The Strange Death of the English R

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English exiles, and it even goes on to play a role in the plot, as someone’s weak r gives him away as a Jesuit in disguise. I’m not certain what Burgess is implying here, but perhaps it is that the exiles’ pronunciation of the English r has been influenced by being surrounded by louche French speakers, or perhaps by clerical prissiness.

What is strange for a 21st century Englishman to contemplate is that a strong r was once a distinctive trait of English speech, even – especially – of London speech. That certainly isn’t the case today. In most of England – and in many parts of the world that were a part of the British Empire, English is ‘non-rhotic’, with an r only being pronounced when directly preceding a vowel. For some reason, between the late sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the terminal r disappeared from English speech of all classes and most regions. Like most linguistic trends, it started in London and spread outwards. In England, the ‘English r‘ is now confined to the West Country, and a few smaller redoubts such as Blackburn, Lancashire. America, Canada, Ireland and, with its different, more heavily rolled r, Scotland, remain resolutely rhotic.

The loss of the terminal r is perhaps the biggest single change in the character of English pronunciation since the great vowel shift. Its pronunciation, or lack thereof, has a defining effect. A few years ago some academics tried to recreate the speech of Richard the Third as they thought it might have sounded. It sounded, they explained, much the English of the East Midlands as it is spoken today. And it did, a bit, but to the English listener, its pronounced rhoticism gave it an oddly celtic flavour.

Some of the most famous lines of poetry sound very different if pronounced in rhotic English. Here is John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II with the r’s highlighted that would not be pronounced by most English people:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter‘d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

That certainly sounds different, though I couldn’t say that the loss of the r‘s detracts from the poetic effect.In other examples, however, something may be lost with the r‘s. Take the second verse of Marlowe’s own A Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

That is an extra four r’s in three lines, and, along with the proliferation of l’s, makes the sound of the lines much more liquid, more trilling, and more imitative of those falls and madrigals of which the shepherd sings.

London English may have been losing its r’s by the late eighteenth century when William Blake wrote, but the intended alliteration of his most famous lines is unmistakable:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night

That burning tiger somehow sounds fiercer and fierier when you pronounce the r’s, no? Although that might depend on how you pronounce them… speaking of which: next post- the Northumbrian r.


Raleigh on his Execution

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he is the two-dimensional swash-buckler I had previously, rather idly, thought him to be (probably because of the Blackadder episode, in which he is portrayed as a pompous idiot). He was an English renaissance man if ever there was one, one of his many achievements being some elegant and witty poetry.

Perhaps in his glory days, Raleigh was something of a boaster – he surely had much to boast of. But in A Dead Man in Deptford we meet an older, wiser Raleigh. When the experienced adventurer meets the young playwright for the first time, he apologises for his presumption in having written a wry answer to Marlowe’s early lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. (I have blogged on these two poems before, here and here). He asks him to take it as the voice of experience replying to the voice of innocence, rather than a whole-hearted debunking. Marlowe, who we can imagine being a lot less disingenuous than his shepherd, agrees, and they become fast friends.

Raleigh keeps interesting company. He introduces Marlowe into his circle of cultured gentlemen, who smoke, drink and discuss the great questions of the universe, as well as the more pressing matters of court intrigue. Foremost among this group is the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, known to contemporaries as the Wizard Earl, in whose smoke-filled London home, Syon House, the men meet. The Wizard Earl is another interesting character of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: son of the 8th Earl, who had risen against Elizabeth for Mary Queen of Scots and the old faith, he was himself, less an orthodox Catholic, but interested in magic, the occult and all stripes of ancient learning . Playing the more rationalistic foil to Percy, is his friend and employee, the great scientist Thomas Harriot.

Raleigh’s arch-enemy at this time is the rising star in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Devereux, who really is the self-regarding swash-buckling loud mouth of stereotype. A shallower, vainer individual is hard to imagine – as the poetry he left shows (see my post here). Essex was the ageing queen’s favourite at court, jealous of the memory of her older, more deserving favourite, Sir Walter – and himself fighting for prominence with Elizabeth’s more sober counsellors, the Cecils – to whom Marlowe’s sometime employer, the spymaster Francis Walsingham answers. Burgess weaves an interesting plot out of these connections, as the ascendant playwright gets caught up in a power struggle between two (or three) court factions, and his patron.

