Writing and Reading Poetry, II: The Age of Lead


Let's start with the one piece submitted in response to my challenge.  This comes from my former managing editor, Kate Dalton Boyer, who is still harboring some dark feelings about her former boss's sloppy office.

Doggerel for TF

I know a man named Thomas,

his desk will give you pause.

If one inquires the reason:

"Tace!" he'll say.  "Because."

Beneath a Mac his thesis

(of Grecian poetry)

is propping up his keyboard

and in danger from his tea.

The office door won't open

--review books in the way--

it seems another forty-two

have just arrived today.

The lamp's a little dusty,

the window is ajar,

the yellow haze a product

of his afternoon cigar.

But if I come for galleys,

or a quote from Take My Stand,

Tom never cannot find it,

'cause everything's to hand.

So here we have the lesson

that I learned at Fleming's knee:

there can be rhyme and reason

in our bent toward entropy.

Here is what the poetess has to say for herself:

I decided to take up your poetry challenge.    One four foot line (because it sounds better there than a three foot/weak ending), and several forced stresses, but real doggerel demands the latter.

The forced stresses are not extreme, but I reject the "sounds better" argument for the four-stressed line.  I hereby revoke this poetic license!  It is a good line--"It seems another forty two"-- but replacing "It seems" with "since"--though a bit weaker--would be a makeshift but I am sure Kate and her readers can come up with better alternatives.


Now, back to our story.

If accentual verse is the fall-back for English poetry, that door was closed s long time ago, at least so far as higher forms of verse, by the decision to imitate French and Italian verses that limit the number of syllables.  Students of French literature will think mainly of the 12-syllable lines of Racine and later French poets.  Here are the first lines of Phedre:

Le dessein en est pris: je pars, cher Théramène,

Et quitte le séjour de l’aimable Trézène.

Dans le doute mortel dont je suis agité,

Je commence à rougir de mon oisiveté.

Depuis plus de six mois éloigné de mon père,

J’ignore le destin d’une tête si chère ;

J’ignore jusqu’aux lieux qui le peuvent cacher.

You will note that the unaccented “e” vowels are pronounced except when they occur in hiatus with another word beginning with a vowel.

However, French poets can employ lines of different lengths, as in these 10-syllable lines of La Chanson de Roland.  Here is Oliver imploring Roland to “blow the damn horn!”:

Dist Oliver: «N'ai cure de parler.

Vostre olifan ne deignastes suner,

Ne de Carlun mie vos n'en avez.

Il n'en set mot, n'i ad culpes li bers.

Cil ki la sunt ne funt mie a blasmer.

This is, more or less, the French line that enters into English poetry and takes over.

Dante uses a similar line, but since very few words in Italian end with an accented syllable or even a consonant, his 5-beat line has 11 syllables, the last being an unaccented vowel:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Before going on to English, we should take note of the fact that both French and Italian lend themselves more easily to what we think of as poetry than English does.

First, the rhymes are easy when so many words end in vowels.  Finding effective rhymes is the plague of English formal verse, but it is a challenge that sometimes forces the poet to work a bit harder.

Second, French and Italian follow Greek and Latin in avoiding hiatus—the clash produced when a word ending in a vowel is followed by one that begins in a vowel.  In the last line of Dante I quoted above, via and era are run together, not only in poetry but in everyday speech.  In English we sometimes do this naturally, but the stronger tendency is to introduce a sort of “glide”—a consonant “y”.  We rarely say the apple as two distinct words but slide into thee-yapple.   As we go on, such things will become important for the standard practice on elision—that is, the blending together of vowel sounds.

Let’s go back to the hapless Surrey.

The soote  season, that bud and bloom forth brings, 

  With green hath clad the hill, and eke  the vale. 

  The nightingale with feathers new she sings ; 

  The turtle  to her make  hath told her tale. 

  Summer is come, for every spray now springs, 

  The hart  hath hung his old head  on the pale; 

  The buck in brake his winter coat he slings ; 

  The fishes flete  with new repairèd scale ; 

  The adder all her slough away she slings ; 

  The swift swallow pursueth the fliës smale ;

  The busy bee her honey now she mings ;

  Winter is worn that was the flowers' bale.

