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Rhythm as Spiritual Pursuit in the Poetry of George Mackay Brown

Le rythme comme quête spirituelle dans la poésie de George Mackay Brown
Dominique Delmaire
p. 65-80


D’après le poète écossais George Mackay Brown (1921-1996), c’est sa structure qui fait d’un poème un reflet du “divin”. Partant, tout écrivain en quête de vérité spirituelle devrait “imposer” celle-ci au “flux incessant”, par quoi il entend non seulement le réel mais probablement aussi le rythme le plus intime de la voix qui s’exprime. Envisagé dans ces termes, un tel projet est, comme nous souhaiterions le montrer, chimérique, car rythme et structure sont imbriqués dans une dialectique complexe dont ni l’un ni l’autre ne sort “vainqueur”. Celle-ci se résout, au contraire, par ce que Brown lui-même nomme “forme fluide”.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (2005); henceforth abbreviated as CP.

1“Rhythm” and “pattern” are two words that recur almost obsessively throughout George Mackay Brown’s considerable body of non-poetic works (novels, short stories, plays, essays, guide books, journalism), and yet no more than a few times in the five hundred-odd pages of his Collected Poems,1 a sure sign that, for not being mentioned, the two notions have been made all the more operational in his poetry. While they both have overt cosmic or religious signification and are often correlated, there is more to their dialectic than meets the eye. In particular, they afford conceptual tools for understanding how the writing subject engages with the avowed religious dimension of poetry, constantly questing for spiritual truth without, however, relinquishing his own distinctive identity.

2I shall first examine pattern and rhythm from the meta-poetic, sometimes abstract, vantage point which Brown adopts in his prose, in the hope of pointing out further resonances in some of the definitions and comments that he provides in his discussion of these notions. It will then be time to observe them concretely at work in his poetic writing and to attempt to elucidate their interaction.

  • 2 Letter to E. Marwick (19 January 1954).

3Brown declares early on in his career that he belongs with those Orkney writers—poets, in fact—that are “interested in essences”. For him, thanks to poetry one can “look on life as it was viewed, perhaps, by an angel’s eye, sub specie aeternitatis” (1973, 1, 160), thus glimpsing what the abbot in The Voyage of Saint Brandon calls “a divine order and pattern beyond the range of the five human senses” (1984, 146). But, in order to achieve this, the poet must become a demiurge in miniature and, in his “dance of verse”,2 emulate the “Word” who “Drew chaos to a dance” (CP 508) and make “order and pattern and meaning [emerge]” (1984, 146). It is only because writing “imposes a pattern on the endless flux” (1997, 169) of phenomenal reality that it can, like any ritualistic practice, image or embody the spiritual truth that lies behind. Brown ensures, therefore, that “there is a strong element of ritual in [his] work, the deliberate working to a pattern. Without such set forms life is a meaningless drift” (Woods). All natural and human events need to be thus processed, ordered and shaped out through “the limbecks of art” (1974, 155) before they take on a larger significance and fulfill poetry’s “quest for the meaning and beauty and majesty of the original Word” (1978, 260).

4If erratic phenomena require the artist’s creative salvaging, so do in fact seeminly organized ones. For instance, when he declares that “the two rhythms of land and sea [. . .] once taken into the imagination, [. . .] beget a pattern and a harmony” (1997, 12), Brown also implies that they are not naturally endowed with those qualities, hard as he may try elsewhere to see in the “rhythms of fruition in the fields” the safe cosmic predictability of “the great wheels of moon and sun” (1973, 76). Even allowing, as he does, for the wild, treacherous character of the sea, which sets off, by contrast, the more secure and welcoming “rhythms of the earth” (“I try often to suggest the swift dangerous rhythms of the sea, and (even more important) the slow dark fruitful rhythms of the earth from seedtime to harvest” [1971]), one remains under the impression that the latter are not so much reliable by nature as made reassuringly so by the patterns of farming (“from seedtime to harvest”)—a common association in his works. Besides, in spite of their being “slow” and “fruitful”, they are “dark”, as he emphasizes elsewhere, describing “the seasonal rhythms” as “a dark potent chthonic energy that raised cornstalk and rose from their roots underground” (1973, 131).

