Monday 9 September 2013

On a burning poetic question

A correspondent writes to ask for an opinion about the pronunciation of the last word in the opening stanza of William Blake's 'The Tyger':

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is, he says, a puzzle that has nagged at him for decades. Should it rhyme or not?

It's not just him. The couplet has generated quite a lot of ink. Some commentators say it is simply an eye-rhyme. That to my mind, is the lazy solution. At a time when the spelling system was becoming standardized, eye-rhymes were certainly a possibility, and some poets used them a lot, but why have just one eye-rhyme in a poem where all the other rhymes are exact phonological partners?

To my mind a phonological explanation is much more likely. Blake is recalling an earlier pronunciation of final -y which did in fact rhyme with words like eye. A classic example is Oberon's speech in A Midsummer Night's Dream (3.2.102), where we find dye, eye, espy, sky, and by intercalating with archery, gloriously, and remedy. Eye rhymes are not a viable explanation in Shakespeare's time, as the spelling system wasn't stable enough to guarantee them, and the writers on pronunciation at the time (the orthoepists) are always stressing the auditory value of rhyme.

Some of these writers actually try to capture the phonetic quality of those -y words. John Hart, for example, writing in the 1570s, transcribes boldy as boldlei, certainly as sertenlei, and so on. Clearly he is trying to convey some sort of diphthong here. In my work on Shakespearean Original Pronunciation, I transcribe this as a schwa + i. It is a pronunciation which lasted into the 18th century in educated speech, and of course can still be heard in some regional accents today.

By the time Blake was writing, the everyday pronunciation had shifted to its modern form, like a short 'ee'. This is how John Walker, for example, describes symmetry in his Pronouncing Dictionary, published just three years before Blake's poem: he rhymes it with me. The pronunciation with the final diphthong would have sounded distinctly old-fashioned by then. But wouldn't that suit someone who begins a poem with a spelling of tyger that was also archaic?

The phonaesthetics of the stanzas adds further support for a phonological rather than an orthographic explanation. That schwa + i diphthong turns up in Tyger, and is then echoed at the end of all eight lines of the opening two stanzas: bright, night, eye, symmetry, skies, eyes, aspire, fire. To my ear, this adds the same kind of mystical atmosphere that we hear when Oberon's speech is read in an OP way.

People do remember long-gone pronunciations. If I pronounce the word 'lord' as 'lahd', perhaps in a parody of upper-class speech, I am actually producing the normal pronunciation of this word as it was a century ago. Daniel Jones, writing in the 1910s, locates it in the place where today (in RP) we would find the vowel of far. Nobody says 'lahd' any more, but if I were to write a rhyming poem in which I had the following lines, I think readers would have no difficulty in 'hearing' the old pronunciation despite the modern spelling:

The butler looked all round the yard:
'There's no-one in the grounds, my lord'.

Some writers would opt for a nonstandard spelling here (such as 'lahrd') but such alternatives are not often available in the orthography - as in the case of symmetry. There was no archaic spelling for Blake to fall back on, in this case, to help the reader. And so we have the spelling that has come down to us.


Phillip Minden said...

By the time Blake was writing, the everyday pronunciation had shifted to its modern form, like a short 'ee'. […] The pronunciation with the final diphthong would have sounded distinctly old-fashioned by then.

I also consider it very probable that eye and symmetry rhyme here, but why not both with a contemporary [ai]? I don't quite see the connection between symmetry having the PRICE vowel and the phonetic quality of the latter.

Concerning the vowel of lord being (considerably) less open today than a hundred years ago, do you mean the PALM and the THOUGHT vowels were identical, or are you only referring to the one word lord (cf m'ludd etc.)?

David Crosbie said...

Generations of the Copper family of Rottingdene have been recorded by folksong collectors with pens and paper and with recording equipment. And many of their songs were sung for generations before that.

One old pronunciation that has survived is in

Now the robins so red, how swiftly they sped,
They opened their wide wings , and over them spread
And all the day long, in the branches they'd throng
They sweetly did whistle and this was their song

Pretty babes in the wood, pretty babes in the wood
O don't you remember those in the wood?

The most recorded Coppers were two cousins, born early last century. Ron the bass sings the word sweetly in more or less his speaking accent. But tenor (sort-of) Bob sings ˈswiːt ˈlaɪ. (Swiftly is pronounced normally.)

I have a feeling there are other song examples tucked somewhere away in my memory.

Andrew Shields said...

I guess I should get my band's singer, Dany, to sing "symettreye" instead of "symmetry" in this song, "Rumpus," which is where Blake meets Maurice Sendak:

DC said...

Lipman: Yes, maybe the diphthong had reached its modern quality by then. I deliberately kept my comment vague ('into the 18th century'), as I've no idea when that central opening element opened to be like the modern sound. And, re 'lord', I was just referring to that item, for the purposes of this post. I've not made a systematic check of all the relevant words in these vowel-sets at that time.

David: Nice example. I'm sure songs will bring to light more examples like this.

John Cowan said...

The archaic spelling symmetrye actually is recorded, but not since 1600 (per the OED1), so too early even for Blake.

Phillip Minden said...

David Crosbie,

I've recording of the Drunken Sailor with "earlai", but that might be artificial.

Phillip Minden said...

My wireless keyboard asks me to post an apology for eating parts of I've heard recordings.

DC said...

John: yes, true, but the problem with that -ye spelling is that it isn't uniquely related to a diphthongal pronunciation, also turning up in words that are unequivocally /i:/ - for instance, an early spelling of free was frye.

Lipman: Nice recall. I've only ever heard it sung with that pronunciation, I must say.

David Crosbie said...

I've recovered memory of tʃɪmnaɪ (chimney sweep) and gʊdlaɪ (goodly work) from the same singers. Also that ɜːlaɪ (early) that Lipman remembers. I sampled a few performances of the latter on YouTube, and I think it's safe to say that many — quite probably most — singers use that pronunciation. I know I do.

Also on YouTube, I found that somebody has uploaded Babes in the Wood here.

All these pronunciations seem to be motivated by the musical rhythm. The -ly syllable has equal musical stress, and the words are sung asif they were two words each with full word strew.

John Cowan said...

The first evidence of "Drunken Sailor" comes, says Wikipedia, from an account of an 1839 American whaling voyage out of New London, Connecticut, the second-busiest whaling port in the world in its day. There is also a report of it being used inland a few decades earlier for chain-hauling tasks. The second syllable of the key word earlye definitely doesn't bear either word stress or musical ictus in this tune, so it's hard to account for it, but the pronunciation is definitely part of the song.

John Cowan said...

Ah, I didn't read far enough in the article. Apparently the pronunciation did not appear in field recordings made in the 1920's in Britain and in 1939 in America, but did appear in a 1956 commercial recording by Burl Ives. So it's only about a half a century old. Yet another case of the invention of tradition, or "all culture is fake culture".

David Crosbie said...

John Cowan

The article seeks to balance

• on the one hand the absence of evidence in some collectors not recording a performance
• on the other hand the assertion of Stan Hugil who was an actual shanty man, one of the last, and had a considerable reputation to lose