Friday, May 30, 2014

Clive James, Glass Globes, and a Sea-eagle of English feather

In a recent TLS (May 16, 2014) Clive James holds up a passage from Chapman's Homer as an example of alliteration done right (which he opposes to Swinburne's alliteration overdone wrong) …

Then took he up his weighty shield, that round about him cast
Defensive shadows; ten bright zones of gold-affecting brass
Were driven about it, and of tin, as full of gloss as glass,
Swelled twenty bosses out of it …

The double use of "gl" must indeed be a temptation for poets wanting to overdo alliterative effects … Burns has "glens gloomy and savage" and "glaikit, gleesome, dainty damies".  Byron has a commonplace book argument which "glibly glides from every tongue". W. E. Henley has "gladdening glass", while Coventry Patmore offers up "glowing gloom" as well as "trackless glories glimpsed in upper sky".  Spenser had his "gloomy glade" and "gold / Whose glistering glosse darkened with filthy dust", and "glistering glory" and a "glassie globe", and "gladsome glee".  John Tranter follows suit with "glassy gloom", and has "a cul-de-sac choked with  / expensive shops towards whose glow and glitter / her soul inclines". Hart Crane's "Pullman breakfasters glide glistening steel".

The "glassie globe" in Spenser (which Merlin made), reappears in Crabbe's The Parish as a fishbowl - "A glassy globe, in frame of ivory press'd; / Where swam two finny creatures", and Oscar Wilde as the earth itself "a brittle globe of glass", and then it surfaces again in a poem by Lynda Hull as a snow-globe in the palm of your hand:

 … Should I say the Mississippi knows
the story of the room left behind, the bad deals?
Like a scene playing out in a glass globe
I might hold in my palm, I can watch them:
oh look at those fools, the cold carving
them up to some version of bewildered miracle.

Pope shows off with three in a row: "Glittering through the gloomy glades", and Shakespeare piles on the effects in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Sweet Moon, I thank thee for thy sunny beams;
I thank thee, Moon, for shining now so bright;
For, by thy gracious, golden, glittering gleams,
I trust to take of truest Thisby sight.

The "gl"s are piled up thickly by Clive's friend Peter Porter in his lines: "the little glowworms/of our wounded childhood glitter, glitter / a square piano pounded by an ugly woman".  I very much like here that the alliteration isn't limited to the beginning of words: the hidden alliteration coming mid-word in "ugly" strongly contributes to the effect but in a subtle way: it gets under your skin, or beneath your analytic defences; it sneaks into the brain directly like perfume, or music with too many things going on at once.  Another line of his with a hidden "gl" alliteration is "a single stick of gladiolus". But back to explicit in-your-face alliteration: in his first collection Porter managed a Pope-like trifecta: "Glancing kingdoms enter, the glasses glow".

And even Clive himself gives us "Great in his glory, glorious in his greatness," and "Out in the sea / No waves, and there below not even ripples turning light / To glitter: just a glow spread evenly / On flawless water."

But Swinburne?  Yes, I am afraid so … "as a gleam that before them glided", and there's stuff like "Deep flowers, with lustre and darkness fraught, / From glass that gleams as the chill still seas" and of course the moon is "Bright with glad mad rapture, fierce with glee."  But returning to the idea of hidden or mid-word alliteration, Swinburne has the line "Sea-eagle of English feather" … that's a much better tuned effect to my mind.

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