  • 3 “Intrusions into an archaeological script” (1).
  • 4 “I think that the work of some writers is shaped by a few overmastering images. One image I discove (...)

5Now, the word “chthonic” (from khthonios in Greek: “dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth”) betokens something quite other than the serene Apollonian limpidity with which Brown would like to equate the landscape of Orkney, “mirrored [. . .] in the prose and poetry of Edwin Muir, all limpid depths and tranquil rhythms”,3 it not only refers to the depths of the earth and the seed’s cycle of life, death and resurrection,4 but also evokes the infernal divinities of the Underworld as well as the Jungian unconscious—that “chtonic portion of the mind” (Campbell 124). Interestingly, “khôra”, which also means “the depths of the earth”, is a word used by Platon in Timaeus to designate a womb-like receptacle in which the original “forms” were held, and more recently borrowed from him by Julia Kristeva to describe the unconscious “drives and their stases” (Kristeva, 23; my translation), comparable, she says, to “vocal or kinetic rhythm” (24).

6It now seems clear that those dark chthonic rhythms—and, by extension, the rhythms of the sea—are, in Brown’s works, but an analogy for the rhythms of the unconscious which, in line with Nietzsche’s conception of poetic creation, initiate the poem, provided the writer is willing “to go into a quiet trance” (Brown 1986) while his “own directing will is hushed and laid asleep” (1992, 205). Then,

He knew that a poem was stirring inside him, feeling—though blind and inarticulate still—its dazzling way through the darkness: a rhythm, an uncertain pulsing, like a late migrant bird lost now and bewildered for a moment, yet on the true course, unerring. It would find its way. The light grew a little, there was an image: the farm, horses, a harvest-field [. . .]. (1989, 88)

7Again, this rhythm, “uncertain” at first, like the rhythms of nature, gradually develops into the familiar picture of the harmonious farming world, and ultimately “begins to pulse through the ordered cluster of images—it is the beginning of a new story or poem. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it has worked for me, often enough: then the ‘complete consort dances together’” (1986).

  • 5 “Writing in Orkney”.

8“It doesn’t always work” because the writer is sometimes defeated by “the stark intractableness of language”, akin to the “dense weave of bog, heather, stone” against which “the farmers and crofters have pitted their strength” in order to make “tilth and pasture” and turn the hills into “long low fluent lines” and “rhythms” of “landscapes and [. . .] seascapes”.5 What is at stake, therefore, is the conscious reining-in and patterning of the unruly, Dionysian rhythms of nature and the unconscious—the “imposing”, as we remember, of “a pattern on the endless flux”.

  • 6 According to the OED, tone designates “a particular quality, pitch, modulation, or inflexion of the (...)

9“My particular pattern”, Brown goes on to say, “is the heptahedron. [. . .] the fruitful number, the seven, is dominant, and dictates the whole tone and structure” (1997, 169). This “mysterious and beautiful” (1997, 169) number is but one instance, in his poetry and fiction, of cosmic or religious numerology used as “emblematic”—that is, “conscious [and] intellectual” (Attridge 1982, 288)—organizational scheme. What Brown claims is that this “pattern” not only “dictates” the structure of a poem but its “tone”, even though the latter, as an index of subjectivity,6 is bound up with rhythm, which, “like desire, is not known to the writing subject” (Meschonnic 225; my translation). While Meschonnic adds that “the subject does not control it, which is why rhythm exceeds meter”, Brown seems to want to conflate the two notions and ignore the distinction according to which “metrics is in itself absolute prediction, whereas rhythm is unpredictable” (Meschonnic 225). Plato, before him, had similarly “submitted to the law of numbers” [. . .] and “subjected to an order” the Heraclitean concept of rythmos (Benveniste 334; my translation and emphasis)—which could qualify “character” or “mood” and, more generally, had meant “a specific way of flowing” (333; my translation and emphasis), echoing Brown’s “endless flux”—, thus reducing it to “a “fixed” form” (333) or a skhēma.

