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The Subject and his Stories : Lyricality in the Narrative Poetry of George Mackay Brown, par Dominique Delmaire

10 mai 2012

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Lyricality in the Narrative Poetry of George Mackay Brown

The contemporary Scottish poet and writer George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) never made any mystery of his artistic ideal : “One phrase of Thomas Mann struck me, that art is somehow ‘anonymous and communal’. Over the past four centuries there has been too much emphasis on the life and personality of authors ― great streams of reminiscence, biography and autobiographies.” (Brown 1997, 38) That this declaration should appear in his “autobiography” ceases to be ironical as soon as one realizes the voluntarily posthumous character of the book. [1] For Brown spent his life acting upon his diagnosis of the modern writer’s egotism by refusing, in particular, to give in to the cult of the biographical self (“the life and personality of authors”) or to what Dominique Rabaté calls the “imperialism of lyricism” (Rabaté 6), that is to say, in Brown’s words, “too much emphasis on the individual voice of the poet” (in Kumar 8), those two sides of the same coin firmly wedded together once for all at the dawn of the Romantic age by A.-W. Schlegel, Hegel and their successors. [2] Indeed, poetry cannot at the same time be self-based and “spring out of the community and be a part of the community” as Brown would have it (in Kumar 8), since “the tendency of the individualistic poet is to get more and more difficult poetry, obscure poetry,” when “[p]oetry should be very simple[, so] that ordinary people, anybody of average intelligence should be able to appreciate it” (ibid.).

Now, although Brown himself declares in 1954 that the poems in his next collection, Loaves and Fishes (1959 ― CP 16-36), “will be simple and forthright and such as a crofter or a fisherman would read and remember with pleasure,” [3] some critics have suggested that not even he may have been immune to the risk of autistic obscurity. Berthold Schoene ascribes it to the “heraldic stasis and esoteric closure” of a poetry which, as a consequence, “loses touch with the community it seeks to represent” (Schoene 266). But Brown, he adds, “attempts to resolve this dilemma by employing the mode of poetic narrative,” thus having, as it were, a foot in both camps and partaking in particular of the conviviality of “the story-teller gathering listeners about him at the fire” (Brown 1997, 182). That mattered very much to a writer who was fully aware of how “fortunate [he was] to be born in a community where the art of story-telling had been practised for many generations” (Brown 1977, vi) and who also “found, to [his] great relief, that [he] had inherited something of the Orkney gift of narrative” (Brown 1991).

If by “poetic narrative” Schoene means a number of short stories and novels, it is important to remember that for Brown there is a continuum between story and poem, and that it works both ways :
I have always been interested in the relationship between poetry and story. In much of my work in verse and prose the frontier is indistinct. Some of my poems are condensed stories. Some of my stories are expanded poems in prose. [4]
Poem and story are more like systole and diastole, that is, the two phases of a movement of compression and expansion, in which narrative ― or the narrative potential ― is the common denominator : “lots of my poems are a sort of compressed stories and you could expand them and make a short story of them. Maybe a novel, it you wanted to go to town” (in Murray & Tait 1). Some critics have taken Brown at his word by calling Magnus, one of his novels, “an epic poem” (McGrath 55) and Time in a Red Coat a “prose-poem” (Scott 32). As Marguerite Duras quipped, “Les romans vrais sont des poèmes.” [5] Conversely, when the protagonist of the short story “The Eve of St Thomas” “had done what he had never believed possible, written a poem,” something foolhardy, a “venture into legend,” at which “[t]he story-teller in him […] sneered” (Brown 1989, 20), it turned out that the poem in question ― to wit, “the writing on the page […] in the form of a poem” (19) ― was basically narrative :

The winter tribute. It is time to go with the islands’ tribute.
At the end of November
We set the keel for Norway, a lantern in the stern.
And had fair passage. And anchored in a fjord.
I knocked a the lodge of the castle.
A long gargoyle face ― The king is sick.
A princess said, in the hall.
[…] (18)

Alan Bold confirms that “most of his poems have a strong narrative element” (18). And, according to Tom Scott, “not making a choice between prose and verse, […] Brown is essentially a narrative poet in whichever genre he happens to be using” (Scott 32). In short, Brown, whose foregoing statements date from the early 1980s, appears to have proven Marjorie Perloff right when she predicted at about the same time that “the lyric of the solitary self […] may well be giving way to a more communal poetry, a poetry in which narrative once again becomes the locus for gnosis. In the words of John Cage, himself a narrative poet : ‘[…] What we are learning is now to be convivial. […]’” (427).
But is it so true that, even in his overtly narrative poetry, Brown has done away with what McHale, after James Phelan, [6] calls “lyricality,” defined as “somebody telling somebody . . . on some occasion for some purpose that something is” (as opposed to “that something happened,” which would qualify as narrativity) ; or alternatively as “somebody telling somebody . . . on some occasion for some purpose what he or she thought about something” [7] ? That is what I now propose to address, by first studying the traditional models which the Orkney poet uses, and then examining the extent to which he meets the standards he sets for himself.


The ballads and the sagas, two genres in which George Mackay Brown shows a keen interest, are prime instances of a narrative poetry which was convivial in its reception and communal in its making. If the notion of conviviality is obvious enough in oral literature, the word “communal” needs to be handled with some care, owing to the antiquarian trappings that often come with our romanticized view of balladry and folk culture, [8] and to which the Orkney poet is arguably not immune on occasion. When he declares, for instance, that “the poem, song, or painting, is not the work of one man labouring in isolation, but it is a whole community expressing its fears, hopes, joys. The artist is merely the instrument through which the whole tribe speaks,” [9] one may rightfully pick up undertones of Herder’s Volksgeist and utopian “tribal” primitivism, fueled by his own “shreds of nostalgia for […] the simpler and more meaningful community that Orkney used to be” (Brown 2002 (1975), 8). Timothy C. Baker has refreshlingly argued that nothing could be further from the truth. [10] Brown is in fact no more the uncritical inheritor of Herder’s and Jakob Grimm’s mystique of collective folk composition than he is of the “cultural logic by which the oral is virtually co-extensive with the primitive, the prior, and the archaic” while “print culture is the telos of world history” (McLane, 2008, 42) ; nor does he adhere to the patronizing class ideology that ultimately resulted from this fanciful communalist anthropology and which was still visible as late as the second half of the twentieth century in the works of Buchan, Hendron, Entwistle, McLuhan, and others who all posited illiteracy and isolation as pre-requisites “for the ballads’ survival” [11] in traditional rural societies. His conception is much closer to that of the song-collector Cecil Sharp who, drawing on four years’ intensive first-hand fieldwork, suggested at the turn of the twentieth century that “[e]very line, every word of [a] ballad sprang in the first instance from the head of some individual, reciter, minstrel, or peasant […]. Communal composition is unthinkable. The community plays a part, it is true, but it is at a later stage […].” [12] If, nevertheless, as G. L. Kittredge writes, “a ballad has no author” or, “at all events, it appears to have none” (xi), it is because

The product as it comes from the author is handed over to the folk for oral transmission, and thus passes out of his control. If it is accepted by those for whom it is intended, it ceases to be the property of the author ; it becomes the possession of the folk, and a new process begins, that of oral tradition, which is hardly second in importance to the original creative act. […] Taken collectively, these processes of oral tradition amount to a second act of composition, of an inextricably complicated character, in which many persons share (some consciously, others without knowing it), which extends over many generations and much geographical space, and which may be as efficient a cause of the ballad in question as the original creative act of the individual author. […] They may even result in the production of new ballads to which no individual author can lay claim, so completely is the initial act of creative authorship overshadowed by the secondary act of collective composition. (xvii)

That is exactly George Mackay Brown’s view :
I have the feeling that not one man made those great ballads ; in a real sense, they are the work of an entire tribe or community. One illiterate man might indeed have rough-hewn them with his voice ; thereafter, being vividly uttered and remembered, they are part of the inheritance of a community. (1997, 38).
The ballad being “part of the inheritance of a community” means that it is free-floating, ubiquitous, hybrid, and of multifarious and indefinable origin, [13] and also that its traditional oral transmission and performance-based actualizations [14] do not preclude its cross-medial manifestations, interactions and transmutations. [15] In Mary Ellen Brown’s apt words, “the ballad is always already postmodern”, “neither original, nor a copy” [16] (. Roland Barthes, in his essay “La mort de l’auteur”, points out that the modern notion of authorship is as irrelevant (“preposterous,” had Kittredge (xx) said before him) to the oral narratives of “primitive” ― that is to say, in the present case, “traditional” ― societies as it is to post-structuralist texts (Barthes 1984, 61). Indeed, that concept gained prominence during the Reformation and the Enlightenment [17] and was felt by many to reflect the self-consciousness (Bell 289) of the modern, capitalist age in contrast with the spontaneity of pre-modern times (McGann 33). As was demonstrated by Hume in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) and Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), this self-consciousness amounted to self-distancing and self-evaluation [18] ― signs of the sentimental hero’s narcissistic Spaltung. [19] Such a literature could only be highly subjective in expression. As Ernest Tonnelat, commenting on Friedrich Schiller’s famous distinction between naive and sentimental poetry, sums it up :

Les modernes […] mêlent à tout ce qu’ils font du sentiment, de la réflexion, des impressions subjectives […] ; trop habitués à intervenir de leur personne dans ce qu’ils décrivent ou rapportent, ils laissent transparaître constamment leurs propres émotions ou leurs propres sentiments ; leur œuvre a toujours quelque chose de subjectif. (110-111)

By contrast, in Schiller’s “naive” poetry (that of Homer or Shakespeare, in particular, whom George Mackay Brown significantly puts on the pedestal of genuinely popular poetry, along with the ballad-makers and Robert Burns [20]), the poet refuses to speak in his own name or to express his emotions (Schiller 31, 34). Similarly, Child notes that because popular poetry was never an expression of “the personality of individual men,” the “fundamental characteristic of popular ballads was therefore the absence of subjectivity and self-consciousness” (214). What prevails in traditional poetry (and, for that matter, in post-structuralist literature) is, according to Barthes, the “performative” and “perform[ing]” (Barthes 1984, 64, 61, 62) character of autonomous language, loose from its authorial moorings ― a language that has become anonymous and “impersonal” (62).

