6/6/2021 7 Comments
Poet's Petard #5 – June, 2021
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.
6/6/2021 04:36:16 pm
I really liked the 11 syllables & much prefer it. I'd call it the rule of 11 but that is already taken by bridge players.
6/6/2021 06:37:34 pm
"Rule of 11" sounds fine to me. I'm glad you could "hear" the difference, it surprised me the first time I tried comparing the two. Swinburne does 8 and 9 syllables per line also, but mostly the 10. It's in the blood of English poets and we're stuck with it! Lots of splendid poetry was iambic pentameter.
6/6/2021 06:07:44 pm
Thank you for this post, Anita. I learned several things -- and really could tell the difference between the first two excerpts! Love the quote by Messiaen, too. Do you suppose Swinburne and Hopkins knew each other's work? Swinburne doesn't go quite as far as "sprung rhythm," but look at these dates: Swinburne, (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889); Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) . Scholars may have pointed to this already, but hey -- it's more fun to speculate on our own, don't you think?
6/6/2021 06:46:30 pm
Wow! I had no idea Swinburne and Hopkins were of the same age so exactly. I'd love to know if they knew each other. Likely Swinburne was not a
6/6/2021 09:36:36 pm
A very rich offering, Anita. As to hearing the difference, yes, I did. "Does it matter?" I suggest that how much it matters depends on how much attention someone has paid to it. The more attention, the more it will matter. So, when I do a concert tuning, I am paying a tremendous amount of attention, on top of many thousands of hours of attention. When I hear what a concert artist has done with what I have prepared, all that attention is brought to bear, and it matters tremendously. So, it makes my day, month, year. A concert pianist has also paid a lot of attention, but to slightly different aspects, but there is enough overlap that we both can tell the difference. And everyone else? Well, they can tell it sounds good, but that extra sensibility, the feeling of architecture, the way the weights and proportions work out, and the personality of the tone and the unisons, and how the artist uses them to make counterpoint -- I doubt they do. But that is all right. One cannot expect for everyone else to value the differences which matter when they have had less cause for them to matter. If they like it and enjoy it and want to hear more of it, that is quite sufficient.
6/11/2021 04:58:06 pm
Thanks, Susan, a wise and thorough reply. I should know better than to ask "does it matter?" I think "it" does matter if whatever you are doing is taking you deeper into understanding.
7/7/2021 07:52:24 am
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