10But is that possible at all? Can the immensely complex dialectic of “the predictable passion of the meter and the widely variable passions of the subject”—to phrase it in Wordsworthian terms (O’Donnell 28)—result in such effective and final subordination of subjective, unconscious rhythm to abstract and intellectual patterning? Could Brown be right in declaring: “in the whole fabric of what I’ve written there are only one or two unimportant shreds of myself” (Jones 43)? Or could it not be that, as he writes in the poem “To a Hamnavoe Poet of 2093” (CP 327), “the tongues flow yet/to rhythms of sea and hill”?

  • 7 The system of scansion used throughout this study is the one set forth in Derek Attridge’s The Rhyt (...)

11To explore this dialectic in action, so to speak, I have chosen, almost at random out of an infinity of highly and significantly patterned poems, a piece entitled “The Lesser Mysteries of Art” (CP 188) which belongs to a twelve-poem cycle entitled “Stations of the Cross”, initially published in Winterfold in 1976. As the title of the cycle suggests, every poem in it is to be read as an allegory of the paradigmatic Passion of Christ. In this one in particular, art is presented as a “lesser” “passion”, in keeping with Brown’s belief that the true artist has to go through a grueling saintly journey of death and resurrection in order to perfect his visionary art. (For obvious reasons of space, only the first two stanzas are reproduced here, and, with a view to the ensuing commentary, scansion7 of the second one is provided.)

  • 8 See O’Donnell, 172 & Attridge 1982, 113.

12The twelve poems of the sequence, each made up of fourteen stanzas containing three lines (an obvious hint at the Trinity) are a characteristic illustration of those “patterns of numbers and symbols” that, according to Rowena Murray, define Brown’s “‘heraldic’ voice” (110), heraldry being, by the poet’s own account, “the fury of history made wise and formal” (1973, 19). As a further emblematic device, we might mention the visual figurativeness of the verse, comparable in miniature to that of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” with a long line at the beginning and at the end of each stanza and a short one in the middle, which it might not be unreasonable to decode as a graphic allegory of the epic Christian succession of life (the first long line), death (the short one) and resurrection (the last long one). What might come as an element of surprise in this characteristically Brownian “Stations of the Cross” poem, sometimes regarded as “uncomfortably solemn” and fraught with “the sepulchral vatic that fits all places and all men” (Scammell 26), is the use of an iambic underlying rhythm instead of the expected trochaic beat, markedly distanced from common speech8 and therefore more suited to ritualistic utterance. In fact, the iambic, in this poem, has been made an integral part of the pattern, as in “Building the Ship” (CP 90), for instance, which begins with “A dove must fold your seed from dragon flame”, a line whose runic, oracular character is acknowledged immediately afterwards. We should therefore resist the essentialist temptation of considering the iambic as a sure index of the poet’s most intimate voice and regard it instead, in the present case, as contributing to “the feeling of timelessness that heraldry seeks to impose on the chaotic flux” (Brown 1970, 143), “all the greed and cruelty of men held still and heraldic by a strict ordering of words” (1989, 100–101).

  • 9 An original phrase in the manuscript version of “The Friend”, replaced by “circle of light and fire (...)

13The second stanza of “The Lesser Mysteries of Art” features an Orphic figure, gently summoning, like Adam, the “seven red beasts”—quite probably also standing for the seven deadly sins—to “a sweet circle”. The image of the “circle”, already intimated in the initial “head upon strings” posture, resembling the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary leaning her cheek against her Son, may thus symbolize the alliance of the intellect (“head”) and the heart (“strings”), and more generally the loving, motherly gathering-up of people as well as all things in nature into what David Annwn calls “the “folding” ordinance of poetry” (211) which restores the original “circle of creation”.9

  • 10 As in Milton’s “Lap me in soft Lydian airs” (Attridge 1982, 190).
  • 11 I am aware of the structuralist bias of this almost inevitable metaphor inherited from a long-stand (...)
  • 12 See, for instance, Derek Attridge’s view of rhythm as an index of emotional states (1982, 295), a c (...)
  • 13 Even Harding, who is keenly aware of “the risk of attributing to rhythm an expressive significance (...)

