Get Rhythm

In his catchy song “Get Rhythm,” Johnny Cash tells the story of a shoe-shine boy who fights the blues with the repetitious beats of the polish rag as it rubs across the shoes, back and forth, back and forth. Laying a soundtrack upon back-breaking work, this rhythmic shoe polisher finds joy in pain, inspiration in tedium.

I like to think that my desire to engage in endurance sports is inflected by the same kind of musical throb and thrum, but instead of following the slap of the rag, my rhythms are composed of racing heartbeats, heel strikes, and hurried breaths. It is a cadence I crave from day to day, so much so that I find it difficult to engage with my research and teaching without it.[1]

Even the persistent object of my scholarly work, Middle English alliterative poetry, is ruled by the percussive beats of dactylic feet, producing a consistent rhythm that romancers employed to imitate repetitive sounds, such as clanging swords and galloping horses. In what follows, I briefly analyze my own attempts to “get rhythm” in my intellectual life, considering marathon-training alongside the poem, “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths,” which mimics the sounds of the smithy through onomatopoetic language and the headlong cadences of alliterative verse. Through this juxtaposition I hope to bring forth some sense of the pleasures that inhere (for me) within the vexed relationships between the laboring body and the active mind.

Most days for me begin with a run. I know this is a routine for many people, but when I entered my doctoral program, I thought I was one of few academics who made this a regular practice. The look of horror on my dissertation advisor’s face when I told her I was training for a marathon, the tranquil conference trots in Kalamazoo neighborhoods, or AlexSweatyScholar2even the lonely (at times dicey) runs through Glasgow before a long day in the rare books room all gave me the impression that my desire to run was a suspect, masochistic, and possibly a dangerous habit. But deep down I believed it was none of those things. At times I even smugly satisfied myself with the thought I had discovered the secret to optimal productivity, a kind of rhythmic time that stressed the limits of my body and expanded the possibilities of my mind. I worked through dissertation arguments during humid runs around Lake Harriet, rehearsed conference papers in hangover-killing sprints, and even stretched my limbs before a long day of craning my neck over the scribbles in a book.

It hadn’t occurred to me, until recently, that my obsession with running and my obsession with alliterative verse might be linked to their common, hard-striking cadences. While my scholarly focus so far has been largely limited to alliterative romance, I believe “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths” best exemplifies the affinities between rhythm and labor that connect my athletic and academic pursuits. The poem is written in a hand dated to the second quarter of the fifteenth century, on two leaves left blank by the earliest scribe in a trilingual miscellany, British Library MS Arundel 292, which was originally composed at Norwich around 1300. For those unfamiliar with this delightful invective against late-night work habits of blacksmiths, and for the purpose of highlighting what Elizabeth Salter calls its “exuberant alliteration,”[2] I give it here in Middle and Modern English[3]:


As much as this poem expresses hostility towards the work of the smiths, it also teems with indulgent admiration, reflected in the whimsical replication of the sounds of the smithy. Salter was the first to notice the striking resemblances between this poem and a passage in Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria Nova that demonstrates the power of metaphorical description, in which effective teachers can transform into blacksmithing hammers, inflicting persistent blows to correct and shape the students’ intellects as they endure the race to the completion of work.[4] As Salter further points out, Bale’s Index Scriptorum notes that the Poetria Nova was held in one of the Norwich libraries, possibly the Cathedral library itself, which establishes a greater likelihood that the Complaint was inspired by this rhetorical exercise.[5]

More importantly, I want to suggest, Bale also lists among Norwich’s collections a prominent textbook for the teaching of letter writing, Thomas Merke’s Formula moderni et usitati dictaminis.[6] A Benedictine monk and Bishop of Carlise, Merke drew heavily upon the Poetria Nova in this late-fourteenth century compilation, which attends to the standard five parts of the epistle (i.e. salutation, exordium, narration, petition, and conclusion), writing vices, such as “excessive alliteration,” and cursus, a rhythmical method for punctuating clauses within Latin prose documents.[7] While the poet of the Complaint may have derived the blacksmithing content directly from the Poetria Nova, I want to suggest that its style, its heavily alliterative quality, may be inflected by training in cursus that may have been obtained from Merke’s manual (see the poem above for highlighted examples of cursus).

What makes this poet unique, perhaps, is his melding of cadences and rhetorical devices, using the mixed materials of differing poetic and prosaic forms. As Katharine Jager has beautifully suggested in Sounding Out!, “His labor, however immaterial, can verbally represent noise and sweat and physicality. His prosopoeia is a contribution to the common profit, in that he can make you see and hear the blacksmiths long after their hammers have been laid away.” I would simply add that it is his application of a rhetorical feature of a language, such as cursus, to another language and this leap across the divides of poetry and prose that grip me and make me feel that my desire to inflect my academic work with rising heartbeats, sounds of shoes, and racing breaths, may be one part of a creative alloying process.

It may help me to fight through the frustrations and keep me from getting the blues. It may help me to get rhythm.

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[1] This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at a special session on “The Sweaty Scholar” at the 4th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, University of Toronto, October 2015, Co-Organized by David Hadbawnik (American University of Kuwait), Alex Mueller (University of Massachusetts-Boston), and Benjamin Utter (Episcopal Collegiate School).

[2] Elizabeth Salter, “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths,” in English and International: Studies in the Literature, Art and Patronage of Medieval England, ed. Derek Pearsall and Nicolette Zeeman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 199-214, at 208. This essay was originally published in Literature and History 5 (1979): 194-215.

[3] The text is from Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose, ed. Kenneth Sisam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), 169-70. The modern English translation is from A.R. Myers, English Historical Documents, 1327-1485 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 1055:612.

[4] Salter, “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths,” 211-4.

[5] M.R. James to H.C. Beeching, “The Library of the Cathedral Church of Norwich,” Norwich Archaeology 19 (1917): 67-116, at 108; Salter, “A Complaint Against Blacksmiths,” 212.

[6] James and Beeching, “The Library of the Cathedral Church of Norwich,” 113.

[7] Martin Camargo, ed., Medieval Rhetorics of Prose Composition: Five English Artes Dictandi and Their Tradition (Binghamton, New York: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1995), 30, 117-9.