Posts Tagged ‘Tennyson’

Measuring rhythms in English verse

September 7, 2016

Taking a break from history for a while, I’ve decided to revisit territory I covered closely several years ago and then set aside, knowing someday I would pick up the thread again, but still unsure where it would all lead. Out of nostalgia for a very energetic period of creative writing, and to take advantage of two book length poems I’ve since been able to acquire my own copies of – Robert Browning’s Fifine at the Fair, and Cayley’s (notably obscure) translation of the Iliad. I quickly found myself making notes in their margins.

When I first began experimenting with quantitative meters in poetry, I had a very definite goal in mind – to write an epic in Homeric hexameters myself. But the more I learned about these exotic classical verse forms, the more academic my interest became. Ultimately, I became reserved about the possibilities of using such a meter (although I am still happy with some of the experiments I produced with it then).

In graduate school, I undertook a self-study course on the subject with the permission of a poetry instructor who had introduced me to Tennyson’s Ulysses and Dryden’s verse. I studied Renaissance and Victorian poetry in classical meters, and learned the Latin rules of quantitative scansion that they had adapted, with difficulty and with no consensus on the best approach, to the English language. The Latin rules, in turn, had been developed in imitation of the Greek classics.

Interestingly, neither Latin or Greek vernacular poetry or spoken language resembled, in rhythm, the movement of the hexameter line so well known from Homer and Virgil. Although the Latin rules bore some correspondence to what is now understood to have been Latin pronunciation, in each instance the rules were orthographic rather than auditory in application – an artifact of written literature that could only be reproduced aurally by artificial elongation of the “long” syllables (a foot scanned according to stress in accentual-syllabic versification is scanned according to duration in quantitative meter; in quantitative music two short syllables equal one long in duration). To complicate matters further, Renaissance and Victorian authors were educated in a Latin that had lost correspondence to classical pronunciation (which has been more successfully reconstructed since then). So to the extent that Virgil’s hexameters could be heard in Latin, these students of classical poetry were at a loss as to how.


Instead, they arranged their quantitative lines orthographically – that is, according to the arrangement of letters into diphthongs, digrams, pairs of consonants, and types of vowels. Syllables with “tense” vowels do tend to be pronounced “long” in English as in Latin, and diphthongs and consonant clusters can also lengthen the duration of a syllable, but often silent consonants were scanned identically to other consonants, and the tendency for English pronunciation to lengthen certain syllables in a line in connection with syntax or word prominence was long ignored.

e.g., the long e in “The scene was beautiful” is longer than the long e in “The scenery was beautiful” (Schuman 1977)

The first English poets to achieve audible quantitative meters were those who exploited coincidence, that is, the tendency of an accented syllable to sound longer in duration than an unaccented syllable. Here the Victorian poets experimenting with classical meters were aided by the phenomenon of isochronism – the tendency of English verse to give equal time intervals between stressed syllables in a line, so that in a line running

/ ‘ ‘ / ‘ / ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘ ‘ / ‘

the duration of the first two unstressed syllables is one beat, and the duration of the second syllables in each of the second and third feet is the same as the stressed syllables. Hence in quantitative meter, you have a dactyl and two spondees – spondaic substitution being permissible in all but the penultimate foot in an epic hexameter line, whereas the last two feet must be a dactyl followed by a spondee. This is important for the quantitative hexameter at least, because trochees and iambs are excluded in this verse form, whereas they are almost inevitable in English accentual-syllabic scansion (some experts would argue that there is no such thing as a true accentual-syllabic spondee in English, due to the rising and falling pattern of our speech habits, which strongly favor iambic pentameter lines).

I remember in my term paper on Tennyson’s Ulysses for this same professor, I introduced an alternate approach to scansion which distinguished between strong stress and weak stress to account for the difference between prominent stressed syllables and words that only acquired stress by virtue of their position in the line (i.e., because of rising and falling speech patterns and the momentum of the iambic pentameter rhythm).

My teacher found this system very confusing, but I still find it very useful, because in iambic pentameters, I very often feel I have come across a dactyl-iamb pair that violates the sing-song conventions of versification and introduces a sense of relief from the constrictions of blank verse without interrupting the regularity of ten syllable lines. Take this line – here the downhill movement of the water carries the stress away from the second foot, but the need for a break from the unstressed syllables and the mid-point of the line assigns prominence to a word that would not normally be emphasized (“from”):

e.g., “These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs”

u S u s u S u S u S

Tintern Abbey, Line 3

In contrast, had the waters been rolling breakers on the open sea, the second foot would have laid more stress on “rolling”, I think. Here there are opportunities to introduce tension between verse forms within blank verse, with some lines having a triple rhythm, some a tetrameter, and some passages evoking ballad meter (tetrameter alternating with trimeter for a seven beat enjambed line). The following line, for instance, can be reduced to three beats:

“With a sweet inland murmur.—Once again”

u u S u u S u s u S

Here listening for the beat, in particular for isochronism, as opposed to counting the syllables and enforcing an iambic rhythm on the line, yields a more complex sense of movement and pause to a very familiar poem.