From these wranglings among court factions, Burgess provides a plausible explanation for Marlowe’s mysterious death in a Deptford pub. It is not clear that the historical Marlowe ever really met Raleigh or Northumberland, but it is entirely conceivable: they too were accused being atheists. Real atheists were hard to come by in the sixteenth century: the term was used rather loosely, as much against occult dabblers, Catholics or various kind of rebels as that very small minority of people who could conceive of – and speak of – a world without a creator. Marlowe, certainly, and Northumberland, perhaps, could be numbered among actual atheists, but with Raleigh we can’t be sure: certain poems he left betray a cynicism towards the claims of Christianity, but this must be balanced against others – notably the sweet love lyric As You Came from the Holy Land, in which a forlorn lover searches for the woman he met on the way home from a pilgrimage to Walsingham. It may be a love poem, but the setting is religious, and, intriguingly, Catholic. It’s provenance is doubtful, so perhaps he didn’t write it, or perhaps he did write it, but in the voice of a pre-reformation pilgrim. At a distance of four hundred years or so, it’s hard to know.

Burgess’s narrative ends, of course, with the death of the playwright, but there is much in the lives of his supposed associates that would make compelling drama. Both Northumberland and Raleigh lived out Elizabeth’s reign, despite the hostility of the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth’s first Minister, Burghley, the elder Cecil tired of the young favourite’s antics at court and made him Governor of Ireland – a great honour, and a poisoned chalice. When Essex failed in his brief in Ireland, he lost the queen’s favour and never regained it. In a desperate attempt to regain his previous fame, he raised a band of rebels to take London. When this was defeated he was tried, convicted of treason and executed. At some point during his downward spiral, he wrote that famously sulky poem.

Raleigh was made governor of Jersey in the channel islands, then, early in the reign of James I, was involved in a plot to put a rival contender on the throne. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by the King and left in prison indefinitely.

Northumberland met a similar fate. He was thrown in prison in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot. In truth, he hadn’t been involved. Unfortunately, another Percy, one of his kinsmen and employees, was one of the main plotters, and had used Northumberland’s offices in London to gain close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. The Percy family and a long history of rebellion and the attorney general Edward Coke was out to get him, exploiting the earl’s natural shyness and his stutter at the trial. Life wasn’t so bad in prison if you were a celebrity, mind – the earl still held his smoky gatherings of intellectual free thinkers, while Raleigh, for his part, began working on a history of the world.

He didn’t finish because in 1616 he was plucked out of prison by the King, who had been persuaded by some courtiers to let him lead a mission to find the lost city of El Dorado and claim it for the British. The Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Count of Gondomar, was unhappy with this, and Raleigh had to make the not especially realistic promise that no Spaniard would be hurt in the venture. The mission was a disastrous failure, and the English, having been shot at first, had attacked a Spanish outpost. Raleigh returned home in disgrace. Gondomar demanded that Raleigh be handed over to the Spanish for trial and, most likely, execution. James could not agree to the handover, but he agreed to the execution. He, naturally, had no fondness for the old adventurer, and now that Raleigh’s glory days were behind him, he was expendable.This time there was no reprieve.

Raleigh left not one but three poems written on the night before his execution.

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

A very elegant epitaph, that, and very appropriate to Raleigh’s life, what with the talk of wanderings and stories, for few men had wandered as far and wide as Raleigh nor had such impressive stories to tell. The last couplet with its final ‘I trust’ might be read as a devout confession of faith in God, or a wry expression of doubt.

In his second poem, Raleigh’s mind turns from death in general to the approaching, violent, method of his own demise:

Cowards fear to die, but Courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

The meaning of ‘snuff’ here is the charred end of a candle wick, which Raleigh thinks better put out than left to smoulder uselessly. This is the warrior in Raleigh speaking, the adventurer on the bough of his ship in hostile territory facing death, though the hostile territory in question is his own England. It’s a simple enough message: if you’re gonna die, be a man about it!’, but it is delivered with relish, and with echoes of Shakespeare. In the context of Raleigh’s life, the epigram has a wider resonance: he had been smouldering away in prison the last twelve or thirteen years before his last mission, which was his finalchance for glory, or a more fitting end, which is what he got, kind of.

He was as brave on the gallows as on the page, calling ‘Strike, man, strike!’ to the waiting executioner.

The last poem is a translation of Catullus. For poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the joys of translating and mimicking Roman poetry was to escape briefly from the conventional pieties of the age. In contrast to the first poem, the third betrays no belief in the afterlife. But then, it is Catullus speaking, not Raleigh – perhaps, in terms of faith, he was keeping his options open to the last.

The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.



A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage, 1994

Poems found in The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs, Ed. Geoffrey Grigson, 1977

Details of the trial of Northumberland are from The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Hynes, The History Press,1994

Details of the last adventures and trial of Raleigh are from The Cradle King: A Life of King James VI & I, Alan Stewart, Random House, and The History of England Volume III: Civil War, Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, 2014