In his poem “Them and [uz]”, written in 1987, Anthony Harrison envisages his personal struggle against the compulsions of his RP-speaking environment. He elucidates how he was compelled to substitute his natural accent by Received Pronunciation and describes the process of his later recalling to his language roots.
The poem consists of two parts, each of which indicated by a Roman numeral and separated into various stanzas. In the first paragraph, Harrison merely conveys the emerging of the conflict resulting out of his conspicuous accent. The second paragraph envisions Harrison’s recalling to the northern accent he used to speak, coinciding with the recovery of his identity.
The poem opens with a comparison of Harrison with Demosthenes (ll. 1-2). It is necessary to know the following facts about the greatest of the Greek orators, to understand the allegory: Demosthenes suffered from a speech impediment in his youth which earned him the disrespect and mockery of his vicinity. Nobody ever believed that he would be able to compose and recite stirring speeches. Only through sheer willpower, Demosthenes endured the contempt of his environment until he finally succeeded and gained acknowledgement. The irregular rhythm of the first stanza illustrates the stuttering of the Greek orator. In addition to that, the frequent use of plosive and hissing sounds like in “stutterer” or in “outshouting seas” develops aggressive tension. Harrison continues to enhance piquant passages by using onomatopoeia throughout the entire poem.
But back to Demosthenes: Within the following stanzas, the recipient discerns that Harrison also saw himself confronted with the condescension of his vicinity. In the second stanza, the focus shifts on the author himself declaiming a passage out of Shakespeare’s Mac Beth (ll. 3-5). After a few words he is interrupted harshly. He is told that, due to his northern accent, he is unworthy to play an important role in the drama. The producer insists that the only language worth reciting poetry is RP. Harrison is told that his unconventional pronunciation is a plague for the “cultural heritage” (l. 5). He is defamed as T.W., the barbarian who is at most allowed to play the drunken porter, a role written in prose. In the Elizabethan Age prose was employed as the language of the common and uncultivated people. Within the plays of Shakespeare or other Elizabethan playwrights, prose characters merely functioned as comic elements. In the present, the RP-speaking class still conserves this convention at their advantage by determining Received Pronunciation as the speech of the educated class and therefore the only speech worth declaiming poetry. Conclusively, a man with a northern accent like Anthony Harrison is predetermined to play the drunken porter albeit he may have the actuarial talent to play Duncan.
Harrison has to realise, that his “speech is in the hand of the Receivers” (l. 12). The ambiguity of the word ‘Receivers’ caricatures the process of dubbing poetry into RP. On the one hand, ‘Receivers’ naturally refers to the RP-speaking people. On the other hand, Receivers may also refer to those officials that wind up a company that ceased trading. The allegory becomes evident: As the officials wind up a company, the Receivers wind up poetry. Harrison is impotent against this rigid convention or as it is euphemistically named this “cultural heritage” (l. 5) and adopts RP to increase his chances for an actuarial career.
It is striking that Harrison employs an interesting technique to depict the sound of his accent by codifying it just as faithfully as possible, for instance in line three where he recites: “mi ‘art aches”. As a result, the recipient is able to imagine remarkably exactly how Harrison’s pronunciation sounds. One nearly hears his voice in one’s head. In addition, two stereotypes of the northern accent are revealed: the elision of ‘h’ and the...