I’ll return to Tintern Abbey later, but first, I want to focus on Browning’s poem. Unfortunately, just introducing the subject has taken up most of my time (and a great deal of space), so I will get to Fifine at the Fair in my next blog entry.

Man vs. nature

July 9, 2012

The main metaphor for nature is not gender, but metaphors as commonplace as nature and gender cross paths often enough to mislead. The feminine aspect of the natural world is popular.

But it wants ornament, despite being doubly confined to the admired pedestal of that which is not for everyday use in life. One can tell this is from one of Tennyson’s satires better if you elide the distractingly vivid “Wind oozing thin through the thorn ..”

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view ..

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

The pastorale brought to life in symphonies like Creation is a flattery of fairy tales far more violent in their action than a country scene with listeners relieved from mundane indoor chores, the coarse chains of love labors in domestic life, distractedly soaking in the fresh air, exposed and at risk of pneumonia only when they take a walk in dark weather to the full sound and weight of rain, because they could not be persuaded to wait out the weather, they were above persuasion on the day.


Pop culture’s sense of history is similar. Of mass movements we want the stuff of The Chicago Poems, metaphors for mountains, horizons overburdened with stars,

.. the beach where the long push under the endless tide maneuvers ..

.. pageants of war and labor, soldiers and workers, mothers lifting their children ..

Of cities, we want images of artisans, always in action and working as at play in the metals, and someone bigger, also industrious, who works and brawls under the wicked reputation of the city, in smoke, and “dust all over his mouth, laughing .. under the terrible burden of destiny” unselfconsciously. He should not know better than to be remorseless, for he does work hard.

If we are to notice anything in multitudes, we want something less fragile than a crowding of kinds of life in rainforests’ canopies or the liminal subsurface that waits on disturbance, needs the air, but withstands only enough disturbance to bring air below by the breath, by the pocket. The jungle frightens us with long shadows that belie worthless soil underfoot driving all life toward the clouds in search of better nourishment. Response to the soil’s strangling, under the last business cycles of field cultivation, is disdained.

Instead we want simplicity when we imagine great amounts, the idea of an endless supply of any certain thing, and metaphors for rain, constancy, the monotone:

.. the sudden rise and slow relapse
Of the long multitudinous rain.

.. fire and gold of sky and sea,
And the peace of long warm rain.

The suburb with its books of pressed fairies is a complaint, that this flattery was not cunning enough to fool those who can afford to leave the slum, and at a safe distance, plant pasture where nothing comes of growth. They were not fooled out of their boredom with the advantages that make indifference defensible. They are not even committed enough to find boredom melancholy and so succumb to the greater interests of madness.


There’s always violence. Interest pervades the scene of a crime, reanimates the landscape sparsely traveled by birds and feral cattle between the mesas and the scrubby flats beyond a rainshadow, when a stagecoach robbery is to be staged, or a nuclear experiment conducted with stadium seating for secondary hypothesis testing.

A hurricane creek in drylands is a storyteller who knows only outlaw ballads, making miniature rapids in the heat to show up the hikers and outlaws. Even without seawater, far from the nesting grounds of any crocodiles, the white water menaces, never quite too shallow to drown someone. Take Roderic Quinn’s The Fisher.

The mangroves drooped on salty creeks,
And through the dark,
Making a pale patch in the deep,
Gleamed, as it swam, ..

The bream went by, and where they passed
The bubbles shone like beads.


No lost wind wandered down the hills
To tell of wide
Wild waterways; on velvet moved
The silky, sucking tide.

.. stars burned large and still.

The fisher, dreaming on the rocks,
Upon the beaten way,
.. stood entranced, enchained by her

In geologic time, the cross-section of a ridge carved cleanly in relief for paved switchbacks is a record of violent overthrows conducted by faceless giants, detailed in many volumes by John McPhee. Good country for driving.


A mirror carefully staged finds us in the same scene as nature. The same as we always are, only definitely right there in the epic landscape, since the horizon is accessible by a shortcut. There is a trail to the vantage point, you can be seen from below. You can make being seen there look like an accident for camera.

And seeing yourself in the landscape you deferred to as too natural to admit traffic, even your own everyday smile isn’t good enough, so if you cannot convey enough respect for the unconstructed wealth of the opposite of civilization’s accomplished facts, you retreat into another subject.

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,

You stay out of the picture finder’s frame, put certain pebbles in your pockets that come in at least four kinds of brown, remember the other two are reserved for horses you have never met. They were innocently named, ideas “displayed, without intention, in the act” of naming what was there to be mentioned, not shades of brown parsed out with descriptive adjectives in a disaffected struggle “with the communicative significance of words.”

You limit your Christmas letter mementos to uncultivated apples and a still life with driftwood, or a pool that seems uninterested in polishing wood. A pool where a still life can humble the stage manager for trying too hard to include driftwood in the composition, because you can relate to that and would’ve hoped it would look more natural.