Much of what we have said about the ballads could apply to the sagas. For, as Ralph O’Connor observes, “saga-authors did not […] see themselves as individual authors” and “claimed no personal ownership of (or finality for) their particular reworking of the received story” (O’Connor 114-115). Sagamen ― that is, “writers and reciters alike” (120, n. 74) ― saw themselves as the anonymous redactors of pre-existing narratives, at a time when writing, copying, compiling, composing, reworking and reciting were all part of the same authorial task, “with no place for an individual author.” [21]

Yet one significant difference was their supposed reliance on the written text. The figure of the compiler, in particular, appeared to fit a neat, reassuring teleological scheme that culminated in the production of a definitive text. According to A. B. Taylor, who published in 1938 a translation of the Orkneyinga Saga, the compiler “copied, adapted, or wrote from what he himself had heard” (9), drawing both on “the oral tradition” (37) ― a “process of oral telling and retelling which the narrative underwent for anything from fifty to two hundred years” (109) ― and on manifold written sources (33-97) ; but at some point, notwithstanding “occasional additions of his own” (102), the “author’s compilation was […] complete” (103).

Taylor himself, however, confesses the “frankly speculative” nature of his “reconstruction” of the process of composition (98) by some “single” (20), albeit mysterious (33), “Icelandic gentleman of literary interest […] indulging in his hobby of Saga-collecting” (98) and welding his material “into a fairly coherent whole” (20). Besides, he has to admit that “additions and interpolations […] were made most probably after the death of our author, but when, where, and by whom, it is impossible to indicate very definitely” (103). In other words, the stability of the written text could never be permanently secured. Nor apparently was the text a pre-requisite for recitation. As Ralph O’Connor observes :
Very little is known, although much has been speculated, about how sagas were communicated to their audiences in mediaeval Iceland […]. Several different scenarios are possible, in a spectrum ranging from the completely oral to the completely textual, and from public to private : oral improvisation, the oral performance of a memorised narrative (with or without a manuscript-text as a prompt-book), reading a saga aloud in public from a manuscript-text (with or without improvised deviations), reading a saga aloud to oneself, silent reading.” (O’Connor 118)

What remains is, as in the ballads, the “impersonal narrative voice” of the author-cum-reciter (120). “The author of a saga,” comments D. M. Budge, “adopted an austere and sometimes laconic approach to his work. […] his methods were straightforward, impersonal and to the point” (1977, xiii-xiv).

Kittredge, speaking of the ballads, has offered one of the most articulate definitions of this impersonality, which they have in common with the sagas :

Unlike other songs, [a ballad] does not purport to give utterance to the feelings or the mood of the singer. The first person does not occur at all, except in the speeches of the several characters. Finally, there are no comments or reflections by the narrator. He does not dissect or psychologize. He does not take sides for or against any of the dramatis personae. He merely tells what happened and what people said, and he confines the dialogue to its simplest and most inevitable elements. The story exists for its own sake. If it were possible to conceive a tale as telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale. (xi)

That gives it a universal and intemporal character which resonates with the listener’s idiosyncratic life experience. [22] It also places, just as in myth, a premium on the story per se (“the ballad language is ’a language of act and event’” [23]), as opposed to subjective, and often narcissistic, “literary flourishes” such as “the particularly clever play on words, the unusual image, the striking metaphor” which “often rely upon the precise wording of a verse for their effectiveness,” a precision which gets eroded through the process of oral transmission (Zweig v). Brown is fascinated by the “dramatic eloquence” (Watson 141) and stylistic leanness of both the ballads (“The ballad-maker is not interested in the details, only in the central situation, the skeleton of the story […]” ― Brown 1968, 800) and the sagas :

I admire the ’pure’ art of the sagamen ; everything extraneous, such as detailed descriptions of people and places and comments by the author on what is happening, is ruthlessly excluded. Perhaps Hemingway of modern authors comes closest to that tough bare austere style. (Brown 1977, x)
Yet, with regard to the ballads at least, as I now purport to show, such statements are obviously at best half-truths ― and therefore a possible indication of the poet’s own fantasy about perfect impersonality.


Kittredge, in a footnote to his foregoing statement about the neutrality of the narrator, had warned that “[t]here are, of course, slight departures from the type in particular cases, but these are readily accounted for, and do not affect the integrity of the type” (xi, n. 2). “Andrew Ross,” the “last ballad,” to which Brown alludes in his 1968 comment (above), departs significantly from that idealized model, leaving out few details :

They whipped and mangled, gagged and strangled
The Orkney sailor, Andrew Ross.
The mates and captain daily flogged him
With whips and ropes, I’ll tell you true
While on Andrew Ross’ bleeding body
Water mixed with salt they threw
The captain trained his dogs to bite him
While Ross for mercy he did pray
And on the deck, his flesh in mouthfuls
Torn by the dogs they lay. (ll. 11-16 ; 21-25)
Brown is the first one to acknowledge in his commentary that “it is necessary to convey the full horror of what happened, to exaggerate the sufferings of Andrew Ross” (800), something the narrator ― or, rather, the self-conscious raconteur here ― had emphatically announced in the very first stanza that he would do :
Come all you seamen and give attention
And listen for a while to me
While I relate of a dreadful murder
Which happened on the briny sea.

The mere adjective “dreadful” ― which, because it is “not strictly descriptive” and oversteps the bounds of pure narration, bears the imprint of the narrator’s “discourse” (Genette 1969, 66) ―, as well as innumerable other expressions of moral judgment further on (“Oh think of what a cruel treatment” (l. 9) ; “Oh think, what sorrow, grief and shame” (l. 18) ; “I hope his fate will be a warning / […]” (ll. 61s)), are evidence enough that what Brown calls “comments by the author” are not at all “ruthlessly excluded.” Similar instances can be found in countless ballads that stand as counterexamples to the alledged impersonality of the narrator and in which it is not uncommon to hear the speaker intervene in the course of his or her narration. A typical example could be “The Earl of Rosslyn’s Daughter” [24] or “The Shepherd’s Son,” [25] which concludes with : “There is a gude auld proverb, / I’ve often heard it told, / He that would not when he might, / He should not when he would” (162). And the list could go on with the incipit of “Kemp Owyne” or the end of “The Battle of Otterbourne,” and many more.

It should be noted that all these ballads belong to the Child collection of traditional balladry, where, supposedly, “the author counts for nothing” (Child 1900, 214) or, as Kittredge puts it, “the teller of the tale has no rôle in it” (xi) ― contrary to broadsides, which can be “artificial, tedious, didactic,” or “moralizing” and “sentimental.” [26] But, in fact, even the ballads preserved by Mrs. Brown of Falkland, “one of Child’s esteemed sources” (Bronson 64), contain “occasional moral observations and pious reflections […] which are little above the broadside level” (72) ; and “The Lass of Lochroyan,” in particular, has been said to be “romantically sentimental,” “especially in the melodramatic final scene” (Pettitt 22). In many cases the self-dramatization and expression of the reciter-cum-author, far from being “excluded,” was, in truth, instrumental in making the piece more attractive, as Brown himself admits : “The same ten or twelve stories, as the years pass, become ever more colourful and dramatic, so that it is hard in the end to recognize them from the bare original narratives ; but the story-teller and his listeners are all the more pleased because of that” (1995, 62 ; my emphasis).