14Attridgian scansion of this stanza shows up an initial inversion followed by a “falling inversion” (or “stress-initial pairing”),10 which in fact, because of the mid-line caesura underscored by the comma, strike the ear as two consecutive identical inversions—an initial one and a medial one—, thus redoubling the effect of the first one, especially as these two figures share parallel alliterations (“He”-“head”; “stone”-“strings”). In purely descriptive terms, “He at a stone” and “head upon strings” may be depicted as two occurrences of a rhythmic sequence made up of an initial explosion (materialized by the stressed glottal fricative under the beat followed by a drawn-out vowel: “he” and “head”) playing out through the two following non-stresses and culminating in a final stabilization. One could also see in this “figure”11 a rhythmic analogue of the circle, with the initial and final stresses imaging its circumference and the two non-stresses in the middle its center. Alternative readings might be sensitive to the affective charge and effect12 of such a rhythm and speak, as Derek Attridge does, of “assertive[ness]” (1995, 116), or possibly, like D.W. Harding, of “vigorous determination” (101), “impetuous[ness]” (102) or “confident assurance” (140), being fully aware, however, of the permanent risk of “metaphorical slippage” (Attridge 1995, 289) or “psychologizing” of form (Meschonnic 258–259) inherent in this line of interpretation.13

  • 14 In the same sense that a lot of the terms used by Attridge very often tries to remain as objectivel (...)

15Should we settle for a rather non-committal14 adjective such as “determined” (which has both a psychological and a causal, that is, physical, meaning and whose cognate substantive Harding uses to “[go] beyond emotional states” [101]) to qualify those two rhythmic inversions, it could also apply to the subsequent dactylic “summoning” (l. 2), whose significance is heightened by its strategic central position in the stanza and the stressing of its sibilant, echoed in almost all the other words, thus contributing to our sense of the “stone”, the “strings”, the “sweet” “circle”, and the “seven” “beasts” being brought under control and phonologically “summoned” into the “sweet circle” of peace (l. 3), which foreshadows the Bethlehem-like “beastbreathing cave of winter” of the following stanza.

16Contradicting this apparent orderly peacefulness, however, the last line is rhythmically very much disturbed:

  • 15 Attridge’s phrase (1982, 185) for “a double offbeat and an implied offbeat [. . .] not immediately (...)
  • 16 Again, I confess to the fallibility of a presentation that subscribes to “the Neoplatonic notion th (...)

17Indeed, due to the dislocated “rising inversion” (Attridge 1995, 120) in “circle the [. . .] red beasts” with its perplexing “postponed pairing”,15 it “totters on the edge of unmetricality” (1982, 185), recalling mimetically the portentous connotations of the “apple-fraught” “first garden” of the previous stanza, and prefiguring the “maze of corrupt mirrors” that will come next. Besides, the word “circle” is not bound up with the autonomous, self-contained rhythmic unit (B - o - B) that characterizes “He at a stone”. The reader is thus left with an impression of discordance between this jerky rhythm—the trace of the poet’s unconscious voice—and the harmonious ceremonial pattern of the poem (with which the scene portrayed in the second stanza is also in keeping)16: the two visibly heterogeneous orders of pattern and rhythm clash.

18But this need not be, as I hope to show through a quick analysis of another poem relying on the central image of the circle, “Country Girl” (CP 50), a short lyric in which a young woman addresses her lover who works in the fields while she cooks at home, and in which, ultimately, quite the opposite seems to happen: this time, the pattern (essentially the meter, in fact, which is basically iambic) is impacted upon, and actually modified, by the rhythm. The difference with “The Lesser Mysteries of Art” will make the latter’s rhythmic disturbances all the more perceptible and significant.

