Tag Archives: English poetry

Why Rum Ram Ruf?

15 Nov
Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...

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The name of this blog, Rum Ram Ruf, is a quote from “The Parson’s Prologue” in Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales.

When asked to tell a tale, the Parson responds that, as he’s a ‘southerner’, he doesn’t know how to ‘rum, ram, ruf’.

But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man;

I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by letter

What the Parson is saying is that he has no skill at creating the alliterative style of verse that had once been commonplace in all English poetry.

Alliterative verse repeats the same sound at the start of key words within a single line of poetry.  Take this example from the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem from the Midlands that was written at roughly the same time as Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century.

The burgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes

The tulk that the trammes the tresoun there wroght

But in London where Chaucer was writing, it had become much more fashionable to write poetry using rhyme, rather than alliteration.  Rhyming poetry typically repeats a sound across the last words in successive or alternating lines of poetry, such as these opening lines from The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droughte of March hath perced to the roote

This change from alliteration to rhyme was brought about by the influence of French culture and language following the Norman Conquest of 1066.  Chaucer was a high-ranking civil servant, working in courtly circles in London, right at the epicentre of all things fashionable, so his choices reflect what was ‘in’ in the late 14th century.

And alliterative verse hadn’t quite died in England at the time, but was now only found in the ‘fringes’ away from the south-east, like the Midlands and North, hence the Parson’s comment.  But in case anyone thinks the Parson is discriminatory against northerners, he also goes on to point out that he’s not much cop at rhyme either, so tells his tale in prose.

I chose this name for my blog as not only is it perhaps the earliest mention of the north-south divide in the English literary record, but it’s also a rare contemporary comment about how language was changing.

And the irony is that English poetry has arguably come full circle with alliteration once more in the ascendancy.   I don’t know much about rap music, but you can hear the alliteration loud and clear. The earliest poetry was always performed, rather than read, and when you see a rap star stand up and perform his or her poem, they’re working in a tradition of English verse that is at least 1,500 years old.

Blackalicious – “A to G”

We’re going to learn to hear words with vowel “A” sound … Listen with care

(Gift of Gab)
I be the analog arsonist, aimin at your arteries
All-seeing abstract, analyze everything
Adding on, absolutely abolishing
Average amateur’s arsenal just astonishing

–Next, we’ll learn words that begin with letter “B”

I be the big, bad body rockin Bombay to boulevard bully BACK
Better bring a bomb to the battlefield
Bloody black beats bringing bottoms that boom
Basically build barriers bewilder buffoons

–Listen now to words that begin with letter “C”

Crazy character, constantly creating concontions
Catalyst, a cannabalistic rhymes conqueror
Correctly connecting, craniums crumble down
Consistent capacity

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