We’re continuing with these, perhaps overly-attentive, analyses of tone and accent
(specifically with regard to early English poetry, and, specifically with regard here to the anonymous, “I Sing of A Mayden”
Given the nature of what he’s doing, it’s pretty essential in these particular transcriptions, that you listen to the actual audio (starting approximately three minutes in) to catch the precise distinctions that Allen is making. That audio is available here
The January 1980 tape begins, first, with three recorded versions by Allen of “I Syng of A Mayden” (accompanied on harmonium – and accompanied on the third version by Lyke Wake Dirge, another of the early English lyrics under review)
AG: Charlie [sic] came up with something. He said, he tried to make in the copy of the poem, an imitation of the poem, as an exercise, but he found that all the stanzas were slightly different. And that was a big revelation, I think. I don’t know what he thought originally that it was supposed to be – that everything was supposed to be exactly the same? with exactly the same syncopations and exactly the same accents? But, of course not. That’s the whole point. Now, basically, I guess the development (is) of an alliterative first line“I sing of a mayden that is makeles” (or, “I sing of a mayden that is makeles”). In other words, two accents on each side of the line (and sometimes it sounds like three and sometimes it sounds like two-and-a-half). So it’s syncopated and varied rhythmically. So what I tried to do for my own sake, and for Charlie’s [sic],was to make a rhythmic paradigm, and try to analyze it, roughly. So does everybody have a copy of this? – [Allen distributes a hand-made] – Anybody not have a copy of this? – Everyone got one now?
I foolishly tried to make caesuras in between the half lines – “I syng of a mayden // that is makeles”, but I don’t think that makes sense. So I would discount those caesuras. You all see what a caesura is and where it is there? Does anybody not know what I’m talking about? – Does anybody here not know? – a caesura’s a double-line – see the double line? – that’s called a caesura. If you cut the line in half.,, Actually, ”I syng of a mayden” – caesura –“that is makeles” – The caesura comes.. the caesura would come..right here [Allen points to the spot] – Are you following? – The caesura would come between “I syng of a mayden” and “that is makeles”, but I mistakenly tried to break the half-line into their parts too (and some of them break and some of them don’t). Like “I syng” (well, “I sing”) “of a mayden/ that is/ makeles” (maybe?) / “Kyng of/ alle kynges/ to here sone/ che ches/ He cam/also stylle…” – So maybe you could do it that way . We’re just trying to hear the breaks in it, try and hear it by ear, as well as mark it out somewhat rationally (it doesn’t actually work out that well).Then, I put the accents, the light and heavy accents, above the syllables, and then, after the column called paradigm, I just transferred it over so you can see it clearly. And those circled accents that are light are the ones that struck me as being half-and-half, neither light accent nor heavy accent, but sort of (a) hovering accent . Is that clear? Still, it winds up, more or less, two accents to each line – “I syng of a mayden/ that is makeles/Kyng of/ alle kynges/ to here son che ches”. You can, now, cut it either way you want. I’ve made.. Actually, “to here son che ches” , I thought half-accent on “here”, half-accent on “che” – “to here son che ches” , You could say “to here son che ches” or “to here son che ches” – or “”..here son che ches” (that was half-and-half) –”here son che ches” would be the accents. Is anybody lost? Everybody following? If anybody gets lost along the way, stop me. If I’m not explaining particularly enough, not explaining specifically enough. I thought “He cam/ also stylle”(so “cam” had a half-accent)– “He cam alle so stille” (the “cam’ and “stylle” were obviously accented but I thought that “also” was sort of a half). So that was the way I laid it out . I also noted out the way the rhyme-scheme went, (well, the number of syllables in each line), the way the rhyme-scheme went, and then the reverse rhythm.
If you notice, at the beginning, all the lines begin on a light accent and go to a heavy accent – syng”, “that is mak..”, “He cam “ – except “Kyng of alle kynges”, maybe “where his moder was “where” may be a half accent on the first syllable. And the “moder” and “mayden” is a reverse rhythm, “Well may such a lady” might be a reverse rhythm’ and “Godes moder be” also is a reverse rhythm. You know what I mean by reverse rhythm? that it starts, the line starts, on a heavy accent, instead of starting on a light accent. Is that hard to figure out? – (“I syng” , “to here”,”He cam”,”as dew” “was never”) – but on the other hand, “Moder & mayden” “Godes moder be”. Those lines at the end are called reverse rhythm because you reverse the rhythmic pattern of the line by starting on a sharp, heavy accent. Is that clear? Anybody lost? Is anybody lost here with my explanation? (unless you say so, I won’t know if I’m talking, you know, gibberish, or you might be daydreaming and not… like lose out and then get lost for the rest of the afternoon), so.. so, if anybody..So it’s really simple, so there’s no need for anybody to get to.. to get to space out on it. ..