  • 17 According to Attridge, this adjective and its opposite (“rising”) describe the rhythmic structure o (...)
  • 18 See O’Donnell 14 and Attridge 1982, 171.

19Yet it does not begin all that well. Although once again the symbolic connotations of the circle are underscored by the adjective “seven”—implying completion and perfection—and each of its occurrences (“circles, my love” [l. 1]; “circle of bread” [l. 3]; “circle of ale” [l. 4]); etc.) is explicitly associated with the “B - o - B” rhythmic formula—itself potentially evocative of circularity, as we have noted—, the rhythmic backbone of “circles, my love” is split into two mirrored halves (“circles” on the one hand and “my love” on the other), mostly as a result of the falling17 rhythm of “circles” (duplicating that of “seven” before it), contrasted with the rising one of “my love”, and also due to the ““feminine caesura” [. . .] which emphasizes this rhythm” (Attridge 1982, 108). As of line 3, however, the “circle of bread” begins to feel as a complete rhythmic unit thanks to the implied offbeat between the two consecutive previous stresses and the linkage on “circle”, a very unusual feature in the kind of “stress-initial pairing without a pause between the stresses” (Attridge 1982, 271) that occurs in “gray circle of bread”. Similar considerations are even more apt in the case of the next line, since an actual offbeat—and not an implied one—now sets off the rhythmic pattern attached to the “circle of ale”, although in the rather different context of an “initial inversion with postponed compensation” (Attridge 1982, 191). The circle occurs again in line 8, which, in terms of sheer scansion, is identical with the first one, except that there is now a very different feel to it as it has only one falling stress group (“throws”) instead of two and there is no punctuational break within “circle of light”. In the final line, as the real circle (of her arms) has grown big enough to embrace her lover, the rhythmic pattern with which it is associated has also physically expanded into a figure containing a free triple offbeat—or, in my alternative scansion, two offbeats on either side of a promotion, resulting in the same speeding-up effect.18

  • 19 Through stress-initial pairing with postponed compensation (l. 1, 8), initial inversion with postpo (...)

20In short, throughout the poem, most of the lines referring to the “circle” (as opposed to the others) see their smooth iambic flow seriously disrupted19 by the rhythmic encroachment of the “B - o - B” sequence. This clashing of the rhythm with the meter (or pattern) is also what happens in “The Lesser Mysteries of Art”; but the difference here is that the conflict gets resolved, to the advantage, so to speak, of the “circular”—and circle-bound—rhythmic figure, literally “unbroken” at the end and having communicated its anapaestic swing (or “dance”—l. 6—, described elsewhere as “a good circling” [Brown 1973, 131]) to the poem as a whole (especially at the beginning of lines 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9) and to the last line in particular. In other words, the rhythm has altered the meter, making it virtually triple.

  • 20 Seamus Heaney, a great admirer of Brown, often uses the same rhythm in a comparable manner; see Hea (...)
  • 21 In “Summer Day” (l. 8), the original unpublished version of the same poem, a typescript (dated 1947 (...)

21At this juncture, it is worth returning briefly to the motif of the circle—whether semantic or rhythmic—in “The Lesser Mysteries of Art”. Closer examination shows it cropping up again (“the last red circle” [l. 31]) in the guise of a characteristic trinitarian sequence made up of two stressed beats and an intervening demotion (on “red”). This symmetrical rhythmic figure, formally evocative of the stanzaic pattern, occurs on another occasion in the poem (“frail dust drag” [l. 21]) and quite often in Brown’s poetry. It slows down the rhythm and often lends itself to contemplative pausing over a numinous, or at least intensely poetic, object, character, scene or event,20 such as the sublimity of the sunset (l. 31) or the delicateness of the thistledown (l. 21) here, or, in other poems, the awesomeness of the ocean—the “big salt round” (CP 408, l. 3), with its “long green jaws” (CP 3, l. 10), also present in the “gull-gaunt tide” (and formerly “tidedark Sound”)21 of one of Brown’s most anthologized pieces, “Hamnavoe” (CP 24, l. 8). In “The Storm” (CP 3) the same rhythmic phrase is associated with both the devastating effect of the squall, due to which the “corn lay squashed” (l. 34), and with its divine character—“That Godsent storm” (l. 38). Similarly, in “The Image in the Hills” (CP 52), this triple stress structure will he22 to conjure up the Trinity again, this time through the symbol of the stag, representing Christ: “A stag runs, hard in light” (l. 11).