More generally, these authorial intrusions are a feature of oral literature, in which the phatic function is pre-eminent, since successful telling depends on the reciter’s capacity to keep up his audience’s interest during the performance by means of digressions, tonal variations, direct addresses, rhetorical questions, etc. [27] They are also present in lays ― those instances of personal or narrative poetry which, in the thirteenth century, had preserved a definite oral flavor (Yves Vadé notes that Rutebeuf, for instance, “addresses his audience” and “imposes his physical presence” [28]) ― as well as in medieval romances, which, as Paul Zumthor has shown, remain performance-oriented, at least until the fourteenth century, evincing oral, sometimes theatrical, expressive strategies that get negotiated against the conflicting demands of writing and result in multiple authorial interventions. [29] According to Ralph O’Connor, “the typical romance is characterised by a self-conscious narrator who intrudes on the narrative to offer his or her own opinions” (111). But what he asserts of chansons de gestes ― and of Chrétien de Troyes in particular (108) ―, can also be observed in Arthurian literature [30] ― initially composed orally by minstrels, like chansons de gestes (Newman 365) ― or in Chaucer’s romance, Troilus and Criseyde ; [31] and the epic poetry of Scotland is, of course, no exception : there is, in John Barbour’s The Bruce, no dirth of philosophical comments on the action [32] or narrative metalepses ; [33] nor is Blind Harry’s The Wallace short of these [34] or expressions of feelings. [35]

All of this is true of Homer’s epics as well, in which, according to Wayne Booth, there is “scarcely a page without some kind of direct clarification of motives, of expectations, and of the relative importance of events” (4). And that is not to mention the myriad epic similes, digressions, vivid descriptions or metaphors that break up or enliven the narrative. If epic similes, digressive by nature, are par excellence manifestations of discourse, and therefore indexes of subjectivity (by contrast with the objectivity of narration as defined by Benveniste [36]), both dramatic, colorful portrayals and metaphors (the latter often contributing to the intensity of the former) also play an important role in that respect. In fact, all these features frequently blend or overlap, as in the widely used hypotyposis. Here is an example from The Iliad :

At last Hector, aflame from head to foot, burst into their midst. Picture a wave raised by a gale and sweeping forward under the scudding clouds. It breaks on a gallant ship. She is smothered in foam ; the angry wind booms in her sail ; and the crew, saved from destruction by a hair’s breadth, are left trembling and aghast. This is how Hector fell upon the Greeks, striking panic into their hearts. And they stampeded, as cattle do when a savage lion finds them grazing. (Book XV, p. 288 ; emphasis mine)
Although the comparison is not explicity marked by the appropriate conjunctions (“as” or “like”), this passage fully qualifies as a Homeric simile : Hector is, indeed, likened to a huge wave breaking upon a ship ― just as the Greeks, in another typical simile, are then compared to stampeding cattle. It also fits the very definition of hypotyposis ― “a vivid description of a scene, event, or situation, bringing it, as it were, before the eyes of the hearer or reader” (OED) ―, for the reader is literally asked here to “picture” an imaginary scene rendered in densely metaphorical language (“aflame,” “burst,” “sweeping,” “gallant,” “smothered,” “angry,” “stampeded”). But what makes this visualization possible is, according to Aristotle (who greatly praised Homer for his skillful use of metaphor [37]), metaphor itself. “Homer’s common practice of giving metaphorical life to lifeless things” (Rhetoric, III, 11, 1411b) [38] ― the anthropomorphic vocabulary used in the present excerpt being a good illustration of it ― is due precisely to its capacity to “mak[e] your hearers see things” (III, 11, 1411b) by “set[ting] the scene before our eyes” (III, 10, 1410 b ; 2, 1405b) and “represent [them] as in a state of activity” (III, 11, 1411b). For this reason “it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh” (III, 10, 1410b). Hence Paul Ricoeur’s famed title, La métaphore vive (“L’expression vive est ce qui dit l’existence vive,” Ricoeur 1975, 61), in which he elaborates on Aristotle’s rhetorical view of metaphor as a tool for revitalizing the hearer or the reader’s perception of the world [39], but also studies its cognitive function and its heuristic, poietic power “to reveal a world” through the creative distortion of language. [40] Metaphor, then, when it is “fresh,” is also a true “semantic event,” an idiosyncratic “linguistic creation” (127) that bears the hallmark of an individual speaker’s subjective slant ― “it is not a thing whose use can be taught by one man to another,” says Aristotle (Rhet., III, 2, 1405a). [41]
It must be noted, however, that for the philosopher this aspect is not enough to place metaphor as a manifestation of subjectivity on an equal footing with the obtrusive interventions of a narrator. While he condemns the latter [42] on the basis that “the poet should speak as little as possible in his own person ― for it is not this that makes him an imitator” (Poetics 24, 1460a) [43] ―, he does advocate, as we have seen, the use of metaphor, amongst other devices, to “raise [the style] above the commonplace and mean” (Poetics 22, 1458a), as long as it is not “inappropriate,” “ridiculous,” “grand and theatrical,” or “far-fetched,” and therefore “obscure” (Rhetoric III, 1406b). In other words, for the philosopher, metaphor is not at all on the side of the essentially “rhetorical” [44] legein ― comprising that “very little” [45] which the poet ought to say himself and which, in W.H. Fyfe’s reading, refers “not to narrative, of which there is a great deal in Homer, but to the ‘preludes’ in which the poet, invoking the Muse, speaks in his own person” (1932, 1460a, n. 1) ―, but is an integral part of the “mimetic” poiein, [46] that is, what the poet “ought to do himself” [47] and which “Homer […] alone of all poets […] does not fail to understand,” namely to “[represent] life partly by narration, partly by assuming a character other than his own,” “both “these ‘manners’ com[ing] under the head of ‘imitation’” (Fyfe, 1460a, n. 1). In the present case (narration), “the incidents […] speak for themselves without verbal exposition” (Poetics 19, 1456b ; transl. Fyfe). To phrase it in Percy Lubbock’s words in The Craft of Fiction, this is still very much showing, and not at all telling. Metaphor, for Aristotle, does not register as a sign of the undesirable “poet”’s presence but as an aid to more intense and dramatic mimesis ; it creates verisimilitude ― what Genette, after Barthes, terms “effet de réel” (1972, 186).
One could naturally be more much more radical than this, as Plato had shown. Indeed, although the main thrust of his critique of mimesis is directed at the “imitation” (viz. the “transcription” [48]) of dialogues by a “poet” who has gone into hiding and “speaks as if he were” his characters (Republic, p. 69, 393a), he nonetheless goes to some lengths to alter and simplify even the narrative style of Homer. For instance, where the latter wrote :
The old man trembled and obeyed him. He went off without a word along the shore of the sounding sea. But when he found himself alone he prayed fervently to King Apollo, son of Leto of the Lovely Locks. (The Iliad, p. 24.)
he, instead, after narrativizing the exchange between the priest and Agammemnon, offers the following rendition :

When the old man heard this, he was frightened and went off in silence. But when he’d left the camp he prayed at length to Apollo, calling him by his various titles and reminding him of his own services to him.” (Republic, p. 70, 393e-394a)
As Genette has shown (1972, 186), Plato thus strips away Homer’s supposedly “useless” [49] descriptive notations such as “the shore of the sounding sea” or “Apollo, son of Leto of the Lovely Locks,” which foster the “referential fallacy,” in order to achieve not only “pure” diegesis [50] ― which Homer also accomplishes in his short narrative segment ―, but also, paradoxically, a more sober, factual kind of telling that seems to have done away both with all the imagery [51] and the narratorial interventions. While it is true then, as Plato puts it, that “[t]he poet himself is speaking and doesn’t attempt to get us to think that the speaker is someone other than himself” (Republic, p. 69, 393a), he arguably does not work hard at putting himself into the limelight as a narrator. This “ideal poet whose austere diction would be as little mimetic as possible” (Genette 1969, 53) thus contravenes Genette’s law that “the amount of information and the presence of the informer are in inverse proportion” and that, consequently, diegesis entails the foregrounding of the narrator (1972, 187), but he meets George Mackay Brown’s criteria such as they are reflected in his previously quoted tribute to sagamen : “I admire the ’pure’ art of the sagamen ; everything extraneous, such as detailed descriptions of people and places and comments by the author on what is happening, is ruthlessly excluded” ; for both mimesis (“detailed descriptions of people and places”) and overt diegesis (“comments by the author on what is happening”) are “ruthlessly excluded.”
Admittedly, Brown seems to have a point. One would indeed be hard-pressed to find many “detailed descriptions of people and places and comments by the author” in the following excerpt taken at random from The Orkneyinga Saga :
Now when Eastertide was past, each made ready for this meeting. [...] And when he was ready for sea, he sailed for Egilsay. [...] Hakon had hidden from him his plot which Havard would certainly have no hand in. And when he learned that the Earl was so resolute upon his plot, he leapt overboard the Earl’s ship and took to swimming, and swam to an uninhabited island.