      And thus I see among these pleasant things 

      Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs !

Note the rather mechanically repetitious shape of the lines, every one of which has a misnamed “caesura” after the fourth syllable.  I say misnamed, because in Greek and Latin, this word for “cutting” does not coincide with the foot or metron, while in these lines of Surrey they do.

Let us throw into the mix a poem by Surrey’s more original contemporary, Thomas Wyatt, whose verses have a knottier and thornier edge:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek 

With naked foot, stalking in my chamber. 

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek, 

That now are wild and do not remember 

That sometime they put themself in danger 

To take bread at my hand; and now they range, 

Busily seeking with a continual change. 

I know pronunciation has changed, but I cannot quite scan these lines without doing a bit of violence.

Just note the following characteristics.

First, in a ten syllable line both almost invariably break the line after the fourth syllable, where there is typically a light break in sense, but the major syntactical break is at the end of each line.  Such lines are often called “end-stopped” for the obvious reason.  Lines in which the sense flows across the verse-end barrier display what is known as enjambement.

Most of the lines are a monotonously regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables.  In the case of occasional exceptions, I do not know if they were not meant to be read with a regular ictus, e.g.

“The soote seasón..”

The final stress would have been normal in the French “saison,” though in Shakespeare “Season” is accented as it is today:

So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.

My best guess is that Surrey was not varying the stress pattern but simply cheating.  The strictness of the meter encourages both cheating and the rather artificial word order that both Wyatt and Surrey constantly engage in:

The nightingale with feathers new she sings

and the frequent use of one-syllable fillers to make the meter work:

Summer is come, for every spray now springs

The busy bee her honey now she mings

Some of the clumsiness derives from a simplistic attempt to force English into the forms and rhymes of Romance languages, which are naturally more mellifluous and where rhymes are easy.

Blank Verse

Now, down to brass tacks.  Blank verse is the easiest verse to write in English but perhaps the hardest to write well.  Surrey is often claimed to be the first to have used it, but he is certainly no master.  Here are some lines from his translation of Aeneid II.  Aeneas, who is describing the events leading up to the capture of Troy, tells the famous story of the unhappy Laocoon.

Us caitiffs then a far more dreadful chance

Befel, that troubled our unarmed breasts.

Whiles Laocoon, that chosen was by lot

Neptunus' priest, did sacrifice a bull

Before the holy altar; suddenly

From Tenedon, behold! in circles great

By the calm seas come fleeting adders twain,

Which plied towards the shore (I loathe to tell)

With reared breast lift up above the seas:

Whose bloody crests aloft the waves were seen;

The hinder part swam hidden in the flood.

Their grisly backs were linked manifold.

With sound of broken waves they gat the strand,

With glowing eyen, tainted with blood and fire;

Whose waltring1 tongues did lick their hissing mouths.

We fled away; our face the blood forsook:

But they with gait2 direct to Lacon ran.

And first of all each serpent doth enwrap

The bodies small of his two tender sons;

Whose wretched limbs they bit, and fed thereon.  

The verse is very similar to his rhyming verse, though the diction is a bit less stilted because of the lack of rhyme.  Note that he includes as syllables many unaccented syllables in modern English, particularly participles ending in -ed.  I believe that was still standard in his day.  Occasionally, Surrey breaks the line after the fifth syllable and even runs over the sense.

Before the holy altar; suddenly

From Tenedon, 

The effect of the enjambement, however, is clumsy because no attempt is made to vary the weight or speed of the line or to alter the rhythm.  The result can be a bit like the monotony of perpetual motion.

The homework, then, will be to turn the first lines of the Iliad into four-square monotonous blank verse.  Be as artificial as you like:

O goddess sing for us Achilles’ wrath

that sent so many woes unto the Greeks

and cast brave souls into the depths of hell…

Next week we shall move forward both in time and technique and consider some examples from Sidney and Marlowe.

