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 Ling 131: Language & Style

Topic 3 (session A) - Patterns, Deviations, Style and Meaning > Deviation: Literary examples > Task E

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Session Overview
Overview of foregrounding, deviation and parallelism
Deviation: non - literary examples
Deviation: literary examples
Parallelism: non-literary examples
Parallelism: literary examples
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Deviation for Foregrounding Purposes - Literary examples

Task E - George Herbert

Below is a short poem by the seventeenth century poet George Herbert .

Ana- {Mary} gram

There is a clear graphological deviation in the title of the poem. How can you explain its effect?

Herbert is playing on two arbitrary facts about the spelling of the name 'Mary', namely that it is an anagram of 'army' and also shares three of its letters with the spelling of the last syllable of the word 'anagram' itself. This allows him to produce the playfully deviant title which includes anagrams within the word 'anagram'. The fact that 'Mary' is an anagram of 'army' can then be used to consider possible comparisons between the two concepts (this sort of unusual comparison was popular in the seventeenth century 'metaphysical poetry' associated with poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and is often referred to by critics as the poetry of conceit).

How can Mary's name be seen to be like an army? Well, her name could, for example, raise a host (which was a common synonym for 'army' when the poem was written) of thoughts in someone who loved or admired her; metaphorically 'assailing' her could be seen as a virtually impossible task, rather like an individual assailing an army, and so on. It is interesting in this respect that, in the two lines of the poem itself, 'Army' and 'Lord of Hosts' also deviate graphologically from the rest of the lines, and in a parallel way, because of the use of italics. The 'Lord of Hosts' is God, of course. So if the Lord of Hosts metaphorically has pitched his tent in Mary, this suggests that she must be very privileged (beautiful, accomplished, rich, high-born, all of these?), making her more and more attractive, but at the same time more and more unassailable.

It will be clear from this page that deviations can occur at all linguistic levels, and in many different ways. What is more, the foregrounding effects produced by the deviations can, if considered carefully and in detail, help us to infer (a) new meanings and effects which can help us to interpret the text we are examining and (b) a more detailed appreciation of the writing.

For more work on deviation in literary texts working at different linguistic levels, read:

Mick Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose, chapters 1 and 2
Geoffrey Leech, A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, chapter 3


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