Earl Magnus with his band of men arrived first in Egilsay. And when they espied Earl Hakon coming, they saw that he had eight warships ; then he knew for certain that there was foul play afoot. [52] (207-208)

Not only, as in all traditional tales told at the winter fire, “all unnecessary details are left out, such as the colour of a character’s eyes or the acreage of his fields” (Brown 1977, viii), but, as Benveniste would have remarked, in terms that recall Brown’s or Kittredge’s idealized views of the ballad, [53] “no one speaks here ; the events seem to narrate themselves” (Benveniste 241 ; m. t.). As a matter of fact, there are possibly fewer instances of “discourse, reflections, comparisons” than in the samples of “historical narration” (241 ; m. t.) which the linguist uses for the purpose of his own demonstration. [54] What we are looking at here is a “sober and matter-of-fact” narrative (Taylor 1), made up of a series of factual statements describing the ongoing action in “tersely economical style” (Budge xiii) and chronological order, much as in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

This “impersonality of technique” (Booth 83), if it existed at all, would not, however, mean that there is no narrator, as Benveniste suggests. For even in cases where the “’illusion of pure mimesis’” prevails, “[t]here is no such thing as a nonnarrated story.” [55] The narrator, although he can be, according to Monika Fludernik’s definition, a “covert narrator […], linguistically inconspicuous,” remains “the articulator of the story” (Fludernik 22), akin to the “cinematic show-er” or “presenter” in Chatman’s theory of film narration (Chatman 113). But, mostly, it must be observed in the present case that, bare though the style be, it is not impersonal. [56] Nor can any statement fully be so : “toute assertion porte la marque de celui qui l’énonce” (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 68). This is especially true on the larger organisational level of the text. Indeed, most of its statements are not loose ; nor do they always follow the actual order of the events recounted. Their succession ― just as in Homer’s Iliad, or even Plato’s rewrite of it ― is occasionally reorganized through “the uses of subordination and coordination which maintain a logical sequence” and reveal the voice of a narrator [57] who, although he never uses the first-person pronoun, clearly “extracts a configuration from a succession” (Ricoeur 1983, 129) and thus shows through as the architect of intelligibility by whom the story is “narratively presented” (Chatman 115). [58]

Certainly, this “emplotment” (“mise en intrigue”) ― or muthos” (Ricoeur 1983, 66, 69) ― is realized only moderately in The Orkneyinga Saga or other sagas such as King Harald’s Saga, in the sense that hypotaxis ― the result of the hierarchizing and subordinating (reduced here to “when” clauses) of one action to another, that is, the “organizing of the events into a system” (Ricoeur 1983, 69 ; m. t.) which characterizes muthos ― never quite prevails against parataxis ― the loose chronicling of consecutive events, without the slightest attempt at (chrono)logical reorganization ― which typifies oral poetry, according to Paul Zumthor (1983, 136). [59] Nevertheless, we get a sense of the narrator’s presence being always in the background, ready to burst forth, emotionally or didactically, through the “screen” of performing and narrating rules (Zumthor 1987, 185-86). A. B. Taylor himself, the distinguished saga translator, points out that, while “[t]he Saga narrative is usually sober and matter-of-fact, the prose style [is] straightforward and conversational” (1), as it “must talk to the reader” (127). In particular, the narrator, who normally “avoids making overt value-judgments or direct commentary on the events narrated,” in Ralph O’Connor’s words (120), can, relatively rarely (122), become “self-conscious” (121). In that case, “[t]he illusion of ‘traditional’ narrative is shattered : whereas the unitary saga-narrator works throughout to conceal his story’s own artefactual, authored nature, the narrators just cited put these very features on display” (122). For instance, in King Harald’s Saga, the narrator declares : “Such exchanges between the kings showed clearly now delicate the situation was” (75). So, even in the sagas, total stylistic impersonality seems to be an ideal never to be reached.
Nonetheless, judging from his “very free paraphrase” (Brown, 1973, 3) of Taylor’s translation of The Orkneyinga Saga, Brown appears to be setting himself the task to do so, and thus outdo even Plato :

Easter passed.  Each prepared for the meeting. [...]  He got ready for sea and steered towards Egilsay. [...] Hakon had hidden the plot from him ; he knew Havard would have no part in it. When Havard knew the Earl’s mind, and that is was firmly made up, he leapt from his ship and swam to a deserted island…

Earl Magnus with his company arrived in Egilsay first.  They saw Earl Hakon advancing with his eight ships.  They knew then that the nets were spread. [60] (Brown, 1973, 79-80)
There are hardly any connectives left : parataxis has almost entirely replaced whatever hypotaxis there still was and thus blotted out the remainder of the authorial voice. For this neutrality is not just logical and intellectual ; it is also emotional, and subjective in the broadest sense ― with, in particular, very few affectively or axiologically charged words. [61] Given Brown’s “sparing use of adjectives,” “absence of transitions,” and “pruning down of action and description to the bare essentials” (R. Murray, 1986a, 28-29), the reader is left with a raw, unmediated sequence of events, a sequence whose implacable logic, however, now seems to have taken over.

For no sequence remains stricto sensu a “sequence” for long. Even in the dictionary, “sequence” shifts from “something that follows” to “a logical consequence” (OED, entry 5), and the word is variously defined elsewhere as either a “following” and a “succession,” or “an order of succession ; an arrangement.” This confusion between succession and consequence ― the logical fallacy of “false cause” (post hoc ergo propter hoc) denounced by medieval scholasticism ― was pointed up by Roland Barthes as being, in fact, the mainspring of narrative (1981 (1966), 16), “since the pragmatic purpose of narrative is to show how one event leads to another” (Adams 113). The confusion is all the more likely as the reader, in his or her “anticipation of a telos” (Derrida 44), is having to make up for the absence of a narrating voice by “us[ing] his own imagination,” in Brown’s words (1977, xi) and tentatively filling in the “blanks” ― those “unseen joints of the text,” as Wolfgang Iser calls them (183). The greater the “reticence” (Baroni 99) of the text ― or, in other words, the lesser the authorial mediation ―, the greater the “narrative tension” (or suspense), defined by Raphaël Baroni as a mix of anticipation and uncertainty at the reader’s end. [62] Thus R. Murray is right in pointing out that Brown’s “economy of the style” is part of his “technique for sustaining suspense” (1986b, 554). In the specific case of the sagas, and particularly in the excerpt adapted by Brown, even though there is hardly any doubt as to the outcome of the “steady, orderly march of events” (Taylor 110) that are going to result in the killing of Earl Magnus, the narrative is no less suspenseful because of that ; it is just that the suspense is now, according to Meir Sternberg, “retardatory,” that is, no longer governed by “what ?” but by “how ?” (Sternberg 536) : anxiety has been replaced by curiosity (Baroni 269-78). When the events described are not only inexorably tragic but too difficult to bear for lack of authorial mediation ― as is the case in the sagas, where “the listener is enabled to ‘see things as they become’” (Taylor 110), but also, for instance, in Brown’s short story “Witch” (Brown 1977, 8-22), “a model of impersonality which lets the facts speak for themselves” (Bold 55) ―, suspense intensifies, but grounded in yet a different “thymic modality,” that of anxious fatalism stemming from the confrontation of the inevitable (Baroni 287-88) ― that “inevitability about the tale which grips listener and reader” (Taylor 110), from which the reader or listener recoils and which he or she attempts to avert by envisaging alternative scenarios till the very end : “nous savons que le protagoniste va mourir, […] et pourtant nous ne voulons pas qu’il meure.” [63] In this case as in all other cases, suspense hinges on how closely the narrative follows the chonology of events, since this conditions the reader’s possibility of identification with the protagonists (Baroni 270).

These are some of the implications of George Mackay Brown’s impersonal narrative poetic ideal. There remains to examine to what extent the poet’s practice meets his own self-imposed standards. “Ploughman and Whales” (CP 118), a poem chosen almost randomly, may serve as a good starting point.


(Pour la scansion, voir PDF. See PDF.)

x / / / x x / / / / x
The ox went forward, a black block, eyes bulging, 1
x / x / x
The mouth a furnace.
/ / / x / x
Tammag went forward, cursing.
x / / x x / x
The plough wavered between them.
x / / / x
And gulls plagued Tammag, a whirl of savage snow 5
On the field of the sun.
/ x / / /
Twice the plough struck stone,
A clang like a bell
Between the burning hills and the cold sea.
Tammag clawed his shoulder. He cursed. 10
And the ox belched lessening flame.
Six furrows now and a bit. . . .
/ x x / x / x / / x
Suddenly Tammag heard it, low thunder
Far in the firth,
x / / / x / x /
And saw blue surging hills, the whales 15
On trek from ocean to ocean.
They plunged, they dipped, they wallowed,
They sieved a million small fish through their teeth.
x / / x x / x / / x
The sun stood at the hill, a black circle.
The shore erupted with men and boats, 20
A skirl of women,
Loud dogs, seaward asylums of gulls.
The ox stood in the seventh furrow
In a dream of grass and water.
`Tammag !’ the boatmen cried. `Tammag !’ 25
Tammag wiped his silver face on his sleeve.
x / x x / x / / x
He yelled at the ox. The Plough wavered.
They stumbled on.
x / x x / /
They tore from the black Sun
Loaf, honey-comb, fleece, ale-jar, fiddle. 30

The poem describes an ordinary farming scene by the sea in which a character, Tammag, is struggling with his plough up and down his field. With its simple, unidirectional narrative line consisting of a succession of neutral, paratactic statements (The ox went forward” (l. 1) ; “Tammag went forward” (l. 3) ; “The plough wavered between them” (l. 4) ; “And gulls plagued Tammag” (l. 5) ; etc.), it purports to tell a factual story with the kind of “rigorous externality” (Roberts 182) often noticed about Brown, using “the impersonal and objective tone of the oral ballad” (Buchan 233). Yet, on closer look, a number of phenomena appear to upset the teleology of the narration and the neutrality of the narrator.
To begin with, the very first word, “the,” can be read in two ways : anaphorically (that is ― in the language of pragmatics ―, as referring to something previously mentioned) or exophorically (that is, as making reference to something in the non-linguistic context). In the first option, it presupposes our effective or imminent knowledge of the ox, depending on whether it has previously been mentioned (obviously not the case here) or, as in medias res beginnings, a flashback is going to fill us in on the previous events. In its exophoric use, it designates the ox as part of a real-world scene with which the speaker assumes that we are familiar, since the “definite article creates a viewpoint shared between speaker and hearer” (Stark et al. 9) ― “un terrain d’entente” (Gardin et al. ; 260) ―, which only gets strengthened here by the following pictorial depiction (“a black block, eyes bulging, / The mouth a furnace”) bringing, as it were, the ox literally before our eyes. This implicit compact with the reader reveals the narrator behind the narrative, and the hypotyposis, which carries on throughout the poem by means of successive denotative accretions (lines 6, 9, 15, 19, 20, etc.), foregrounds the setting and the actors of the scene, so much so that they appear to be at least as important as whatever narrative may ensue. Thus signification seems to be working backward (anaphorically) or outward (exophorically), more than forward.
Brown’s frequent use of right dislocation is but an extension of that. For example, in “A Child’s Calendar”(CP 122),

