gall and gumption

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Step Away From the Poems

I can't help myself. I see the headline in the Guardian books section and I have to see what they do with it, because it's about William Blake. Here's a beautiful example of someone talking about scansion without having the remotest clue of what he is talking about.

Here's Blake's "The Sick Rose."

Oh, rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

And here's the carefully chosen expert on Blake and meter to explain the scansion to you:

Although it has the simplicity of a nursery rhyme, the poem has enormous political sophistication and technical subtlety. Look at the strange phrase "dark secret love" - where I think Blake is referring to powerful, sexual love. He puts an extra beat into the line there, an extra syllable, giving a strong and deliberate emphasis to the word "dark".

There is no extra syllable anywhere in this poem. There are subtracted syllables, not added ones. This critic, Tom Paulin, has set out on the wrong foot hahaha I made a funny. The basic meter of the poem is one that Blake used a lot, the anapaestic meter. It is the most commonly used of the three-syllable meters (the other two are the dactyl and the amphibrach). It's probably best known as the meter of (my apologies for calling this to your attention) The Night Before Christmas. Now you must never think of that wretched poem again in connection with William Blake.

An anapaestic foot looks like this (x represents the unstressed syllable and * represents the stressed syllable): xx*.

There are two feet per line, but the very first line has a substituted iambic foot -- "Oh, rose!" There are 16 feet in the poem (two for each of the eight lines) and 7 of them are iambic substitutions. That's a lot of substitutions, but it's legal.

What gives extra strength of emphasis to the word "dark" is not that it is an extra syllable (which it isn't). The line, "And his dark secret love" is only the second one that is completely anapaestic. In the lines preceding it it's just potential, it's in the background, an expectation that isn't quite fulfilled. And the anapaestic meter steps out of the background into that line, for the fullest realization of the effect: two short syllables and then this long, open one.

How hard was that, really?

But if I had given up on the piece I would have missed this.

No citation is given for this wonderful exchange, which I've never seen before. I hope it's true. I really want him to have said this.

Blake was a Christian, but he was strongly opposed to authority and hierarchies. His Christianity was strictly egalitarian. He was once asked if he believed in the divinity of Christ and he replied, "He is the only God", and quickly added: "But so am I. And so are you."


At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Chuck Champion said...

Thanks, Kia! If I hang out here I'll continue to learn cool stuff. Or re-learn stuff I haven't thought about for 40 years or so. Good god, meter!

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