Beginning an analysis of J.H. Prynne’s “Dune Quail Eggs” (2021)
‘DUNE QUAIL EGGS, by J.H. Prynne. A poem in five one-page sections, printed single-sided in a small top-bound 12pp booklet. 60x95mm. Hand sewn with blue linen thread into fine paper wrappers, screen printed with myriad fourteen-point white starbursts, enclosing a randomised pattern of blue dots, unique to each copy. Text risograph printed by Earthbound Press on acid-free paper. Colour title page. Edition of 100 copies.’ (Publisher’s promotional email dated 31/10/2021)
There are a total of only 80 words in J.H. Prynne’s miniature poetry book Dune Quail Eggs (2021). The poem is printed in a monospaced slab serif typeface, and each of the poem’s four sections (not five as advertised by the publisher) has 20 words, grouped into four groups of four-plus-one words on each page, of which the following may be observed:
- Only the initial word on each page is capitalised, and there is no punctuation throughout.
- The words in odd-numbered lines all have five letters, and those on even-numbered lines have three letters, creating a kind of ‘eye rhyme’ helped by the monospace typeface.
- No word is repeated, and the most prominent phonetic rhetorical device in evidence is alliteration and rhyming of various kinds throughout, reaching across lines and pages in the first half, and becoming more localised in the second half, with pairs such as max/mix, hovel/anvil, and fetch/match in close proximity on the last page.
- 20 words have an initial consonant followed by r, occurring more frequently in the first half of the poem.
- 8 words in the first half have a terminal *st, and two words in the second half have an initial st*.
- 14 of the words are disyllabic, and the rest are monosyllabic, though this variation doesn’t affect the pattern of words per line (four-plus-one) throughout.
What are we to make of these details? Before answering, let’s consider the subject matter of the poem.
We know the subjects of Prynne’s poems include current events, as evidenced in the sources included in the annotated version of The Oval Window (Reeve, N.H., Kerridge, R., 2018), written with access to the poet and the relevant part of his reportedly copious archive of notes and clippings. From this, we also know that Prynne quotes verbatim from news sources, both with and without quotation marks. Since (perhaps mistakenly) identifying the ‘York ham’ of another recent Prynne collection with Prince Andrew, I’ve suspected the British royal family is not entirely beneath his attention.
I’ve been racking my brains to remember how I came to think this poem is about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – one minute I was considering batik and clove as an indication of an Indonesian connection, and the next I was treating them metonymically, batik as a feature of Meghan Markle’s wardrobe, and the clove (of garlic, forbidden in the royal kitchen) as an example the Queen’s close control of domestic family affairs – but once I had made the connection other pieces fell into place easily, a little too easily to be honest, to the point that I began to wonder whether it may be possible to give any random selection of words a Meghan and Harry spin. But this is no random selection, it is a very well considered arrangement, with rhythm, cadence, humour and plenty of ambiguity, in spite of the monothematic exposition that follows.
The events I will allude to involving Oprah Winfrey and Piers Morgan in (at the current time of writing) the ongoing saga of Harry and Meghan were newsworthy events in themselves at the time, widely reported in many news media, and it’s not incredible that they should feature in the work of a leftist poet and Cambridge/PRC-based academic, though we should perhaps expect it to be more from the ironic perspective of an anti-monarchist than a royalist.
I would also venture to suggest that if the poem is ‘about’ Harry and Meghan in any way, then we might expect that the couple and their circumstances are a metaphor, a vehicle for a tenor still to be identified, or an illustration of a more general principle, because though Prynne may seem to playfully engage here with recent events up to 2021, he writes for the ages. As usual, the poem is also a vehicle for Prynne’s prodigious poetic technique, in which nothing can be overlooked as a potential bearer of meaning, and where the craft of the medium itself can also be part of the message.
(In the following, the words in bold italic are from the 80 words of the poem itself.)
The poem starts: ‘Least first.’ This reminded me initially of Matthew 19:30, but egalitarianism and monarchy are not easy bedfellows, and the idea that the least shall be first is anathema to the hereditary elite. In fact there’s more going on with these opening words than immediately meets the untrained eye: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives the etymological meaning of ‘first’ as ‘prince.’ ‘Least’ is defined as ‘little beyond all others in size or degree.’ As such, these opening words refer directly to Prince Harry, second son of Prince Charles who is the current heir to the throne, and since the birth of Harry’s older brother William’s children, now only sixth in the line of succession.