They stand about like ancient women,
The February hills.
They have seen many a coming and going, the hills.
September crofts get wrecked in blond surges.
They struggle, the harvesters. (ll. 3-21)

or very often also in his prose (e.g. “But she had a sharp tongue often, the chief’s woman, Vrem” [64]), the reader is, again, instructed to “search the context for the intended referent” (Ward et al. 473). Once more, the implication is that the narrator expects the reader to recognize what he is referring to [65] because he regards the latter as a member of the community acquainted with those hills, those harvesters, etc. As Cendrine Pagani-Naudet has noted about old French, “la dislocation est interprétée comme une marque d’affectivité : elle produit l’illusion d’un échange direct et donne l’impression d’une soudaine proximité” (135). Hence its disruption of the linearity of the syntax (8, 143, 198), often to express appreciation (212). The reader is assumably invited to participate in a friendly conversation about a familiar subject.

And it is, indeed, the topic per se that ultimately matters, rather than what is predicated of it. Further evidence of this can be found in the fact that, instead of the normal rising intonational pattern that characterizes a standard intonation/information unit, the second constituent of each sentence (“The February hills”, “the harvesters”, etc.) receives here a falling intonation (see Lee 348), suggesting a finality to the utterance which curtails its rhematic potential and emphasizes the “non-rightward-moving” nature (Ward et al. 476) of the antitopic construction. Each statement becomes circular, the end ― i.e. the referent proper ― being anticipated by the initial copy pronoun ; as a consequence, the “hills” and the “harvesters” as such are the main focus and are dwelled on to the detriment of their predicates.

Similarly, in “Ploughman and Whales,” predication is framed and downplayed by “discontinuous” apposition, [66] as in lines 1, 5 or 19. In “The ox went forward, a black block” (l. 1), the appositive “black block,” placed after the predicate, upsets the expected syntactic order and shifts the emphasis back onto the ox again, minimizing its actual movement, portraying it, instead, as a motionless, if not mineral, object (a “block”). This descriptive stasis is supported by the retarding effect of the two consecutive prominent, and probably beat-cueing, syllables of “black block,” [67] as well as, more broadly, the dense network of clashing stresses (ll. 1, 3, 4, 5, etc.) and frequent falling rhythm (ll. 3, 11, 13, 15) whose effect is to slow down the delivery. In addition, the initial stresses on “forward” and “bulging” contributes to the sense of closure caused by the symmetrical distribution of stressed and weak syllables in the line. Indeed, the first phrase (“The ox went forward”) can be regarded as a kind of rhythmic and intonational protasis or ascending pitch movement culminating in the first syllable of “forward,” followed by an apodosis or descent (“forward”) which, rhythmically, is the exact mirror image of the initial iamb (“the ox”), the whole sequence being organized around the demoted stressed syllable (“went”) in the middle. (A concentrated phrase-long version of this occurs later, in “a black circle,” l. 19, where an iambic foot is abutted against its trochaic inversion.) This phenomenon is paralleled and expanded in the symmetry (and alliterative echo) binding the second phrase (“a black block”), which gathers momentum owing to its initial iambic impulse, and the third phrase (“eyes bulging”), which trails off because of its feminine ending, thus creating a sense of closure similar to what we noticed in the use of right-dislocation : we expect nothing else after that ; the line, having come to a halt, seems complete and self-contained (a point to which I shall obviously have to come back). The narrative dynamic has made way for its antithesis ― a contemplative pause (Tadié 9) : “la description,” writes Genette, “parce qu’elle […] envisage les procès eux-mêmes comme des spectacles, semble suspendre le cours du temps” (1981 (1966), 164).

What is effected with full force by discontinuous apposition (“gulls plagued Tammag, a whirl of savage snow / On the field of the sun,” ll. 5-6 ; “The sun stood at the hill, a black circle,” l. 19) is achieved, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, by strict apposition as well : expressions such as “Tammag heard it, low thunder / Far in the firth” (ll. 13-14) or “the plough struck stone, / A clang like a bell” [68] (ll. 7-8) do call attention to the object thus foregrounded and, concomitantly, postpone the story. In both kinds of apposition (for which Brown has an equal fondness in his poetry and prose alike), successive stresses usually add weightiness to the utterance and ensure solemn delivery : for instance, in “Daffodils at the door in April, / Three shawled Marys,” in “He thumped the crag in August, / A blind blue whale” [69] or in “Twenty sickles glittered in the sun that was too bright ― the rain-breeding sun.” [70]

The extensive use of apposition ― “the very soul of the Old English poetical style,” [71] as it has been called ― is a stylistic trait that Brown shares with, and has probably inherited from, indeed, Old English poetry, of which he was very fond and which he pastiched to some extent in his collection Fishermen with Ploughs (1971). Typically, in those early English poems too, the advance in the narrative “is almost suspended” (Alexander 45). Again, this is especially true of split apposition, as in : “Beowulf went from him, / Trod the green earth, a gold-resplendent warrior / Rejoicing in his rings” (Alexander 1980, 110), or “The vessel was still as they set forward, / The deep-chested ship, / stayed at its mooring, / Fast at its anchor” (60). These latter examples comprise, moreover, additional juxtaposed participle phrases (“Rejoicing in his rings” or “stayed at its mooring”, “Fast at its anchor”) which do not technically qualify as apposition [72] but which syntactically behave as such, just like “eyes bulging” in Brown’s poem (l. 1), thus contributing to the “sense of stasis in the narrative whereby a state or situation seems to be dwelled on in preference to ‘a straightforward account of action’” (Robinson 60).
A lot hinges, of course, on what this “dwelling” amounts to. Robinson observes that “beneath the surface […] the diction is alive with verbal activity […], but at the level of style [the poet] seems to avoid predication” (17-18 ; the author’s emphasis). So, as Franck Neveu notes, apposition is predication, but in disguise, as it were, with the syntactic break functioning paradoxically as a copula (Neveu 173), and this “elliptical attributive relation” (245) catches the subject’s perceptions or reflections as they are being formed, [73] revealing them as much as masking them. The consistently metaphorical character of these perceptions attest to their idiosyncrasy, all the more strikingly when the perception precedes the naming of its object, thus leaving us wondering about its meaning for a brief moment, as in “[Tammag] saw blue surging hills, the whales” (l. 15) or, elsewhere,

On a winter night, from the Hamnavoe God-acre,
There, the Strathy Light !
Between, rampant hooves and manes,
The Pentland Firth. [74]

where “rampant hooves and manes” is only subsequently identified as the Pentland Firth. A kind of short cognitive suspense is thus created, which throws into relief the tropological process as an end in itself, notably when the latter becomes automatic, odd, intricate or playful (to wit : “They hold the keys to earth and ocean, / Earth-key, the plough ; / Sea-opener, the net and sinker” [75]), thus calling to mind the riddle-like kennings of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature, [76] often imitated, and sometimes parodied by Brown in Fishermen with Ploughs and other collections. In “The Sea” (Winterfold, CP 168), for instance, “Whale’s Acre” and “Swan’s Path” (ll. 11, 12) are conspicuously copied from “whale road” and “swan’s pathway,” [77] and meant to display the same kind of ornemental virtuosity (Legouis & Cazamian 18-19) and “intellectual rather than visual or imagistic” vividness (Alexander 43-44), calling “for literary taste of a distinctly sophisticated order” (Taylor 123). So, whether through sportive accumulation (“Whales blundered across us, threshing lumps, / Blue hills, cartloads of thunder” ― CP 97) or momentary obscurity, these appositional metaphors highlight the narrator’s sensory or mental experience rather than promote Aristotelian mimesis, and they concomitantly stall the narrative progression, which, as we have seen in the case of “Ploughman and Whales” (l. 1), is further impeded by the strictures of intonation and rhythm.
This virtual standstill notwithstanding, the first sentence of the poem nevertheless carries over to the next line, but in an almost unexpected and hesitant manner ― enjambed (since the previous one is not end-stopped) but not quite (for lack of rhythmic and intonational continuity [78]). Its impromptu, almost haphazard character ― a typical feature of Brown’s poetry and prose ― makes it more like a hyperbaton than a full enjambment. Indeed, while both devices literally “overstep,” the latter creates readerly expectations (as in lines 5-6, 13-14, 15-16, or 29-30) whereas the former takes the reader by surprise ; Georges Molinié calls it “perturbation par rallonge” and defines it as follows : “quand la phrase ou le développement paraissent terminés, pour des raisons grammaticales ou thématico-logiques, le discours se poursuit étonnamment, selon un ajout qui n’est pas sans produire chaque fois un effet saisissant” (Molinié 166). [79] Instead of resuming the steady pace of an already much-delayed narration by fully end-stopping the first line and attending to the following action in the next one ― in the saga manner which Brown, as we have seen, wishes to emulate or surpass [80] ―, the speaker seems to postpone its closure and, somewhat undecidedly, to trespass beyond its limit, carrying on with his own peculiar depiction of the ox. The sense of narrative indirection that results from his hesitation can be interpreted as a sign of discursive spontaneity (Dupriez 237). The poetic voice is obviously playing truant and refusing to submit to what Roland Barthes, writing about prose, denounces as the hierarchical tyranny and completion of the sentence (Barthes 1973, 68) and which could here equally apply to the metrical line. The fact that the added segment is thrown into relief by the hyperbaton [81] only confirms that signification is no longer teleological.
Enumeration, in particular, hardly ever aims at completion, and it is often difficult to predict whether it is going to carry on or come to an abrupt stop. It is characteristically asyndetic, as in the last line of the poem (“Loaf, honey-comb, fleece, ale-jar, fiddle”) and myriad others, both in the poetry (“Strangers swarm in July / With cameras, binoculars, bird book” [82]) and the prose “in Europe […] that Hitler was soon to turn into a vast torture-chamber, slaughter-house, graveyard…” [83]). If it suggests the indefinite piling-up or listing of items of reality (notably in the latter example, as underlined by the aposiopesis), it is also the living proof of spontaneous thinking in perpetual progress, running the risk of being suspended at any moment, basically uncertain, especially in the case of successives appositives all referring to the same object from different angles. As a matter of fact, because enumeration and apposition are syntactically comparable (they are both paratactic), the distinction between them is sometimes blurred.
A poem like “Wanderer” (CP 201) plays on this ambiguity :

