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  • Writer's pictureRyan Nowlin

Some Notes on Versification

Some Notes on Versification

---Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 is deservedly the most famous of all the sonnets, sometimes so much so that one takes it for granted and/or one fails to see it afresh; to this end I have taken to scanning this sonnet in search of irregularities or substitutions which one might not be aware of considering that most have read this sonnet for the umpteenth time, yet one has to marvel at its economy and the delight it still can afford the reader. One interesting note is Shakespeare’s use of the spondee esp. in Rough Winds do often shake the darling buds of May” also all the lines are end stopped, and many are perfectly regular. There is no distinct caesura until the couplet, and even there the pause in line 13 remains pretty slight.

All the serenity of the sonnet comes to a fine point with the caesura of the final line effecting not surprise but a spondee aplomb whose confidence in poetry and its survival gets confirmed each time reader reaches the conclusion.

---- Note on line 13 of Herbert’s Jordan: Feet 3 and 4 focus on an intricate little subtlety---Stress “man” if that that is how you feel the gesture but notice what happens to “nightgale” the word forfeits the promoted stress that a straight iambic scansion would give is normally slack . The choice between NIGHTingale adn NIGHTinGALE comes down to a decision about tonal attitude as if Herbert is putting scare quotes around “nightingale” and “spring”--pet terms that they were among the conventional poets of the day.. The point to grasp is how each of the 5 beats activates a different attitude. So that accentual phrase suggests not just a hidden meaning, but also a structure buried in the past that can always be restructured or surpassed by “reactivating its meaning.”

----The history of versification in English presupposes a metrical bias toward iambic pentameter and the correspondence between unstressed/stressed syllables with intervals of rhythm. The alternation of sound and sense in Anglo-American Poetry can’t always explain the irrepressible dialectic of history, but if one translates into reason what might not be available to sense, then one might discover what motivates technical change in the mode of verse that is the stress or lack of stress of a syllable relative to its position in the line. All innovations in art, particularly the development of single point perspective during the Renaissance, culturally implicated us in the dialectical process of history. Similarly innovation in the art of poetry redirects the trajectory of human consciousness, therefore dictating the terms of our knowing the world.

That strangely productive power of the imagination produces infinite ways of seeing the world; however, if we remain philosophically detached (e.g. As the park bench philosopher in Rameau’s Nephew by Jacque Diderot) then his method of inquiry must pay fealty to the objects of his desire. Any coherent system must render the particulars to truth. Otherwise we live under the guise of democracy with its unintelligible object relations.

What is superstructural according to Marx? The absence of relation? To think and possess ideas about poetry is to participate in capital base ownership. The capture of the desired object is a dispute between lovers and socialized consensus. To make judgements of beauty is to also participate in the social arena--beauty socializes. The modernist sensibility is pain. The terrible love object is an analysis of terror.

----The Good-Morrow by John Donne is one of the finest love poems in the English language which I’ve often admired, probably more so now that I’m teaching myself to scan courtesy of the University of Virginia’s English Dept. Scansion webpage: For Better or Verse from which much of these notes are derived. For years I avoided and felt somewhat unclear about how/why scansion might be a crucial aspect of understanding a poem’s structure and meaning. Mostly then and as now I go by how the line strikes me as I read it along with a few basic concepts/ideas or rules of thumb one of which posits that although the overwhelming majority of poems from this period scan as Iambic pentameter there are instances when the poet can either substitute a regular iamb for a Trochaic or falling meter such as in line two of the poem which is in itself unremarkable were it not for the performative wallop Donne packs into “Did”--The surprise owes as much to the open voweled words in line 1, ambling toward Donne’s enjambment like somebody talking out both sides of the mouth. The interior logic of employing a stress or deciding not to as line 9 demonstrates with the unstressed “not” because as line 15 will show the lovers are indeed gazing at each other- a point underscored by the equable metrical rhythm, that suggests they’re doing so calmly and not in fearful jealousy. The lines that follow in lines 10 and 11 are indeed the most striking in the poem and they are my favorite “For love, all love of other sights control,/And makes one little room an everywhere.” In line 12 scan discoveries as four syllables and realize that this choice will commit you to an anapest in the 3rd foot, where promoted stress on little “to” which would chime too much with “new” in the following spondee. In this case an elision (discov’eries) seems like the way to go. What one realizes by learning to scan is that the reader makes certain decisions along the way that may allow or activate certain aspects of the poem’s meaning to surface thus the read is co-participant in the creative act.