Meghan Markle was the questionably regal bride Prince Harry foisted upon the British royal family in May 2018, evidently a most unwelcome imposition. During their courtship, Meghan had stayed with Harry in what he called his hovel – Nottingham Cottage in Kensington Palace. When they met, she had on her own account a large following on Instagram, and an online business, which she had to give up to become a tacit instrument for carefully controlled family communications.
By the marriage, Meghan became a Duchess, a title not possible to strip from her since under UK law a wife shares her husband’s rank and title unless she is ‘above him’ in rank, and Harry holds his title by birth. Among the delicacies at the wedding feast were ‘Garden Pea Panna Cotta with Quail Eggs and Lemon Verbena.’
In the same year Meghan received her royal crest featuring three plume quills said to represent ‘communication and the power of words’ – an allusion to her earlier career as an actress and influencer. (To plume is also to rip off or ask an unreasonable price.)
The couple reportedly fell foul of the Queen (the ‘fount of justice’ and head of the British judiciary, and source of the royal family), and were unwilling or unable to adapt to expected norms (e.g. Meghan would cross her legs at the knee instead of the ankle, The Domestic Memoirs of the Royal Family and the English Court by Robert Folkestone Williams (1860) details that the good manners of well-bred guests at the royal table include dividing crumb from crust when eating). By December 2019, The Times reported that when the Queen recorded her Christmas broadcast, Harry and Meghan were ‘out of the frame’ and not included in the photographs on her desk.
Eventually, the couple decided to ‘step back as “senior” members’ of the British royal family, to untie or prune themselves from the royal family tree. Some commentators referred to the ghost of divorcee (like Meghan) Wallace Simpson, another American, whose marriage into the royal family led to the abdication of her husband the King, and also to Princess Diana, Harry’s mother who was estranged from the royal family. Harry himself has said he worried about history repeating itself with Meghan. For now, Harry and Meghan base themselves in Montecito, California, supposedly aiming for financial independence, having meanwhile bagged an 18,000 square foot property on 5 acres of land, worth nearly USD15 million. A small cottage in the grounds intended as a toy house for the children is worth several thousand dollars.
Meanwhile, Meghan’s celebrity status made her braided hair, colour coordinated nails and wardrobe newsworthy (a batik dress, a bold green Emilia Wickstead dress on Commonwealth Day, Edge of Ember jewellery, a fern frond necklace), a snapshot of Meghan’s baby bump became a money-spinner for photographer Karen Anvil, and a ‘sexy, dirty’ pasta sauce recipe Meghan mentioned was recreated and widely copied (ingredients include oil and a clove of garlic, which is reportedly forbidden at the royal table by the Queen).
Regarding a tell-all interview which many said was brave on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN – note how ‘own’ in line 2 morphs into ‘win’ in line 4), The Sun reported that the tides had turned in the couple’s relationship, Meghan’s hand lidding Harry’s in protective reassurance, though Meghan herself has borne the brunt of the negative commentary which suggests she has Harry under her thumb. Allegations were made about racism in the royal family concerning the skin colour of the couple’s mixed race children, Meghan herself being of mixed race. Piers Morgan, a populist broadcaster, wrote at the time that he had steam coming out of his ears about the interview, and listed a range of derogatory adjectives for the couple restricting himself ‘to only words beginning with the letter S.’ An apologist for the royal family, he asked (as he supposed, rhetorically): ‘Would an older senior royal innocently asking Harry what skin colour his baby might have, given that Meghan’s mother is black and her father white, constitute racism?’ He accused the couple of revealing ‘some incredibly damaging bombshells deliberately detonated to do maximum damage to the British royal family and the monarchy.’ He was later called to account for the force of his attacks on the Duchess, and resigned from the TV programme he co-hosted. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Oprah interview, the popularity of the couple sank to its worst ever level, and the Queen questioned the veracity of their account. Was it false or sooth (an archaic term for ‘truth’ – perhaps representing the Queen’s version of events)?