Next week we shall move forward both in time and technique and consider some examples from Sidney and Marlowe.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Katherine Boyer says:

    Ah, poetess. Makes me feel all be-bluestocking’d and olde quaintee.

    I have no argument with “since,” but as I read it, the replacement of “it seems” with “since” still leaves four beats in that line—it just makes the line begin with a stressed syllable instead of an unstressed. SINCE anOTHer FORty-TWO.

    I had orginally written
    “It seems another forty
    Have just arrived today”

    but I missed the enjambment, which pushes the poem and the reader along—and I think it’s likely the reader desires to get through this poem as fast as possible.

    Alternatively, I could say
    “Since forty-two slim volumes
    Have just arrived today”

    –which still loses the enjambment, but offers a little extra sarcasm in recompense.

    No doubt there is a better way, but at least I’m back down to three stresses, as required.

    One observation about Racine: I have never seen him played on stage, but I think that not just the regular rhyming couplets (which the ear quickly starts anticipating) but the necessity of pronouncing the normally mute endings must make this verse much harder to act with any kind of realism. The lines become necessarily artificial and more like chanting—which is to say more like singing, and more like the Greek original Racine wished to echo, I suppose. It is beautiful verse, often, but more verse than play.

    One of the joys of Shakespeare (and of much Elizabethan playwriting) is that there is so much music in writing that is still so very speech-like that one can act it. (And when a scene is hard to act, the problems are generally due to character issues, and not technical challenges in making the verse sound like plausible speech.)

    Maybe I am misunderstanding you, Tom, but I think one can overstate the emphasis on syllables vs. stresses. I hear the four stresses in the French alexandrines clearly, and would argue that this classic French form is not so different from the classic English iambic pentameter in being defined by both syllable and stress.

    The Surrey is pretty regular iambic pentameter, but as for the Wyatt, one can make an argument for four beats per line here. I think this is pseudo-pentameter-tending-toward-iambic–looks like it, but isn’t–and if you read for four beats it feels less rough. Only the first line is most possibly five, to my ear.

    They FLEE from ME that SOMEtime DID me SEEK
    and even there you can unstress the “did” and it sounds more real. You wouldn’t stress “did” if this were prose.

    Then, is it:
    With NAked FOOT, STALKing IN my CHAMber
    or is it, if you read it in a more speech-like fashion:
    With NAked FOOT, STALKing in my CHAMber

    To TAKE bread AT my HAND, and NOW they RANGE
    or is it, better,
    To take BREAD at my HAND, and NOW they RANGE
    BUSily SEEKing with a conTINual CHANGE.

    The four beats are mixed up with several variations of types feet and some variation (nine here, twelve there) of number of feet–which I agree makes the scanning difficult, but there is still that internal four stress regularity among the irregularity, and the rhyme finally holds it all together. Again, to me it is a strength of this poem that throughout it sounds more like speech (distilled) than a poem with perfectly regular meter and rhyme does. That is the sort of poem I almost always like best. It’s not less poetical, but more subtly so.

    Here’s my stab at Homer, blanked:

    Sing out, o Goddess, of Achilles’ rage
    that hastened many mighty souls to Hell,
    and left their corpses fouled by dogs and crows,
    and countless Greeks enmeshed in endless grief

    I don’t want to take the Beowulfian alliteration out of it; that seems the right way to reinterpret Homer in English. Or so says the poetess, and I think I’m neither alone nor original in this.

    May there be more entries. Cheers–

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ll comment further tomorrow, but for tonight it is enough to observe that there is always a tension-stretched pretty far in Wyatt’s case–between the ideal pattern and the actual speech rhythm. We pretty much know, I think, that Wyatt was trying to write lines of ten syillables of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Pentameter is a rotten word to describe this line, because it imports classical notions that are irrelevant. An iambic metron is a unit of two linked iambs with an indifferent first syllable and the possibility of substituing two shorts for one long. Totally irrelevant to English..

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, regarding your comment on the history of fingerprinting from the first installment. According to FBI Agent Fox Mulder in S1E3 of the X Files, fingerprinting started to come into its own in 1903. The truth is out there if you look for it.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says: