if we follow the logic of subsequent lines:

This staring second
Breaks my home away
Through always every
Night through every whisper
From the first that once
Names me to the bone.

The ‘staring second’ is both the catastrophic moment (the very second when his home is broken away from or is actively broken) and also the second self who will cross over into the realm of death in the future. Note too that the Eliotic whisper we heard in the parenthesis is foregrounded and takes aural form as an impossible voicing of dream night-language, an inner prompting out there in the dark sea as ghost voice of the dead heard as calling, as naming, as summoning to step over the line.

Returning to the previous passage: the repetition of ‘pass’ has an oddly unsettling effect because it also half-rhymes with ‘place’, so we have an end-rhyme effect half there as though whispered on the air – ‘place’-‘(place)’-‘pass’-‘pass’. It also has difference written into its flat repetition: the I will not pass, the other ‘shall pass’. What is heard is the tolling of the same sounds, miming the tolling of the bell, which sounds like the calling of the same name over and over again, a re-sounding. Here the verb becomes reverb, the passing overlaid with an extra sinister emphasis, the ‘one shall pass’ drawing prophetic intonation into the lines (as in the Biblical phrase ‘And it shall come to pass’, or NT’s repeated ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away’, Matthew 24:35).2 This mysterious other who will pass over, the ‘staring second’ self, will be wearing the same ‘look’ as the poet’s; but how strange it is that the look is something worn as which the poet moves. The syntax is a jumble that needs untangling, as if there is a demand coming from somewhere to unravel the knots to see what’s there. This might take the form of paraphrase, so: ‘this place I’ve come to which Death has prompted me to travel to by calling my name must be the sea of Lethe — only the dead pass over this sea: that bell tolling is tolling for me, its music calls my name again and again. But I’ll not pass over now, some other I will do that in the future, not tonight. The other I will look like me because he will be me, he shall be my dead self, the bone self that bears my name. The dead self wears the same appearance I have now within this place (‘seemingly / This look’ = he will have the same outward appearance as I do, he is my ‘semblant’) but I resist the thought, cannot face the idea of my own death, this other self is a stranger, the same look is a trick of the light, only seems so.’ Or we can unravel by tending to the syntax quite tightly, maybe working backwards: ‘I move as this look: this look will be worn, it seems, by the one who shall pass this place.’ If we turn it this way then ‘I move as’ means something like (to adapt Attridge) ‘my mobile forward-moving energy assumes this “look”, takes this form and shape’. If we allow that sense into the line, we need help, however. And help comes from rhyming beat-resolution, which in terms Graham’s own practice has here defined, means the tolling repetitions that name identity over time, over all time even beyond death, from mother naming me to the name on the tombstone: the naming draws ghostly force from the atmosphere into the present tense voice. The whispering name is inhabiting these lines and stalling the mobile forward-moving energy: but it also paradoxically stresses that same energy.

The rhyming beat-resolution here takes this shape: I suggest that having experienced the ‘place’-‘(place)’-‘pass’-‘pass’ end-rhyme effect, acoustic emphasis is placed, in ghostly form, on ‘as’ that the ordinary syntax and rhythm would seemingly deny. It invites us to see ‘as’ as stressed even though it can’t really be in performance without sounding awkward. ‘Wearing seemingly / This look I move as – the triple rhythm here would be a returning to the triple rhythm Graham had initially set up, the very-gentle-bell rhythm we might call it, which had been turned away from in favour of a two-beat from the ‘come to this place’ lines on). If the triple rhythm is allowed to occur through the inner prompting of the rhyming, this invites somewhat different meanings. ‘This look I move as’ means something like ‘this appearance I inhabit whilst I move’, but the offhand ‘as’ would point to how uneasy the poet is here, only half-acknowledging what the mind would rather not contemplate. The poet doesn’t really want to go there, and deliberately muffles the vision of his own dead self. ‘This look I move as’, however, does start to mean something: stressing ‘as’ would bring out the potential phenomenological sense to the line, as in ‘this form my mobile forward-moving energy is assuming as my identity’. The whole section ends:

Yet this place finds me
And forms itself again.
This present place found me.

The habit created by the straight repetitions marks another out here, of ‘me’ and ‘me’ together – that identity has been formed by ‘this place’ and this place has resolved itself into a liminal zone in contact with the dead, but also, creatively, as a zone of echo, the zone of echoic poetry, where one’s words are ghosted by the dead repetition of the past, and yet where identity, the I-voice, can be formally found: the poem names anyone who reads it as I – I read it and adopt and inhabit Graham’s subject position on the dark sea of language. I move as the look of the words on the page; and their seeming, once heard as an acoustic phenomenon, their heard look finds or has always already found me as rhyming prolongation of the dead identity left there on the page as ghost voice. The triple rhythm set up by the very gentle bell of the poem returns if and only if I allow the whisper of rhyme to single out this supplementary emphasis. If I allow the rhyming beat-resolution to scan the line as ‘This look I move as’, then the ghost of a possibility of the following scansion becomes plausible to my eye and ear:

Yet this place finds me
And forms itself again.
This present place found me.

That is, the present place of echoic poetry and its formal repetitions (‘forms itself again’) invite the reader, therefore, to become the I: the surprise at this actually happening, especially if we factor in the fear of death implicit in the haunting transfer of Graham’s mobile forward-moving energy, would then be there as the emphasis on ‘me’. And remembering how each straight repetition in the previous examples introduced difference too: we are equally invited to think of the ‘me’ as two, as both present I and the ‘staring second’ self among the dead. What ordinary rhythm and syntax would perform as a feminine falling away, with the rhyming beat-resolution becomes the fuller ending that acknowledges the reader’s involvement in the form.

My second example is from Bunting’s Briggflatts: in the preface, Bunting had stressed the importance of the acoustic system of his work, which had been created ‘[with] an ear open to melodic analogies[,] I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may, sometimes, be pleasing’. The opening section begins with a thirteen-line stanza that ends with a couplet, so formally speaking, the stanza foregrounds rhyme which since it is invisible as end-rhyme in the nine-line core of the stanza, points, I think, pretty clearly to internal rhyming effects as important to the way the thing works. Those effects are everywhere to be found: the style is richly textured acoustically, so the wonderful opening:

Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal

has more than pleasing sound patterns: they create a dizzying aural field. The sound-repetitions are a rich mix: vowels æ (brag-descant-madrigal), e (tenor-descant), i: (sweet-Rawthey), ʊl – syllabic l (bull-madrigal), consonants b (brag-bull), l (bull-madrigal), r (Rawthey’s-madrigal), t (sweet tenor – descant), n (tenor-descant-on), d (descant-madrigal), g (brag-madrigal). The tight internal rhyming signifies that this is the music that Bunting is playing to rival the double music of bull and river. In particular it is the word ‘madrigal’ which is most ‘rhymed’: every phoneme has its run or string of sound-repetitions bar m and I, though even here, the m picks up on the n-repetition and the i on ‘-they’. The polyphonic parts of the madrigal have their analogue in the phonemic iterative lines of sound. Note too how the effect is also to slightly alter the pronunciation and therefore the rhythm once we ‘see’ the rhymes and hear the patterns they trace on the air. The rhythm ought to run, classically:

Brag, sweet ‘tenor ‘bull,
‘descant on ‘Rawthey’s ‘madrigal

But the subsidiary stress in the first line there on ‘sweet’ invites one to hold a four-beat pattern in the air too:

‘Brag, ‘sweet ‘tenor ‘bull,
‘descant on ‘Rawthey’s ‘madrigal

Rhyming beat-resolution invites us to lay at least subsidiary stress on the ‘al’ of ‘madrigal’ too with the pull of end-rhyme habit (bull-madrigal) and the gravitational force of the æ-repetitions in particular (brag-descant-madrigal). This possibility acts as an acoustic manifestation of the counterpointing that ‘descant’ invites: we are invited to counterpoint the rhythm with this other cross-pattern. The extra stress does not make much difference semantically: except it underlines the sense already suggested that ‘madrigal’ has been musicked by the sonic work of the preceding words; and that music aids and abets the rhythmic potential set up by ‘tenor bull’. As such, it feeds into the theme developed throughout Briggflatts of the relation of text to voice: on this particular May day of the sighting of the bull by the Rawthey, a mason is chiselling a name onto a marble gravestone, the same chilling naming that Graham meditates on in ‘Nightfishing’: ‘naming none / a man abolished’. That marble deathly naming is compared to the ‘[g]entle generous voices’ of lovers making love on the marble slab that night, ‘words to confirm and delight / till bird dawn’. The double nature of art is at stake: the marble monumental-chiselled words of classically ‘dead’ immortal poetry; and the living language of desire of the sexy lyric. The bull and the river play out the opposition to a certain extent: the river’s sounds signify a liquid endlessness, language that aspires to the marble immortality of the mason; the bull is male desire, subject to time and death (the section ends with a bleak vision of spring’s ending when the ‘bull is beef, love a convenience’), yet nervily vocal with bellowing life. Briggflatts with its fusing of this Maytime scene with memories of Bloodaxe and his ancient battles gestures towards a fusional art both marble / river and bull / lover’s discourse: ‘letter the stone to stand / over love […] to trace / lark, mallet, / becks, flocks / and axe knocks’. The extra acoustic force given ‘madrigal’ by the fusion of rhythm and internal rhyming sings the fusional art: we see ‘madrigal’ for ever a printed word-object on the page that will last as long as culture will; and we are invited to hear it voiced in a descant of two ways of reading, one of strict order and logic, one of desirous heart open to the lines of delightful music along the lines.

What the beat resolution does not merely do is stress that this is a rhyme: it happens when the acoustic pattern set up by the rhyming strings of phonemes sets up a potential counter-rhythm.