  • 22 Brown 1971, jacket of the LP.

22All these examples are cases of rhythm now reflecting pattern, that is, in the present case the Godly trinitarian scheme underlying the numinous and leaving its seal on the poet’s voice. This evidence goes some way toward showing that the two orders of pattern and rhythm do not remain so heterogeneous after all. That they should interplay upon one another was only to be expected from a poet who, as he puts it, inherited a “Celtic strain” from his mother, that is, “intricate pattern; a sense of the numinous [. . .]; the contrast of enduring stone with spindrift and blossom and breath22 (emphases mine)—in other words, the solidity of pattern and the rhythm of breath, happily married. If rythmos meant the “pattern of a flowing element” (Benveniste 333) in presocratic philosophy, George Mackay Brown found it again in the “recurrence of pattern-within-flux” which “touched him, momentarily, with wonder” (1977, 141).

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Primary sources

Brown, George Mackay, “Intrusions into an archaeological script”, MS, undated, supplied by kind permission of George Mackay Brown himself and held neither at the National Library of Scotland nor the Edinburgh University Library or the Orkney Kirkwall Library.

Brown, George Mackay, Unpublished letters to Ernest Marwick and other manuscripts, National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), Department of Manuscripts, Scottish Record Office, ref.: D31/30/3; D31/30/4.

Brown, George Mackay, “Writing in Orkney”, MS, undated, Library, Kirkwall Archive.

Brown, George Mackay, “The Broken Heraldry”, Memoirs of a Modern Scotland, ed. Karl Miller, London: Faber, 1970, chapter 9.

Brown, George Mackay, The Orcadian poet GMB reads his poems and a story (LP), Eire: Cladday Records, 1971.

Brown, George Mackay, An Orkney Tapestry (1969), London: Quartet Books, 1973.

Brown, George Mackay, “Sealskin”, Hawkfall, London: Triad Paperbacks, 1974: 137–160.

Brown, George Mackay, “Writer’s Shop”, Chapman 16 (Summer 1976): 21–24.

Brown, George Mackay, Magnus (1973), London: Quartet Books, 1977.

Brown, George Mackay, “The Seven Poets”, The Sun’s Net, London: Quartet Books, 1978: 257–268.

Brown, George Mackay, The Voyage of Saint Brandon, Three Plays, London: Chatto & Windus/Hogarth Press, 1984.

Brown, George Mackay, “The Seven Ages of George Mackay Brown”, The Scotsman 30 August 1986, 1–2.

Brown, George Mackay, “The Corn and the Tares”, The Masked Fisherman and Other Stories, London: John Murray, 1989, 85–104.

Brown, George Mackay, Rockpools and Daffodils, Edinburgh: Wright, 1992.

Brown, George Mackay, For the Islands I Sing: An Autobiography, London: John Murray, 1997.

Brown, George Mackay, The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed. Archie Bevan and B. Murray, London: John Murray, 2005.

Woods David (ed.), “One Star in the West: George Mackay Brown at 70”, BBC Scotland, produced by Sheena McDonald, 1991.

Secondary sources

Abraham, Nicolas, “Psychoanalytic Esthetics: Time, Rhythm and the Unconscious”, Diacritics 16.3 (1986): 3–14.

Annwn, David, Inhabited Voices: Myth and History in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney and George Mackay Brown, Frome: Bran’s Head, 1984.

Attié, Joseph, Mallarmé le livre, Losange, 2007.

Attridge, Derek, The Rhythms of English Poetry, London: Longman, 1982.

Attridge, Derek, Poetic Rhythm. An Introduction, Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

Campbell, Robert Jean, Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary, 8th ed, Oxford and New York: OUP, 2004.

