Musing about Alliteration

When I was around ten years old, my father introduced me to this poem:

It was an inflection point for me. Until then, I had always thought of poets as creative people who expressed themselves in verse when caught by the muse; as artists who penned off heaps of poems in seconds flat as and when the mood took them. I had never considered the possibility that some poets worked at structure and tone and metre and scansion. A whole new world opened up for me, suddenly and with no warning, a world I liked as much as the world of “normal” poetry. I loved it, there was something satisfying in knowing that some poetry was worked on with perspiration rather than created by inspiration, without effort.

As a result of looking for the unusual in poetry, I found out more, not just about mnemonics and acrostics in verse, but also about satire. I learnt to enjoy Joyce Kilmer’s Trees (I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree/A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast) while still being able to enjoy Ogden Nash’s variant Song of the Open Road (I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree/Indeed, unless the billboards fall/I’ll never see a tree at all). Similarly, I could enjoy the Lewis Carroll Father William as much as the Robert Southey one. And all because my father introduced me to Alliteration, or the Siege of Belgrade. [At least that was how the AA Watts poem was taught to me].

Which brings me to this BBC article that told me about Christian Bok’s Eunoia. A book of five chapters, with each chapter dedicated to the use of one vowel and no more than one vowel. Gimmicky? Artificial? Yes, but so what? It’s the kind of offbeat thing I enjoy.

Incidentally, while looking for the Siege of Belgrade piece (which I found here, my thanks to Poet’s Corner), I also came across this offbeat site, Abecedaria, which introduced me to the delights of Tamil unicode. Now I must admit it never occurred to me to Google that.

5 thoughts on “Musing about Alliteration”

  1. JP,

    Fairly certain that this is not the original…
    For example, I distinctly remember, “for fame, for freedom, fight fierce furious fray.”

    As importantly, the there are a number of lines that seem completely unfamiliar… and that should not be the case even if I haven’t revisited the work in 35 years.

    And what completely foxes me is the fact that I remember this as being credited to Anonymous, not Alaric Alexander Watts.

    Will try and figure out what’s up. Perhaps AAW re-worked the original piece…

    Anyone out there with answers?

  2. Anant, you may be right, I had to take a view. The version that you and I are familiar with is the one you can find in Bartlett’s:

    Bartlett’s claims that at least one other version was printed in a London journal, and that the “author” provided the correct version to Wheeler’s. So Bartlett’s uses the Wheeler “author’s ” version.

    That version, the one I remember from childhood, did not name an author. It was listed as “anonymous”.

    As against that, the version I’ve referred to in the post explicitly refers to Alaric Watts as the author, and as far as I can make out, is the same as any other version associated with Watts.

    So in the end I went with the version associated with Watts.

  3. JP,

    Thanks for the link to Euonia, most impressive.

    Thinking about words, langauges, systems of meaning is something that seems to link a bunch of people in the technology world. (It’s interesting that – maybe – these things generate more resonance here than in “established” literary circles. I’m similarly reminded by my son that Christopher Alexander nowadays much more familiar to software thinkers than architects).

    Some connections that this sparked off for me: if you haven’t encountered it yet, Douglas Hofstadter’s “Le ton beau de Marot” is a wonderful reflection on language, meaning, translation, structure and intelligence, wrapped up in an intellectual autobiography which is also a song to the remembrance of love…

    George Perec’s “Un Disparation” was written – in French, of course – entirely without the letter “e” (no “le”, “les”, “de”, “des”…) – there’s a masterful English translation by Gilbert Adair – the title “A void”. Perec was a member of Oulipo, a loose collective of writers dedicated to experimentation of this sort. One of these (Raymond Queneau) produced 99 stylistic variants on a simple narrative called “Exercises in Style”, which inspired comic book author Matt Madden to produce a graphical alternative (99 Ways to Tell a Story): this runs the gamut of formal and stylistic conventions in comics and will teach you more than you’ll ever need to know about graphic communication.

    Happy hunting!

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