(At the time, there was a bizarre and apparently false allegation that Oprah Winfrey wore an ankle bracelet security monitor inside her boot during the high profile interview, while some viewers joked about Harry’s sartorial inelegance and droopy socks.)
Accused of leaving a trail of devastation on both sides of their family, in the view of the establishment the couple’s high profile missteps have continued, including a Remembrance Day commemoration-cum-photo op at the grave site of the war dead in California which sparked controversy, and a partnership deal with Proctor & Gamble whose cosmetics products include a skin-whitening cream. Meghan has showed resilience, claiming she is quite free since ‘flattery and criticism go down the same drain’.
As well as regularly reading The Times, I would be surprised if the octogenarian Prynne were not fully engaged with with the entire range of podcasts, blogs and all other types of online outlets for news both fake and real, such as Slate, an online platform where in July 2020 Dr. Brook Newman published ‘Throne of Blood: It’s time for the British royal family to make amends for centuries of profiting from slavery,’ from which I offer this passage as Prynne’s potential message to be carried on the back of this mischievous miniature: ‘But one institution has remained silent: the British monarchy. Still, it’s no secret that the history of the British royal family is intertwined with slavery… the British monarchy continues to refuse to recognize its historic ties to the slave trade and racial oppression. Officially acknowledging that the royal family both fostered and profited from the enslavement of millions, and affirming a commitment to reparatory justice as the Caribbean Community has urged the governments of Britain and Europe to do, is the very least the present-day British monarchy owes to the descendants of enslaved people. The Crown’s act of willful forgetting demonstrates how easy it was to overlook – then and now – the pivotal role played by the royal family in accelerating England’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the development of an Atlantic empire built on the backs and blood of African and Indigenous people.’
Finally, let’s return to some of the details we identified earlier. As Prynne himself points out in his transcribed lecture Mental Ears and Poetic Work (2010): ‘If the underlying textual features exist it is because poets are tuned into their language structures to an unusual degree of linguistic susceptibility.’ In the essay, Prynne offers a phonological analysis of word-final stops in certain passages from Wordsworth and Milton, including the word ‘first’: ‘the phonological tendency of these end-stops to oft and first may demonstrate in Eve a proleptic loss of future self, or self-future… All too soon she and Adam together will be under darker shades than the umbrage of flowers. Thus what has opened the story also by strong entail comes duly to pass, and forecloses it: first may look to be innocently open, but it is already shut.’ [Italics in original]
Dune Quail Eggs also features many end stopped words, especially ending in *st. I’m not suggesting Prynne’s poem is comparing Meghan to Eve, but there are echoes of the story in Meghan’s loss of self-future when joining the Firm, and the couple’s ultimate fall from grace and egress from their life of publicly funded ease and comfort.
To Prynne’s conjectures I will add (from the OED) that ‘st’ is ‘a checked sibilation, instinctively felt as expressive… an exclamation used to impose silence’ such as that imposed on Meghan when the palace closed down or took over her social media accounts upon her engagement to Harry. The *st blend, particularly as a final or suffix, is also used in many words concerned with ordering, and in particular is the common superlative ending in comparatives, be they best or worst, greatest or least of their kind, though only some of the instances in this poem are such.
As for the 20 words beginning with a consonant+r, pronunciation of the phoneme /r/ and clusters such as /dr/, /cr/, /str/ have many variations in different dialects of the English language. According to the OED, the trill to be found in many English dialects and other languages is ‘almost or altogether absent in the r of modern standard English.’ Are these consonant blends featured in the poem as a marker of social class and origins, which would differentiate a speaker of Received Pronunciation from a speaker of American English, for example?
The strength of Prynne’s interest in exploring motivation in language is clear at least as early as Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (1993) where he robustly interrogates Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness and analyses the associations of the affix-form /-le/: ‘these compounds in Saussure’s terms qualify to be called “relatively arbitrary”: some element of motivation has come into them by virtue of the history of their formation.’ Prynne here uses eight different combinations of the opening consonant+r phonestheme (/cr-/, /fr-/, /br-/, /pr-/, /gr-/, /dr-/, /tr-/ and /str-/), and the manner of their presentation in this poem shows conscious design and a sequential order which is potentially meaningful: starting and initially repeatedly returning to /cr-/, and then /br-/, while introducing each of the other combinations in turn, ultimately /cr-/ and /br-/ are overtaken by a sequence of all the others in exactly the same order they were introduced, finally closing with the /tr-/ embedded in /str-/, which brings together in a single phonestheme the two most noteworthy patterns in the poem: consonant+r and st.