Carper, Thomas & Derek Attridge, Meter and Meaning: An Introduction to Rhythm in Poetry, York and London: Routledge, 2003.

Derrida, Jacques, De la grammatologie, Paris: Minuit, 1967.

Derrida, Jacques, L’écriture et la différence, Paris: Seuil, 1967.

Harding, D.W., Words into Rhythm: English Speech Rhythm in Verse and Prose, Cambridge: CUP, 1976.

Heaney, Seamus, Death of a Naturalist, Faber & Faber, 1966.

Heaney, Seamus,North, Faber & Faber, 1975.

Jones, David, “Swathes from the Weave of Time: the Work of G.M. Brown”, Planet 40 (1977): 38–44.

Kristeva, Julia, La Révolution du langage poétique, Paris: Seuil, 1974.

Laplanche, J. & J.-B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, Paris: Quadrige-PUF, 2002.

Meschonnic, Henri, Critique du rythme: anthropologie historique du langage, Lagrasse: Verdier, 1982.

Murray, Rowenae. G., Style as Voice: a Reappraisal of George Mackay Brown’s Prose (Ph. D.), Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1986.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, La Naissance de la tragédie, vol. 1, ed. M. Haar, P. Lacoue-Labarthe & J.-L. Nancy, Paris: Gallimard, 1977.

O’Donnell, Brennan, The Passion of Meter: A Study of Wordsworth’s Metrical Art, Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1995.

Platon, La République, ed. R. Baccou, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Essai sur l’origine des langues, Charles Porset, Bordeaux: Ducros, 1968.

Scammell, William, “Hard as granite, sweet as grass”, Independent on Sunday 9 August 1992, 26.

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1 The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (2005); henceforth abbreviated as CP.

2 Letter to E. Marwick (19 January 1954).

3 “Intrusions into an archaeological script” (1).

4 “I think that the work of some writers is shaped by a few overmastering images. One image I discovered [. . .] was that part of the gospel where Christ speaks of man’s life as a seed cast into a furrow. Unless the seed dies in the darkness and silence, new life cannot spring from it—the shoot, the ear, the full corn in the ear, and finally the fragrant bread set on the tables of hungry folk. [. . .] That image has a universal meaning for me, especially when I can stand among ripening fields all summer. You will find it at the heart of many of my stories and poems” (Brown 1976, 23).

5 “Writing in Orkney”.

6 According to the OED, tone designates “a particular quality, pitch, modulation, or inflexion of the voice expressing or indicating [. . .] some feeling or emotion” or “a style of speech or writing regarded as reflecting a person’s mood, attitude, or personality”.

7 The system of scansion used throughout this study is the one set forth in Derek Attridge’s The Rhythms of English Poetry and also, for typographical convenience, Carper and Attridge, Meter and Meaning (p. 149). Thus, “B” and “o” will designate respectively an emphasized beat and an unemphasized offbeat. (Alternatively, “b” and “O” might indicate respectively an unemphasized beat and an emphasized offbeat.) In addition, “ô” will denote an “implied offbeat”—that is, not actually occurring but “implied” between two consecutive beats. Finally, the very occasional triple offbeat will be represented by “~o~”.

8 See O’Donnell, 172 & Attridge 1982, 113.

9 An original phrase in the manuscript version of “The Friend”, replaced by “circle of light and fire” in the published version: “Stone, tree, star, fish, animal, man,/All gathered/Within one circle of light and fire” (CP 516).

10 As in Milton’s “Lap me in soft Lydian airs” (Attridge 1982, 190).

11 I am aware of the structuralist bias of this almost inevitable metaphor inherited from a long-standing Western philosophical tradition which, as Jacques Derrida has shown, has tended to spatialize time (see 1967a, 105 and 1967b, 42).