So now next is, because my pronunciation is not correct. Could Pat O’Brien [sic] read it out of his old Middle English text correctly? Actually, it might be better if he read this text [sic], because that’s got the right spelling and the right line-up – [to Student] Good and loud tho’
Student (P O’B) reads/recites “I Syng Of A Mayden” in its entirety
AG: Yeah, could you do it one more time here, closer to the mic – come on up and do it. Also, to hear it again, because I’ve been mispronouncing it all along (but I think I got the rhythm right)
Student: What is “che” – “here sone che..”?
AG: She – “neuer non but che” – none but she – Translation – I sing of a maiden that is without a mate. King of all kings. For her sone, the king of all kings, for her son, she chose. He came as still where his mother was, as dew in April that falls on he grass. He came as still to his mother’s bower, as dew in April that falls on the flower. He came so still where his mother lay, as dew in April that falls on the spray. Mother and maiden. There never was anyone like her (was never none but she, was never nobody but she). Well may such a lady God’s mother be. So, right.
Student (P O’B) reads the poem again
AG: “swych a lady“? – read it off of the page – Well, I didn’t have the right pronunciation but I did work out a paradigm, but before I worked out the paradigm, I also worked out a tune, so I’ll play the tune .. (I transformed it) …into (a) tune.. (transformed) vowel-pitches into tune or vowel-tone into tune (something I think I referred to once or twice here but have never gone through). In..
It’s a real simple proposition. First thing I did to find a rhythm was to reduce it to vernacular cadence – “I syng of a mayden that is makeles” – as if you were talking to someone – “that is makeles” – which is something I’ve said before . Is that clear? Is that processed?. In other words, you get away from the…da da da-da dad a datta da dada – and just pronounce it as if you were making sense of it (as far as you know how to pronounce it). So – ”I sing of a maiden that is makeles” (“mayden that is makeles”) (I sing of a maiden that’s matchless). Then..”king of all kings (to) her son she chose” – (or, I would interpret the vernacular cadence according to what kind of significance I would want to lay on each syllable, and, naturally, accent the syllables that have more significance and more weight), and, also, naturally, in English, the tendency is, when you accent a syllable, you raise the pitch – right? – When you accent a syllable, you raise the pitch – raise the pitch – You raise the pitch. So, actually, there are varying pitches in ordinary speech. In ordinary vernacular speech there are varying pitches, (especially if the speech is colored with intelligence and emotion). If the speech is sharp and precise, and you know what you’re talking about, you make it a point then to be absolutely musical! – So, if you have a poem which is sharp, precise and absolutely musical, it’s, like, a piece of cake to interpret the pitch or tone of the vowels, to find out whether the tune or melody goes up or down (in relation to prior vowel – it goes up and down in relation to the vowel that went before).
So if you’re sensitive and listen to the pitch or tone of the vowels, you can extrapolate from those tones, or magnify from those tones (turn up the volume, or, push them out, or exaggerate the tones to clear distinct melody-notes . In other words, you’re extrapolating or exaggerating the normal vernacular tones into melodic sequences. This is.. This notion is somewhat inspired by (Ezra) Pound’s phrase, in his preface to the Selected Poems in 1950 Basil Bunting “Follow the tone-leading of the vowels” (advice for the poet who’s not so much into music, but just sensitive-eared to the repeated cadences of line). Now the cadence might be rhythmic, but it also might be tonal sequences. In other words, you might repeat.. repeat parallel musical-like tones from line to line.
Is this all being clear? Are we still on this? For those who are not into music at all, it may be a little.. unworkable, but still, still, the notion of there being pitch or tone (highs and lows in conversation) in vernacular speech, that’s clear. And the idea that you could transfer them into the tunes is actually a very old idea, probably, but one that has not been very much circulated outside of Pound and his circle or Louis Zukofsky and his circle.
[Audio for the above can be heard here, (starting at the beginning with the three performances of the lyric), the discussion of the lyric begins at approximately three minutes in, concluding at approximately sixteen-and-a-half minutes in]