Drawing on ‘Phonesthemes in Latin Language’ (Leonardi, F.M., 2015) and ‘Sl- is for Sleaze but Sn- is for Sneeze! The Meaning Behind English Consonant Clusters’ (Williams, C., 2017), themselves referencing many earlier sources, I’m going to risk an interpretation based on the above sequence, supplying further examples of words with associations which support the narrative we have proposed.
Things loudly breaking, becoming rough or judgemental (/cr-/, crash, crunch, crack, croak, crude, cross, cruel, crime, criterion), followed by anger and frayed tempers (/fr-/, frustrate, fracture, friction) of brawling brethren (/br-/, where brute and break meet breeding and bread) as individuality asserts itself (/pr-/, private, primacy, property) in gradual degrees becoming tiring and unpleasant (/gr-/, grunt, grumble, growl, gripe), until they drop away (/dr-/, drip, drowse, droop) resulting in a decisive movement (/tr-/, tremble, truncate, travel) and finally to straitened circumstances (/str-/, straight, strict, stringent).
More generally, Plato held that the letter ‘r’ represents motion, moving and hardness, and he gives many examples of consonant+r clusters: ‘in “tromos” (“trembling”) and “trechein” (“running”), and in such verbs as “krouein” (“striking”), “thrauein” (“crushing”), “ereikein” (“rending”), “thruptein” (“breaking”), “kermatizein” (“crumbling”), “rhumbein” (“whirling”), it is mostly “r” used to imitate these motions.’ (Cratylus, 426e). This connection was further developed by writers such as Persius, Leibniz, and Mallarmé, who ‘places the task of restoring the link between things and words in the hands of the poet,’ and Ivan Fonagy who equated the ‘canine letter’ /r/ with anger. (See Thaïs E. Morgan’s translator’s introduction to Gérard Genette’s Mimologiques: voyage en Cratylie, 1976 (translated as Mimologics, 1995, pp. xxvii – xxxiii))
It’s not that we have obtained the sense of the poem from this pattern of consonants and clusters, nor that they aren’t capable of having many other associations (indeed, the words used in the poem don’t always fit these phonesthetic categories), but we have suggested how these features may have been deployed to strengthen and reinforce elements of the poem’s proffered meaning.
The changing nature of the rhyme and alliteration from uniform and distributed patterns to varied and localised pairs as this sequence progresses might be riskily conjectured to represent Harry and Meghan’s gradual estrangement from the milieu of their respective families and social networks.
The pattern of word lengths is consistent throughout, and most of the three letter words share two of their letters with other three letter words in the poem, adding to the ‘eye rhyme’ of the pattern, and the same syntactic rule which makes ‘win’ in line 4 from ‘own’ in line 2 also makes ‘lid’ in line 8 from ‘old’ in line 6, like a law of evolutionary phonology. The remaining three letter words (met/ sat, eye/ bay) share one letter – still sufficient for an alliterative eye rhyme.
For now, I have not been able to attribute any relevant meaning to the 4+1 groupings of words. Groupings of 5 words per line are common in Chinese poetry (which Prynne reads, writes and admires), but a four-plus-one grouping is not to be found easily. (I found a 1+4 grouping in “Song of Climbing Youzhou Terrace” by Chen Zi’ang, and a 2+2+1 grouping in “Climbing the Lakeside Tower” by Xie Ling-yun, but neither seems to have any special significance in this context.)
The last word of the poem is dim, expressing the fading of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s sparkle. During their courtship and early marriage, they were among the brightest stars in a firmament of celebrities twinkling like the myriad starbursts on the book’s cover. Now that they wish to enter an ‘era of visibility’ and frame a future for themselves dependent on monetising the attention of others, their greatest fear must be that too few people will be looking.