----The songs of Thomas Carew and Edmund Waller are examples of Baroque inventiveness both in terms of meter and perspective as each employs Trochaic stresses off set by regular iambic lines which directly affects the choice of materials whether it be the orient in Carew’s case or the Occident in the case of Waller’s Song. So with Carew’s song it’s basically iambic with lines like “When June is past/the fad-ing rose” or “the gold/en atoms/of the day but notice that the first line of Carew’s song begins with a heavy stress --”Ask me no more which can be read as Da da-dada so its stress upon stress so that a delicate rhythm is established throughout with three lines going backwards and one line going forwards.

Now with Waller’s Song the stress also occurs early in line 2 in order to orient the reader early on--The rose is being pressed into service as a messenger to a certain nameless she, whom the speaker accuses of trifling with him or the “that “ clause immediately following--Also a straight iambic reading of line 9 of Waller’s song might blunt one to the effect he is going for here given that a double stress on “no man” might seem to neuter the line as if to suggest Waller meant life without other people when of course he means life with-out-sex.

----For Burke, the “imagination” was a sort of “creative power” or what Coleridge later called the “Fancy” operates in two ways: 1: “received by the senses and 2: by “combining the images in a new manner according to a different order. Most everyone who has read Keats’ Ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci will be familiar with the last foot spondee of line 22 which renders the knights stunned trance with “saw” attracting stress by assonance with the stresses of “all” and “long” just ahead giving 5 stresses in a row to end a 8 syllable line.

----I think of another short poem by Thomas Hardy in which one would think that the “I” in line 5 would be stressed set off as it is by a pair of commas, but at this point in the poem the 1st person pronoun isn’t news--Besides stress on I would detract from the stress of sense that belong to the syllable one either side of it. “Then” emphasizes the desirability of that feeling of “anesthetized” which the speaker professes to yearn for. More subtly “un” in the adjective undistresst does something of the same kind thus highlighting the distress of the speaker--The poetics of affect can be clearly affirmed in the final line 12 which upon being scanned is suggestive of the pounding heart--- The spondee of “noon-tide” faintly reminds us the flagging sensibility of the speaker as “tide” is dim when compared to the brightness of “noon”

----It is late summer and for the past month I’ve been listening to an audio book of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, from which is derived the Spenserian Stanza with its 9 iambic interlocking lines ***the 5th line of the stanza serves as a kind of hinge or turn line and the prevailing foot of the Stanzas tend to be in Iambic pentameter. Once one discerns that prevailing foot like a key that opens up the syllabic scansion of more tricky lines such as line 18 of Book I. Canto 9 39-40. This structure allows Spenser to move backwards and forwards with his theme by introducing a motif early one and then returning to it later then the motif take on a more complex meaning.

Sleep after toyle, port after stormy seas,

Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.

In these lines the al-ugh-gory of Depaspayre attempts to persuade the weary Red Crosse Knight to kill himself which is based on a seductive analogy between death and repose. After the mainly regular iambic lines that come before, a pattern of steady trochaic substitutions, now makes death sound to the drowsy mind just like sleep and port, and ease.

I have found that discerning what the prevailing foot to begin with may be faster than will sheer toil over the syllable alone. In such cases it may help to switch over to scanning for feet and then go back and forth between scanning for feet and stress until a prosodic read out emerges sort like how film is processed in the dark room with various fixitives and a contact sheet so that one can determine which images to enlarge. Often more than not when can’t decide to obey the meter or flout it, one benefits from obeisance esp. as it concerns a poet like Spenser who in line four of Amoretti 75 promotes a regular rhythm of lines that conform to their meters, which is part of his bid to construct a sonnet that will this sestet attests stand the test of time vis-a-vis a tightly knit rhyme scheme. The amory of aliteration and assonance line 4 bestows on 4 of the stressed syllables the same ringing vowels.

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