Swinburne Got Me Started: A Rhythmic Riddle
The oldest, most decrepit book on my poetry shelf is a collection of Swinburne I found in a used book shop when I was a teenager and my idea of poetry was language that galloped you to beautiful scenic places where love and adventure were abundantly available.
The book, for which I paid $1.00, was falling apart then, and still has not finished. As the Introduction says, “For sheer sensuous delight of singing, the pleasure of beautiful, fragrant words singing together, in a matchless harmony of music, Mr. Swinburne's poetry is unique in the English language.”
The poems were full of blood, sleep, death, but not much action, and a lot of moping about for no good reason. But one immediately caught and held my attention, even though I didn't know what the title meant. Here's the opening of that poem, “Hendecasyllabics,”
What a difference one syllable can make! Here you have fully ELEVEN of them per line instead of the usual ten that result from iambic pentameter. Not only does this poem kick the iamb and rhyme itself out the door, the “Deca” goes along with it, and you end up with a rhythm that turns the poet's word-hoard into a corral of restless stallions, eager to return to the wild. This one poem hooked me for the rest of my life, in a way that none had done before it. Besides, what a way to nail a sunset!
Here again is Swinburne – still sensuous and musical – offering a standard iambic pentameter poem:
The riddle: Can you feel the shift between ten and eleven syllables? Does it matter to you?
Here is an observation by Olivier Messiaen, composer of “Quartet for the end of time,” who could have been writing about poetry:
Swinburne, although scarcely read much today, may have been ahead of his time. I am grateful to
his particular poetic imagination.