12 See, for instance, Derek Attridge’s view of rhythm as an index of emotional states (1982, 295), a conception shared by other authors, such as Brennan O’Donnell or Amittai F. Aviram (140), but also, in either a broader or more specific sense, by psychoanalysts like Laplanche and Pontalis (214–16), Julia Kristeva, Nicolas Abraham (10, 12) or Joseph Attié (372), philosophers like Nietzsche (who mentions the “echo of universalia ante rem” [138]) or Plato (“rhythms are expressive of meanness, or insolence, or fury, or [. . .] opposite feelings” [152]), theologians (St Augustine, for instance) and, of course, poets and writers themselves, especially the Romantics (see, for example, Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads). Sometimes perceptible behind this position is the dream of an unmediated, pre-verbal, non-ideational unambiguous, one-to-one correspondence between rhythms and emotions, psychic drives or even noetic and mystical realities. But, as much as these aspects should be properly taken into consideration prior to any prudent theorizing of rhythm in language, they unfortunately exceed by far the very limited scope of the present study.

13 Even Harding, who is keenly aware of “the risk of attributing to rhythm an expressive significance that stems in reality from other features of language” (153), stressing that “the sense of the words is needed before we know whether a forceful rhythm is suggesting eager joy, determination, anger or horror” (154), keeps having his allegedly neutral scientific terminology (“energy expenditure”, “strength”, etc.) invalidated by the tropological nature of any language (see Rousseau 45 or Derrida 1967b, 16). This unavoidable limitation he acknowledges when he admits that ‘“energy” [. . .] is possibly only a metaphor but serves conveniently’ (101).

14 In the same sense that a lot of the terms used by Attridge very often tries to remain as objectively and scientifically descriptive as possible, as when he remarks that, strictly speaking, “the rhythm provides nothing but regular motion of a certain kind and sudden stasis” (1982, 294). Then the question of interpretation—where commitment begins—remains entirely open; but that is really another chapter, too vast to be broached here.

15 Attridge’s phrase (1982, 185) for “a double offbeat and an implied offbeat [. . .] not immediately adjacent” (184).

16 Again, I confess to the fallibility of a presentation that subscribes to “the Neoplatonic notion that language which obeys the rules of a strict metre represents an ideal reality governed by order and harmony” (Attridge 1982, 289).

17 According to Attridge, this adjective and its opposite (“rising”) describe the rhythmic structure of a “stress group”, defined as a “single full stress and any attached unstressed syllables, or syllables with secondary stress” (1995, 38) and constituted by a word or a phrase (see 1982, 108).

18 See O’Donnell 14 and Attridge 1982, 171.

19 Through stress-initial pairing with postponed compensation (l. 1, 8), initial inversion with postponed compensation (l. 4) or stress-initial pairing (l. 3).

20 Seamus Heaney, a great admirer of Brown, often uses the same rhythm in a comparable manner; see Heaney (1966): “The squat pen rests”, “the bright edge deep” (in “Digging” 13); “the flax-dam festered”, “the warm thick slobber”, “jampotfuls”, “one hot day”, “the dam gross-bellied frogs”, etc. (in “Death of a Naturalist” 15); Heaney (1975): “the turf-cart wheels”, “the haw-lit hedges” (in “Kinship” 44); “glass-toothed stone”, etc. (in “Bog Queen”, 32).

21 In “Summer Day” (l. 8), the original unpublished version of the same poem, a typescript (dated 1947) from the Kirkwall Archive of the Orkney Library.

22 Brown 1971, jacket of the LP.

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Dominique Delmaire, « Rhythm as Spiritual Pursuit in the Poetry of George Mackay Brown », Études britanniques contemporaines, 39 | 2010, 65-80.

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Dominique Delmaire, « Rhythm as Spiritual Pursuit in the Poetry of George Mackay Brown », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 39 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 février 2016, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2805

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Dominique Delmaire

University of Lyon II.
Dominique Delmaire is associate professor of English at the university of Lyon. He is the author of L’Ascèse de L’écriture dans la poésie de George Mackay Brown (Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 1999) and of a number of articles and book chapters on Scottish and Caribbean poets, including Robert Burns, R.L. Stevenson, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, Derek Walcott or Kamau Brathwaite.

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