What the beat resolution does not merely do is stress that this is a rhyme: it happens when the acoustic pattern set up by the rhyming strings of phonemes sets up a potential counter-rhythm. The third stanza of the opening section of Briggflatts will serve as example, of the range of effects that come under ‘melodic analogies’ for Bunting:

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement
trembling. Rawthey trembles.
Tongue stumbles, ears err
for fear of spring.
Rub the stone with sand,
wet sandstone rending
roughness away. Fingers
ache on the rubbing stone.
The mason says: Rocks
happen by chance.
No one here bolts the door,
love is so sore.

This is sung by the mason-as-death, comparable to the dark music heard by Graham on his nightfishing boat. The rhythm set up initially is a strong three-beat:

De’cay ‘thrusts the ‘blade,
’wheat ’stands in ’excre,ment

But the anapaest ‘excrement’ is already troubling things, and its enjambment ‘in excrement / trembling’ further breaks the three-beat rhythm set up by the first line. ‘Rawthey trembles’ is left isolated though repeating the wheat’s verb and motion; rhythmically the isolated two beats are later picked up in the short two-beat lines (‘for fear of spring’; ‘happen by chance’; ‘love is so sore’). Instead of full descant we have decay, signalled by a falling away from the bragging sweet music of bull descanting on the river-sound to this broken music. It is most broken, of course, with the lines:

Tongue stumbles, ears err
for fear of spring.

These are difficult to scan, mimetically so; how to perform ‘Tongue stumbles, ears err’ : as four or three beat? Four seems possible (‘’Tongue ‘stumbles, ‘ears ‘err’), but the two-beat of ‘Rawthey trembles’ is infectious, and the ear and eye see this pattern emerge: ‘Tongue ‘stumbles, ,ears ‘err’. What helps, though, is rhyming beat resolution which here plays a reinforcing role. The repetition of tremble in the previous line (‘trembling’-‘trembles’), the t- and m-repetition fostered by this, picking up the sounds of the shocking ‘excrement’, give equal sonic emphasis to ‘tongues’ and to ‘stumbles’; and ‘tongues’ is half-rhymed with ‘spring’ giving it more weight in retrospect. The two words ‘Ears err’, more subtly, gain force by the eye registering patterns: even though the ‘r’ in both ‘ears and ‘err’ is silent, yet the words on the page stir with the visible line running through excrement-Rawthey-trembling-trembles to ‘for fear’. The half rhyme ‘ears’ and ‘err’ is reinforced by the ears-fear rhyme. The net effect of this networking of the four words by the previous and following lines is to invite a full four-stress reading of the line, a reading that has the virtue of slowing the voice down and delivering the words as tongue-twister difficult. The effect is to produce a double two-beat that chimes rhythmically with ‘Rawthey trembles’ and ‘for fear of spring’. The fear of spring is Bunting’s own borrowing from Eliot, comparable to Graham’s parenthesis in that it draws similar sinister force from The Waste Land’s combination of death and sex. That fear becomes a difficult music in this stanza, a broken music of stumbling rhythm, uncertain listening. The counterpoint rhythm that the rhyme beat resolution secures counters this decay-effect by enabling rich rhyming to occur as a rough lively texture that goes against the mason’s ruthless and cynical rending and erasing. What delights is the satisfaction of multiple desires by this rhyming beat-resolution: it enables a descant to occur among the lines even within an excrementally impoverished scene; it invites us to voice the lines differently with desirous accents; it begins to lilt and swing according to a voicing that does not err or stumble but enjoys the patterning. It opens another sense of trembling; not the trembling of fear of the sexual energies of spring, but a trembling of sounds in and among and between the words that anticipates and relishes the gentle generous weaving of voices in love. Derek Attridge remarks on Blake’s ‘The Poison Tree’ in his 1994 paper that:

Syntax and semantics have to be considered together […] in their relation to the metrical patterning of the poem, if we are to understand the production of ‘true musical delight’; and if this is the case, an understanding of the poem’s musicality cannot be separated from an understanding of its play of meanings (69)

I would only add that acoustic patterning be added to ‘syntax and semantics’ when registering the rhythm of a poem. Sometimes internal and end-rhyming alter the ways we hear the rhythm of a line; and it is that rhyming beat-resolution that I put forward as my small contribution and tribute to Derek Attridge’s work on prosody; and it is, of course, a contribution that is itself indebted to that work.

ADAM PIETTE is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett; Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939-1945and The Literary Cold War, 1945 to VietnamHe co-edited The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature with Mark Rawlinson, and co-edits the international poetry journal Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.

  1. ‘The Movement of Meaning: Phrasing and Repetition in English Poetry’, Repetition edited by Andreas Fischer, SPELL 7 (1994), 61-83, (p. 76).
  2. Exodus 33:22 KJV: ‘And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by’.
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