I stood at ten doors in that island. §1

In the first door §2
I was shown the tooth of the dog.

In the second door §3
A stinking fish was put in my hand.

Senseless unprofitable babbling §4
In the third door.

A fiddle like a tortured cat §5
In the fourth door.

In the fifth door §6
A skull wrapped in a shawl, whisperings.

Sixth door, seventh door, eighth door §7
I stood, a cancelled man, in the rain.

Twilight in the ninth door, §8
A star, a kiss.

When I come to the last door, §9
Take me, earth, soon

While the first three stanzas are straightforward narrative statements, the fourth one is nominalized, making it verbless like the following one, which, moreover, features a simile. Stanza 6, also a nominal sentence, has a break in its second line, where the noun phrase and the deverbal noun (“whisperings”) begin to form a minimal catalogue. The syntactic breakup intensifies in the following stanza, culminating in the apposition of the last line, “a cancelled man.” Narrative (and syntactic) progression has literally come to a standstill : “I stood,” says the speaker who, although he “stood” at each door in turn from the ouset, was nevertheless depicted on a journey through the island (stanza 1) and involved in some actions (stanzas 2 and 3). Here his standing boils down to the pathetic cancellation of who he is, echoed by the breakdown in the phrasal rhythm. He is thus momentarily deprived of his sense of purpose and direction ― a disorientation which is reflected in the syntactic and the tropological indirection of the next stanza. Indeed, is the line “A star, a kiss” an enumeration ? In other words, does the tramp receive both a star and a kiss at the ninth door ? Or is it to be read as metaphoric apposition, with the star being wish-fulfillingly interpreted as a kiss by an inscreasingly disappointed wanderer, “barred” from three consecutive doors (§ 7) ? Unless, of course, the star itself is a metaphor of the kiss which he might be given after all, like the young boy in the short story “The Winter Song” (Brown 1989, 193) : “My mother put a kiss on my cheek, a sweet red warm star.” In Jakobsonian terms, does meaning operate along the syntagmatic axis of combination (enumeration) or along the paradigmatic axis of selection (metaphoric apposition) ? Besides, in the second option, does it proceed forward or backward ? ¨Put differently, are we reading a story or are we made privy to the persona’s subjective reading of reality ?

A similar, but more acute, interpretive conundrum occurs in the verse paragraph entitled “DECEMBER” of “A Stone Calendar” (CP 266-67) :
/ x x / x / x
Silver key, snowflake, star-wrought.
/ ô / ô /
Three sea kings
/ x / x /
seek the House-of-Bread

Again, what is the grammatical relationship between the three items in the first line ? Could the “silver key” be a metaphor for the “snowflake,” endowed with magic performativity far in excess of the ontologically heuristic and “redescriptive” power with which Paul Ricoeur (1975 ; 1982, 61) credits it, as the fairy tale “A Winter Legend” seems to suggest : “a lost snowflake came hovering into her cell. [..] It lay there, a fragile silver key ! The princess fitted the key into the rusty lock of her cell. It turned with a little silver sound. The door creaked open” (Brown 1983, 22-23) ? Would “star-wrought,” then, qualify both the vehicle and the tenor ? Or could this latter compound be behaving even more oddly and, given the rhythmic and phonic parallels between all three nouns (bound by a common sibilant and falling rhythm) be grammatically, and therefore semantically, on a par with “silver key” and “snowflake,” having somehow morphed into a substantive in the process ― having become, as it were, one of the three sea kings mentioned in the next line ? (This interpretation might stem from the fact that the three words of “Three sea kings” alliterate, at least via “sea” if not owing to the fricative present in each, with the items of the previous line, and that their sequence, made up of three successives stresses-cum-beats brought into relief by the implied offbeats in between, [84] bears rhythmic resemblance to that of “Silver key, snowflake, star-wrought,” again intimating that “star-wrought” is but one in a series ― one of the kings, in fact.)


It is obviously not easy to ascribe limits to the free play of metaphoricity, which sometimes challenges the very grammatical categories of language and which, like ― and often via ― dislocation and apposition, acts as the perpetual reminder that in Brown’s poetry, far from Kittredge’s ideal of “a tale […] telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker” (see supra), a consciousness is constantly behind the telling, however spartan the latter was initially meant to be. In that respect, it is ironical that Thomas Mann, the very inspirer of the Orcadian poet’s conception of literary art, should write in a manner that “tends to be complex rather than bare or austere, abounding in detailed descriptions of people, places and moods” (Schmid 255) and be prone to “breaking up the narrative flow in order to add some authorial comment” (256), thus confirming Booth’s intuition that “the most admired literature is in fact radically contaminated with rhetoric” (Booth 98). As Sabine Schmid notes, “[g]iven Brown’s enthusiasm for the pure art of the sagas this may seem odd” ; yet it is apparent, as she goes on to show, that in his fiction Brown takes his cue from the German writer.
And so does he, though in a less obtrusive fashion, in his poems, where, as our attention is grabbed by the necessity to make sense of all the subtleties of meaning, we are usually forced to give up narrative sequentiality and invited to dwell poetically on the words themselves, tuning in to the speaker’s perceptions and metaphors. In other words, because the narrative as mode [85] soon exhausts itself, the “poetic” [86] can break in. This is especially apparent in one of the “Love Songs to the Lady Ermengarde of Narbonne” (Winterfold, p. 23) composed by Rognvald Kolson, a medieval earl and poet, and originally collected in the Orkneyinga Saga. Here is A. B. Taylor’s translation of the Norse original :

The Snow-White Lady
of the silver Bracelet
Brought wine to her guests.
The beauty of Ermengarde
Was shown forth to men.
Now the stalwart crew
Lay fire to this castle
And all that are in it.
Sharp swords spring
Each from the sheath. [87]
with Brown’s “very free paraphrase” : [88]
White as snow
White as silver
The Lady,
A beauty all whiteness,
A kindness
Red as wine
Another redness, fire
About the castle,
A sharp whiteness, swords.

Characteristically, the “Lady” is no longer an actor in a story, however minimal (she “[b]rought wine to her guests,” l. 3), but the subject of multiple anteposed and postposed appositional predicates which actually take precedence over her qua the protagonist of a little drama ; in particular, the polyptotonic insistence on her “whiteness” makes her, by synechdoque, the sole object of the speaker’s contemplation, to the exclusion of her dramatic involvement. This insistence says, in fact, at least as much about the speaker’s gaze and fascination as about the object of contemplation that she is. This may be a case of what Sylvie Loignon, commenting on Marguerite Duras, terms “l’effraction du narratif par le poétique” (in Alazet et al. 46), knowing that, as Aline Mura-Brunel, another commentator on Duras, puts it, “[le ] poétique […] s’efforce de désigner ce qui se tait dans le récit” (in Alazet et al. 194).

Surely, the writer who claimed that “[i]n the whole fabric of what I’ve written there are only one or two unimportant shreds of myself” (Annwn 19) could easily dismiss these manifestations of subjectivity as not his own but those of his speakers and, very often too, those of his characters. Admittedly, in “Ploughman and Whales” the reader increasingly gets a sense that the scene is filtered through Tammag’s consciousness (“Tammag heard […] / […] / And saw,” ll. 13-15), made transparent at one point in a snippet of interior monologue (“Six furrows now and a bit. . . .” ― l. 12). The metaphors and similes thanks to which the scene is depicted can thus be ascribed to him. Examples abound in Brown’s poetry. In “Eynhallow : Crofter and Monastery” (CP 171), the speaker makes it explicitly clear, by quoting the monks, that for them “Herring are ‘the little silver brothers’” (l. 23). Similarly, although it is only implied this time, the fishmonger of “Sea Runes” (CP 121) “stood at the rock / With bits of dull silver / To trade for torrents of uncaught silver,” using the word “silver” to designate either money or fish. And the narrator of “Whales” (CP 97-98) sees the whales alternatively as “threshing lumps, / Blue hills, cartloads of thunder” (ll. 1-2), “tons of love” (l. 13), “bolted slaughterhouse[s]” (l. 15), or “floating feast-halls” (l. 27).

