Posts Tagged ‘virgil’

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.

Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.


Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.


Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.


“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.