Voices in the Cave of Being
A Note on Metrics
Stephen Hawking, reports James Franklin, “remarked that each equation in a book halves its sales.” The same can probably be said these days of references to metrics. But sometimes something has to be said in order to lessen misunderstandings.
The number of syllables in the lines of “my” French poems are fixed. To retrieve the “missing” syllables—missing to the Anglophone eye—read as if with a slight Italian or Provençal accent, which is to say, sounding very slightly the unaccented letter “e” at the end of a word when the following word begins with a consonant.
If you want to be really right, also hear, faintly, the unaccented “e’s” at the ends of lines in the poems by Baudelaire, Gautier, and Rimbaud. If you then look at the line endings and note the unaccented “e’s” (the ones without accent marks), whether coming after a consonant or another vowel (as in “ie”), you will see consistent patterns of alternation, patterns which may subliminally create a song-like effect—thirteen syllables alternating with twelve, or whatever the case may be.
The often-repeated assertion that French verse is “syllabic” in contrast to accentual-syllabic English verse (which is to say, what we have in most of the poems in English here) can be very misleading if it implies some kind of monotone or wholly random patterns of stresses.
Of course there are stresses in French words, normally at the ends of words. When the Italian-born Yves Montand sings French lyrics and sounds the terminal “e”s, there’s a clear pattern at times, familiar to English ears, of a recurring number of stresses as well as of syllables per line. Recently I came upon Joachim du Bellay’s mid-fifteenth-century “La Vieille Courtisanne.” When you sound the terminal “e,” including its appearance in words like “vie,” you’re to all intents and purposes reading over three-hundred iambic pentameter couplets.
The poems here by Villon and Gautier are close to (though not at every point identical with) how similar poems would go in English with occasional reversed feet.
With those by Rimbaud, you are into the peculiar music of the alexandrine, the twelve-syllable line of classic French verse. The number of syllables per line is scrupulously observed, but they can fall into various groupings, with attendant stresses, such as one two, or one two three, or one two three four, which can be combined in a variety of permutations—“One two / one two three four // one two three / one two three”—and so on and so forth.
See also my comments on John Hollander’s book in the bibliography.
But when we speak of stresses in verse, whether French or English, we’re not speaking of heavy thumps and raised voices. We’re referring to the relative emphasis of a syllable in relation to the one or two others that it is linked in so-called feet. A more technical term for “stress” is “ictus,” but personally I’m more used to “stress.” “Ictus” sounds faintly unwholesome.
The words “upon,” “recalled,” and “shortchanged,” different though they look and sound, all have their stresses on the second syllable. All, to be technical, are iambs. A line consisting of “light” words like the first would move faster than one made up of ones like the third.
With the alexandrine, the possibility of monotony is further diminished by the muted “e’s”.
The verse of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly sounds at times a bit like how Gautier’s might have sounded to someone ignorant of the principles I’ve described (which Pound himself, of course, was not).
But in fact the last line of Gautier’s “Sur Les Lagunes,” doesn’t go, “La veel de Canaletto,” but “La veeleh de Canahlettoh,” moving lightly and rapidly.
Gerard Manley Hopkins says somewhere of his own (to English ears) unfamiliar-sounding experiments that one should simply take ear and read for the sense and the right emphases will reveal themselves. Which is to say, not worry about whether “rules” are being obeyed or not. He was a bit over-optimistic about his own verse (see my discussion in “Saying Simply,” but it’s good advice for the French poems here, and in fact they read marvelously.
You don’t necessarily have to know anything about metrics in order to read a poem well. I have seen—and heard—students who knew nothing about them, and perhaps not much about poetry, pick up a poem, not necessarily a “light” one, which they’d never seen before and read it impeccably.
This may partly have been because the speech manner in a poem, even without any density of biographical or autobiographical details, can evoke a certain kind of personality, perhaps coming from a certain kind of culture, that someone else—not everyone, of course—can enter into.
But becoming more conscious of formal features is partly a corrective to bad habits, whether believing that a poem must proceed with mechanical regularity, or assuming that what’s in it is going to be so odd and unpredictable that you'd better get the damn thing out of the way as fast as you can.
Learning to read by the so-called whole-language method, without a consciousness that words are made up of syllables, no doubt contributes to the latter approach.
You can also at times discover more about what is being said in a poem. I have talked about that in connection with Hopkins, so will give another example here.
Hardy’s much anthologized 1915 poem “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” goes as follows:
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
The title alludes to an Old Testament passage, “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”( Jeremiah 51:20).
“Couch” is pronounced “cooch,” or at least it was in Wiltshire sixty years ago. The grass had long, white, and I think shallow roots and when torn up by the harrow would be gathered into heaps at the ends of furrows and burned.
Until I decided to get acquainted with metrics myself (they had always seemed so inorganic), I assumed that there was an interesting rocking rhythm in the first stanza, miming the movement of the ploughman and his horse.
Which is to say, I “heard” the stresses as falling on the first syllable of “Only,” then “man,” then the first syllable of “harrowing,” then “clods.,” this pattern being followed in the third line too. And my ear stressed “In,” the first syllable of “silent,” and “walk” in the second line, plus “Half,” “sleep,” and “stalk” in the fourth.
So that he was saying, it’s just a man, just a horse, nothing dramatic there.
Which was OK by me, particularly given the rocking effect in “With an old horse // that stumbles and nods.” Mimesis, you might say.
Except that when you look at the second and third stanzas, you will see that there are (basically) three stresses in the longer lines and two in the shorter.
Whereas “my” reading of the first stanza gives four and three stresses, respectively, for the longer and shorter lines.
So you would either have to assume that the author allowed himself to vary things in that way (not a self-evidently false proposition) or that I was misreading.
Since I didn’t come across Hardy doing that kind of varying in other poems, I had to reconfigure and reduce the emphases by one.
And when I did, the stresses shifted to the harrowing (the whole action),the slowness, and the fact the horse was old.
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods,
Half asleep as they stalk.
And yet, and yet, the weighting of “slow” and the first syllable of “silent” are still very close together, as are “Half” and “sleep,” so it isn’t as if my misreading, as I take it to be, simply goes away altogether.
And when you come to the final two lines of the poem and you read how war’s annals (Latinate) will cloud into night/ Ere their story (Germanic) die, it is natural to feel that there is a contrast here between the large-scale memorialized doings of nations and the “stories” of the kind of plain people who were around before nations came into being and will still be around when they—the big nation states—have vanished (as in Yeats’ “Egypt and Greece farewell, and farewell Rome” in “Meru”).
And yet I think (for you do have to choose and can’t simply thump on both words, or at least that’s not how Hardy works elsewhere) that the emphasis has to fall on “their.”
So metrics, at least when a poem’s good, really are about meaning and not just something mysterious called rhythm. And also about feeling, for in fact the feelings, the attitudes, with which one speaks the first stanza in each of the two versions are subtly but distinctly different.
But enough of that.
You can also perceive more when you get away from a poem as a visual experience, a shape or sequence of shapes that can be criss-crossed with the eye the way pictures can.
The layouts of poems, with the slightly increased pausings required when the eye has to move from the end of a line back to the beginning of the next one, a pause increased when one moves from the end of a stanza to the beginning of the next, are partly scorings for how the poem should sound when voiced.
It took me awhile (“This life so short, this craft so long to learn,” as Chaucer put it) to realize that that’s also true of those “staggered” layouts in Pound’s Cantos and elsewhere, where a sentence slants down the page as a series of steps. Apparently Mallarmé could read aloud beautifully his “Un coup de dès” (“A Throw of the Dice”), which must be typographically the most difficult prose poem ever.