But, even if the speakers of Brown’s poems were always at such a humorous or ironic remove from the characters whom they depict or ventriloquize ― which is hardly the case ―, that would by no means settle the difficult question of where the poet’s own subjectivity is to be located in all that. This would require investigating the nature of the poet’s relationship with what might then need to be called his personae ― a task far beyond the remit of the present study. Perhaps Marguerite Duras herself could be of some help here, when she declares : “Écrire ce n’est pas raconter des histoires. C’est le contraire de raconter des histoires” [89] ; or “Il n’y a d’intéressant que ce qui se passe en soi et qui n’est donc pas de nature narrative. On ne peut pas raconter ça” (in Alazet et al. 104). Could it be that the stories in George Mackay Brown’s narrative poetry are ultimately “stories” that he is trying to tell himself so as not to acknowledge that, beyond his many speakers and characters, this truth also applies to him, and that he may no more escape the expression of personality and emotions than, say, T. S. Eliot did before him ? For how can he seriously declare that “[h]uman nature really intrigues [him] more than outside nature” (Kumar 10) and nevertheless have us believe that he himself is not be found in his works ? Echoeing the author of the Four Quartets which he admired so much, he confessed that “poetry is not a splurge of the personal emotions but rather a flight from them” (ibid.) : could it not be that what keeps resurfacing is, in the last analysis, the all-too-obvious return of the repressed ― in other words, himself ―, which poetry cannot simply deny through story-telling ?


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[1. As mentioned on the front flap of For the Islands I Sing (1997).

[2. See Dominique Combe, "La référence dédoublée. Le sujet lyrique entre fiction et autobiographie," in Rabaté 40-42.

[3. Letter to Ernest W. Marwick, 12 Jan. 1954 (Kirkwall Library Archive, D31/30/4). See also : “I increasingly see that poetry is not much good unless men in public houses can repeat it over their beer and even bairns chant it when they ’re catching sillocks or playing kites” (Letter to E. W. Marwick, date unknown).

[4. BBC Radio Scotland, April 19, 1980. “poetry” in this quotation is to be understood as what Hynes would consider “a collective term for all poems” (Hynes 265)

[5. In Le Monde extérieur (quoted in Alazet et al. 218.

[6. Experiencing Fiction : Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (Columbus, OH : Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007).

[7. Quoted in Mc Hale 22 ; his emphases.

[8. See Bell 299 ; M. E. Brown 2006, 120.

[9. George Mackay Brown, “As to the business of writing…,” MS. 3116.2 (University of Edinburgh Library) ― cited in Baker 158.

[10. Brown is keenly aware that community is, in the critic’s words, “a fabular metanarrative, no less convincing or necessary for its impossibility” (Baker 138). On Brown’s debunking of primitivism and agrarian ruralism, see Delmaire 1999, 95-106.

[11. Hodgart, quoted in Finnegan 250-51. It has to be noted that, according to some scholars, “strictly communal composition” can be attested and that it is “nothing unusual or paradoxical” (Kittredge xx).

[12. Quoted in A. N. Bold, 4.

[13. See M. E. Brown 2006, 120, 123, 126 ; M. E. Brown 2007, 265 ; Green 352-3 ; Kittredge xi ; Lyle 16 ; McDowell 152-155 ; Pettitt 18.

[14. See Barthes 1984, 61 ; M. E. Brown 2007, 269 ; Buchan 173 ; Lyle 16 ; Zumthor 1983, 210-211, 231.

[15. See Davis & McLane 2007, 127 ; M. E. Brown 2003, 177 ; M. E. Brown 2006, 125-126 ; M. E. Brown 2007, 268 ; McDowell 152 ; McLane 2001, 434-35 ; McLane 2006, 46 n. 16 ; McLane 2008, 14, 31-33, 76-77, 116 (and more generally McLane 2008 as a whole) ; Pettitt 31 ; Zumthor 1983, 37-38.

[16. Brown, Mary Ellen. “Placed, Replaced, or Misplaced ? : The Ballads’ Progress.” The Eighteenth Century 47 : 2 (2006) : 115-129 ; p ; 121 ?, 123 ?.

[17. Zumthor 1983, 210 ; Barthes 1984, 61-62.

[18. See Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, part III, chapter 1, p. 161 : “We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them, unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us.” (See also pp. 119 or 164.) Self-assessment is the object of the very same chapter, as the title indicates : “Of the Principle of Self-approbation and of Self-disapprobation.”

[19. See Todd 49, 59, 141. For a definition of “Spaltung” in the Freudian sense, see Laplanche 68 : “dédoublement du moi en une partie qui observe et une partie qui est observée.”

[20. “I increasingly see that poetry is not much good unless men in public houses can repeat it over their beer and even bairns chant it when they ’re catching sillocks or playing kites. That is a mark of the best poetry, and always has been. Homer and Shakespeare and the ballad-makers and Robert Burns pass the test with flying colours ― Milton and Donne and Rimbaud and T.S. Eliot don’t.” (Letter to E. Marwick, date unknown, Kirkwall Archive, ref. 031/30/4, p. 2.)

[21. Op. cit., p. 16. See also p. 120 : “the person reading the saga aloud seems almost to have functioned as ‘author by proxy’ (whether or not he was an author), and he may have enjoyed some freedom to vary the text which he was reading.”

[22. See Child 214 ; Zumtor 136, 231.

[23. Buchan 82-83. See also p. 54 : “the reductive impulse compels the oral maker to jettison ruthlessly all extraneous matter in order to concentrate on the story’s essence ― the Single Plot Strand, the Leading Character, and the Striking Scene [...].”

[24. In Lyle 73-76. The ballad has the alternative title of “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship” in Child, vol. IV (vol. viii, book viii), pp. 12-17.

[25. In Lyle 160-162 ― otherwise known as “The Baffled Knight” in the Child ballads.

[26. Sidgwick xxx ; Dugaw 103. One often cited example in “The Children in the Wood” : “Now ponder well, you parents deare, / These wordes, which I shall write ; / A doleful story you shall heare, / In time brought forth to light” (ll. 1-4) ; “Thus wander’d these poor innocents, / Till death did end their grief” (ll. 121-22).

[27. See Zumthor 1983, 114-5, 134, 160.

[28. In Rabaté ed., 11 (m. t.). Plenty of evidence for that will be found in, for example, Li Diz des Cordeliers.

[29. See Zumthor 1987, 213, 226-28, 233.

[30. For example, in Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight (op. cit., p. 8 : “a year runs full swiftly, and yields never the same ; the beginning full seldom matches the end ;” p. 24 : If ye will be still a while I shall tell you how they fared ;” etc.), or even, though much more rarely, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, where, despite the prevailing detached, objective narration, Book XX opens with the story-teller’s musings : “In May when every lusty heart flourisheth and bourgeoneth, for as the season is lusty to behold and comfortable, so man and woman rejoice and gladden of summer coming with his fresh flowers : for winter with his rough winds and blasts causeth a lusty man and woman to cower and sit fast by the fire. So in this season, as in the month of May, it befell a great anger and unhap that stinted not till the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain ; and all was long upon two unhappy knights the which were named Agravaine and Sir Mordred, that were brethren unto Sir Gawaine” (op. cit., vol. 2, p. 433). D. H. Green confirms that, in Sir Gawain, “the narrator stands back from events to make us aware of the general issues” (op. cit., p. 302).

[31. To wit : “O blinde world, O blinde entencioun ! / How ofte falleth al theffect contraire / Of surquidrye and foul presumpcioun ; / For caught is proud, and caught is debonaire” (op. cit., ll. 211-217). See D. H. Green : “Chaucer resembles continental romance authors in projecting his own attitude of dubiety into the work itself, in making a virtue of his position as a social outsider by seeing in the liberty to insinuate comments on the courtly world to which he has only conditional access as a poet” (364).

[32. Viz. “But fate, which always drives worldly affairs to a conclusion, […]” (op. cit., p. 158) or “It was remarkable that in such words he, who was near to death, should answer in this way, without a hint of mercy” (166).

[33. Viz. “Let us leave the king now, resting in Rathlin without [any] fighting, and speak about his enemies for a while” (150). On this kind of “minimal” metalepsis, whereby the narrated time and the narrative time seem to be coterminous, see John Pier, "Métalepses et hiérarchies narratives" (in Pier & Schaeffer eds. 2005, 249).

[34. “Leyff I him thar into that paynfull sted. / Gret God above till him send sum ramede ! (Book 2, ll. 159-160 ; op. cit., p. 21) ; “I will ratorn to my mater agayne” (Book 2, l. 360 ; p. 28).

[35. “Gret God gif he as than had beyne away !” (Book 2, l. 80 ; p. 18).

