Hearing is not Seeing

Alliteration is an instinctive language device (see previous blogs). We use it casually (“Lots of luck”) and at the most solemn moments (“to have and to hold.”) The Hebrew psalms used it: “Shaalu shalom Yerushalaim;” the author of Beowulf used it: “oththe fyres feng oththe flodes wylm;” King James’ committee on Bible translation used it “to walk in thy ways;”modern headline writers use it: “Barbero’s Battle.”

But all is not alliteration that looks like it. I have a book on alliteration in the Book of Common Prayer which cites as its first example: “that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world.” But that doesn’t alliterate. If you read it aloud to someone and ask them whether they heard an alliteration, they would have to say, “No.” Look at it and you see two “d”s, but they are not in the accented syllables. The Beowulf author wrote “forsiteth ond forsworcheth semninga bith” because it gave him three “s” stresses; the “f”s are irrelevant – though the minor stresses on “for” are a nice extra.

But we live in a visual age and compose for print. Even Seamus Heaney in his recent translation of Beowulf often uses a merely visual alliteration thinking, apparently, that what looks alliterated will sound alliterated. (Heaney writes, for example, “the arrow flies beneath his defences” which is nicely done, and two lines latter writes “possessions seem paltry” which looks fine but has no stressed sound that Beowulf would recognize as alliterative.)

But when we do it right, it can be lovely. I have recently come across a canticle in the New Zealand Prayer Book which plays quite lavishly with alliteration:

All prophets and priests, all cleaners and clerks,
professors, shop workers, typists and teachers,
job-seekers, invalids, drivers and doctors,
give to our God your thanks and praise.

The author of that can point with appropriate pride to a use of language that justly rejoices in the way sound enhances meaning.

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