Ted Hughes, Alliteration, and Old English

The first poem we read in class is by Ted Hughes. I would simply like to add a few things about what I have learned from Ted Hughes.  When I was young he was one of the great rebel poets–kind of an outsider on the inside of the poetry establishment.  His book Crow was all the rage.  What I learned from Hughes back then was that there was a real place in poetry for the “ugly sounds” in English (my phrase).  Reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth and such, I thought poetry had to be beautiful–L’s and O’s  and U’s and V’s and soft S’s.  Hughes taught me that K’s and short A’s and P’s and G’s and J’s also had their places and effects.

Then in 1994, Hughes published a book of essays, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose. It included the essay “Myths, Meters, and Rhythms,” which emphasizes the non-iambic pentameter heritage in English–the Old and Middle English rhythms that kind of disappeared with Shakespeare and Milton, and Pope, and those guys, and reappeared with Blake, Coleridge, and especially Hopkins.

In addition, there is a deep Old English heritage in the poem we are reading–alliteration.  Notice how most lines have three alliterative words.  In Beowulf, we can see Old English alliteration that works on a two-part line–that is, there was even a space between two halves of a line in which in the first half has two words alliterated, and then in the second half one of the other words repeates the alliteration.  Old English poems didn’t rhyme–they alliterated instead.

When Seamus Heaney recently translated Beowulf, he usually only got two alliterative words in the lines.  For instance,

There was Shield Sheafson, scorge of many tribes,

a wreaker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.

this terror of the hall troops had come far.

A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on

as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.

By the way–notice the little trick in the last line above:  p(owers)  then w(axed)   and next  w(orth) then p(roved).  This is called “Chiasmus.” It is like a little X.

Anyway, the point is that when you use alliteration like Hughes, you can think of yourself as just adding a little music to your poems.  Or you can think, and be correct, that you are, as a poet, reaching far back to your cultural roots as a bard in the beer halls of England circa 800 CE.