[36. See both of Benveniste’s essays : “Les relations de temps dans le verbe français” and “De la subjectivité dans le langage” (Benveniste 237-50 and 258-266). It must also be noted that digressions are “discursive” in the true etymological sense of jumping from one subject to another (discurrere in Latin, i.e. “running to and fro”).

[37. See Rhetoric, III, 2, 1405b ; 4, 1406b ; 11 ; etc.

[38. Unless otherwise indicated, the following translations from The Rhetoric are by W. Rhys Roberts.

[39. See pp. 49-51 in particular.

[40. Ricoeur 1975, 120 ; 291, 306, 387-8 ; Snævarr 51. See also Aristotle : “an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart” (Rhetoric III, 11, 1412a).

[41. See M. Dufour and A. Wartelle’s note on their French translation of this passage : “le talent de la métaphore ne relève que du génie personnel d’un auteur" (Aristote, 1998, 289, n. 10). See also C. Kerbrat-Orecchioni 139 ; Genette 1972, 188 (speaking of the narrator as the producer of metaphors). I am obviously not taking part in the broader deconstructionist debate about the universal metaphorical nature of language (Derrida) or meaning (Nietsche). Neither am I envisaging metaphor in its cultural dimension.

[42. “Other poets appear themselves upon the scene throughout, and imitate but little and rarely. Homer, after a few prefatory words, at once brings in a man, or woman, or other personage” (Poetics 24, 1460a ; transl. Butcher 1902).

[43. Unless otherwise indicated, the following translations from The Poetics are by S.H. Butcher (1902).

[44. Genette 1991, 16.

[45. Poetics 24, 1460a ; my translation.

[46. Genette 1991, 16-17.

[47. “0 dei poiein auton” (Poetics 24, 1460a ; transl. Fyfe 1932). My emphasis.

[48. See Genette 1969, 52-53 ; 1972, 184-186.

[49. A debatable viewpoint, as Mieke Bal has argued (op. cit., p. 92-93).

[50. In the sense, according to Genette (1972, 184, n. 2), of “unmingled” (akraton) with mimesis, that is, with the characters’ speeches.

[51. This conclusion is based, of course, on scanty evidence, the example cited being the only one provided by Plato, who did not apparently define or theorize elsewhere his position in more detail. Nevertheless, the narrativized dialogue that precedes it evinces those very same features of unfigurative simplicity and directness.

[52. Italics indicate coordination and subordination, as well as occasional tense variations.

[53. Kittredge xi : “the teller of the tale has no rôle in it. […] If it were possible to conceive a tale as telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale.”

[54. Notably in the Balzac text which features at least one conspicuous authorial comment, as noted by Benveniste himself.

[55. Coste 167. See also Bal 34.

[56. This is quite aside from the metanarrative comment left out of my quotation : “Now it must be told of Earl Hakon that he summoned to him a large force and […]” (p. 208).

[57. R. Murray, 1986a, 160. On conjunctions as marks of the narrator, see also Genette 1969, 66.

[58. From this perspective, Plato’s prose would seem to be slightly more hypotactic than Homer’s verse, as if to demonstrate the narrator’s control over, and presence in, his narrative. An alternative translation of Plato’s rendition of Homer does not substantially alter the hypotactic bent of the philosopher’s prose : “And the old man went away in fear and silence, and, when he had left the camp, he called upon Apollo by his many names, reminding him of everything which he had done pleasing to him” (see http://www.classicreader.com/book/1788/23).

[59. Indeed, quite often, The Orkneyinga Saga reads like this : “The bondi went and told Sweyn, and asks him to settle his account. Sweyn answers little, and says that he can make no promises in the matter. / It happened one day in spring that Sweyn went to collect his rents. He went with three others in an eight-oared boat. Their course lay past the island where Arni had taken up house. Sweyn gave orders to lie inshore. Now the tide had ebbed far out. Sweyn came ashore alone with a hand-axe in his hand and no other weapon. He bade them watch the boat lest she be stranded. / Arni and his men were sitting drinking in a bothy not far from the sea. Sweyn went up to the bothy and entered. Arni and five of his men were within, and they greeted Sweyn. / Sweyn acknowledged their greeting, and told Arni he must settle his bondi’s account.” (111)

[60. ( marks the absence of the connective used in Taylor’s translation.

[61. On Brown’s unemotional style, see Delmaire 2005, 130-36. On the broader question of subjectivity in language, see Kerbrat-Orecchioni, op. cit. (in particular p. 157).

[62. See Baroni 18, 99, 104, 269, 270-1.

[63. Pietro-Pablos, quoted and translated by Baroni 287.

[64. “The Fortress” (in Brown 2010, 64).

[65. See Blasco-Dulbecco 66.

[66. By contrast with strict apposition in which the appositives are not separated (Quirk et al. 621-22).

[67. See the scansion proposed earlier, which includes both stresses (/) and beats (underlined), according to Derek Attridge’s notation system in Poetric Rhythm. An Introduction (1995).

[68. Here the appositional phrase qualifies the whole process of the plough striking the stone.

[69. “A Child’s Calendar” (CP 122), ll. 8-9 & 18-19.

[70. “The Corn and the Tares” (Brown, 1989), p. 94.

[71. Frederick Klaeber, cited in Robinson 5. See also M. Alexander, Beowulf (1980).

[72. Because they are not interchangeable with the main referent as subjects of their sentence (see Quirk 621).

[73. “la pensée même, en travail, qui tente de prendre forme et de se fixer” (Neveu 1998, 244).

[74. “Mhari, VII,” ll. 1-4 (CP 445).

[75. “Haiku : for The Holy Places” : “Fishermen and Crofters,” CP 461.

[76. See Turville-Petre 31 ; Legouis & Cazamian 20.

[77. See, respectively, Turville-Petre 27, and Legouis & Cazamian 19.

[78. See Brogan (“Enjambment,” p. 360) who defines enjambment as “the overflow into the following poetic line of a syntactic phrase (with its intonational contour) begun in the preceding line without a major juncture or pause.”

[79. See also Dupriez 236-37 and Morier 195 for almost identical definitions.

[80. A characteristic example of this technique in “Building the Ship” (CP 90) : “That blind rune stabbed the sea tribe. / Fishermen sought a bird in the mountains. / Their axes kept them that year from the dragon. / Logs throttled a mountain torrent. / A goatherd gaped on the lumbering tons. / Saws shrieked, sputtered, were sharpened, sang. / Dunes were pale with strewment of boards.” (ll. 1-8).

[81. Dupriez 236 ; Morier 195.

[82. “A Child’s Calendar” (CP 122).

[83. “The Corn and the Tares” (Brown, 1989), p. 91.

[84. Indicated by “ö” here (a symbol used by Derek Attridge in The Rhythms of English Poetry [1982]), although the notation I have used so far for my scansions, in accordance with the system used by Derek Attridge in Poetric Rhythm (1995), does not not normally show offbeats other than by assuming their existence between two successive emphasized beats.

[85. Berthold Schoene, in calling narrative a “mode” (Schoene 266), concurs with Gérard Genette who distinguishes “mode” as a linguistic and pragmatic category (Genette 1979, 27-28, 66, 68-69, 71-72, 74-76, 82) from “genre” ― which is an aesthetic one (68-69) ― and from non-narrative modes (73 n. 1).

[86. “Poetry” ― hence “poetic” ― is a discouragingly elusive notion. By default, it has continued to be defined against “prose” ― and consequently as a synonym of “verse” (Meschonnic 398-402 ; Combe 1989, 153) ―, despite Aristotle’s opening caveat in his Poetics (“People do, indeed, add the word ’maker’ or ’poet’ to the name of the meter […] as if it were not the imitation that makes the poet, but the verse that entitles them all to the name,” 1447b) and nineteenth- and twentieth-century endeavors to overcome the dichotomy between the two terms (see Meschonnic : “La prose poétique et le poème en prose ont troublé le système traditionnel d’oppositions, le laissant affaibli, mais en place” [400]). Yet what can be opposed are, indeed, prose and verse. In fact, according to Genette, prose is in formal opposition with verse (Genette 1979, 83). But Genette’s terminology was already used by David Masson in his Essays Biographical and Critical (1856), where such phrases as “form of utterance” or “form of expression” (452), and sometimes “style” (451), designate either one of the verse or prose categories. (Although, more recently, T.V.F. Brogan does similarly refer to “forms of writing” and “forms of structure” (“Verse and Prose,” p. 1348), it must be noted that he overwhelmingly replaces “form” by “mode,” whereas “genre” is, “for lack of a better word” (ibid.), used for “poetry.”) Naturally, just as “genres can cut across modes” (Genette 1979, 76), so can forms, in the sense that a narrative, for example, may be either in prose (our most common reference today, with such genres as the novel or the short story) or in verse (historically, as Brian McHale points out, “the majority of the world’s literary narratives” (12), and, at one time, all of them), although the latter option has by and large been ruled out by modern poetry, beginning with the Symbolists (see Combe 1989, 9-10, 54s, etc.). All this, however, ultimately begs the question, for, as Henri Meschonnic puts it, “Que dit-on quand on dit que la poésie n’est pas la versification, quand on ne se contente pas d’opposer le vers à la prose […] ?” (Meschonnic 400).

[87. Taylor 290.

[88. An Orkney Tapestry, p. 3.

[89. Duras, La Vie matérielle (Paris : POL, 1987), p. 31 ; in Alazet et al. 17.