Monday 26 April 2010

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I mentioned a few weeks ago the Rule of the Bellman: What I tell you three times is true. Here we can see a single rhetorical trope through the ages and discern the effects of Progress and Providence in bringing it from ramshackle beginnings to poetic grandeur in our own day.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
   - Shakespeare Hamlet II, ii (c. 1600)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
  - Tennyson Break, break, break (1834)
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,  
   - T.S. Eliot East Coker (1940)

LOCATION LOCATION 'LOCATION The 3 things to look for...
   - Valley News 11/22/1956*

Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, and education.
   - Anthony Blair 1997

Ask me my three priorities here and now - April 2010 - and I tell you: jobs, jobs, jobs.
   - Gordon Brown

There are armies of technical names for repetition: ploce, conduplicatio, iteratio: but it took the genius of Puttenham to come up with this:

The Greeks call him Epizeuxis, the Latines Subiunctio, we may call him the underlay, me thinks if we regard his manner of iteration, & would depart from the originall, we might very properly, in our vulgar and for pleasure call him the cuckowspell, for right as the cuckow repeats his lay, which is but one manner of note, and doth not insert any other tune betwixt, and sometimes for hast stammers out two or three of them one immediatly after another, as cuck, cuck, cuckow, so doth the figure Epizeuxis in the former verses.
*There may or may not be earlier citations follow links here and here 


  1. In that case, thank you, thank you,thank you for an intersting post!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This rule of three thing is very interesting. Angela Carter does it all the time (admittedly not with the repetition of the same word), and Anthony Bliar spoke in three word soundbites as does Cameroon. (I direct you once again to Elvis McGonagall's 'You Can Call Me Dave'.)

    I wonder, does it have its origins in Latin or Greek - a rhetorical ideal - that we have absorbed into our own speech patterns?

  4. Somebody once asked Demosthenes what the three most important virtues of an orator were and he replied "Action, action and action", by which he meant the gestures and bearing of the speaker.
    I can't think of any in the Bible other than the occassional amen amen amen.

  5. Isiah 6: 3

    "And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, [is] the LORD of hosts: the whole earth [is] full of his glory."